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A Gamble at Very Long Odds

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
National Interest


Under previous U.S. strategy, the odds for success in Iraq were very poor. The new strategy improves them, but not by very much.

There is some good in the new strategy. Changing the mission of U.S. troops to emphasize population security for Iraqi civilians, for example, is a step in the right direction. So is the replacement of the old, open-ended U.S. commitment with some degree of willingness to make our presence conditional on Iraqi political progress toward reconciliation.

But there are also some important shortcomings. The sustainability of the troop increase, for example, is unclear yet very important. If our troop increase is temporary, insurgents and militias have an incentive to wait us out by hiding their weapons, melting into the civilian population and reemerging as soon as conditions improve for them. The administration has argued that even a temporary respite in Baghdad could create political momentum and catalyze reconciliation. Yet Iraqi politicians are not fools—if the surge is temporary, then they know perfectly well that the same gunmen are simply waiting for the United States to leave and that nothing fundamental has changed in the Iraqi security calculus.

And if so, then it is hard to see why vulnerable Iraqi politicians would be willing to take risks for reconciliation without a promise of a continuing U.S. presence to protect them and their constituents if they do. In short, if the U.S. presence is known to be temporary, then so will be any reduction in violence. Real progress toward reconciliation would require the offer of a sustained, long-term U.S. presence in exchange for compromise.

Arguably the biggest problem here, though, is the scale of the announced reinforcements. The new troop commitments still leave us well short of the usual rules of thumb for the number of troops needed to pacify a city the size of Baghdad, much less the rest of central Iraq.

A widely used ballpark norm for pacification calls for at least one capable combatant per fifty civilians. Given ongoing violence and the associated refugee flows, Baghdad’s current population is unknown, but a conservative guess might put it at about five million, implying a preferred troop strength of at least 100,000. Yet the five brigades of US reinforcements the president announced for the city would bring U.S. troop strength in Baghdad to only around 48,000, or less than half the standard figure.

To make up the difference will thus require a major contribution by Iraqi forces. The new strategy calls for just this, in the form of some 18 brigades of Iraqi soldiers and police with about 50,000 combatants in all. The competence—and the loyalty—of these combatants, however, is far from certain. Training and tactical proficiency is very uneven across the Iraqi security forces. Most important, however, they are subject to the same sectarian tensions that are pulling the country apart around them. The Iraqi police in particular are deeply penetrated by militia influences, but none of the Iraqi security forces are immune, and all are disproportionately Shi’a and Kurdish. The better trained Iraqi units, at least, may well be effective against their natural sectarian rivals, but it is far from clear that any of these institutions will be willing or able to destroy militias of their own sect. And this poses major challenges for pacifying a city in which much of the violence is now promulgated by the Shi’a coreligionists of Shi’a-dominated security forces. Nor is it clear that Sunni civilians will accept predominantly Shi’a security forces as defenders; to date they have been more prone to see them as hostile occupiers. The new strategy calls for these Iraqi brigades to be stiffened by teaming them with embedded U.S. battalions, which is surely better than trying to employ them independently. But it will take a considerable leap of faith to assume that the embedded Americans will be able to motivate Iraqi Shi’a in the midst of an ongoing sectarian civil war to make war on their own Shi’a brethren—or even to behave decently toward their Sunni rivals.

And all of this assumes that the promised 18 brigades actually appear. To date, the Maliki government has been consistently unable or unwilling to make good on such troop commitments, and certainly has shown no interest in using them to take on Shi’a militias. Either way, no reasonable observer could credit 18 Iraqi brigades as the military equivalent of 18 brigades of Americans. And if not, then the troop strength in Baghdad, though higher than today’s, will still fall well short of what is normally sought.

This in turn means that the political value of making the U.S. presence conditional is correspondingly limited. We need to increase our bargaining leverage if we are ever to get recalcitrant Iraqi factions to compromise on reconciliation. U.S. military forces are potentially our greatest source of such leverage. Our old strategy actively undermined this leverage by making our presence independent of Iraqi political cooperation—we promised to stay until and unless the Iraqi government could defend itself whether the Shi’a-dominated government compromised with Sunnis (and vice versa) or not. It is clearly a step forward to end this unconditional promise and to start using conditions on our assistance as leverage to compel compromise. But the leverage we get from this is a direct function of the military value of our presence. If our presence is too small to provide much security, the threat to remove it or the promise to maintain it offers only limited leverage. Five more brigades in Baghdad offer a bit more leverage than five fewer, but only a bit.

So the new strategy is thus a long shot gamble. The odds are a little less long than before, but only a little. Are the odds too long? There is no objective analytical answer. The issue turns on one’s personal tolerance for risk and cost, and reasonable people will judge the same odds differently. After all, failure in Iraq would do grave damage to U.S. interests—it may be worth a long shot gamble to get even a small chance at averting disaster. But the chance offered us here isn’t very great, while the cost of the gamble in American lives is likely to be heavy. It is not unreasonable to judge that the odds are now too long and the cost too high.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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