Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
Success in Iraq will come when Americans and Iraqis have arrived at a relationship that each side can sustain for the long haul, one durable enough to ride out political change in both societies. The future of Iraq can vitally affect America. But Iraq is still going through a revolution. Americans helped start that revolution. Iraqis must complete it. They will do so in a form we cannot easily foresee.
Therefore, amid all the attention to the “surge”, Americans and Iraqis have adopted a more effective strategy. While it systematically applies best practices across the country, and does so with more resources, including more troops, it is also more diversified and decentralized in the way it adapts to local politics. The Iraq war is not one conflict. It is a number of different wars, at least five or six. Each has different combatants, different political and tactical challenges.
Depending on the location, there are Sunni-on-Sunni factional fights and Shi‘a-on-Shi‘a; there is a special operations-led fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq; and there is simmering tension between Arab and Kurd. It is a war in a desert village or a dense, tense mixed neighborhood in Baghdad. Thus, while the Iraq war is discussed in generalizations, it is actually lived and fought in local communities and neighborhoods. It is driven mainly by local politics, local conditions, local leaders and field-grade officers—captains and majors. Intelligence is critical and, although the United States has used technical intelligence to offset weaknesses, key intelligence in the local fight comes from local people—ordinary citizens, informants, and captives interrogated quickly and shrewdly.
While a more effective strategy in Iraq has yielded improvements there, the other half of the strategy—a durable political foundation in Washington—is still missing. The United States cannot accomplish anything lasting unless Iraqi partners—and Iraqi adversaries—believe the Americans will stay around and stay relevant. A sustainable Iraq strategy must include a sustainable political bargain back home.
The old strategy before the end of 2006 was a profoundly conflicted exit strategy. It tried to train Iraqis and fix Iraqi public administration from the center out. Local brigade commanders improvised strategies to manage their areas of responsibility. Some argued for souping up this failing strategy with fixed timetables for exit, formal benchmarks for Iraqi central government actions and expanded, but still undifferentiated, training efforts.
Instead, some officials, including Secretary Rice, began pressing for what she first called a “clear, hold and build” approach (in October 2005), drawing on different principles of counterinsurgency strategy and pressing for a redoubled commitment of resources to make the new strategy work. Unfortunately, though the rhetoric changed, the underlying approach did not until, in the second half of 2006, President Bush finally changed the strategy, changed the leadership at the Pentagon, and changed his team in Baghdad.
The surge that began in early 2007 came at least a year too late, but may have been just in time. The current effort:
bets less on political reconciliation at the center, de-emphasizing Green Zone politics in favor of more focus on provinces and local communities—fixing politics and administration from the outside in rather than from the center out;
maintains high-tempo operations against al-Qaeda while complementing them with harder-hitting operations against the most dangerous Shi‘a factions (and their Iranian support networks);
tries harder to make “clear, hold and build” a reality, applying “best practices” from places like Tal Afar (2005) and Ramadi (2006–07) more systematically and purposefully across the whole command;
is backed not only with more troops but also with a greatly expanded and reconfigured use of civilian Provincial Reconstruction Teams;
smothers the fires of sectarian violence enough that Iraqi leaders can regain their footing and have a chance to find more effective ways of governing, one neighborhood and community at a time.
The Iraqi essence of the new strategy is to figure out how the United States should protect its interests by leveraging its assets rather than trying to exert direct control. The U.S. domestic essence of a new strategy is to construct a bipartisan consensus to sustain it. Getting the domestic side right helps in Iraq, since otherwise the Iraqis will not be able to figure out whether or how the United States will be involved in years to come.
Such a long-haul vision should have four ingredients. First, the U.S. government should define American interests, and be willing to define them narrowly. Americans should not, and will not, put our people at terrible risk in Iraq in order to sort out other people’s fights. There was once a time when America and its allies could have brought order to the Hobbesian state of nature that overcame Iraq, playing the role of Leviathan. It is now too late for that. But many American leaders in both parties do see a few vital requirements, which can be expressed this way:
prevent Iraq from becoming a sanctuary for significant Islamist terror operations beyond Iraq;
preserve the independence of Iraq and, if possible, keep it from becoming the battleground for regional war;
prevent, as best we can, any return to a dangerous tyranny of the kind that, in the past, led the region into a generation of ruinous war.
It is tempting to define our interests more expansively. But the price of political satisfaction can be high, and trade-offs should be identified and faced up front.
Second, the U.S. government should advance American interests with capabilities and conditionality. To leverage American power over the long haul, the United States should retain, or even build up, credible, significant capabilities to help friends and harm deadly enemies. And U.S. officials must have the authority, will and skill to employ these capabilities in a highly conditional, political way. Discarding the façade of unenforceable formal benchmarks, the U.S. government should instead start employing real, hardball conditionality in practice, differentiated down to the level of individual agencies and units, and including a willingness to cut off basic security and logistic support to elements that do not deserve American help.
The current surge led by General David Petraeus has helped. American forces and their Iraqi partners are clearing and temporarily holding some areas. In other areas American forces are clearing but are unable to stay behind and consolidate gains. Though sectarian fighting has diminished, the ingredients for renewed conflict, or even civil war, are still present. If fighting gets worse again, the United States will still need to find a way to protect its interests.
After all, Iraqis must ultimately decide how they will live with and treat other Iraqis. They will do this in accord with their values, not ours. Americans can influence Iraqi choices at the margin, with advice and by example. But the United States must limit its responsibility and accountability for choices it ultimately cannot, and should not, control.
Ironically, where it steps back, the United States can gain leverage, precisely because it is not trying to do the job regardless of Iraqi choices. America can retain very powerful and valued capabilities to make things happen in Iraq, and its help will be sought by leaders in all the major communities, not because they love us, but because our help can help them preserve their own power and independence.
Third, the U.S. government should deploy its reduced presence to strengthen engagement with regional and local communities. Some, recognizing the significance of local authorities, have called for the partition of Iraq, either a hard, formal partition or a soft, informal one. If there is a partition, someone must take on the job of being partitioners, wielding knives to cut up the country. I cannot state too strongly that the United States should not advocate partition or wield a carving knife. It is up to Iraq’s leaders, not Americans, to determine the relevance of their central government to the day-to-day realities of Iraqi renewal in local communities. The job for U.S. policy is to design a policy that can adapt to those choices, whatever they may be.
Fourth, the U.S. government should secure Iraqi and American lifelines with a major effort, including a diplomatic effort, to unblock the arteries in the north.
The United States is now preparing the transition from the existing UN authorizations for the Coalition military presence to bilateral status-of-forces understandings, formal or informal. It is time to think hard about the longer-term deployment and basing of a U.S. presence. The current shape is unsatisfactory.
Iraqi and Coalition lifelines are dangerously misaligned. The lifeblood of the country passes almost exclusively through the south. This is the least secure, most vulnerable portion of Iraq. Yet it is not sufficient just to call for putting a U.S. base in the north. A longer-term U.S. presence in the Kurdish region can best happen only if synchronized with solutions to several puzzles, a kind of Sudoku puzzle of diplomacy. In the different boxes of the puzzle are:
agreement on the contours of the “green line”—the limits of an autonomous Kurdish region, addressing the future of the province of Kirkuk (possibly redrawing that province’s boundaries) and Mosul/Ninewa;
expectations for anti-PKK efforts by the Kurdistan Regional government, Turkey and the United States;
a stronger Kurdish-Shi‘a understanding on economic development, control of money as it comes in, and Baghdad’s share;
future U.S. basing in the north.
This northern strategy is thus part of a broader concept of how Iraq can evolve as the U.S. role becomes less important to Iraq’s internal stability.
There is still an essential “Green Zone” piece to such a localized vision. If Iraq holds together, it will be—at least at first—as a kind of confederation in fact if not in name. This confederation will be in transition either to a stronger federal state or to further decomposition. The critical variable in that story will probably be the outcome of ongoing struggles inside the governing Shi‘a majority.
In this transitional period, the central government can hold the “confederation” together and strengthen its parts, if it can effectively: (1) allocate its money (and it has a lot); (2) hold together or even build up the petroleum sector; and (3) work the big political deals that still need to be made with the North (including the fate of Ninewa/Mosul, not just Kirkuk) between the emerging new Sunni leaders and Shi‘a leaders in the South.
The upcoming election campaign will naturally include its share of arguments about America’s past and present policies in Iraq. But another surge will be needed, of conceptual creativity and clarity about American interests and diplomatic agility, to gain the victory that so many Americans and Iraqis have suffered and bled to achieve.