Stephen Biddle, CFR’s top military analyst on Iraq, says none of the various “middle-ground” proposals on Iraq are feasible. He says the only analytically sound alternatives are to either pull out now, or to stick with a revamped “surge.” The U.S. policy of seeking cease-fire deals in places like Anbar is working, Biddle says, but adds that it only has a “ten-to-one” chance of succeeding.
Washington is a hotbed of discussion these days about ways of changing policy in Iraq, or getting out of Iraq immediately, or within a stated timeframe. Of all the choices out there, what do you think the United States should be doing now?
Either extreme in the policy debate has a stronger case on the merits than any of the options in between.
Please explain what you call “the extremes.”
You can arrange the proposals that people have made for Iraq on a spectrum. If you want to use a right-left traditional ideological metaphor, on the extreme right you’ve got the president’s surge. On the extreme left, you’ve got proposals for cutting our losses and withdrawing altogether. In between these two extremes, you’ve got a collection of moderate centrist alternatives, most of which cut the U.S. troops out substantially and then assign some different and less demanding mission to the troops that are left. For example, many of these proposals would call for us to stop waging combat actions in Iraq, and instead pull out of Iraq cities and into safe areas in the desert and train the Iraqi military for combat. Or, they would call on us to pull out of Iraq cities, set up in big bases in the desert and then go fight al-Qaeda. Or we would pull back to the big bases in the desert and defend Iraq’s borders from intervention by its neighbors and help stanch the flow of refugees out of Iraq and into the neighboring countries.
Or, they would pull us back to Kurdistan and the Shiite south, and have us defend the oil fields, and ignore the sectarian fighting in the center of the country. There’s this collection of in-between proposals that involve many fewer troops than the president’s surge, but many more than a complete pullout. The politics of the war in the United States right now is driving lots of lawmakers to want something in the middle. They know the president’s surge is unpopular—the polls run something like two-to-one against the surge among the public at large. But at the same time they’re also not ready to cut losses and withdraw because politically that looks like an admission of defeat.
Is there a problem with this?
The middle-ground military missions tend to be very problematic on military grounds. It’s very hard to find something for troops that are half of today’s levels to do that is simultaneously safe and useful. And yet, while they’re not being useful, there are still tens of thousands of them left in the country to act as targets. So you end up with this kind of worst-of-both-worlds situation where you have too few troops to do anything useful but too many to cover casualties all the way to zero.
Am I wrong to infer that you agree with sticking with the surge for a while and altering perhaps its military targets? Or am I wrong and you prefer an early withdrawal?
If I were in the Senate and I had to cast the vote and I couldn’t be an academic, I would vote for outright withdrawal. The consequences of a U.S. withdrawal are potentially very grave. Not only do you get a humanitarian disaster in Iraq as the violence spirals in our absence, but you also get a serious risk the war could spread and engulf the entire region with major security consequences—all of them negative to the United States. Given that, what the surge represents in my view is a real long-shot chance to try and avert those negative consequences at the cost of incurring seven hundred to one thousand American fatalities a year. The odds of that long shot hitting the jackpot and producing something like stability and security in Iraq are low. It’s hard to attach numbers to these sorts of things, but maybe one in ten to give you a ballpark estimate. As an analyst, I can’t tell you the one-in-ten long shot to prevent a catastrophe is a good idea or a bad idea.
It depends on whether you’re the type of person that vacations in Las Vegas or not. What is your personal tolerance for risk? Do you invest in common stock or in bonds? The president is clearly very tolerant of risk, and he clearly prefers the surge. If you’re risk averse, your subjective risk assessment is going to be, “I’d rather cut my losses because I’m probably going to get the negative consequences either way, but at least if I cut my losses I don’t have to pay the seven hundred to one thousand American fatalities.” As an analyst, I can’t tell you one makes sense and the other does not. What I can do as an analyst is tell you the in-between options are not as good.
