Saturday, November 25, 2006

Partition: No Magic Bullet

As US leaders cast about for ideas on how to pull the Iraq conflict out of the jaws of catastrophe one notion that has become very vogue is the partition of Iraq. Leslie Gelb, Peter Galbraith, and Senator Joseph Biden have all asserted in various forums that the road out of the Iraq quagmire lies in some form of tripartite division. Though this idea is often dressed in euphemisms like "federalism" or "confederation" (Biden writes of giving each region "breathing space" to manage its own affairs), it invariably reduces to division of Iraq into three independent states: one Kurd, one Sunni, one Shi'ite. This notion is superficially appealing for obvious reasons. Iraq right now is a portrait of sectarian strife. What better resolution to the problem than allowing the "sects" to go their separate ways? Unfortunately, as seductive as such a notion appears while one focuses on the current moment, it evaporates like a desert mirage as soon as one contemplates the history of Iraq and the larger region.

The greatest problem with any partition scheme centers on the Kurds. Unlike the Arabic Iraqi splinter groups the Kurds genuinely do desire their own independent and sovereign nation. The Kurdish nation is a dream deferred, Kurds still nurse lingering bitterness over Allied promises of "self-determination" in the immediate aftermath of WWI that have never been made good. US leaders seem to take for granted that Iraq's Kurds will blithely accept any "federalist" plan that is dictated to them. Yet nationalist passions run deep, and any steps toward greater Kurdish independence could easily snowball into a secessionist movmement, a development that would surely portend both deepening civil war in Iraq and a widening regional conflict. The natural boundaries of Kurdistan are not confined to Iraqi territory, Kurds are also a majority in parts of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Those nations would go to war to prevent the emergence of a sovereign Kurdistan so as to staunch secessionist aspirations among their own Kurds. Moreover, the grant of any degree of sovereignty to Iraqi Kurds would cause enormous anger and resentment throughout the Arab world. The reduction of an Arab state to create a Kurdish nation would undoubtedly be compared to the international community's failure to reduce the Jewish state to create an Arab nation in Palestine. This would play directly to the rhetoric of groups like Hamas and Al Qaeda and would undermine US efforts throughout the Middle East.

As problematic as the situation of the Kurds is for any "federalist" plan, the condition of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs is little better. Neither community possesses the requisite coherence for functional nationhood. The Sunni minority would be left in control of a rump territory alienated from its economic and social centers of gravity. As the Sunnis were for years the proprietors of the Iraqi state that community's chief assets are concentrated in the "alpha city" of Baghdad, which would surely not be incorporated into the new "Sunni republic" and is in any case highly ethnically mixed. Such a scheme would be akin to asking the outer boroughs of New York City to carry on without any economic or political ties to Manhattan.

Iraq's Shi'ites, on the other hand, appear quite cohesive while the US occupation casts into sharp relief their differences with the Sunnis. But the Shi'ite community is impacted by historical forces that subvert its potential for functional political autonomy in the long term. The collective identity of Iraqi Shi'ites resides in their participation in a confessional community that crosses national and ethnic boundaries. Though divisions between Iraqis and Iranians, Arabs and Persians, are minimized by the current conditions of sectarian strife, those distinctions have historically been sources of profound friction. Very soon after the establishment of an Iraqi "Shi'ite republic" conflict will break out between those figures whose roots in the Shi'ite clerical establishment incline them toward closer ties with Iran and those individuals whose deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism make the prospect of "Persion domination" anathema. The ultimate result would be a "republic" at war with both the Sunni community and itself.

"Iraq" as it exists today is obviously a terrain riven by social and cultural forces that make any degree of political coherence highly problematic. This does not indicate, however, that further fragmentation would be constructive. In historical terms one could argue that Iraq has arrived at its current impasse through hyper-fragmentation rather than the reverse. In the immediate aftermath of WWI Arab leaders who lobbied for independent nationhood on Wilsonian principles of "self determination" envisioned the Arab Middle East divided into far fewer nations than currently exist. Current political divisions express the colonial ambitions of Britain and France more than any intrinsic national consciousness of the peoples of the Middle East. The larger independent "Mesopotamia" envisioned by Arab leaders in the early 20th century would have had a more even admixture of Sunni and Shi'ite citizens, and might have been less susceptible to sectarian suspicion and violence.

