President Bush and his staff are working feverishly on a new strategy for Iraq. In early January, the President is to reveal the new course in a speech to the nation. What should he say?
To answer this question, one must first repeat what America's most vital security goals in Iraq are. The U.S. should deny any part of Iraq as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda, as Afghanistan was until November 2001. Second, the U.S. should thwart Iranian expansion into the Arab world.
In 2002, the Bush administration believed the best way to achieve these goals was to bring reform and modernism to the Arab world. Bringing liberal democracy to Arabia would dilute the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism. It would strengthen Arab countries to oppose Iran. And it might, through example, spark a democratic revolution inside Iran potentially checking the mullahs' radicalism. The Bush administration would start this effort in Iraq.
A Brief History of the War
Before the war, General John Abizaid predicted that Iraqi society would view an American army in Iraq as "an antibody" and respond the way a human body responds to an infection. After the collapse of Saddam's government, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted a brief occupation and a quick turnover to an Iraqi provisional government.
At this point, it is likely that Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice advised President Bush that the risk of an Iraqi civil war was too great, and that the U.S., now responsible for Iraq, could not simply walk away. Heavy-handed Western intervention had worked well in the Balkans, where the U.S. Army suffered not a single combat death during its long occupation. Walking away and leaving Iraq to a civil war would both soil the American victory over Saddam and ruin the prospect for reforming Arab culture.
President Bush must have figured he was taking the least risky course when he agreed with Powell and Rice and shot down Rumsfeld and the Pentagon's quick turnover plan. L. Paul Bremer was sent to Baghdad.
As General Abizaid predicted, Iraqi society, at least the Sunni Arab portion, rebelled against the "antibody." Since then, the U.S. military has attempted to fight a counterinsurgency campaign, using several standard techniques. Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad, America's very demanding ambassador in Iraq, has forced Iraq's political elites to form a "national unity" government. He has also worked tirelessly on political reconciliation with Iraq's rebellious Sunni Arab community. The U.S. has spent the past two years developing and mentoring an Iraqi army and police force. Military operations have been restrained and highly discrete, with the aim of targeting those who might intimidate the population, while also attempting to avoid alienating the population into siding with the insurgents.
These are all classic counterinsurgency gambits, designed to provide an attractive alternative to the insurgency, with the hope of drying up its support. Unfortunately, the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign has failed. The failure rests more with Saddam Hussein's legacy than it does with American tactics. Iraq's Sunni Arabs were never "in play," ready to be talked or bribed into supporting the Shi'ite/Kurdish majority government in Baghdad. As for Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds, they have thirty years of very painful memories. And the recent failures at reconciliation have done nothing to improve trust among Iraq's sects.
What the U.S. Must Concede and What It Must Achieve
Any hope of Iraqi national reconciliation now appears dead. It doesn't seem as if any side has taken reconciliation seriously, least of all the Sunni Arabs. If political reconciliation isn't possible, then counterinsurgency as a tactic is a waste of effort and American lives. Convincing the Sunni Arabs in Mosul, Ramadi, or Baghdad to support a necessarily Shi'ite/Kurdish majority government instead of the "mujahideen" seems as unlikely as expecting Virginians to vote for Mr. Lincoln in 1864.
It is now the received wisdom of "elite" analysts and pundits that this moment for the U.S. in Iraq is similar to April 1975 in Vietnam. Descriptions of this debacle include those voiced by Richard Haass, Simon Jenkins, and David Rothkopf.
These views are wrong. Mr. Bush will have to give up on a peaceful multi-sectarian, democratic Iraq. But the U.S. certainly can achieve its strategic goals in Iraq. As important as this will be, America can accomplish something even more vital. It can demonstrate that it will stick with its friends, and that it will leave its enemies punished and bloody. The U.S. can remind the world that it is a reliable ally, and a dangerous opponent to cross.
A New U.S. Strategy
So what should be the new U.S. strategy? Politically, the U.S. should abandon reconciliation and put its full support behind the 80%+ Shi'ite/Kurdish majority. The U.S. State Department, allegedly urged by Counselor Philip Zelikow, has proposed this course to the President. Ambassador Khalilzad, the strong proponent of Sunni reconciliation, is said to be leaving his post this soon. President Bush could signal a severe course correction by sending Mr. Zelikow to Baghdad as the new U.S. ambassador.
Militarily, the U.S. should abandon counterinsurgency; the Sunni Arab areas will not voluntarily be part of Shi'ite/Kurdish Iraq or its governance. Counterinsurgency seeks to entice the civilian population to support the government and give over the rebels. If the civilian population is beyond doing that, as Sunni Arab Iraq is, then Iraq's Sunni Arabs must logically be considered an "enemy population."
Having concluded that there is an "enemy population," what can the U.S. Army or Marine Corps then do about it? Legally, morally, and politically, not much. In World War II, civilians were carpet-bombed or herded as refugees down rainy country roads (note that there were no insurgencies after this war).
The U.S. cannot do these things today. The U.S. also cannot cut off electrical power or phone service to recalcitrant neighborhoods, or do mass preventive detentions, or tell an insurgent-supporting family or neighborhood that it has until dusk to get on a bus heading west to Ramadi or the Syrian border, never to return.
But Iraq's army and police, facing an internal emergency, could do all of these things, and more. They have not because their American advisors require them to observe American rules of engagement, thought suitable for a counterinsurgency. The American government, for obvious political reasons, wants to stick to the counterinsurgency script. It will not involve itself, even its embedded advisors, in ethnic cleansing or any similar harsh measures.
Thus, the war against the Sunni Arab "enemy population" must go on at night, in the uniform of the Mahdi Army militia. It is ironic that by maintaining only the cleanest of military ethics, and forcing that same standard on the Iraqi army units they advise, the Americans have built up the power and reputation of a radical opponent, Moqtada al-Sadr. Shi'ites in Baghdad trust al-Sadr, and not the government or the Americans, for protection.
President Bush's next speech
Here is what the President should say in his next speech on Iraq:
- Yes, Iraq is in a civil war. Baathists, ex-army officers, and Al Qaeda are trying to overthrow the elected Iraqi government. These rebels are hiding in neighborhoods in mainly four provinces in Iraq.
- Because it is a civil war, it is an internal affair of Iraq. The Iraqi government is and should be the lead principal to fight the insurgency. As an internal matter, and facing a national emergency, the Iraqi government will decide for itself the best tactics, techniques, and procedures to defend itself and its constitution.
- The U.S. government will stand with its ally, the Iraqi government.
- The U.S. will immediately turn all Iraqi army and police units under its command over to the control of the Iraq government. U.S. commanders will no longer direct the actions of any armed force of the Iraqi government.
- U.S. teams embedded with Iraqi units will no longer act as advisors; Iraqi officers will plan their own operations and devise their own tactics Embedded U.S. teams will act as a liaison for logistics, intelligence, and fire support these Iraqi units may require from U.S. sources.
- The U.S. military in Iraq will soon wind down its training program for Iraqi soldiers and police. The Iraqi government will train Iraqi soldiers and police to Iraqi standards and customs.
- U.S. military units in Iraq will cease patrolling Iraq's cities and towns. U.S. forces will continue their world-wide hunt for Al Qaeda terrorist and cells, including inside Iraq.
- U.S. military units will be available to provide humanitarian assistance to distressed areas inside Iraq, when it is reasonably safe for U.S. personnel to execute such missions.
- The U.S. will transfer most of its forces currently in al-Anbar province and Baghdad to the Iraqi/Iranian border.
- U.S. military forces not necessary to protect Iraq's eastern border or to support Iraqi forces in the civil war will return to their bases in the United States.
Is This Another Version of "Cut and Run"?
By taking these ten steps, would the U.S. be abandoning Iraq? Absolutely not. It would be abandoning Sunni reconciliation, a "national unity" government, and counterinsurgency. But taking these actions would empower America's friends (the Kurds) and those it should have as friends (the majority Iraqi Shi'ites). These Iraqi friends would then crush the Sunni Arab rebellion, an object lesson for all to witness.
The U.S. would have to impose itself on Iraqi sovereignty in one area, by becoming the border patrol on the Iranian frontier. Moving strong U.S. ground forces to the Iranian border would accomplish several things. First, it would intimidate the Iranians. Second, it would attempt to limit Iranian influence inside Iraq. Third, it would make the Shi'ite winners inside Iraq more dependent on the U.S. Fourth, it would reassure other Sunni Arab governments in the region that the U.S. will not abandon them to Iranian domination.
Winning and its Consequences
Would such a savage tilt against Iraq's Sunni Arabs bring Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia into the war? This is unlikely. If the Saudi government intervened, there is nothing it could do overtly or covertly to restore Iraq's Sunni Arabs to power. There are too few Iraqi Sunni Arabs, and Iraq's Shi'ites and Kurds are now organized, armed, and motivated. However, a Saudi government effort to undermine a Shi'ite/Kurdish Iraqi government would "bet the kingdom" with no chance of success. It would defy and anger the U.S., whose assistance Saudi Arabia will need to defend against Iran. And it would risk escalation with Iran, possibly leading to war. Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure is highly vulnerable to bombardment. It would be irrational for the Saudi government to take these risks in exchange for so little chance of success. Saudi Arabia's security policy has always been cautious and on this matter it is likely to remain so.
What about an unofficial effort by Saudi citizens to provide military assistance to Iraq's Sunni Arabs in a civil war against Iraq's Shi'ites and its government? We should assume that this effort is already occurring. However, this outside assistance will not be enough to prevent the overwhelming Shi'ite/Kurdish majority in Iraq from prevailing in a civil war.
The Western intelligentsia will no doubt object to Mr. Bush waving through civil war and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Lawyers at The Hague may go wild. Like the late General Pinochet, Mr. Bush might be advised to never leave the country again for fear of arrest. But that hardly matters at this point. As for Mr. Bush's domestic opponents, as much as they would like the war to go on, they could hardly object to the prospect of American brigades soon on their way home.
After a sharp, ugly interlude, hopefully not too long, the civil war inside Iraq would be over. With the Sunni Arab population segregated, gated off in Anbar province, and presumably self-governing, Iraqis could then get realistic about how they intend to live next to each other. Iraq's Sunni Arabs would not be powerless; bargaining chips include access to the Euphrates River's water, and the possibility of an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea, a necessity if Iraqi oil production ever reaches its full potential.
The U.S. can still achieve its strategic objectives in Iraq. And it can do so in way that reminds the world that the U.S. will defend its friends and punish its enemies. By following this plan, President Bush can serve America's interests, revive his legacy, and make life easier for his successors. For everything else, the Iraqis will have to work it out among themselves.
The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk.