Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Price of the Surge: How US Strategy is Hastening Iraq's Demise (Excerpt), by Steven Simon

Excerpt from Foreign Affairs, May-June 2008

Editor's Introduction:

This new analysis by Mideast expert Steven Simon outlines how the Bush-McCain surge in Iraq is in fact destabilizing the country, endangering the security of the entire region where Israel lives.
At the same time, far from representing US “surrender” or “letting Al Qaida win,” as McCain and the Republicans suggest, establishing an international diplomatic mechanism for overseeing an effective Iraqi reconciliation process requires that the US announce a clear commitment to conduct a carefully coordinated drawdown of the bulk of US forces from Iraq over the next two to three years. Obama’s approach is more likely to bring about political reconciliation among the major Iraqi factions, making Iraq and Israel’s neighborhood more stable.
Gidon D. Remba
In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new approach to the war in Iraq. At the time, sectarian and insurgent violence appeared to be spiraling out of control, and Democrats in Washington -- newly in control of both houses of Congress -- were demanding that the administration start winding down the war. Bush knew he needed to change course, but he refused to, as he put it, "give up the goal of winning." So rather than acquiesce to calls for withdrawal, he decided to ramp up U.S. efforts. With a "surge" in troops, a new emphasis on counterinsurgency strategy, and new commanders overseeing that strategy, Bush declared, the deteriorating situation could be turned around.
More than a year on, a growing conventional wisdom holds that the surge has paid off handsomely. U.S. casualties are down significantly from their peak in mid-2007, the level of violence in Iraq is lower than at any point since 2005, and Baghdad seems the safest it has been since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime five years ago. Some backers of the surge even argue that the Iraqi civil war is over and that victory on Washington's terms is in sight -- so long as the United States has the will to see its current efforts through to their conclusion.
Unfortunately, such claims misconstrue the causes of the recent fall in violence and, more important, ignore a fatal flaw in the strategy. The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state.
If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.
Despite the current lull in violence, Washington needs to shift from a unilateral bottom-up surge strategy to a policy that promotes, rather than undermines, Iraq's cohesion. That means establishing an effective multilateral process to spur top-down political reconciliation among the major Iraqi factions. And that, in turn, means stating firmly and clearly that most U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Iraq within two or three years. Otherwise, a strategy adopted for near-term advantage by a frustrated administration will only increase the likelihood of long-term debacle...