In any case US plans for further partitioning of Iraq are deeply ill advised. The Biden-Gelb Plan, for example, calls for Iraqi "federalism," but such principles are already written into the Iraqi constitution. What, therefore, is new in this plan? The answer lies in provision 1: "Form regional governments -- Kurd, Sunni and Shiite -- responsible for administering their own regions." In other words, because the national government established by the US occupation is not working, the US should establish regional governments to rule in its stead. But if the US could not succeed in setting up a functioning national government why should it have any better luck setting up regional governments? According to the plan the central government would remain in order to oversee "truly common oil production and revenue," but a government that lacks the power to maintain the peace can hardly be expected to have the power to enforce a division of oil revenues, especially when its authority has been further eroded through the creation of three regional sub-governments with which it is forced to compete. If there is dire strife now in the absence of three regional governments it will only grow worse once those governments exist and are set to squabbling with one-another over oil revenues. The Biden-Gelb plan is effectively a recipe for replacing one dysfunctional government with three even more deeply dysfunctional governments, thus trading a slow-burning civil conflict for an all-out interregional civil war.

The lesson the US should take from its experience in Iraq thus far is this: Iraqi society is impelled by forces over which the US has little or no control, thus US meddling will most likely do more harm than good. If the government the US has assisted in creating does not operate as well as we like the answer is not to subvert it by creating new institutions that diminish its authority. Iraq may well be moving in the direction of some kind of functional partition, but the US should not imagine that it can "catch that wave" by way of retaining some residual influence over Iraqi politics. History dictates that within its current territorial boundaries (which for geopolitical reasons are unlikely to change in the near future) Iraqi society requires some form of central authority to function at all. Having planted the seeds of a central government the US would be very unwise to "change horses in mid stream," if only because this would undermine the already slim chances of the Baghdad government upon which the hope of any positive outcome rides. Ultimately the US must step back and let the Iraqis negotiate a modus vivendi between and among themselves, rooted in institutions of their own design and creation. The resulting outcome may not be entirely pleasing to the people or leaders of the US and its allies, but it is certain to be more constructive than what will result from further attempts by the US to compel a resolution of its own devising.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Exit Stage Three: The Eighteen Month Plan for Withdrawal from Iraq

This week senior military leaders such as General Anthony Zinni and General John Abizaid have warned against a hasty withdrawal from Iraq. One must respect their assessment of the "facts on the ground," but the danger of a hasty withdrawal does not argue for the wisdom of an extended American military presence in Iraq. Generals Zinni and Abizaid present sober cautions against changing the status quo but few new suggestions for moving the conflict forward. The blame for this lies with our civilian leaders, who persistently frame the problem in politically expedient and reductionist terms of "redeployment (i.e. withrdawal)" or "stay the course." Military officers can only give advice concerning the mission as it has been defined for them. The clock is ticking, however, on the American public's patience with the Iraq War. Voters will no longer make an open-ended commitment to a policy without a clear direction or goal.

It is long past time that American leaders lay a candid assessment of what is possible in Iraq before the public. Rhetoric about "victory" is both illogical and cripplingly counterproductive. Democrats and Republicans alike should confess to the American people that we no longer have (indeed we have never had) control over final outcomes in Iraq. We can not dictate what the institutions of the Iraqi government will ultimately look like or how power will be distributed socially, geographically, or ecomically. We can not produce an end to hostilities in Iraq or choose which of the current combatant forces will remain standing in the long run. America can not determine the destiny of Iraq, its best hope now is to disengage in a manner that gives the Iraqi government and people the best chance of achieving stability and progress.

To that end I propose the following eighteen month plan, divided into three six-month stages:

Stage 1- Full Armament of the Iraqi Security Forces

This is the most dangerous task that the Coalition must accomplish/facilitate, and entails the aspect of the conflict about which the US leadership has been most obtuse. US officials' constant intonation of the need to "train Iraqi forces" has become Orwellian in its ever-widening removal from practical reality. It is pristinely clear now that the problem with the Iraqi Army is not professional but political. No one can seriously believe that more training would make the Iraqi battalions that most recently refused orders to deploy to Baghdad more willing to accept such a mission. Every aspect about the IA's performance is rooted in its status as a dependent junior partner of the US military. The armed forces of virtually every sovereign nation on earth has its own air corps, artillery, and armor. No army can hope to survive on the modern battlefield without such elements, yet the IA remains a force composed almost entirely of infantry with light weapons.

This fact cries out for an explanation, yet I have never read of a US civilian or military leader being challenged on this issue in a public forum. Though the motives of press and academic observers of the conflict in this capacity are puzzling, the desire of US officials to avoid having to account for the strategic toothlessness of the IA is quite understandable. There are only two possible answers to such a query, neither of which are comfortable admissions for US leaders to make. The first is that the US has always intended to keep the IA in a state of dependency, so that responsibility for the strategic defense of Iraq would fall upon the US in perpetuity (this would explain the reluctance of the Bush regime to disavow maintaining permament US bases in Iraq). The other is that US officials have so little confidence in the competence and/or loyalty of Iraqi civilian and military leaders that they fear any move toward full armament of the Iraqi security forces would result in calamity.

The former possibility is a moot point. If the Bush administration had ever intended the US to assume the role of Iraq's permanent patron/defender that plan has become a complete impossibility. Iraq will remain lethal terrain for US soldiers for as long as they remain on Iraqi soil, a stable homeostasis like that of South Korea will never be reached. The operative motive for keeping the IA in a state of neutered limbo is thus a fear of how badly the process of full armament might go awry.

These fears are genuine. As the IA acquires heavy weapons many mishaps are possible. Fatal friendly fire clashes may occur between IA and Coalition forces. Infiltration of heavy weapons units by insurgents or militiamen could result in costly sabotage or the use of heavy weapons against Coalition troops or Iraqi government targets. As Iraqi military commanders achieve strategic independence they may "slip the leash" of civilian control and effect a military takeover. Worst of all, heavy weapons-armed IA units might square off against one-another in an all-out civil war.

As distressing as these concerns are, the full armament of the Iraqi security forces is an unavoidable necessity. In order to bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and nurture civilian control the actual task of arming the security forces should be left in the hands of the Iraqi government itself. The Iraqi Defense Ministry should purchase weapons on its own budget-line, with funds borrowed from the US if necessary. Training new pilots, gunners, and technicians may have to be done outside of Iraq but it should be paid for by the Iraqi government and under Iraqi supervision. Iraqi intelligence services should perform security clearances on all trainees or skilled reinlistees from the Hussein-era armed forces.

Six months is a rush order. In that time weapons would have to be purchased, personnel recruited and trained, and further training exercises carried out in order to integrate the new heavy weapons units into the operational dynamic of already existing Iraqi security forces. Though these are complex tasks they could be provisionally accomplished in six months with a concerted US effort, in part because the Iraqis themselves will cooperate very enthusiastically. Moreover the armament program would not have to be entirely completed in six months. As the first heavy weapons units came through the "pipeline" stage two of the eighteen-month withdrawal plan could begin and continue as further units come on line. This is in fact advisable, as in order to minimize the temptation of internicine conflict it should be made clear to the Iraqi civilian and military leadership that this armament phase is step one in the final and inexorable withdrawal of US forces.

Stage Two- Internal Redeployment of US Forces

In the second six-month phase US forces should be withdrawn from Anbar Province and the Sunni Triangle, to be replaced by newly fully armed units of the Iraqi Army. Insurgent activity will continue and may intensify as US forces withdraw, but armed with helicopter gunships, tanks, and artillery IA units will be able to hold their own against the insurgents who, by all reports, display a bare minimum of military competency. If necessary small US teams could stay behind to help the IA in an advisory capacity, but the IA should ultimately assume 99% of the counterinsurgency effort in the Sunni Triangle.

The risks of this strategic shift are also high. The IA is predominantly Shi'ite, thus sectarian animosity might incite them to acts of brutality against the residents of the Sunni Triangle. There is the hope, though, that commitment to the mission in cities like Falluja and Ramadi might help professionalize and nationalize the IA. Brutality might produce as much resistance as it suppresses, forcing the IA to ameliorate its tactics and combine political suasion with military coersion. Moreover, Shi'ite IA soldiers struggling to pacify the Sunni Triangle might learn to construe their own self-interest differently than their more radical co-religionists in Baghdad and Basra. When IA soldiers perceive that atrocities committed by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad deepen support for the Sunni insurgency in Falluja their sympathy for the program of the Shi'ite militias will hopefully decrease sharply, thus creating pressure on the Iraqi civilian leadership to interdict and disarm the militias. While IA troops take over counterinsurgency duties in Falluja and Ramadi the US troops thus freed can be redeployed to mixed-ethnic areas like Baghdad and Diyala Province. The resulting increase in troop presence in those areas (combined with increased cooperation from Iraqi civilian authorities under pressure to support their troops in the field) would hopefully help restore order and diminish sectarian strife.

Stage Three-Phased Withdrawal of US Forces From Iraq

If the assumption of counterinsurgency duties by the IA in the Sunni Triangle has had the desired effect upon the working ethos of the IA, in six months the stage will be set for transferring all internal security duties in Iraq to the Iraqi armed forces themselves. US forces can thus begin to transfer their operational zones to Iraqi units of corresponding stength and skills. Some US units can remain deployed in the region (in Kuwait, say) to assist Iraqi forces as requested. As US troops depart Iraq, however, all bases and infrastructure built within Iraq for US use should be dismantled or turned over to the IA. Fighting is likely to be continuing as US troops depart and to go on for a long while after US forces have gone, but there is a chance that at the end of eighteen months the Iraqi military and government together will have the coherence and political will to win through to eventual peace and stability.

