By misrepresenting the facts, misunderstanding Iraq, and leading the war effort badly, this administration has brought us to the verge of a national-security debacle. Many Americans—including some of the country’s most respected voices on military matters, such as Congressman Jack Murtha—have now concluded that we cannot salvage Iraq, that bringing our forces home as soon as possible is the only option. They are mindful of the terrible consequences of withdrawing. But it would be even worse, in their judgment, to leave Americans to fight—and to die—in Iraq with no strategy for success.
I share their frustration. But like Barry Posen I believe that we can still preserve our fundamental security interests in Iraq as we begin to redeploy our forces. That will require an immediate change of course by the administration, a change that needs to start at home. The difference between the administration’s rhetoric and the reality in Iraq has opened a huge credibility chasm. The president needs to explain his strategy in detail and report regularly on both its progress and its problems.
The president’s recent series of speeches on Iraq and the release of a so-called victory plan was a start. The president seems to recognize that he has a lot of work to do to regain the trust of the American people. For the first time, the president acknowledged some of the serious mistakes his administration has made in Iraq, which have set back an already difficult mission. He also stated more accurately the serious obstacles we still face and defined what he hopes to achieve.
But while the president did a better job of laying out where we are and where we are trying to go, he failed to provide any detail about how and when we are going to get there. That is why the American people remain unconvinced that he has a strategy for success in Iraq. To overcome their understandable skepticism, the president should first scale down his grandiose goals. Iraq will not become a model democracy anytime soon. We need to refocus our mission on preserving two fundamental American interests in Iraq: ensuring that it does not become a haven for terrorists and preventing a full-blown civil war that turns into a regional war.
To accomplish this more limited mission and begin to redeploy our troops responsibly, we must make significant, measurable progress toward three goals—political, administrative, and military—over the next six months.
First, we need to build a political consensus in Iraq, starting with a constitution that gives the Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis a stake in keeping Iraq together. Iraq cannot be salvaged by military might alone. In October, Iraqis approved a version of the constitution overwhelmingly. But the vast majority of Sunni Arabs voted no. Unless changes are made by next spring, the new constitution will divide Iraqis, not unite them. Change will require compromise from all sides. Sunnis must accept the fact that they no longer rule Iraq. But unless the Shia and Kurds give them a stake in the new order, they will continue to resist it. If we fail to forge a political consensus soon, our troops will be dragged into a full-blown civil war.
Building consensus will require an international full-court press. The Bush administration was AWOL until the arrival of Ambassador Khalilzad this past summer. As the new Iraqi government begins to amend the draft constitution, we need to be fully engaged. Our ambassador can’t be the only one in the room cajoling the Iraqis to compromise. We need a regional strategy that persuades Iraq’s neighbors to wield their influence with the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. They will do it, because no one other than the terrorists has an interest in Iraq descending into civil war. The major powers also have a stake in a peaceful Iraq. Europe has unintegrated Muslim populations that are vulnerable to the influence of Middle Eastern extremists. India and China need stable oil supplies. Our allies must get over bruised feelings and help forge a political consensus, and we must get over our reluctance to fully involve them. I have called repeatedly for a regional strategy and an international contact group to become Iraq’s primary international interlocutor. So have three former Republican secretaries of state—Shultz, Kissinger, and Powell. As in the Balkans and Afghanistan, organized, sustained international engagement can make all the difference. But it will only happen if America leads.
Second, we need government ministries in Iraq that work and provide basic services. Right now, raw sewage is in too many streets. Lights are on less than half the day. The water isn’t safe to drink in too many homes. Unemployment rates are around 40 percent. If 40 percent of Iraqis have no job and no hope, the insurgency will always find fresh recruits.
The Bush administration finally seems to understand the need to build up the government’s capacity. But there aren’t enough civilian experts in Iraq to do the job. We need a civilian commitment in Iraq equal to our military one. I recommend that the president and secretary of state consider ordering staff to Baghdad if there are shortages. The dedication and courage of the foreign service officers I’ve met on my six trips to Iraq is extraordinary. They will take the toughest assignments if we ask them. But this should not be their burden alone. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Blair proposed that individual countries be partnered with Iraqi ministries. It is a good idea, but it got a lukewarm reception. We should revive it.
The U.S. administration is creating “provincial reconstruction teams,” modeled on the joint civil-military effort in Afghanistan, that will focus on getting local governments in Iraq to deliver services. That is long overdue—and it is not enough. We should step up our recruiting of civilian experts for the reconstruction teams.
And we need to get countries to deliver on the assistance they have pledged to Iraq—just $3 billion of the $13 billion in non-American assistance has been delivered—and to pledge more. The president should convene a conference with our Gulf allies. These countries have seen huge windfall oil profits at our expense. We have gone to war twice in the past decade to preserve their security. They need to step up and give back.
The third goal is to build Iraqi security forces that can provide law and order in neighborhoods, defeat insurgents, and isolate and eliminate foreign jihadis over time. With the arrival of General David Patreaus in June 2004 we finally started a training program worthy of its name, and now we are also starting to get some straight talk on numbers. In September General Casey said that, two and half years into the training program, one battalion—less than 1,000 troops—can operate independently. Another 40 battalions or so can lead counterinsurgency operations with American support. General Patreaus’s overhauled training program created much greater professionalism. But training takes time. And just as it was getting on track, the administration reassigned General Patreaus back home. That was a mistake.
We also need to accelerate our training efforts, but not at the expense of quality. We should urge Iraq to accept offers from France, Egypt, and other countries to train more troops and police—especially at the officer level—outside as well as inside Iraq. If embedding more Americans with more Iraqi units would do the job, do it. We should devote whatever resources are necessary to develop the capacity of Iraq’s security ministries. Even the most capable troops will not make a difference if they cannot be supplied, sustained, and directed. And we must focus our efforts on the police, who are lagging behind. Establishing law and order through a competent police force is as important for Iraqis as defeating insurgents is for us.
Finally, we need an effective approach to counterinsurgency. Until recently we have not had one. Our forces would clean out a town, then move to the next hornet’s nest, and the insurgents would return. The administration finally seems to understand the need not only to clear territory, but to hold it and build on it. The critical question is: who will do most of the clearing and the holding?
In the past, I argued that we needed more American troops in Iraq for exactly that purpose and to prevent the security vacuum that has been filled by former Baathists, foreign fighters, and common criminals. But the time for a large number of additional American troops is past. What we need now is a different mix, with more embedded trainers, civil-affairs units, and special forces. And what we will have to do now is rely on the Iraqis to take on the brunt of the security mission. The hard truth is that our large presence—while still the only check against chaos—also is increasingly part of the problem. Our failure to bring security and real improvements to Iraqis’ lives has fueled frustration. The liberation is increasingly felt as an occupation. And, as Posen suggests, we risk creating a culture of dependency, especially among Iraqi security forces.
Finally, even if adding more troops still made sense, we don’t have more to give. In fact, we cannot sustain what we have now beyond next spring unless we extend deployment times beyond 12 months, send soldiers back on fifth and sixth tours, or pull forces from other regions. That is why it is virtually certain that we will withdraw a significant number of forces from Iraq in 2006—as many as 60,000—and a similar number will follow in 2007. Perhaps—and here I may part company from Posen—20,000 to 40,000 Americans will stay in Iraq or in neighboring countries for some time after that to continue training and equipping the Iraqis, to keep Iraq’s neighbors honest, and to form a rapid-reaction force to prevent terrorists from establishing a permanent base in Iraq.
If that redeployment is accompanied by measurable progress in forging a political settlement, building real Iraqi governing capacity, and transferring control to effective Iraqi security forces, we can start the journey home from Iraq with our fundamental interests intact. But if we fail to implement the plan I have described, our two basic national interests in Iraq will be thwarted: Iraq will become what it was not before the war—a terrorist training ground—and we will see a full-blown civil war that could become a regional war. If that happens, nothing we can do will salvage Iraq.
I believe that we can start climbing out of the hole the administration has dug and start to leave Iraq with our interests intact. Iraqis of all sects want to live in a stable country. Iraq’s neighbors don’t want a civil war. The major powers don’t want a terrorist haven in the heart of the Middle East. And the American people badly want us to succeed. If the administration listens, if it levels, and if it leads, it can still redeem their faith.