Last Call: An Opportunity is a Terrible Thing to Waste

The 600-lb gorilla in the living room of the improved security situation in Iraq is national reconciliation. Washington Post's Tom Ricks (Iraqis Wasting An Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say) addresses the ever-growing concern of U.S. military commanders that the window may be closing and the Iraqi government is wasting away an opportunity to take advantage of the sharp decline in attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians:

Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

... And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? "If that doesn't happen," Odierno said, "we're going to have to review our strategy."

Ricks rightly states that the lack of progress on the national political front calls in question the whole rational behind the surge in U.S. combat forces and other capabilities such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The intent of this surge, as part of a population-centric strategy vice the previous enemy-centric, was / and is to provide the breathing room necessary for the government to smooth out power-sharing between the ruling factions.

On what happens if the Shiite-dominated national government does not act now:

Indeed, all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."

The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."

The SWJ has sat in on PRT roundtables and discussions and corresponded with other non-military personnel working issues that are not directly related to security. If we interpreted what we heard correctly, another trend appears to be taking root -- one of political reconciliation at the local level. This is significant (though it has not received the attention it deserves in the MSM) and in the cyclic relationship between political and military initiatives it contributes to increased security which in turn contributes to even further political gains. Still, this is at the local (provincial / city / tribal) level and given several years to play-out could very well force the hand of national political reconciliation, or not.

Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark (and quoted in Ricks's article) lays out an alternate view on recent success, both political and security related, associated with the "bottom-up" approach:

The officers interviewed in the story are agonizing over whether provincial elections would help bridge the political gap. I understand the hope that this could break the impasse, but I'm skeptical for three reasons.

First, it's important to recognize the intense Sunni-Sunni political struggles unfolding, as I wrote about in some detail the other day, and think about how elections could be a trigger for bringing those undercurrents to the surface.

Second, as I mentioned the other day most Sunnis seem more preoccupied with the national level than the local - the new elections that they want are to the national Parliament. They are also intensely suspicious of anything which smells like partition, and promoting provincial over national elections could well trigger an intensely hostile reaction.

Finally, and most importantly, provincial elections sidestep the really important question: the relationship between these local militias and the central state. Without institutionalized control over the means of violence and a meaningful political bargain at the center, I just do not see any way to prevent a spiral into sectarian warfare. And thus, as Ricks quotes my argument, the current strategy is accelerating Iraq's descent into a warlord state even if violence is temporarily down.

Regardless of what one thinks of the bottom-up approach to COIN (I maintain that as 2007 dawned it was the "only approach" we had as an option), time, resources and patience are not unlimited and if the Iraqi national government does not immediately take advantage of the recent relative calm it may not have another chance.

There are three major issues that, if addressed seriously by the Iraqi national government, would indicate the reconciliation process is working - the oil-framework law, revenue sharing and de-ba'athification reform. To the Iraqi natonal government - move on these or it is indeed 'last call'.

-- Dave D.

Also See:

Quick Response to Comments - Abu Aardvark

Window of Opportunity in Iraq - The Captain's Journal

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There are three major issues that, if addressed seriously by the Iraqi national government, would indicate the reconciliation process is working - the oil-framework law, revenue sharing and de-baathification reform.

Maybe this is a stupid question, but, are these three issues what Iraqis would see as progress or is this what "Washington" would see as progress?

I get the impression at times that so called experts sit in think tanks in Washington and debate sets of statistics and then project what 'should' be done. Has anyone asked the Iraqis? Maybe uninterrupted electricity would be more impressive evidence of progress to 90% of the population than the 3 points listed above?

Before the invasion, I assumed (wrongly) that all of the COIN lessons from Vietnam (see "Silence was a weapon" Herrington) would have been implemented as second nature.

As an example of this mindset, have the ex-enemy insurgents now allies been interviewed about how they could have been pacified in 2003 at the beginning? Has anyone said to them, "You know we (US) really screwed it up when we first invaded. What could we have done differently"?
Or has this not been done because of the attitude of "we already know that answer"?

BTW this isn't meant as a reflection of seeing this attitude on this site.