War Stories

Irrelevant Exuberance

Why the latest good news from Iraq doesn’t matter.

U.S soldiers in Baghdad

In 1975, Army Col. Harry Summers went to Hanoi as chief of the U.S. delegation’s negotiation team for the four-party military talks that followed the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. While there, he spent some time chatting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu, an old soldier who had fought against the United States and lived to tell his tale. With a tinge of bitterness about the war’s outcome, Summers told Tu, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Tu replied, in a phrase that perfectly captured the American misunderstanding of the Vietnam War, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

Today, in Iraq, we face a similar conundrum. Our vaunted military has won every battle against insurgents and militias—from the march up to the “thunder runs” that took Baghdad; the assaults on Fallujah to the battles for Sadr City. And yet we still find ourselves stuck in the sands of Mesopotamia. In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack argue that “[w]e are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms.” They go on to describe the myriad ways the surge is succeeding on the security front. But in emphasizing this aspect of current operations, they downplay the more critical questions relating to political progress and the ability of Iraq’s national government to actually govern. Security is not an end in itself. It is just one component, albeit an important one, of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Unless it is paired with a successful political strategy that consolidates military gains and translates increased security into support from the Iraqi people, these security improvements will, over time, be irrelevant.

O’Hanlon and Pollack report progress from several diverse Iraqi cities, including Sunni-dominated Ramadi, Arab-Kurdish-Turkman Tal Afar and Mosul, and Shiite-Sunni Baghdad. Curiously, the scholars’ dispatch ignores Baqubah, Samarra, Kirkuk, and the areas south of Baghdad—places with the highest sectarian tensions, worst fighting, and least progress.

The short, selective itinerary raises questions about who planned the trip, whom O’Hanlon and Pollack were able to talk with, and what they actually saw—as opposed to what they were briefedon during visits to U.S. bases. At best, these two men saw enough of Iraq to get a glimpse of reality there. At worst, they saw a Potemkin Village of success stories, not unlike the picture shown to visiting congressional delegations, that left them with a false vision of progress.

Truth is elusive in Iraq; it always remains just out of focus. In Iraq you can find evidence on the ground to support just about any conclusion you choose; most visitors arrive, see what they want to see, and go home believing even more strongly in the positions they held before they landed in Iraq. It takes months—perhaps even years—to gain the depth and perspective on Iraq necessary to develop a reasonably objective and balanced understanding of events there. Neither O’Hanlon and Pollack nor conservative scholars like Fred Kagan, the intellectual architect of the current surge, spend nearly enough time in Iraq to understand its shifting, uncertain realities.

To be fair, O’Hanlon and Pollack do raise a few red flags to caveat their optimistic analysis. The duo finds “huge hurdles on the political front,” so large that they may cause the country to splinter when U.S. forces begin to downsize. They point to the uneven readiness of the Iraqi army and the dismal state of the Iraqi police as evidence that the Iraqi government will not soon be able to secure the country. Simmering sectarian tensions appear throughout their narrative, exemplified by the Sunni residents of Baghdad who fear the nearby police checkpoint, because it is manned by Shiite members of the Iraqi police who reportedly abuse them every time they pass. Where they found “fully staffed” provincial reconstruction teams from the State Department, O’Hanlon and Pollack praise their ability to work with local governments and businessmen to rebuild the country, but the two scholars say nothing about the less-than-fully staffed teams that exist outside Baghdad, nor the understaffed embassy in Baghdad. And the op-ed skirts around the average Iraqi’s quality of life, careful not to contradict the voluminous data compiled and updated twice weekly by Brookings—including statistics on fuel, water, electricity, and unemployment—indicating that the average Iraqi lives a harder life today than four years ago.

O’Hanlon and Pollack admit that “victory” is probably no longer attainable—only some “sustainable stability” that might allow Iraq to keep itself together when U.S. forces eventually depart. But this reveals the fatal flaw in their argument. The lid will remain on the Iraq pot only as long as we are willing to commit to our current troop levels. Reducing troop levels from the current 160,000 to 60,000 or 80,000, and/or transitioning to an “adviser model,” will allow the situation to deteriorate out of control, as it did in 2005 when U.S. forces drew down and pulled back from most Iraqi cities. Withdrawing immediately will cause the Maliki government to collapse and the region to descend into a hellish ethno-sectarian war atop some of the world’s largest oil fields.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee yesterday that the surge will end in April 2008, when current troop levels become unsustainable. When that occurs, and assuming Iraqi forces do not become fully capable of filling the vacuum left by departing U.S. troops, Gen. David Petraeus will be forced to tailor his operations to fit the forces he has. With too few troops, Petraeus will have to economize, perhaps reverting to the “key cities” strategy pursued in 2006 plus some kind of robust advisory presence in Iraqi army and police units. This model failed once before, allowing sectarian militias, criminals, and insurgents to roam with near freedom, and it will likely fail now, too.

So, what are we to do? Sadly, as professor Andrew Bacevich writes in this week’s New Republic (subscription required), we may be past the point where good deeds can save Iraq:

[T]his much is certain: The moment when Americans might have persuaded Iraqis to embrace them as liberators has long since passed. We have failed to make good on too many promises. In our heavy-handed efforts to root out insurgents, we have too frequently mistaken the innocent for the guilty. However inadvertently, we have killed and maimed too many civilians. Sadly, in places like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, we have committed too many crimes. We have just plain screwed up too many times.

If it is true that victory, or anything close to it, lies beyond our reach, we can no longer justify the cost of persevering in Iraq. It is time to begin the long march home.