In arguing for the current surge of combat forces to Iraq, senior administration officials say they’re unwilling to consider a “Plan B” for Iraq—options in case the surge fails. Sen. John McCain echoes this sentiment, as does Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad, counseling patience while the current plan is put into action.
But defining the current surge as a “Plan A” is a dangerously dishonest move that ignores the history of the Iraq war to date. In fact, since 2003, we have run through at least six plans, none of which has succeeded. The Petraeus plan is something more akin to Plan F—truly, the last Hail Mary play in the fourth quarter. And if it fails, then we better start considering Plan G, also known as “Get out of Iraq.”
The strategic history of the Iraq war starts (and some would say ends) with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s deeply flawed theory of “shock and awe.” According to Rumsfeld’s whiz kids in Washington, massive air strikes and rapidly moving ground forces would force the Iraqi regime to collapse, enabling a democracy to take root where Saddam Hussein’s regime once stood. Plan A called for the rapid withdrawal of American combat forces following the invasion and an equally rapid transition of all stability and reconstruction tasks to someone else—anybody else—whether Iraqi exiles or the United Nations. The original plan included little manpower for security following the war, nor did it plan for a meaningful or lasting occupation. There would be no need, since we would be “greeted as liberators.”
No plan survives first contact with the enemy, and Plan A is no exception. However, in the early days following the war, the Rumsfeld Pentagon articulated only apathy, calling freedom “untidy” and refusing to recognize the nascent insurgency as it bloomed in May and June 2003. Its limited attempt at Plan B called for the transition of security tasks to a new and smaller headquarters led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, and the transition of reconstruction to the nascent Coalition Provisional Authority, led by American proconsul L. Paul Bremer. And then Plan B ran aground, as insurgents began to coalesce and strike back at the U.S.-led reconstruction effort.
Unsure about how to respond, or even how to label this threat, Army and Marine Corps generals developed Plan C in summer 2003—a combination of heavy-handed combat operations and token reconstruction efforts. Units like the 4th Infantry Division launched massive raids throughout the Sunni Triangle to target insurgents, their families, and their supporters. Two well-respected accounts, by journalist Tom Ricks and counterinsurgency expert Ahmed Hashim, describe this as an abject failure that filled detention facilities with thousands of Iraqis, inflamed sentiment against the Americans, and fueled the insurgency. It also led the U.S. military to launch assaults on Fallujah in April and November of 2004—necessary tactical moves that were poorly managed as a strategic and political matter, and that did little to secure Iraq’s Anbar province in the long run.
In June 2004, partly as the result of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Pentagon replaced Sanchez with Gen. George Casey, a steadfast member of the Army establishment who provided better leadership in Baghdad. Casey set in motion a number of major shifts that collectively represented Plan D. The most significant was a phased withdrawal and drawdown plan, which was contingent upon the successful transfer of security responsibility to Iraqi forces and the achievement of political milestones like the ratification of Iraq’s Constitution. (Sound familiar?) Under Casey, the military drew down its forces, consolidated onto massive super-bases in the desert, and gradually disengaged from Iraqi cities. (The exception was Tal Afar, where one brigade led by charismatic Army Col. H.R. McMaster remained engaged in the city, waging its counterinsurgency campaign one block at a time.) At the same time, Casey pushed hard to develop Iraqi army and police units. As these forces stood up, President Bush famously said, we would stand down. Transition became the buzzword for staffs and commanders, and units rushed to hand over territory to the Iraqis whether they were ready or not. During this time, Iraqis ratified their constitution and elected the government led by Nouri al-Maliki. In turn, American forces attempted to push Iraqis to take the lead on security, politics, and reconstruction.
The bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006 interrupted Plan D’s progress. But instead of shifting strategy to lessen the sectarian violence, Gen. Casey pushed even harder to develop the Iraqi forces and nurture the Iraqi government. This move accelerated the sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as the intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite jockeying for power, by training and equipping the partisans in those fights. In mid-2006, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched Plan E: Operation Together Forward I and II. These joint pushes to secure Baghdad followed a “clear, hold, and build” strategy lifted straight from the counterinsurgency playbook. But Plan E lacked the troops to get the job done, because Casey had too few American troops and because the Iraqi forces failed to muster enough troops or secure the areas they were assigned. When Plan E failed, it generated such discontent on the home front that the Republicans lost Congress and Rumsfeld lost his job.
Plan F—the surge—grew out of the recognition that Plans C, D, and E had created today’s overlapping conflicts in Iraq, and that our best hope for Iraq was to establish some sense of security, which would enable the Maliki government to stabilize itself. The Pentagon sent Gen. Petraeus, its celebrity warrior-intellectual, to Baghdad with a brain trust of counterinsurgency experts and gave him an additional 21,000 troops, with promises of more should he need them. Once on the ground, Petraeus pushed troops out into Baghdad to live and work on smaller combat outposts. The Marines scored a stunning turnaround in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province by brokering a deal with Sunni tribes that effectively marginalized al-Qaida, and in Baghdad, the deployment of U.S. forces into the city appeared to slow the cycle of sectarian violence, although spectacular acts of violence have continued, and violence has worsened elsewhere in Iraq.
To sum up, it’s more than a bit disingenuous to cast today’s debate as one of Plan A versus Plan B. In fact, we’ve seen at least five major strategies implemented in Iraq, and all have failed, creating a legacy of bad blood that undermines our continuing efforts. Much of this failure owes to the naive belief that we can impose our will on the Iraqi people through our strategies, or win their support with a combination of security and reconstruction.
Gen. Petraeus and his brain trust have devised the best possible Plan F, given the resources available to the Pentagon and declining patience for the war at home. But the Achilles heel of this latest effort is the Maliki government. It is becoming increasingly clear to all in Baghdad that its interests—seeking power and treasure for its Shiite backers—diverge sharply from those of the U.S.-led coalition. Even if Gen. Petraeus’ plan succeeds on the streets of the city, it will fail in the gilded palaces of the Green Zone. Maliki and his supporters desire no rapprochement with the Sunnis and no meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the Sunnis and the Kurds. Indeed, Maliki can barely hold his own governing coalition together, as evidenced by the Sadr bloc’s resignation from the government this week and the fighting in Basra over oil and power.
Plan F will fail if (or when) the Maliki government fails, even if it improves security. At that point, we will have run out of options, having tried every conceivable strategy for Iraq. It will then be time for Plan G: Get out.