March 17, 2004

Iraq: One Year After

An excellent report put out by the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by veteran diplomat Tom Pickering.

Reading between the lines, I sense that the Task Force members have very real concerns about the status of the U.S. nation-building effort in Iraq (more than one might surmise from reading the somewhat gloomy report even).

The Task Force contains many recommendations and you should read the whole thing.

They lead off by recommending "sustaining political will and reaffirming a commitment to the future of Iraq."

It's telling old pros like Tom Pickering would lead off with this.

They even specifically mention that John Kerry (described as the "presumptive Democratic nominee for president") should, alongside Bush and senior members of Congress, reaffirm their commitment re: "key elements of U.S. engagement in Iraq, notwithstanding disagreements on other aspects of Iraq policy."

In other words, our will is being tested. The international community is taking stock. We can't cut and run. And some elites, evidently, are worried that Kerry (or Bush) might do so.

The $64,000 Question: Security

But the biggest take-away from the report has to do with the security situation in Iraq.

It's still woeful, of course, and not just because of tonight's bombing.

Barely a day goes by without I.E.D.s felling U.S. soldiers, NGO workers being ambushed, coalition forces under pressure, myriad innocent Iraqis slaughtered.

Yes, as the report points out, "significant progress" in Iraq is taking place:

"Iraqi ministries are functioning, laws regulating business and finance have been promulgated, and there is considerable economic activity in Baghdad as well as provincial cities."

But ultimately this will mean little unless we get the security situation under control.

Put differently, security is the "critical enabler for all of the coalition's goals in Iraq, including free political debate, reconstruction and other economic activity, and a successful political transition process." [emphasis added]

No to Too Hasty Iraqification

Like B.D. argued back in October, the Council Task Force members are worried that Iraqification of security tasks may be proceeeding in premature fashion (though the Task Force rightly supports Iraqification in principle).

For some of the problems related to Iraqification, go here. (More here too).

Soundbite: Training has been haphazard, Iraqi recruits have been poorly paid and treated (half the first battalion therefore resigned), the command has been exclusively American (not even an Iraqi Defense Minister for political oversight purposes), instruction has been curtailed in many cases, and recent ideas to draw on pre-existing politically affiliated militias have lead to fears of privatization, amotization and politicization of security institutions.

I believe too rapid Iraqification, far from being a panacea, could prove a death knell with regard to the "critical enabler" of providing real security--the keystone to success in Iraq.

This means, of course, that we likely (as I've argued for many months) need more troops in theater rather than fewer.

Especially as our new prioritization of "force protection" impacts the efficacy of the Iraqification effort itself. One way to train Iraqi troops, after all, is to have them accompany U.S. forces on patrol or engaged in counter-insurgency operations. That will obviously happen less frequently if many of our troops are too often hunkered down in bases.

(Note, relatedly, that the Task Force makes another apropos recommendation: "The U.S. military should continue and accelerate partnering with Iraqi forces and should link the pace of any U.S. troop withdrawals to clear criteria that includes ongoing risks to Iraqi civilians as well as their perceptions of their own security.")

Force Posture Issues

All this argues for the need to have more rather than fewer troops in Iraq at this juncture. Of course, that doesn't appear to be in the cards.

So we need to make concerted efforts to get more constabulatory forces in theater (from the U.N. and/or NATO) in parts of the country outside of the Sunni Triangle that are relatively peaceful.

This would, in turn, free up some troops for robust counter-insurgency operations (that limit harm, as much as possible, to innocent locals, so as to mitigate loss of proverbial 'hearts and minds') in the Sunni Triangle and large cities where urban guerrilla warfare is increasingly brewing.

I'm not a military man and don't want to play armchair general and opine on troop mix/number issues and such.

But it bears mentioning, as the Task Force does, that in Kosovo, for instance, a more developed country about 1/10 the size of Iraq, we have 4,000 international civilian police in active service.

In Iraq, maybe 1,500, at the very most.

Ditto traditional non-constabulatory troops, per the numbers of our deployment in Bosnia, would have argued for a troop presence of 300,000-450,000 in Iraq.

I'm not sure this would do the trick. Readers, when I've writtten this in the past, tell me more troops would be a disaster (more sitting ducks, not needed anyway, better intelligence the key not more boots on the ground etc).

But we are failing, pretty dismally, in terms of the "critical enabler" of providing security for Iraqis. And Iraqis are getting angry at us because of it.

Present and Future Challenges: The Three-Block War

Some final thoughts.

I recently heard a former Marine Commander discuss something he called the "three-block war."

In a nutshell, he believes we need soldiers who can perform nation-building style gendarmarie duties one day, separate belligerents the next as peacekeepers, and engage in active combat the day after that.

He didn't buy the argument that an amorphous warrior ethos suffers when soldiers are called to so multi-task.

For him, the future of warfare is Iraq.

The enemy will bomb hotels and ICRC HQs willy-nilly, attempt to stoke civil war among different sects, plant I.E.D.s, ambush soldiers, hide amidst families in villages.

The U.S. soldier of the 21st Century, his thinking goes, needs to be able to handle all such challenges pretty much simultaneously.

We don't have such soldiers available yet in requisite numbers. But we might as well enhance our troop mix in country so as to better facilitate having the optimal force mix on the ground that best allows handling these varieagated challenges. I'm not sure we've really given that enough serious thought.

I suspect, deep down, most Iraqis don't want U.S. troops to leave yet because there is still some residual good will stemming from our unseating of Saddam and, perhaps more important, many fear internecine score-settling will pick up pace as soon as the G.I.s vacate the country.

So we need to stay. But, if we can't provide security, we will be resented more daily.

And to achieve security, we need to risk more of our soldiers lives in robust counter-insurgency efforts (rather than rush Iraqification) and do so in a way that doesn't overly alienate locals--a highly difficult balancing act.

It was never going to be easy. The post-war, as many observers noted even before the war, was always going to be infinitely more complex than the major combat phase of the conflict.

But now we are there and need to make all best efforts to eventually prevail and allow for a unitary, democratic Iraqi state to emerge.

Like with the moribund Israeli-Palestinian "peace process", I'm smelling some policy-making fatigue in Iraq too.

We simply can't afford such policy stagnation, however. The stakes are just too high.

I don't have any concrete answers.

Finally, I'm just throwing out ideas that I believe merit a wider airing--even if just in the relatively modest precincts of the blogosphere. E-mailed feedback welcome.

Posted by Gregory at March 17, 2004 10:26 PM
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