At this stage, the United States has no good option in Iraq. But the drawbacks and dangers of the current bottom-up approach demand a change of course. The only alternative is a return to a top-down strategy. To be more effective this time around, Washington must return to the kind of diplomacy that the Bush administration has largely neglected. Even with 160,000 troops in Iraq, Washington lacks the leverage on its own to push the Maliki government to take meaningful steps to accommodate Sunni concerns and thereby empower Sunni moderates. (The legislative package and the de-Baathification reform law passed earlier this year were seriously flawed and did more to spur the Sunnis' anxieties than redress their grievances.) What the United States could not do unilaterally, it must try to do with others, including neighboring countries, European allies, and the United Nations (UN).
In order to attain that kind of cooperation, Washington must make a public commitment to a phased withdrawal. Cooperation from surrounding countries and European partners is unlikely to be forthcoming without a corresponding U.S. readiness to cede a degree of the dubious control it now has over events in Iraq. Currently, the dominant U.S. presence in Iraq allows the rest of the world to avoid responsibility for stability in and around Iraq even as everyone realizes the stakes involved. A plan to draw down U.S. forces would therefore contribute to the success of a larger diplomatic strategy, prompting Middle Eastern states, European governments, and the UN to be more constructive and proactive in working to salvage stability in the Persian Gulf.
The point, therefore, is not to focus on the precise speed and choreography of a troop withdrawal. Rather, what is necessary is to make clear that the United States intends to withdraw. Should the Bush administration suspend the currently programmed withdrawals of the surge force, it would send precisely the opposite message. President Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and General Petraeus have all signaled their interest in halting any further drawdowns after the last surge brigade has come home this summer. Petraeus, who has already begun to lay out his case in interviews, argues that "the key is to hang on to what you've got." The president has suggested that he is unwilling to withdraw additional troops until after the Iraqi provincial elections -- which, although originally scheduled for October, could very well be delayed. It is therefore possible that the next U.S. president will have to decide what to do with approximately 140,000 troops, a considerably larger number than most observers assumed would still be on the ground in Iraq at the end of 2008. (Some consideration will also have to be given to the problem of removing 56,000 contractors and facilitating the departure of a segment of the 30,000-50,000 Iraqi and foreign workers supporting the U.S. presence.)
Given that the laws of physics are as relevant to troop redeployments as are the laws of strategy and politics, the higher baseline bequeathed by Bush would mean a longer timeline for withdrawal. As of last summer, there were 1,900 tanks and other armored vehicles, 43,000 trucks, and 700 aircraft in Iraq. Equipment is scattered over 70 bases throughout the country, along with 38 major supply depots, 18 fuel-storage centers, and 10 ammunition dumps. According to the conservative rule of thumb used by military logisticians, the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps could move a brigade per month from the Iraqi theater. Moving the 15 brigades likely to be in Iraq in January 2009 would require up to 10,000 truck trips through potentially hostile zones within Iraq.
Although fixating on an exact timetable for withdrawal might be unhelpful at this juncture, a new administration should begin to draw down deliberately and in phases as soon as its internal deliberations are complete and the process has been coordinated with Baghdad. These steps could take months, as the new team conducts its policy-review process; military planners plot safe and efficient withdrawal routes; congressional consultations are carried out; conclusions are reached about where the forces being drawn down should be redeployed; planners determine the size, roles, and missions of the residual force; and the numerous dependencies created by the occupation and the surge are gradually shed. Once under way, however, a drawdown of most of the troops now in Iraq could be completed within two years. The redeployment might proceed more quickly if U.S. public support for the war collapsed, the Iraqi government demanded a swifter withdrawal, or the political situation in Iraq settled down; alternatively, the process might take more time if U.S. forces were under attack, an atrocity claiming the lives of many Americans occurred, or a responsible, reconciliation-minded Iraqi government and a concerned international community sought a slower drawdown.
Announcing a withdrawal will entail certain risks. Aware that U.S. forces will finally be departing, Iraqi factions might begin to prepare for a new round of fighting. The Sunnis, aware of their vulnerabilities to attack by militant Shiite forces without the United States to protect them, might resuscitate their alliance with al Qaeda. The government in Baghdad might be concerned about its own exposure to attack in the absence of a U.S. shield and proceed to forge tighter links with Tehran or encourage greater activism by the Mahdi Army. It is all the more vital, therefore, that the drawdown take place as part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy designed to limit these risks. The interval between a decision to withdraw and the removal of the bulk of U.S. forces should provide the space in which the UN can convene a multilateral organization to foster a reconciliation process in Iraq.
There is much that can be done to revitalize a top-down approach to reconciliation if it is under UN auspices and led by a credible special envoy. First, the international community should be energized to help Iraq move forward on provincial elections, which would test the popularity of the new Sunni leaders who have emerged during the surge and lash them up to Baghdad. This would have the added benefit of isolating the radical federalists from the majority of Shiites, who would prefer to live in a united Iraq. A UN envoy would have a better chance of brokering a deal on the distribution of provincial and federal powers, the issue that led to the veto of the provincial election law, than would Washington. In a multilateral setting that is not conspicuously stage-managed by the United States, regional states, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, could play a pivotal role in this process. Although Tehran's cooperation is inevitably hostage to its broader relations with Washington, UN sponsorship of this effort might provide the leaders of Iran with the cover they need to act in their own interest. The Saudis, for their part, would like to see the UN involved and are prepared to use their influence and money to impel the parties in Iraq toward reconciliation.
Second, an institutionalized multilateral group of concerned states should mobilize the broader international community to assist with the care, feeding, and permanent housing of the millions of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis who have not been able to get to the United States or Europe. This is essential, since refugee camps and squatter settlements are incubators of radicalism and radiate violence. The longer these populations remain unmoored and cut off from education, employment, and access to adequate social services and health care, the harder it will be to resettle them permanently, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.
Third, before a new and more intense phase of the civil war begins, there should be a multilateral process put in place to prod Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to finance investment projects that provide real employment in Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, should be pressing the Iraqi government to bring far more Sunni Awakening volunteers into the regular Iraqi army and, crucially, into the provincial police forces funded by the central government. The latter step would reinforce the positive effects of the provincial elections and the emergence of politically legitimate local leaders. The current commitment to enlist 20 percent of the Awakening's members is far too small to have an impact.
Finally, the tribes feeding off the surge must be weaned from U.S. assistance and linked firmly to Baghdad as their source of support. Intertwining the tribes with Baghdad in this way, as the Iraq specialist Charles Tripp has noted, would yield something very much like the imperial protectorates in the Middle East of the first half of the twentieth century. The "club of patrons" in the capital would dole out goods to tribes through favored conduits. At this juncture, the U.S. military is performing the role of the patrons -- creating an unhealthy dependency and driving a dangerous wedge between the tribes and the state. Through coordinated action by the UN sponsors of the multilateral process, the government in Baghdad, and U.S. commanders on the ground, payment responsibilities will have to be transferred from the U.S. military to Iraqi government representatives.
There is no guarantee that the old way of giving tribes a taste of the lash followed by a dollop of state largess -- the model that successfully integrated tribes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century -- can be successfully applied to a divided Iraq today. Iraq is heterogeneous, unlike Jordan or Saudi Arabia, where the state and the tribes shared a religious heritage.
Furthermore, overestimating Iranian or Saudi influence on Iraqi politics and the willingness of the UN Security Council to plunge into the existing morass is all too easy. In any event, it will be a slow and hazardous undertaking. Many things have to happen more or less simultaneously in a carefully coordinated chain of actions. Washington has to announce that it will begin withdrawing the bulk of its forces. The UN secretary-general, with the backing of the Security Council, must select a special envoy. A contact group of key states must be formed under UN sponsorship. Priorities and milestones will need to be set for the distribution of resources within Iraq, the recruitment of Sunnis to the army, provincial elections, foreign investment, dealing with refugees, and development assistance. Crucially, the phasing of the troop drawdown will have to mesh with this diplomatic process but not hinge on its ultimate success. This course is risky and possibly futile. Yet it is still a better bet than a fashionable, short-term fix divorced from any larger political vision for Iraq and the Middle East.
To read the full article click here.
Steven Simon is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern
Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1994 to 1999, he served
on the National Security Council in positions including Senior Director
for Transnational Threats.

No comments: