Interesting, But Doomed
Why Petraeus' intriguing new Iraq strategy will probably fail.
Judging from the New York Times' July 24 sneak preview, the new strategy for the war in Iraq—the eagerly awaited plan that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have promised to deliver this September—seems ambitious and intriguing, but confusing in concept and highly impractical.
If the U.S. military had, say, 100,000 more troops to send and another 10 years to keep them there; if the Iraqi security forces (especially the Iraqi police) were as skilled and, more important, as loyal to the Iraqi nation (as opposed to their ethnic sects) as many had hoped they would be by now; if the Iraqi government were a governing entity, as opposed to a ramshackle assemblage that can barely form a quorum—then maybe, maybe, this plan might have a chance.
But under the circumstances, it seems unlikely. One officer who's familiar with Iraq planning put it this way to me: "No one who understands the situation is optimistic. I think the division among those who have thought deeply about the situation is mainly between those who are still fighting and trying to influence the outcome and those who have concluded that the principal objective must now become disengagement."
According to Michael Gordon's Times story, the plan envisions two phases. As he puts it:
The "near-term" goal is to achieve "localized security" in Baghdad and other areas no later than June 2008. It envisions encouraging political accommodations at the local level, including with former insurgents, while pressing Iraq's leaders to make headway on their program of national reconciliation.
The "intermediate" goal is to stitch together such local arrangements to establish a broader sense of security on a nationwide basis no later than June 2009.
Quite apart from the question of these deadlines (how were they calculated? what if they're not met?), the whole premise seems dubious.
First, to define "localized security" as including "Baghdad and other areas" is to finesse the major challenge. Securing Baghdad and securing "other areas" have long been considered two separate goals. The former involves pacifying the capital, to give the national politicians enough "breathing room" to make their deals. The latter involves keeping the rest of the country—or at least the major cities—sufficiently secure that democratic politics can function from the ground up as well as from the top down. Ever since late last year, when President Bush ordered the "surge" and hired Gen. Petraeus to create a counterinsurgency strategy, the plan has involved securing the capital and the provinces simultaneously.
The problem—a familiar one—is that we don't have enough troops to do this all at once. No one who has seriously analyzed the problem ever believed that a "surge" of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. combat troops would be sufficient. It was assumed from the outset that at least two or three times that many would have to come from the Iraqi army (whose soldiers, furthermore, would have to take the lead in many operations) and the Iraqi police (who would need to maintain order once the troops seized new territory).
Yet Iraqi forces have not materialized in anything like the necessary numbers. Many army units are infiltrated with sectarian militiamen. Many, if not most, police units are thoroughly corrupted.
The second, "intermediate" phase of the plan is more intriguing, but ultimately unpersuasive. For a few months now, U.S. field commanders have formed alliances with Sunni tribesmen, especially in Anbar province, for the common goal of crushing jihadists. The new plan, as the Times puts it, is "to stitch together such local arrangements to establish a broader sense of security on a nationwide basis."
But in these alliances, we're dealing with tribesmen who are cooperating with us for a common goal. It is not at all clear on what basis these various local Sunni factions can be stitched together into some seamless security quilt—or why, because they've agreed to help us kill jihadists, they might suddenly agree to stop killing Shiites, compromise their larger ambitions, redirect their passions into peaceful politics, and settle into a minority party's status within a unified government.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Gen. David Petraeus by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.