War Stories

How Do We Win in Iraq?

The real question is how we keep a pullout from looking like a surrender.

“Uh, that’s a hard one to answer…”

How do we win in Iraq—or at least get out of there without triggering catastrophe, handing a victory to the most radical insurgents, and possibly destabilizing the Middle East?

This is the question of the moment, among the war’s supporters and critics alike. Blogs, op-ed pages, and brow-furrowing journals are filled with plans, some laid out in exacting detail, for eking some measure of success from this tragic venture. But all of them evade a basic reality about Iraq these days—that the United States is no longer in control. President George W. Bush could follow the best of these plans, or devise a better one, and it wouldn’t make much difference, because there’s nothing to suggest that the Iraqis would go along.

Three of the most widely discussed proposals are a Washington Post op-ed piece by Gen. Wesley Clark, an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by military historian Andrew Krepinevich Jr., and a 10-point plan by blogger-professor Juan Cole.

All three criticize the Bush administration’s handling of the war. Yet they also all oppose simply pulling the troops out now, a move that could trigger a major blood bath, a civil war, perhaps a regional war, as well as a major victory for terrorist groups and a severe setback—on strategic, political, and moral grounds—for the United States.

So, what do they propose instead?

Gen. Clark should have the most to say on this subject. A retired Army four-star general, he’s led troops on the battlefield in Vietnam, led whole wars as NATO’s supreme allied commander during Kosovo, and helped negotiate the settlement of the war in Bosnia. And yet his Washington Post piece of Aug. 26, titled “Before It’s Too Late in Iraq,” is stunningly nebulous. The essence of Clark’s plan is this:

The United States should form a standing conference of Iraq’s neighbors, complete with committees dealing with all the regional economic and political issues, including trade, travel, cross-border infrastructure projects and, of course, cutting off the infiltration of jihadists.

The problem is that none of Iraq’s neighbors has displayed any inclination to get involved in such matters. It is unlikely that Iran or Syria would agree to sit on any committee organized by the United States—or, if they did, that their interests would coincide or that they’d be interested in compromising with each other as well as with Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the others. It is at least as likely that discussing these issues at formal meetings could harden their disputes and conflicts.

Clark’s military proposals are, surprisingly, no less vague. “The vast effort underway to train an army must be matched by efforts to train police and local justices.” (This is under way.) “Canada, France, and Germany should be engaged to assist.” (Oh? How?) “Military and security operations must return primarily to the tried-and-true methods of counterinsurgency: winning the hearts and minds of the populace through civic action, small-scale economic development and positive daily interactions.” (How, if insurgents continue to sabotage all such efforts?) “Ten thousand Arab-Americans … should be recruited to assist as interpreters.” (Good idea for the CIA, FBI, and military intelligence, but would so many want to join the Army? Why haven’t they already?) “A better effort must be made to control jihadist infiltration into the country by a combination of outposts, patrols and reaction forces reinforced by high technology.” (Isn’t that what we’re doing already?) “Over time U.S. forces should be pulled back into reserve roles and phased out.” (What does “over time” mean? At what bench marks?)

If Gen. Clark is thinking about running for president again, he needs to do better than this.

Andrew Krepinevich—a retired Army major, former Pentagon official, and author of The Army and Vietnam, one of the shrewder military critiques of the Vietnam War—at least offers specific ideas for a counterinsurgency campaign. In his Foreign Affairs article, boldly titled “How To Win in Iraq,” he rejects the futile practice of simply chasing after insurgents and proposes instead a strategy of protecting the Iraqi people as a way of “winning hearts and minds.”

Krepinevich lays out what he calls an “oil-spot strategy.” Iraqi army units, embedded with the best U.S. soldiers, sweep through a targeted area—say, Baghdad or Mosul—and clear it of insurgents. They build up the economies of that area, reward local tribesmen who supply intelligence information, demonstrate the benefits of cooperating with the authorities, and, as more Iraqis understand the connection, spread the units outward to other areas, in the same way that an oil spot spreads. As this process takes hold, Iraqi soldiers take increasing responsibility for security patrols, relying on Americans as a quick-response force to deal with larger threats. Over time, the country becomes more peaceful, the authorities are viewed as more legitimate, and the U.S. troops can dwindle to a very small force.