This plan is by no means assured of success, in fact it might well be an extreme long-shot gamble. The current situation offers no better alternative, however. In the end the odds of success or failure can not be set by the US, they will be determined entirely by the Iraqis. If the Iraqi people and their leaders can summon the will, the courage, the flexibility, and the political skills to weave together a new social contract from the current anarchy then no matter how quickly the US withdraws Iraq will eventually stabilize and prosper. If the Iraqis can not gather these energies then no matter how long the US stays the result will be chaos and bloodshed. Indeed, every day the US remains in Iraq now helps increase the odds of this darker outcome, as each such day depletes the legitimacy of the Iraqi government in many of its people's eyes and helps habituate Iraqi leaders to dependency upon US protection and assistance. An eighteen-month staged US withdrawal is not a perfect or a sure choice, but it the best choice for the people of America, Iraq, and the world at large.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Base Motives

The Democratic electoral victory and the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld are both hopeful developments for the war effort in Iraq, the former because it signals clearly that the American public has lost patience with the current failed strategy and the latter because Mr. Rumsfeld was its principal architect and civilian custodian. This institutional sea change naturally raises the question of what can and should be done differently going forward. The departure of Rumsfeld is likely to be the most important development in the long and short term. With Robert Gates as the new Secretary of Defense the US General Staff will feel more confident to assert their prerogative in charting the course of the conflict, a trend that is sure to produce profound changes in tactics and overall strategy. As the resolution of the Iraq conflict requires political maneuvers as much as military, however, there are steps that the civilian leadership can take right away that will assist Coalition forces in their task. Moreover, they are steps in which both Defense and Congress may participate.

The clearest and easiest policy shift that would help move the conflict toward resolution is for the US government to forswear maintaining any permanent military bases in Iraq. Such a move would bleed both the Sunni insurgency and provocateurs such as Moqtada al-Sadr of a great deal of political capital. The clear wisdom of this policy is so evident that it cries out for an explanation as to why the Bush administration has not embraced it already. The only real risk it entails is to foster the impression that the US is capitulating to terrorist pressure, but given the benefits at stake such a consideration only argues for the policy to be adopted as soon as possible. The longer the US waits to renounce a permanent military presence in Iraq the more it courts political embarrassment for doing so, but no matter how high that liability gets ratcheted up the inescapable necessity of renunciation will remain.

Why, then, has the Bush administration tarried? The only ultimately logical answer is oil. If we take Bush regime pronouncements at face value this conflict has always been driven by a "big theory" strategy to foster US security in the extreme long term. One does not have to be entirely cynical about Bush assertions of "promoting democracy" to deduce that the regime closely associate the long-term security of the US with the assurance of access to oil reserves. Any argument about the true nature or moral status of such motives is now moot, as an enduring US military presence in Iraq is simply not a sustainable strategy if a positive resolution to the current conflict is ever to be found. One of the potential long-term benefits of the nascent shift in US "Iraq politics" is thus a corresponding shift away from allowing fossil fuel dependency to drive foreign policy and towards using domestic policy to decrease or eliminate dependency on fossil fuels.

The first step, however, is a renunciation of permanent US bases in Iraq, a policy that both Defense and Congress should move to insititutionalize immediately, preferably in concert. New construction on bases should be halted, and contingency plans laid for the disassembly of current facilities or their staged transfer to the Iraqi Army. Congress can help effect this strategy by writing it into law, preferably with the input of both Defense and Centcom. The wording of such legislation would have to be worked out carefully, as it should not place artificial constraints on the current military conduct of the conflict. A simple solution might be to place a deadline for dismantlement or transferal far in the future- five to ten years hence. Such legislation would do much to deflect criticism of the Coalition mission as "neocolonial" and sap insurgent propoganda of most of its vitality and appeal.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Right Where They Want Us

As the midterm election draws nigh the Bush administration remains on message concerning the Iraq conflict: the US cannot withdraw troops before "we get the job done." Democratic rejoinders about the ill wisdom of "staying the course" are weak at best, as they might be taken to imply that the US should not "stay the course" because it cannot "get the job done." This latter prospect cannot be appealing to voters however persuaded they are of the shortcomings of the Bush Iraq policy, and Democrats would be better served by pointing out why Bush's "get the job done" injunction simply does not make sense.

