Iraq: A False Choice

Iraq: A False Choice

Dr Adam Cobb

The real choice before the American people is much starker than whether to act on General Petraeus' advice to Congress. Bottom-line: we have to accept the current situation and be realistic about fixing it or we cut our losses and get out.

America's enemies and competitors watch fascinated as Washington turns on itself over Iraq. Gen Petraeus' plea for just a little bit more time underscores the dilemma the US faces. On average, successful counterinsurgencies take over a decade to resolve. The US needs many more years to attempt to achieve a stable, self governing, Iraq. With growing opposition in Congress, including senior Republicans, the Administration is running on incrementalism. Bold policy options are needed, anything else is weakness.

Those who hope for US failure in Iraq know that they win when they do not lose. The deciding factor therefore is time, something America's enemies inside Iraq have in abundance. Time provides the space in which the low flame of insurgency can continue flickering against both US will, and the increasingly dislocated politics of Iraq.

However, it is to misunderstand the war to look to General Petraeus to buy America more time. He should be congratulated for his role in developing the new counterinsurgency doctrine and successfully implementing it on the ground. In counterinsurgencies, political stability follows reconstruction and reconstruction follows basic security. The problem is that General Petraeus is starting a long way behind the curve. A true soldier-scholar, he has made real inroads against the multiple insurgencies in Iraq. Security is improving in some provinces laying the foundation for reconstruction and political stability. However, as the General admitted this week the security environment is not improving everywhere, suggesting the whackamole dilemma (insurgents moving from Anbar to Diyala) might be continuing despite the surge.

Yet, in Iraq the biggest dilemma is political, not military. It is possible that the genie of political insecurity has long left the bottle. If that is the case, all the tactical military success in the world will not stop the rot. The Iraqi elections were a remarkable achievement, with a high turn out in the face of grave threats against voters. But the imbalance resulting from the Sunni refusal to participate, and the subsequent erosion of security, combined to put formidable pressure on the new government. Making matters worse, the new government was itself riddled with factionalism. Clashes among factions continue to occur both in the cabinet as well as on the street as their respective militia struggle for power. Consequently, it should not be a surprise to learn that the police force, in particular, is compromised and questions remain about the loyalty of parts of other security forces.

Notwithstanding the difficulties in Baghdad, an even bigger political problem exists in the United States. American will in the war in Iraq has been undermined by US policy failures. In order to sell the war, the Administration made three critical mistakes that have since come to seriously weaken national will.

First, it over-insisted that it would be a short, inexpensive, war - "It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months" (Sec Rumsfeld 2/7/03), "I think it will go relatively quickly, . . . (in) weeks rather than months" (VP Cheney 3/16/03), "the cost of a war with Iraq could be in the range of $50 billion to $60 billion" (Mitch Daniels, 12/30/02).

Second, it failed to anticipate the insurgency "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators" (VP Cheney, 3/16/03).

Third, it hyper-inflated the treat "there is no doubt Saddam Hussein now has WMD...There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use ... against us" (VP Cheney 8/26/02), "facing clear evidence of peril we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud" (President Bush 10/7/02) a comment that repeated and reinforced the same statement of his national security adviser from a month before (Condoleezza Rice, 9/8/02).

The reality is that the US has now been at war in Iraq for the same duration as WWII. The war has turned into an insurgency that the US military, under General Petraeus, has only recently started to manage effectively. ''The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces,'' Lt General William Wallace. ''We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight'' (3/28/2003). The war in Iraq (excluding Afghanistan) has resulted in 3759 US military, and up to 700 contractor, and 112 journalists, deaths. Military operations cost ca. $2bn a week. The long term costs of the war are harder to calculate. For example, 27,767 casualties (to date) will require medical and related support for years to come. Finally, there was no evidence of WMDs.

The unfolding of these stark realities over the past few years has put increasing pressure on the willingness of the American public to stay the course. This political reality outweighs General Petraeus' ability to provide a military solution measured in weeks or months.

The real choice before the American people is much starker than whether to act on General Petraeus' advice to Congress. Bottom-line: we have to accept the current situation and be realistic about fixing it or we cut our losses and get out.

The question then becomes what is the higher cost -- leaving now or staying another ten to twenty years? If the US leaves now there will be a bloodbath but that will resolve a lot of the political questions the US is frankly unable to influence. Iraq might break-up. Who would gain control of Iraq's oil reserves would also be a key strategic question given the benefit to terrorists the income from the oil fields might generate. Iranian backed pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would likely grow. But Iran's influence would probably be moderated by Iraqi and regional Arab - Persian tensions. Moreover, a bloodbath would no doubt put refugee pressure on Iran, complicating their strategic choices. It should be noted that the refugee situation (4 million to date) has already placed great pressure on Syria which might impact its decisions. Regrettably Jordan is also shouldering this incredible burden, which is further evidence that widespread sectarian cleansing has already taken place. Al-Qaeda safe havens would no doubt arise in the Sunni uncontested zones but it is unclear if these would be outside of US strategic reach.

If the US decides to stay it should commit to at least ten, if not twenty, years. Such a commitment would put overwhelming pressure on Iraqi insurgents who are currently merely waiting for the day the US leaves. The silent Iraqi majority, who fear US resolve will never outlast the fury of the armed minority in their midst, will be empowered to choose freedom. This would not guarantee a perfect government in Baghdad but it would provide the right conditions (security, reconstruction, political stability) within which Iraqi's can attempt to find their Abraham Lincoln. Iran would be held in check and the long term prospects of the Middle East would be much brighter than today. However, such a commitment would be further fulfillment of Osama bin Laden's warning that the US intends occupying a Mideast country indefinitely and would no doubt continue to act as a recruiting base for his villainous cause. Long term, the problem of course is that there is a very high risk that all of this would be in vain and all of the negatives noted above would be heaped upon many more US deaths and a broken Treasury (if not world economy).

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the longer the US commits to staying the more likely it is to succeed. Anything short of a multi decade commitment is incrementalism that will change nothing.

In a sense, both the Administration and the Congress used the Petraeus testimony as a crutch. "So they go on, in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent". Churchill's condemnation of the indecisiveness of the Baldwin government is a suitable epithet for a responsibility-adverse polity that has run out of gumption.

Adam Cobb, PhD, is author of "Iraq: A Strategic Assessment" in the journal Civil Wars, Vol.9, No.1 (March 2007), pp.32--60, and teaches strategy, energy security and irregular warfare at the USAF Air War College at Maxwell AFB in Alabama.

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If the US is to commit for the long haul in Iraq US politics dictate that the COIN effort will have to be reconfigured to minimize exposure of US forces in Iraq, with private military companies or Iraq military and police substituting. IMHO UN forces can't substitute because the institution is irredeemably corrupted and bad actors will infiltrate the country under UN leadership. In El Salvador, counterinsurgency was possible because there was a hard limit of 55 US advisers in country set by the US Congress. Something similar could work for Iraq if the proper hard limit could be sold to Congress and if advisers were free to spend money without arduous financial requirements interfering. The money war does not respond well to bean counting, any more than the real war responds well to legal post mortems of every single enemy death.

So too with Afghanistan and the effort in Talibanistan. Musharraf can't institute democratic elections at risk of becoming the new Shah of Iran ushering in a Pakistani Khomeini, but he can cut Talibanistan loose and tell Afghanistan to pacify it if they can. US forces shouldn't handle all the heavy lifting, but could handle a limited advisory (and moneybags) role in both Afghanistan and Pakistan with Afghans in the lead.