May was a hard month for US policy in Iraq, with the highest American casualties since 2004, a near-stalemate in Congress over funding for the war, and little progress toward sectarian reconciliation in Baghdad.
If there is any way out of all this, it will only be through a negotiated political solution to Iraq’s civil war, rather than a US military victory on the battlefield. On this much all parties agree. Notwithstanding frequent charges that the Bush Administration sees only military solutions, it has in fact been trying to negotiate a settlement among Iraq’s warring factions since at least 2005.
The problem is not a fixation on warfare, it is a lack of the leverage needed to make negotiations work and broker a deal: Iraq’s factions reject reconciliation, and will continue to reject it until outside pressure forces them to compromise. Real progress, therefore, requires some new and more powerful lever.
Many critics of the war now hope that a threat of US withdrawal will provide this lever. Senator Carl Levin, for example, has long argued that the US military presence serves as a crutch that enables Iraqis to avoid painful compromise and hard bargaining, and that only a timetable for removing this crutch can compel them to face facts and swallow a settlement.
The administration, by contrast, sees its troop surge as the means to reconciliation. In its view, chaos in Baghdad has pushed politics aside in favor of sectarian self-defense and the vengeance of militias. By deploying enough troops to bring security to the capital, the administration hopes to create breathing room and a political space within which a deal can be struck.
Neither view is sound. Instead, if there is any hope of a peaceful solution to Iraq’s civil war, it will require a new strategy in which military force is tied much more actively to ongoing political negotiations. Rather than merely creating space for diplomats to talk, our military must provide the leverage needed to drive unwilling factions toward compromise.
The surge will give us 160,000 heavily armed troops in Iraq. This is not enough to secure the whole country, but it is enough to provide some powerful sticks and carrots. Used selectively to threaten factions that do not compromise and assist those that do, American military power can be an important tool for negotiators.
Such a strategy may require militarily protecting or assisting factions that have fought the Iraqi government and killed Americans if these factions agree to change sides or observe a ceasefire. It may require us to withhold military assistance or defense for communities whose leaders fail to bargain in good faith, and to use force to disarm the militias of factions that refuse to negotiate, while tolerating or even assisting others that do cooperate politically.
Even if we do this, the odds are still against us. Reasonable people could certainly conclude that the chances of success are now too small, and that the United States should simply withdraw. But a long-shot gamble can make sense if the cost of failure is high enough; and the president has clearly decided to continue rolling the dice until he leaves office or some new political realignment in Washington produces a veto-proof majority for withdrawal in Congress.
In the meantime, the United States is committed to fight on in Iraq. If this long shot is to have any chance of success it is essential that US combat operations be tied much more closely to Washington’s political strategy and create the kind of incentives, now lacking, that can move Iraq’s factions toward a negotiated ceasefire across all of Iraq.
It is difficult to see how any such deal can emerge from the strategies currently being discussed in Washington.
A timetable for withdrawal is too blunt an instrument. A withdrawal of US forces is a threat to some Iraqis but a promise to others: Moqtada al-Sadr and some Sunni factions want the US to leave so they can try to seize control in its wake. A threat of withdrawal will hardly encourage them to accept an unpalatable compromise; on the contrary, it gives them every incentive to dig in their heels and destroy any compromise in order to hasten our departure. Policies that encourage only one side to compromise while inviting the other to stonewall may actually reduce the odds of a deal.
Nor will breathing room in Baghdad be enough. If Iraqis wanted compromise and only the violence in the capital stood in the way, then reducing the violence might enable an accord. But the problem is deeper than this. Real compromise is far too risky for Iraq’s major factions to accept if left to their own devices. Each fears — with some reason — that their rivals intend mass violence against them if those rivals gain control of the coercive instruments of a modern state. This makes compromise very dangerous for Iraqis, and is a recipe for stalemate.
If the surge could somehow defend all Iraqis from their rivals, then this dilemma would recede, and perhaps Iraqis could reach their own accommodation under a blanket of comprehensive US protection. But we will never deploy enough US soldiers to accomplish that. Even at full strength and used entirely for population security, the surge can at best secure Baghdad and Anbar; but what about Diyala, Saladin, Najaf, Basra, or the rest of the country? Militants are already responding to increased US troop strength in Baghdad and Anbar by flowing outward into less-defended communities elsewhere. We have seen this time and again.
We cannot solve the problem by making compromise risk-free for Iraqis through comprehensive population security; we can only do it by persuading them to accept the risks by creating new costs for stubbornness and new benefits for cooperation — in short, by finding more powerful forms of bargaining leverage.
Some see this leverage in offers of economic aid, whether in the form of debt forgiveness or direct US or international aid. US reconstruction aid, however, is falling, not rising, and it is far from clear that other countries will fill the void. More important, though, are the incommensurate stakes here for Iraqis. Factions that fear mass violence are unlikely to be persuaded to risk it in exchange for a few more hours of electricity or rebuilt clinics or restructured loans. Economic aid can help seal a deal, but it will never be enough by itself.
