Why Petraeus' intriguing new Iraq strategy is probably doomed.

Military analysis.
July 25 2007 5:51 PM

Interesting, But Doomed

Why Petraeus' intriguing new Iraq strategy will probably fail.

Gen. David Petraeus. Click image to expand.
Gen. David Petraeus

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.

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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.

Alliances of convenience rarely outlive their immediate aims. Josef Stalin formed an alliance with the United States and Britain for the purpose of defeating Nazi Germany. But once the war was over, he had no interest in integrating the Soviet Union into the Western economic system.

The idea of extending the alliances may have come, in part, from Stephen Biddle, a military historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who, according to the Times, was a member of the "Joint Strategic Assessment Team" that helped conceive the new U.S. strategy.

In a July 12 interview at the Council, conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, Biddle said that the only way to secure all of Iraq is "to negotiate a series of cease-fire deals with Iraq's current combatants in which, even though they retain the ability to fight, they decide it's in their own self-interest to … decline to fight."

He referred to Anbar as "a model" for this concept, and added, "There are now similar negotiations ongoing in a variety of other places around Iraq." In Anbar, he said, the alliance "dropped into our lap"; the Sunni sheiks came to us and asked for help. "If it's going to happen elsewhere, we're going to have to take a more proactive role. … We have to start using the military not as a device to secure everything uniformly but as a device for creating incentives and disincentives—sticks and carrots—to push along the process of local cease-fires with particular factions." For instance, he said, we would have to tell each faction: "We will defend you if you cooperate; if you don't cooperate, we will attack you."

Biddle is a very smart strategist. His writings on the Afghanistan war were shrewdly reasoned and diligently researched, and his book, Military Power, is a modern classic. But I'm puzzled by his idea here. The deals with the Sunni sheiks are explicitly opportunistic. Assuming that the alliances of convenience whip the jihadists, there is nothing preventing the Sunnis and Shiites (and Americans) from going back to killing one another.

Some set of "sticks and carrots" could conceivably extend the alliances of convenience into a sustained cease-fire of normal democratic politics. But if so, the deal would have to be hammered out by a recognized government in Baghdad. Neither Gen. Petraeus nor Ambassador Crocker (nor, for that matter, President Bush) has the political authority to make such a deal—much less the military firepower to enforce it.

It is worth noting that Biddle himself has serious doubts about the whole notion. In his interview with Gwertzman, he said the odds that the surge and the new strategy might work—that is, that they might produce "something like stability and security in Iraq"—are "maybe one in 10."

Whether those odds are worth gambling on, he said, depends on whether you're averse or prone to risk. Biddle described himself as risk-averse. Therefore, if the decision was up to him, he'd pull the troops out. President Bush, he said, "is clearly very tolerant of risk." And so he's pouring more in.

Here are the stakes, as Biddle sees them. If the United States pulls out, Iraq's sectarian warfare would probably intensify. If the United States stays in and the surge continues, Iraqi violence might be contained, but 700 to 1,000 more American soldiers will probably die each year—and there will be only a one in 10 chance that the strategy will succeed (by rather minimal standards of success).

So, this is the question: Is the price worth the gamble? Bush has put more chips on the table, fully aware of the odds. Will the members of Congress keep bankrolling him? How risk-prone are they? And, ultimately, how much risk will the American voters feel like swallowing when they go to the polls next fall?

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