September is finally here. This means that our Army general in Iraq, David Petraeus will soon be heading back to the United States. He will be reporting to Congress on how well our surge of 160,000 American troops in Iraq is working.
The BS is going to be piled higher and deeper in the days and weeks ahead as all sides in the debate try to frame expectations. You may have a hard time sorting through the disparate facts and opinions. As a public service, I thought I would do it for you. I will also offer a poor but realistic exit strategy from Iraq. I may not be a military tactician or a diplomat, but at least my track record on Iraq has generally proven to be on the mark. So why not consider it?
I do not expect General Petraeus to lie to Congress. However, I do not expect an unbiased report. His will present the best possible case for the success of his strategy. We will hear is that violence has been checked somewhat in Baghdad and in the Sunni Triangle, which is true. We will hear that Al Qaeda in Iraq has been weakened. This is also true. He will acknowledge that there has been insufficient political progress, but he will also point out that there are some hopeful signs as well as modest success meeting a couple benchmarks. There is a sort of agreement between some factions on the contentious issue of oil revenue sharing that may be presented to the Iraqi parliament when it reconvenes. However, we have had a number of these agreements before. None has yet borne any fruit.
What is happening now in Iraq is simply what I suspected. I said it would likely meet with some resistance but insurgents would eventually find it more effective to move the war to less secure areas. Consequently, we are seeing more insurgent violence in western or northern Iraqi provinces. Overall violence has actually gone up. Providing we can continue to keep 160,000 boots on the ground in Iraq indefinitely, we can probably lower but not stop insurgent violence in these areas. In other words, we are playing a game of whack a mole with 160,000 American troops.
If a political agreement were reached, the situation in Iraq could stabilize. The likelihood of reaching such a consensus is at best thirty percent. Successfully carrying out such an agreement reduces the odds of success much further. I put the odds of success at around five percent.
A few things are given. First, we can contain, but not end the violence in areas that we hold through force of arms. Second, there is zero willingness from either the White House or the Congress to enough put the boots on the ground to secure the entire country. Consequently, our strategy in Iraq amounts to wishful thinking which, if you think about it, amounts to an insane strategy. We hope that by reducing the violence in and around Baghdad that the various factions in Iraq will tire of war and prefer peaceful democratic solutions. However, Iraq, if it is still a country, has no tradition of political accommodation to fall back on. Consequently, those who care about their side winning are more likely to use force of arms rather than political accommodation. They are likely to stick with what they know.
One meme we hear frequently is that if we leave then insurgent forces will fill in the power vacuum. I agree with David Petraeus on this but the same argument also leads to the conclusion that we must stay as long as necessary. In fact, we can see in Basra today what will happen when our forces withdraw. In theory, the Iraqi Army controls Basra now that the British have left the city.
However, Shiite sects are actually in control and there has been violence as sects jockey for power. The Iraqi Army’s presence is likely symbolic. In truth, the Iraqi Army is largely a paper army. Few in it are vested in its success. They serve in order to support their families. If push comes to shove, these soldiers will choose their ethnic and religious clans over the Iraqi state, as many of them already have. These loyalties are real and the Iraqi state is not.
All progress is predicated on real security. However, real security is impossible without sufficient forces on the ground committed to providing real security. The good news is that there are plenty of forces on the ground that can provide security, if they can stop shooting each other. The Mahdi Army is a prominent example. They have gained strength by providing real security in areas that they control. Unfortunately, it is hard for one force to control enough of an area for a long enough periods so that security can lead to economic improvement. Of course, most of these forces have their own agendas, and democracy is far down on their list. Most of them are interested in imposing their version of Islam on those they control. Moreover, they cannot provide security without money. Much of this money comes from bribery and extortion.
Clearly, we will not provide the size and scope of security that is needed. We have tried for four years to inculcate an Iraqi army and police to provide the security we cannot. However, progress has been at best halting and currently seems to be degrading.
The Iraqi government is a fiction. It is divided and has passed virtually no meaningful legislation. Any legislation it does pass is toothless if it cannot be carried out. Given these realities and constraints, what should the United States do? Do we just precipitously withdraw and likely let the barbarism worsen? Do we stay indefinitely in the midst of a civil war with little prospect for improvement merely to keep our consciences relatively clean? Do we implement a Vietnamization strategy with staggered troop withdrawals regardless of the security situation?
My feeling is the best we can do in this awful situation to peacefully assist in the ethnic partitioning that is already well underway. Violence in Baghdad is down. This is due in part to having so many of our forces on the ground there. It is equally due to the ethnic cleansing that has been underway for years. Sunnis are being driven out of Baghdad. Soon Baghdad will be a Shiite City. Once this occurs there is no guarantee that the violence in Baghdad will wholly recede, since there are Shiite factions willing to fight for power. However, this ethnic partitioning, as odious it may be our pluralistic American values, it is a pragmatic step toward allowing some form of security to take hold.
If I were General Petraeus here is what I would recommend to Congress. I would be candid and acknowledge that Iraq is unlikely to ever be a nation state again. The Iraqi parliament’s remaining job is to agree on where the boundaries for Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states will be. The Iraqi parliament should be given a time limit, no more than six months, to draw these boundaries. Otherwise, the United States, working with the United Nations, should draw them along existing ethnic lines, much as Great Britain did with Pakistan and Bangladesh. A neutral party like the United Nations, after listening to Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish concerns, should devise and implement an interim formula for controlling the oil revenue for the region. Our military should then be used as escorts to safely move those who desire to move from one state to another. For a limited period, our troops should police the boundaries of these new states. Excess troops that are not engaged in this work should be withdrawn. We should also offer economic aid to each new country but tie it to their ability to be self-governing, their acceptance of a U.N. oil redistribution formula and each new state’s ability contain the violence in their country.
Obviously, this is not an ideal solution. In fact, it is not a solution at all, because there is no solution that will make both the Iraqis and us happy. It is unlikely that any democratic state would endure, except possibly in Kurdistan. However, it is a strategy that accommodates the sad realities of the regions. It tries to work with present natural forces. Would it be entirely successful? I would be very surprised if it were. A strategy simply lets us envision a different solution. We then need to implement tactics that complement the strategy. My plan attempts to minimize further casualties of both our forces as well as those of Iraqi civilians. In addition, it holds out a more realistic vision for the future than our current strategy.
If you have a better idea, leave me a comment.