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An Iraq Plan Unfolds

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: January 18, 2007


The debate over Iraq hinges on this dilemma: Without security, there can be no political solution, but without a political solution there can be no security. President Bush is now emphasizing security, having spent three years and over $300 billion on trying to forge political reconciliation in Iraq to little avail. He has ordered twenty-one thousand additional troops to secure the most battle-worn parts of Baghdad, as this new Backgrounder explains, and Anbar province in a last-ditch military effort to rescue the country—and perhaps the region—from catastrophe.

There are some promising signs his surge plan might work. CFR President Richard N. Haass, who on the whole is skeptical of the surge plan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee it may “provide time and space” to allow the Iraqi government to beef up its military and police forces and make progress on unresolved issues like revenue sharing. It may also help shift the onus for failure from the Americans and onto the Iraqis in charge.

Similar counterinsurgency efforts to “clear, hold, and build” have reduced violence and enhanced stability in places like Tal Afar (New Yorker) and Mosul. It is risky, top military officials admit, but not undoable.

Of course, doubts remain if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government can deliver on his promises. A similar surge of forces into Baghdad last summer was undermined by the Iraqis’ inability and unwillingness to “hold” areas once they were “cleared” by the Americans. Maliki has previously thwarted U.S. efforts to arrest Shiite militia leaders, though massive arrests last week, including the capture of a top aide to the notorious cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (CNN), could suggest a change. “The truth is, we’ve pressured Maliki to do things which he may not be able to do and may not want to do,” Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies tells's Bernard Gwertzman. William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst, is also skeptical (WashPost). “Iraq is all about ideology, about allegiances and power struggles,” he writes. “Every move is a back-stabbing Mafia-like protection of the family.” Which raises questions on whether Washington and the Shiite-led government share the same ends in Iraq: “The goal of the Iraqi government,” Haass said in his Senate testimony, “appears to be to establish a country in which the rights and interests of the Shia majority are protected above all else.”

Military analysts question whether a surge of twenty-one thousand troops is enough to do the job. CFR Senior Defense Fellow Stephen Biddle says the surge does not provide the necessary force ratios (generally one soldier per fifty civilians) for a successful counterinsurgency. Others say such a surge may be unsustainable and further damage troop morale (Economist). Casualties can also be expected to climb, as President Bush admitted in his January 10 address. Finally, timelines remain ambiguously open. Military officials admit it may take years to fully secure a city the size of Baghdad, though Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he expected results within a matter of months. Everyone agrees the risks of failure are great and, as Nabil Salim of Baghdad University tells the Associated Press, “the Iraqi people will pay the highest price.” Last year, more than thirty-four thousand civilians died (BaltSun) in Iraq, according to the United Nations.

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Iran's influence in Iraq is the subject of enormous speculation. The United States is taking steps to counter that influence.