June 13, 2006

Iraq in the Late Autumn of Bush's Presidency

Lately I've not been shy to suggest that President Bush's situational awareness of the state of play in Iraq is not where it needs to be. A couple days back came an Elisabeth Bumiller piece about the woman ostensibly charged with giving him his daily Iraq policy brief, Meghan O'Sullivan, pictured below.


(Photo Credit: Stephen Crowley)


Although Ms. O'Sullivan does not make major decisions — the administration's policy is run by Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — she is important because of her closeness to the president and her role in helping to form his thinking.

"She's able to go to the president and say, 'Look, here's what's happening,' and distill a complex mass of developments into something more penetrable," said Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to Mr. Bremer.

Ms. O'Sullivan, who was crisp and wary in a recent interview in her office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, would say little more about her conversations with Mr. Bush. But people who have seen her brief the president say she has been succinct, unpretentious, full of facts and cheerful — exactly what Mr. Bush likes.

Colleagues say that Ms. O'Sullivan holds to the view, reflected in the president's public statements, that rebuilding Iraq's civic institutions and persuading Iraqis to accommodate one another politically is a way out of the sectarian violence. She is more optimistic about the political process than others in the administration.

In Baghdad, Ms. O'Sullivan is remembered as a pragmatic centrist who had a guarded but tenacious confidence that the United States would eventually prevail. "That doesn't mean that I don't see all the difficulties there on a daily basis," she said.

The question that even her supporters raise is whether she is too close to see the landscape of problems. "I do think she is so into this that she sees it from the inside out," Mr. Diamond said.

He added, "And I'm not sure she adequately grasps all the mistakes we have made."

In Baghdad, American Embassy officials sometimes use the phrase, "Let's not Meghan-ize the problem," meaning, let's not try to impose order on the chaos of Iraq with one of her five-point presentations. Her supporters counter that she is more aware of the reality on the ground than many others in the administration.

The point isn't to cast aspersions at either Bush or O'Sullivan. I'm not in the briefing room, and for all I know perhaps Bush is aware that parts of Baghdad are just god-awful and reminiscent of Beirut in the late 70s. I just don't know. Relatedly, perhaps O'Sullivan is giving him the good, the bad, and the ugly--and so not engaging in any major sugar-coating. Again, I don't know, though there does reportedly appear to be some griping at US Embassy-Baghdad that O'Sullivan's synopses of the situation tend towards the somewhat overly sanitized.

But the above is merely be way of background to point out there are some potentially positive indications in the air that the Presidential bubble is being pierced a bit more efficaciously than in hubris-ridden yester-year (woefully belatedly, but still...). The sheer scope of previous mismanagement of the war effort, not to mention the immense challenges that remain ahead, appear to have finally prodded Bush to get independent advice from serious war critics over the weekend at Camp David, where he convened his top advisors.


(Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski)

For instance, aside from trotting out the Amir Taheris of the world to the White House, Bush has been reaching out to more, shall we say, credible personages like Barry McCaffrey, Eliot Cohen and Frederick Kagan (Hat Tip: Laura).

I'm particularly pleased to see that Bush has reached out to Frederick Kagan, as he proves a strong counterpoint to the phoney 'Goldilocks' approach of Rumsfeld--that is to say, the disingenuous contention that we have not so many troops in theater so as to create too much of a foreign presence that will overly alienate the locals, and not too little so as to constitute an ineffective force. Soi disant, per Rumsfeld, just right, if your will, a la Goldilocks. But somewhat ironically, in my view, the 'just enough troops to lose' Rumsfeldian School has unintentionally 'accomplished' both goals he claims to have avoided, which is to say, we've nevertheless been in theater in enough number to alienate some locals, while also proving to have too few troops in theater to persuasively establish order and defeat insurgents (not to mention also too few troops, or inadequately trained ones, contributing to horrific debacles like Abu Ghraib). Fred Kagan, contra this faux Goldilocks approach, has been one of the most perceptive critics of the Pentagon's (so far failed) strategy in Iraq.

