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.