By Sam Brannen
In the middle of Baghdad sits one of the United States' greatest strategic liabilities in the Iraq war: a four square-mile swath of territory called the Green Zone (the "International Zone" when in polite company). Still crowded with the gaudy war memorials and palaces of Saddam's regime that are too big to tear down, it is for many Iraqis the icon of U.S. occupation and a telling window into a post-surge security environment that looks more likely to loop back than move forward. The onetime seat of Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, the Green Zone is now shared by the sprawling Embassy Baghdad, the core of Iraq's central government, and thousands of international contractors, including the infamous Blackwater security details. Green Zone denizens live in trailers, sometimes stacked one on top of the other, accustomed to the blare of the incoming round siren and ducking for cover in evenly spaced cement bunkers that are a bizarre juxtaposition to swimming pools, palm trees, and marble buildings.
Outside the Green Zone, American troops are fighting pitched battles in the high-density urban slums of Sadr City. Their objective is to reduce the mortar and rocket fire that has lately rained down on the Green Zone. By installing a massive cement wall to cut Sadr City in half, U.S. forces are attempting to corral militiamen and mortar teams out of range. As soldiers build the Sadr City wall, they fight for every inch in a slow grind that recalls trench warfare, taking casualties and under constant fire.
It is worth asking whether the Green Zone would be attacked absent such a pronounced U.S. presence tucked behind elaborate security checkpoints and layered defenses. Rather than destroy entire Baghdad neighborhoods in the search for small groups of insurgent indirect fire teams, it seems the simpler, more humane, and ultimately more strategic answer is to simply leave the Green Zone for either the more remote airport complex or elsewhere outside the city. In the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) it is written, "Ultimate success in COIN [counterinsurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents." The same could be said for the diplomatic forces walled up in the Green Zone and faced with the constant threat of death or injury at the hands of an unseen foe. The psychological toll of life as a sitting duck is clear: at least 40 percent of State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who have served in danger zones return to the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One would imagine numbers are even higher for FSOs returning form Iraq. Why not reduce some of that stress by moving to a safer spot?
Leaving the Green Zone, however, does not appear to be on the minds of decision makers. Word was out this week of long-term plans including $1 billion in neighboring development—in military speak, a "zone of influence"— to surround the brand new 27-building, 104-acre U.S. embassy in the Green Zone (the largest U.S. embassy in the world). Developers are honestly mulling over the risk of building a Marriott Hotel, a shopping district, and other niceties. (For the record, Marriott has already built a five-star hotel next to the U.S. Embassy Kabul's version of a green zone—but it is a far safer area.)
Last summer, the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, chaired by General James L. Jones (USMC, ret.), wrote in its report to Congress that by early 2008, Coalition forces could shift to a "strategic overwatch" position in Iraq. The Commission wrote, "Such a strategy would include placing increasing responsibilities for the internal security of the nation on the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], especially in the urban areas." The Commission further noted that the massive Coalition military footprint in and around the Baghdad region gave Iraqis the impression of "permanence, an occupying force...." The Commission recommended quickly moving out of population centers and immediately turning over to the Iraqi government the palaces of the Ba'athist regime that it has occupied since 2003.
America should send the right message to the Iraqi people. This can begin by abandoning the Green Zone and donating the monstrous embassy just completed. U.S. taxpayers may not like turning over a $1 billion structure or other costs of relocating, but considering the immeasurable loss of an American soldier, and the cost of a single day of occupation of Iraq at $720 million, why not try something different? Leave the Green Zone.
Sam Brannen is a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program, where he works on projects related to defense strategy and policy, Middle East security (especially U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-Turkey-Iraq issues), and U.S. national security reform. He is a frequent media commentator and has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Al Jazeera, and NPR. During the summer of 2007, he served as a staff member for the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, chaired by General (Ret.) James L. Jones.