If the Pentagon had followed this strategy from the occupation’s outset, Iraq might be a safer, calmer place today. But now is a year or two too late. The insurgency has had too long to grow, recruit, and refine its tactics. Sweeping through Baghdad or Mosul and building them up as protected enclaves might have been a practical measure in the summer of 2003, but these cities are far too infiltrated—establishing the most basic order is too difficult—to serve as demonstration sites in the fall of 2005.

The biggest stumbling block of Krepinevich’s plan, though, comes at the very end of the article:

Even if successful, this strategy will require at least a decade of commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls. But this is the price that the United States must pay if it is to achieve its worthy goals in Iraq. Are the American people and American soldiers willing to pay that price? … And if Americans are not up to the task, Washington should accept that it must settle for a much more modest goal: leveraging its waning influence to outmaneuver the Iranians and the Syrians in creating an ally out of Iraq’s next despot.

At least he’s honest. Does anyone think that we are—or should be—”up to the task,” as Krepinevich defines it? Unlikely.

The one virtue of Juan Cole’s 10-point plan—which he outlined in an Aug. 22 entry on his blog, Informed Comment—is that it takes as a premise that the United States is not willing to keep tens of thousands of ground troops in Iraq for over a decade at a cost of hundreds of billions more dollars and thousands more fatalities.

Cole’s plan: 1) Withdraw U.S. troops from cities in order to lower our profile and leave Iraqis to do their own policing. 2) Steadily withdraw even those U.S. troops over time. 3) Provide close air support to Iraqi forces during firefights with guerrillas, or in other roles, for as long as the government wants us to do so. 4) Use precision weapons to bomb and strafe insurgents if they mount major attacks on Iraqi forces or cities. 5) Offer military aid to protect key government figures and to prevent sabotage. 6) Help the Iraqi army build up an armor corps. 7) As a quid pro quo, the Iraqis should hold elections on a district basis (to ensure proportional representation for Sunnis and to draw Sunni elites into the government); and 8) grant amnesty to all former Baathists who did not commit serious crimes. 9) Reconstruction money should be given to Iraqi firms, not to U.S. corporations. 10) Regular meetings should be held by the foreign ministers of Iraq’s neighbors, along with the U.S. secretary of state and Russia’s foreign minister to deal with multinational assistance to Iraq.

There are problems here. The Iraqis seem incapable of doing their own policing. Close air support, or even concentrated strafing, is but a palliative for staving off a dedicated insurgency. If 150,000 U.S. troops can’t prevent Iraqi officials from being assassinated or pipelines from being cut, how is mere “military aid” going to accomplish the mission? A serious army needs an armor corps, but without a stable government in place, it might serve as the corps for a coup. As for the quid pro quos, forget about it: We’re too late; the Shiites who seem headed for power will not agree to these provisions. Reconstruction contracts to Iraqi firms—a good idea, but it needed to be implemented from the outset. Meetings with foreign ministers—OK, but to what end? Why would the other countries agree? And what would we, or they, agree on?

Cole adds, “I cannot guarantee that these steps will resolve the crisis in the short or even medium term. But I do think that, if taken together, they would allow us to get the ground troops out without risking a big civil war or a destabilization of the Middle East.”

Like Krepinevich, at least he’s honest. You get a sense of desperation in both articles—in all articles that seek a responsible solution (i.e., a solution other than “pull out now” or “bomb them back to the Stone Age”) for that matter.

The basic situation is this: As long as the Iraqis ratify the constitution and form a new government (however shaky both may be), the Bush administration seems determined to start a major troop reduction next year to minimize the war’s impact on our own 2006 elections—regardless of a withdrawal’s impact on Iraq. The question that seriously needs addressing is no longer how to win, but how to keep a pullout from looking like surrender.