Kagan, pictured here



Establishing security throughout Iraq has always been a stated goal of the coalition forces, but it has never been their clear priority. Operations against insurgents have consisted mostly of raids and isolated sweeps, apparently divorced from any larger strategic aim. The coalition has never devised a deployment, or planned an operation, aimed at establishing security in the unstable areas of Iraq on a large scale. Coalition strategy has tended to focus instead on minimizing the role of coalition troops in handling the insurgency and pushing indigenous forces into the front of the fight, sometimes even when they were unprepared for such a role. The Bush administration did articulate the strategy of "clear-hold-build" in late 2005, declaring it a "strategy for victory." But U.S. forces have not, on the whole, been ordered or permitted to execute that strategy, and do not currently seem to intend to do so.

One of the reasons for this reluctance is the conviction, reinforced by the first battle of Falluja in early 2004, that coalition forces cannot really perform such missions. Generals John Abizaid, George Casey, and many others have argued that the mere presence of U.S. forces is an irritant, and their active operations against insurgents alienate more Iraqis than they win over. Yet a number of developments in 2005 should have called this assumption sharply into question.

Coalition forces partnered with Iraqi units were able to put down an uprising in Sadr City, a huge predominantly Shiite district of Baghdad, in early 2005 and then clear out a major insurgent stronghold in Tal Afar in September. In both cases, skillful preparation, the intelligent and discriminate use of force, and attention to vital "nonkinetic" parts of the operation (efforts to change local attitudes by improving water and sewer systems, building schools and clinics, handing out military rations, and so on) led to great and lasting success. These operations seriously undermine the argument that only the Iraqis can successfully prosecute such clear-and-hold missions, though they also show that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will not be ready to conduct them on their own for the foreseeable future. In fact, the present course of "muddling through" while attempting to draw down as rapidly as possible is almost certain to prolong the insurgency, and with it the American troop presence in Iraq...

Kagan goes on:

Today, the Sunni Arab insurgency is the single most powerful force for disorder and violence in Iraq. Shiite militias, present since the beginning of the occupation, have grown in power in response to the spectacular bombings conducted by Islamist terrorists. Those terrorists, some of them foreigners, rely on the Sunni Arab community for safe havens, supplies, and other necessary assistance. They receive that support primarily because fear and disorder prevail. The breakdown of law and order in parts of the country reflects the difficulty of establishing a robust Iraqi police force in the face of the insurgents' continuous attacks...One of the most common arguments against directly attacking the Sunni insurgency is that it can't be done. It would require the entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps, some say, to replicate throughout the country the success in Tal Afar. This argument is never presented in any detail, but rests on vague extrapolations of force ratios in Tal Afar to the entire population of Iraq or of Baghdad. In truth, it is quite possible to design a campaign to attack the Sunni insurgency using few more troops than the United States has already had in Iraq.

Extrapolations from the force ratios in Tal Afar to either the country as a whole or the capital are irrelevant. The Sunni Arab insurgency exists in particular regions, dispersed among discrete cities and villages. Baghdad and Mosul, the two large cities wracked by insurgent violence, are ethnically mixed and broken into neighborhoods. Not all neighborhoods are hostile; not all are violent. Nor is the insurgency likely to spread beyond its current limits. Sunni Arab insurgents who venture into the Kurdish-held north are likely to die very quickly. They are unlikely to find a welcome among the Shiite tribes in the south, or in heavily Shiite Sadr City. In 2004 it was possible to imagine some "national front" uniting Sunni Arab and Shiite rebels, but the rise of sectarian violence and the integration of Moktada al-Sadr into the political process dim the prospects for such an occurrence. The challenge today resides primarily, therefore, among 6 million or so Sunni Arabs, not 27 million Iraqis.

Amidst these notes of optimism, Kagan wants us to temporarily bulk up our forces by a half dozen or so brigades, and then pursue counter-insurgency actions in varied areas simultaneously, so that the insurgents cannot easily flee to neighboring locales where, because of our chronic dearth of troops, they can find rest and refuge. This has been the woeful pattern for over three years now, one that Administration apologists still appear incapable of admitting to themselves given their Pavlovian tendency to spin away as but defeatist or MSM carping the fact that we never had enough troops in theater.

More Kagan:

It should be possible to increase the available combat power in Iraq by about 7 brigades in the following manner. U.S. forces are in the middle of another rotation. In the past, CENTCOM has delayed the departure of units to achieve temporary increases in deployed combat forces as new forces arrive. This technique could be used again to generate an additional 6 brigades or so (about 21,000 soldiers--similar to the increase maintained through the election cycle). Committing the rest of the reserve brigade now stationed in Kuwait (and leaving the battalion already called forward into Iraq in country) generates an additional brigade. These 7 brigades (about 24,500 combat troops and a similar number of support troops) would join the 15 brigades already in Iraq, many of which are deployed in or near areas designated for active operations in the plan outlined below...

....U.S. forces have shown a marked reluctance to plan large-scale operations in several regions at once. One result has been to allow insurgents to melt away during a single large operation and move to new areas, destabilizing those areas and establishing new safe havens. Simultaneous operations in several of the problem areas would mitigate this effect, driving the insurgents out of the major population centers of the Sunni Arab lands.

It is not possible, however, to conduct such operations in the three river valleys and Baghdad at the same time with the forces available. It would be necessary to develop a campaign plan in two phases, with forces moving from the first operation to the second as rapidly as possible in order to prevent the insurgents from using any pause to regroup.

Each of these two operations would itself be broken down into three phases, as were the successful operations in Tal Afar, Sadr City, and elsewhere. In the first phase, small advance parties would move into the area. They (or U.S. forces already present) would collect intelligence about the local population and the nature of the insurgent threat. They also would begin to shape the situation in their area to prepare for operations. This might include work with local Iraqi troops and police, the building of relationships with local leaders, targeted strikes against known resistance leaders, and other kinetic and nonkinetic operations designed to create favorable conditions for the next phase.

In phase two, reinforcements would surge into the area and conduct large-scale cordon-and-sweep operations. For river valley towns and cities, part of the force would "screen" the population center, establishing observation posts, checkpoints, and other measures to isolate the population, while a joint force of U.S. troops and Iraqis would conduct a house-to-house search for insurgents. In Tal Afar, Iraqi troops were normally the ones interacting directly with the local population, while Americans provided support from armored vehicles and the air.

In phase three, the reinforcements would move out, leaving behind a robust contingent of Iraqi troops leavened by a substantial U.S. presence. The rule of thumb based on Tal Afar and other successful operations is that the "leave-behind" forces should be at about the ratio of one U.S. battalion for every Iraqi brigade. The American presence helps sustain the ISF, overawe any insurgents who might try to undo the effects of the operation, and restrain the Iraqi soldiers from reprisal attacks or other misbehavior that would undermine the initial successes. Only in this third phase, after basic security has been established, is it possible to recruit into the local police force and begin the transition from military to civilian rule. The first two phases normally last about 90 days each; phase three could last 12 months or more. [emphasis added throughout]

There are many quibbles one can have with Kagan's recommendations. One could argue his phased 'surge' approach still falls short of Powell's "overwhelming force" doctrine, and won't get the job done regardless. One could argue he somewhat ignores or is overly sanguine about the perils presented by Kurdish and Shi'a militias. There is little talk of the particular difficulties presented by dense urban conflict in the Baghdads and Ramadis, which he glosses over somewhat. Nor are we clued in in any detail to the challenges that await us still in Mosul, Kirkuk or Basra. Still, too, perhaps events have simply overtaken Kagan's prescriptions. Perhaps the continuing middle class exodus from Baghdad (yes, it's happening, despite expressions of doubt from the likely quarters...), the continuing descent into brutish tribalism, perhaps all are conspiring to force Iraq through a bloody and protracted 'Time of Troubles'--even in the face of a more persuasive US force posture, so powerful the proverbial 'furies' that have been unleashed. So, no, I'm not saying any of the above lengthy passages I've excerpted from Kagan's ouevre constitute some grand panacea to nobly and successfully extricate us, after another 12-18 months of hard slogging, from the Mesopotamian morass.

Whatever the way forward, and whether Kagan's prescriptions lead to any material change in our force posture/tactics is still unclear, it's quite clear to me that we are at something of a watershed moment in the prosecution of the Iraq war. The American public, not particularly reknown for protracted patience when it comes to difficult overseas engagements, finds itself increasingly keen to pull U.S. forces from Iraq. They are fatigued, and they want to see movement towards a convincing exit. This is a political reality that we cannot blame on any one factor. Apologists on the right say it is all the MSM's fault, and that by concentrating on the bad news the media have worn down the American will to see the effort through. I don't buy this narrative, in the main, and find it increasingly tiresome, but it's out there, and it's not going anywhere. In my view, the biggest problem was that, too often, the war was billed as a conflict that could be fought on the relatively cheap. This is unfortunate, because I think Americans are capable of great sacrifice, but only when real sacrifice is asked of them, only when the stakes are cogently spelled out, and most important, only when the political leaders treat them like adults by being serious and honest with them (meaning, among many other examples, not glib 'stuff happens', not disingenuous 'last throes', not breezy numbers tossed about that reek of BS about how many Iraq troops have been 'trained' after having a uniform thrown at them and a few weeks of running around in them, not the constant recitation of inaccurate, empty bromides that 'we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here'). To me, more straight talk from the get-go about this war likely needing to last 5-10 years, a sense of a nation needing to sacrifice more than figuring out whether or not to put a 'Freedom Isn't Free' bumper sticker on their SUVs, less arrogance generally among Administration players, not least a willingness to accept that the war plan had gone tremendously awry--all would have helped keep support higher than it has proven.

But here we are. And now it falls to a President, one whose famous obstinacy (rock-ribbed consistency or bull-headed stubborness, depending on your view of him) has been somewhat chastened by the massive challenges presented by Iraq that have threatened to consume his entire Presidency. Now, in the late autumn of his time in office, he is trying, perhaps one last time, to turn it around.


(Photo Credit: Andrew Councill)

A single weekend at Camp David listening, finally, to people like Fred Kagan isn't going to change the general direction of the war, of course. But we've seen what might be described as a confluence of events that give one renewed hope, even if just a little, that the Iraq project is not yet ready to be declared a failure. Zarqawi is dead. Maliki's government has now been formed, with key security ministers now appointed (more important than Zarqawi's passing from the scene, all told). Bush, in a carefully choreographed visit, has now dramatically lent the prestige and power of his office to Maliki's new government (on the heels of Tony Blair's visit). There is talk of a joint US-Iraqi attempt to assert control over Baghdad, and some indications preliminaries on this score are going OK, so far.


(Photo Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I remain hugely concerned about our prospects for success in Iraq, and that I've been deeply shaken by the basic lack of competency of some of Bush's key players (chiefly among them, of course, Donald Rumsfeld). I know well how fraught with peril the road ahead is, and I know too there is a real chance our earlier blunders might have already determinatively spoiled our hopes for ultimate success there. But, given all the efforts expended to date, is it not incumbent upon us to try to pursue a robust 12-24 month effort to attempt to belatedly secure Iraq--the better to put some wind in Maliki's sails as he tries to forge ahead with the creation of some form of convincing central authority in Iraq? Is it not possible that greater security, married to increasing Sunni buy-in to the political process (helped along perhaps by a weakening al-Qaeda, whilst remaining cognizant of the existence of hard-line nationalist Sunnis, residual al-Qaeda, and neo-Baathists), and methodical disarming of Kurdish and Shi'a militias--just might allow over the next several years for the emergence of a nascent unitary, democratic and viable state in Iraq?

Having come this far, can we really say every man who dies here on out will have died for a mistake, or is there hope that the project can still be salvaged? This is not an easy question for those of us who haven't already made up our minds either way, and the burden is high on either side of the question given the immense human stakes involved (more American deaths if we stay, and likely even greater horrors for Iraqis if we precipitously leave). I have no easy answer, and it's somewhat glib to suggest we simply hope for the best, and soldier on. But still, mightn't this not be the most responsible policy decision, all told, if we are finally beginning to move our policy in more intelligent directions? Yes, of course, I would be more confident if Rumsfeld were fired, as he should have been on repeated occasions already. But I continue to sense his influence is waning, and I hear more outside voices getting to the President, to Abizaid, to Casey, not to mention the voices of Rice and Khalilzad, among others, from the inside. All this to say, I think we owe our fallen soldiers, and the Iraqi people, a more serious prosecution of the war effort, with the added benefit of some very painful lessons learned, over the next year or two. Can our leadership deliver a materially enhanced strategy that moves us forward in Iraq in more convincing fashion? I'm not sure. But I think we have to agree, as a nation, to try to give them a chance. I'm not hankering for some bipartisan consenus on national security issues writ large, as I well know our politics have become too poisonous for that. But perhaps, in a long-winded way, I'm asking for a little more patience, despite the anger, the frustrations, the deceptions, that, in different ways and for different reasons, we've all felt at various junctures these past years.

UPDATE: Comments appear down, I'm very sorry. Details and a plea for help here...

Posted by Gregory at June 13, 2006 04:29 AM | TrackBack (0)

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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