Let’s stop and consider the surge option which you say the president prefers. Is there a way of altering that option in some way that would be more productive than it is now?
It’s important first to establish what it is now, because that’s actually changing and I’m not sure that it’s well understood in the public debate on the war. The surge is a small piece of a strategy. There’s a troop count but it doesn’t tell you what those troops are going to do. One of the challenges of assessing the war at the moment is that the rest of the strategy has been in a state of change over the last six months. The joint campaign plan under which the war had been conducted is mostly a holdover from [former Commander in Iraq Gen. William] Casey until very, very recently. The new campaign plan has been taking shape over a series of months. So not only have the troops arrived very recently, but the surge built slowly at the rate of a brigade a month and was only completed in June. The strategy that Casey had been following and the strategy that people had been talking about casually early in [Commander in Iraq Gen. David] Petraeus’ term struck me as very unlikely to succeed.
What was that strategy?
That strategy had an emphasis on using the American troops to clear neighborhoods of militias and insurgents, create security there, and then move on to the next neighborhood. Iraqi forces would fill in behind us and hold what we’ve cleared. That strategy had some serious problems. We don’t have enough U.S. troops to provide enough population security across the whole of Iraq—there are just way too few Americans to do that. So you’re dependant on having proficient, capable, effective Iraqis come in behind you and hold what you’ve taken. I don’t think that’s in the cards anytime soon. The Iraqi security forces are too sectarian for that and they’re going to be like that for a long time.
If the additional troops are going to accomplish anything so that you could manage even the one-in-ten chance I talked about earlier, they have to be used in a way that will bring about security across the whole country without requiring either American defenders or nonsectarian Iraqis on every street corner in the country. There aren’t going to be enough of either of those two to do that anytime soon. I think the only way we’re going to get that security across the whole country without an American or nonsectarian Iraqi on every street corner is if we are able 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 sign a cease-fire deal and decline to fight although they are undestroyed and unconquered.
We need to do that with individual Iraqi forces bilaterally because the central political representation is Baghdad isn’t strong enough to do the negotiating on behalf of the local community. The only way we’re going to get that is if we are using our resources efficiently to create sticks and carrots to encourage individual factions to agree to a cease-fire deal. If it’s going to work, we’re going to have to start making our behavior conditional. We will defend you if you cooperate, if you don’t cooperate we will attack you.
That’s what U.S. troops are doing in Anbar province now, right?
That’s where I’m going with this. There is a model for this working, and it’s in Anbar. That Anbar model is spreading around the country. There are now similar negotiations ongoing in a variety of other places around Iraq. We were quite lucky in Anbar—it dropped into our lap. We didn’t suggest this. The sheiks in Anbar came up with this idea and went to us and asked us to support it, and we said “Gosh, yes, we’re in favor of that.” If it’s going to happen elsewhere, we’re going to have to take a more proactive role. Note that this is a very different use of the U.S. military than had been the case before. 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.
You said [earlier] you’d prefer the pullout to the surge, but it’s not clear to me why you prefer the pullout.
I’m not as risk tolerant as the president. It’s a personality issue, it’s nothing that determinable from the facts about Iraq. You could tell me, “No, I want to take the risk and stay.” All I could say is “Ok, I understand your reasoning. I wish you well in it.” Speaking as an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, my personal risk preference is of no interest to anyone else at all.
No, it’s of interest because you are a serious student of the subject. I think a lot of the people on Capitol Hill are making decisions based on political polls.
I suspect that’s true. But then again, I do this for a living and they have lots of other responsibilities too. I don’t know how hard I want to come down on them. What I think is most important as an analytic finding is when you look at the whole spectrum of proposals, the great majority of them are demonstrably inferior—i.e. all the ones in the middle. Then there are the two at the extreme that are analytically irresolvable. You could make a case for either one. The opinion of anyone besides the president or someone with a real vote in Congress is of secondary importance at best to whether one of these two polar extremes has a strong case on intellectual merits.