Perhaps this new leverage can come from Iraq’s neighbors via a regional diplomatic strategy. Many now hope that Iran and Syria, in particular, can be persuaded to use their influence with Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni factions to pressure them into an arrangement — or at a minimum, that Iran might be induced to stop making things worse by arming Iraqi militias.
There are ample grounds for skepticism, however. No one wants chaos in Iraq, but the preferred Iraqi endstate is very different for Syria, Iran, and the US. To persuade Syria and Iran to accept our preference rather than theirs, when Iraq is an immediate neighbor of theirs and a matter of vital national security to them, could prove expensive for us. Iran could demand US acquiescence in its nuclear ambitions. Syria will want the US to accept reestablishment of its influence in Lebanon.
And even if the US pays this price, it is far from clear that Iraq’s neighbors have enough leverage to compel a ceasefire. The stakes in Iraq are literally existential for Iraqis, and there are more than enough arms, fighters, and money in the country today to fuel civil warfare for a long time, even if Iran and Syria were to withdraw their support altogether.
Given the stakes for the United States if it fails in Iraq, diplomacy with Iran and Syria may still be worth trying, even if the cost is high and the benefit unclear. But we need to be prepared for the possibility that regional diplomacy may not suffice. And this means we need to find other sources of leverage.
Arguably the most powerful potential source of this leverage is military force. Selective use of US military power to reward compromise and punish intransigence should in principle be a powerful lever in an ongoing war. To do these things, however, would require a very different military strategy than we followed from 2003 to 2006. In short, it would require a military campaign designed not as a means of pacifying Iraq directly — or as a means of handing the fight off to an Iraqi surrogate — but one designed as a tool of a political negotiating strategy aimed at producing a ceasefire.
Anbar province today shows both the promise and the challenges of this approach. A group of Sunni tribal sheiks there have agreed to turn against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), whose brutality and interference with traditional tribal smuggling routes has alienated the tribes. To facilitate this turnabout, the US has assisted the sheiks in converting tribal militias that had once fought Americans into better-organized, better-equipped, officially sanctioned police forces for use in protecting the tribes against AQI. In return, the sheiks agreed to a ceasefire with the US and the government of Iraq.
This realignment and its associated ceasefire is a potential model for negotiated truces elsewhere. Only by concluding a series of such local bilateral agreements with particular factions can the violence in Iraq as a whole be brought under control.
The deal in Anbar, however, poses real risks both for the tribes and the government. AQI has turned on the sheiks with full force. Sunni tribesmen worry that siding with the Maliki government risks eventual oppression under what they see as a sectarian Shiite regime. And the government worries that it could be arming the enemy by strengthening local Sunni factions in the midst of a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
To convert this opportunity into a sustainable ceasefire will require more than just talk: it will require tangible rewards for continued cooperation as well as a credible threat that backsliding will yield a worse fate. Economic aid can help, but given the survival stakes at risk here, only military tools are likely to offer enough leverage to make a real difference. The United States must be prepared to follow through with selective training, equipment, and arms for Sunni tribal police who have agreed to cooperate. The US must also be willing to protect cooperative tribes with US troops if requested by Sunnis worried about Shiite violence and to threaten offensive action if necessary to disarm any tribal forces that break their ceasefire agreement or take action against the government.
The particulars will vary with Iraq’s varied communal geography, but the military logic here is the same everywhere.
Some kind of selectivity is unavoidable in Iraq. We have always made decisions about whom to protect and whom to punish, if only because we cannot protect everyone or punish all malign actors at once. But if we are to succeed in Iraq, these decisions cannot be based chiefly on who most needs the protection or which communities are easiest to defend. Our use of force must instead be guided by our search for leverage: We must send troops where their presence is most likely to persuade factions to accept ceasefires.
Of course, the strategy I am describing is a very tall order, and likelier to fail than to succeed. The application of military force is notoriously inexact, and large, far-flung military organizations are hard to control with the precision needed to distinguish between factions and subfactions. Unless implemented with deft diplomacy, such a plan could easily yield uniform enmity from resentful Iraqis on all sides. Military aid or protection for Sunni factions could be diverted later into use in civil warfare against a Shiite government if a system of ceasefires policed by American troops does not avert this first.
Such a strategy could also be a tough sell politically — it replaces a clear, simple narrative of evil insurgents against a democratically elected government with a complicated story of intersectarian intrigue, shifting loyalties, and coercive leverage. The military itself prefers a clear role of defending the innocent and destroying the evil to a complex mission of manipulating rewards and punishments for bargaining leverage. And the knowledge needed to understand Iraqi political dynamics clearly enough to move all parties simultaneously toward compromise may prove beyond us.
And yet we have reached a point at which all policies for Iraq are likelier to fail than to succeed. To terminate peacefully an ongoing communal conflict such as Iraq’s is inherently a long-shot gamble. There are examples of success — the ceasefires in Kosovo and Bosnia were obtained by interventions not unlike what I describe. These ceasefires are never easy, however, and Iraq today is an especially hard case. Unless the United States makes the most of every possible source of leverage its chances of success could quickly go from slim to none.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.