Can we avoid catastrophe in Iraq?

Military analysis.
Aug. 13 2004 1:25 PM

No Way Out

Is there any hope of avoiding catastrophe in Iraq?

No solutions in sight
No solutions in sight

This is a terribly grim thing to say, but there might be no solution to the problem of Iraq. There might be nothing we can do to build a path to a stable, secure, let alone democratic regime. And there's no way we can just pull out without plunging the country, the region, and possibly beyond into still deeper disaster.

Much as the Bush administration hoped otherwise, the fighting didn't stop—or so much as turn a corner—after sovereignty passed from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the new government of Iraq. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made a fine speech on the occasion about dealing with the insurgency, especially the need to isolate the foreign jihadists from the homegrown rebels who simply don't like being occupied. But the distinction has turned out to be muddy, and it will remain so until Allawi demonstrates he deserves their loyalty—that is, until he proves that he's independent from his American benefactors and competent at restoring basic services.

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Meanwhile, the U.S. military—the only force in Iraq remotely capable of keeping the country from falling apart—finds itself in a maddening situation where tactical victories yield strategic setbacks. The Marines could readily defeat the insurgents in Najaf, but only at the great risk of inflaming Shiites—and sparking still larger insurgencies—elsewhere. In the Sadr City section of Baghdad, as U.S. commanders acknowledge, practically every resident is an insurgent.

There are not enough U.S. and British troops now to create the conditions for order. Nor are there likely to be any time soon.

John Kerry says that, if elected president, he'd persuade our allies—the ones Bush blew off—to come help (or bail) us out. Kerry would certainly be an abler diplomat than Bush; he would repair tattered alliances, and the benefits would likely be substantial in many aspects of international politics. But it's unclear how even Kerry would lure reluctant leaders to send significant numbers of combat troops into what they see as the quagmire of Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration seems to be muddling through with neither a military strategy for beating the insurgents nor a political strategy for securing Iraq's stability.

Bush seems to have gone into this war without any notion that he was popping the lid off a Jack-in-a-box—that toppling Saddam and destroying the Baath Party (however laudable) would also uncork decades of pent-up ethnic and tribal tensions. If his advisers were better briefed, they took no steps to quell the likely postwar conflicts. They didn't send more troops to keep order (either in defiance or in ignorance of historic precedent). More to the point here, they didn't seek out the various ethnic leaders or offer them incentives to join a new political order. They didn't, for that matter, formulate a new political order. (Perhaps they thought Ahmad Chalabi had that department under control.)

The trick of a stable Iraq is to find some way of accommodating the ambitions and insecurities of Sunni Arabs, secular Shiites, religious Shiites, and Kurds. Nobody has figured out a way to do this yet.

Some analysts, most notably Peter Galbraith and Leslie Gelb, have advocated a "three-state solution." Iraq, after all, was an artificeof the British Empire from its very birth in the land-grabbing wake of World War I. Why not undo the monstrous deed and sever the conjoined triplets into separate beings? Partition has its abstract appeal, but it's a recipe for creating three weak states, and it would probably spark a civil or regional war. Iraq's oil is concentrated in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south; the Sunnis in the center would get nothing from the deal and thus would fight it. They could expect aid in this fight from the Saudis, who, if nothing else, would want to stem expansionist Iran, which would no doubt aim to dominate the Shiites (Iran's making political incursions even now). Meanwhile, the Kurds would come under pressure from Turkey, which would get nervous about the example being set for its own Kurdish residents; Turkey might be encouraged in this pressure by northern Iraq's large Turkmen population, which would chomp at Kurdish rule. (To be fair, Galbraith endorses a "loose federation," not three distinct states, but the problems and regional dynamics would be only slightly less severe; it's doubtful that our own Articles of Confederation could have survived such pressures, and Muqtada Sadr is no Thomas Paine.)

Iraq will have to find its own political arrangement; an imposed solution like MacArthur's Japan—an analogy in which some sought solace before the war—is no longer in the cards, if it ever was. However, before Iraq can have politics, it must have basic order. Which leads back to the opening question: Is there a solution?

Professor Juan Cole, whose blog remains essential for tracking events in Iraq, has an idea, though he admits its chances of success are remote. He thinks that, with the right mix of incentives, Russia and France might be persuaded to send troops. One key would be to play on their commercial ambitions. Give both countries—and any others—favored status to bid on vital contracts. Iraq's oil reserves alone might prove tempting. The other key would be to turn over the occupation, including its military command, to an outside entity: NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League—anything, as long as the general in charge is not an American. This would be a particularly difficult step. In all other multilateral peacekeeping operations involving U.S. troops, the military component has been kept under U.S. command. Yet the undisputable fact is that no outsider will send troops to Iraq if the United States remains in charge there.

Historical analyses suggest that at least 300,000—possibly as many as 500,000—troops are needed to impose order in Iraq. Fewer than half that many U.S. and British troops are currently stationed there, and neither country has many armed forces to spare. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, is training a new Iraqi army (much of which amounts to re-recruiting the less tainted members of the old Iraqi army), but that project will take a few years to bear fruit, and it's questionable, in any case, whether Iraqis would shoot their own. (Cole notes that, during last spring's aborted offensive in Fallujah, the local police chief told the U.S. Marines that his men would not attack the native insurgents. More recently, nearly all 4,000 Iraqi security forces in Najaf defected to Muqtada Sadr's army.)

Even if our re-energized allies agreed to send more troops, they would be but a beginning, a holding action, and who knows how long they'd have to stay? What kind of country Iraq becomes, what kind of politics it practices, what kind of alliances it forms—all are mysteries. You don't hear Paul Wolfowitz waxing lyrical these days, as he did a year ago, over the universal truths of Alexis de Tocqueville. Even he must realize that the best we can hope for, at this point, is an Iraq that doesn't blow up and take the region with it. The dismaying, frightening thing is how imponderably difficult it will be simply to avoid catastrophe.

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