Bush rhetoric immediately raises two questions for which there are no simple answers: 1)what job? 2)what can the US do that it has not already done to "get the job done?" Bush defenders might insist that there is a clear answer to question one: foster a free and a stable Iraq. But that still leaves unanswered what problems must be overcome to get there, and in that respect it must be acknowledged that if the US troops are in fact to proactively work toward that end they must accomplish three jobs: 1)end the violent ethnic cleansing campaign being waged by Shi'ite militias; 2)defeat the Sunni insurgency; 3)dislodge the foreign jihadists.

Once one acknowledges that US troops in Iraq are faced with three jobs, not one, it soon becomes clear that they will not be able to accomplish any of them by staying in Iraq. The first job of ending the Shi'ite ethnic cleansing campaign is manifestly beyond the strategic reach of US forces. This weeks' standoff between CentCom and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki makes clear a trend that has become increasingly evident these past months- the US military does not have the full cooperation of the Iraqi government in its anti-militia operations, an obstruction which will preclude success in those endeavors.

The second job of defeating the Sunni insurgency is also out of reach of US forces as they are currently deployed, a fact that US Centcom itself acknowledges. This is the crux of the "stand up, stand down" policy- only when the Iraqi Army and police reach full combat readiness, so goes the Bush strategy, will there be enough troops in place to defeat the insurgency. But as the length of the Iraq conflict draws even with that of the US participation in WWII the proposition that more time will yield more or better Iraqi soldiers grows increasingly absurd. By now a significant number of US soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad had never fired a weapon prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unless an Iraqi for some reasons requires 3 or 4 times as much training as an American to be made into a soldier more time on the current tack is not going to create a significant change in the strategic trajectory of the counterinsurgency.

With regards to jobs 1 and 2 the plain fact is that they will only be accomplished by the withdrawal, not the continued deployment of US troops. Iraqi soldiers will only begin to make headway against the Sunni insurgency when they have true strategic and tactical autonomy. As long as the Iraqi Army remains dependent on the air, armor and artillery support of the US military the denizens of the Sunni triangle will continue to tacitly support the insurgents. Only when it has its own tanks, planes and guns will the Sunnis view the Iraqi Army as a serious and permanent force with which they are compelled to deal, and only then will a negotiated resolution to the Sunni insurgency be achievable.
In the same vein, the Iraqi government and army will never feel compelled to deal politically with the problem of the Shi'ite militias as long as the US military remains to shield them from the consequences of their neglect. Only as the US withdraws and Iraqi authorities are forced to weigh the competing priorities of defusing the Sunni insurgency and placating the Shi'ite militias against one-another will the Iraqi government and army move aggressively to disarm groups like the Mahdi Army.

In many American assessments of the Iraq war, job number 3 is the "clincher" concern that compels the US to keep its troops in Iraq despite all other reasons to withdraw. The foreign jihadists now based in Iraq are lethal enemies of the US, and it would be disastrous if they could ever develop a stable base in Iraq from which they could plan and launch 9/11-type attacks against US soil. As real as that concern is, it must be viewed against two factors:

1)Keeping US troops in Iraq to hunt down jihadists is simply not a tactically viable mission. US Centcom estimates that foreign jihadists make up 5-7% of the insurgency,thus asking our troops to hunt them in the vast expanse and dense society of the Sunni triangle and Baghdad is effectively sending them after a needle in a haystack. More concretely, we would be sending our soldiers to search for the needle with a flamethrower, and the "hay" in which it was hidden would be the Iraqi people. With so few boots on the ground and so little intelligence-gathering assets in place the only thing our troops could accomplish would be to further anger and alienate the Iraqis and thus make the very terrain in which they were operating more dangerous for themselves and more welcoming to the jihadists.

2)The history of Iraq shows that the ONLY condition that gives the jihadists any purchase in Iraq is the presence of US soldiers. As long as a critical mass of Iraqi society is angered at the US presence in Iraq the jihadists' suicidal malevolence makes them welcome allies of anti-Coalition forces. If and when the US pulls out, however, the jihadists' militancy for an Islamic state and their willingness to provoke foreign nations to further ideological ends will make their welcome in the relatively secular and nationalist society of Sunni Iraq expire very quickly.

Again, the plain fact is that the jihadists have us right where they want us. As long as US soldiers remain in Iraq the jihadists' toehold in Iraqi society remains firm, once the US leaves the Iraqis will pass them like a kidney stone. Bush critics who want to defuse the political efficacy of Bush's rhetoric must expose the rotten logical foundations upon which it rests. The one card the US has left to play to get anything like "the job" done in Iraq is a staged withdrawal, and the longer the US waits to begin that strategy the lower its prospects of success will sink.