There is a serious and widening disconnect between the timetables that commanders are using to guide their actions in Iraq and those being demanded by politicians in Washington. Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior U.S. commanders in Iraq, are quite properly planning for the troop “surge” to extend well into next year. That’s why the Pentagon has alerted 10 combat brigades with some 40,000 soldiers to get ready to deploy in August. They will be needed to replace troops rotating home.
Back home, however, politicians are demanding results in the next few months — or else. And not just Democrats. House Minority Leader John Boehner has said that if they don’t see progress by the fall, even House Republicans will start demanding a Plan B for Iraq, which would presumably involve pulling troops out, not sending more. That message was reinforced by the group of 11 House Republicans who visited the White House last week.
Gen. Petraeus has promised to report back to Congress by September on what kind of progress he is making, but don’t expect a definitive answer. He is unlikely to say “the surge has worked” or “the surge has failed.” He will instead probably point to a variety of indicators, some of which will be positive, others negative. It will be left to the American people and their leaders to interpret these results as they see fit.
Inevitably, since suicide attacks will still be occurring in Iraq in September, many commentators and politicians will write off the surge as a failure. Many are already doing so, even though the Baghdad Security Plan is barely three months old and the fourth extra U.S. brigade has only recently arrived. The fifth and final one won’t be in place until June. It will take many months after that to see whether security conditions are improving — and even if they are (perhaps especially if they are) it would be the height of folly to then start withdrawing U.S. troops, something that Secretary of Defense Bob Gates has indicated might happen.
An article in USA Today reported on a Pentagon-funded study which confirms what military historians already know — an average insurgency can run for a decade, but most fail in the end. Translation: If we’re going to be successful in Iraq, we’re going to have to make a long-term commitment. That doesn’t mean 170,000 U.S. combat troops stationed there for 10 years, but it does mean a substantial force — tens of thousands of soldiers — will be needed for many years to come. If we’re planning to start withdrawing in September 2007 — or even September 2008 — we might as well run up the white flag now and let the great Iraqi civil war unfold in all its horror.
Most Americans seem resigned to that fate. In fact many think that the civil war has already begun, and we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about it. We hear all the time that “we have no business getting into the middle of someone else’s civil war” — often from the very same people who in the 1990s were (rightly) urging that we get involved in the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia or who today (rightly) urge us to get involved in the civil war in Sudan.
The reality is that Iraq has been experiencing a fairly low-grade civil war until now — one that has been contained by the presence of U.S. troops. While the troop surge in Baghdad hasn’t yet decreased the overall level of violence — suicide bombings, which are notoriously difficult to stop, remain undiminished — the presence of more Iraqi and American troops on the streets has managed to reduce sectarian murders by two-thirds since January. Sunni fanatics are still able to set off their car bombs, but Shiite fanatics are not able to respond in kind by torturing to death 100 Sunnis a night. In other words, the surge is containing the results of the suicide bombings, slowing the cycle of violence that last year was leading Iraq to the brink of the abyss.
If U.S. troops were to pull out anytime in the foreseeable future, the probable result would not be (as so many advocates of withdrawal claim) that Iraqis would “get their act together” and take care of their problems themselves. The far more likely consequence would be an all-out civil war. Not only would this be a humanitarian tragedy for which the U.S. would bear indirect responsibility, but it would also be a catastrophe for American interests in the region. If we are seen as the losers in Iraq, al Qaeda would be seen as the winner. The perception of American weakness fed by a pullout would lead to increased terrorism against the U.S. and our allies, just as occurred following our withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and from Beirut in 1983.
In the ensuing chaos, it is quite possible that al Qaeda terrorists would succeed in turning western Iraq into a Taliban-style base for international terrorism. Although the momentum at the moment is running against al Qaeda in Anbar Province, the tribal forces who are now cooperating with the Iraqi government would be incapable of defeating al Qaeda on their own. If the U.S. were to pull out, the tribes would likely go back to cooperating with al Qaeda for the sake of self-preservation. And a handful of American Special Operations Forces operating from far-off bases would be helpless to stop the terrorists because they would lack the kind of human intelligence now generated by U.S. troops on the ground.
That is only one of many possible effects of an Iraqi civil war that we need to contemplate before making the fateful decision to give up the fight. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, two serious Democratic analysts, issued a sobering study in January called “Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover From an Iraqi Civil War” that should be required reading for anyone calling for a pullout. Messrs. Byman and Pollack studied a number of civil wars stretching back to the 1970s in countries from Congo to Lebanon, and found that they are never confined within the borders drawn neatly on maps.
Civil wars export refugees, terrorists, militant ideologies and economic woes that destabilize neighboring states, and those states in turn usually intervene to try to limit the fallout or to expand their sphere of influence. “We found that ‘spillover’ is common in massive civil wars; that while its intensity can vary considerably, at its worst it can have truly catastrophic effects; and that Iraq has all the earmarks of creating quite severe spillover problems,” they write. No surprise: After all, Iraq, with its oil wealth, has far more to fight over than Congo or Lebanon or Chechnya.
While a civil war is the most likely outcome in Iraq, it is not inevitable. Contrary to the common myth, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have not been at daggers drawn since the dawn of time. Until fairly recently, they lived peaceably side by side; intermarriage was common and major tribes still have both Sunni and Shiite components. The slide toward civil war occurred because of an implosion of central authority and a breakdown of law and order that allowed demagogues on both sides — the likes of Moqtada al Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — to posture as the defenders of their sectarian groups. That dynamic, while strong, could still be reversed if the Iraqi government, with American support, were able to offer ordinary people what they most ardently desire — security.
With U.S. and Iraqi forces now on the offensive, there have been some encouraging signs of responsible leaders on both sides pulling back from the brink. Sunni tribal chiefs have organized themselves into the Anbar Salvation Council to try to work with the U.S. and the government of Iraq, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made some important gestures toward the Sunnis, such as his support for an equitable oil-revenue sharing law (which hasn’t yet passed parliament).
Slow progress toward an acceptable modus vivendi may still be possible as long as the U.S. doesn’t insist on artificial timetables to resolve complex and emotional issues. What incentive do Iraqi politicians have to make compromises if they think that American troops are heading out the door? If that’s the case, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds would be well advised to avoid making any concessions that would strengthen their mortal enemies. Thus all the talk in Washington about troop withdrawals has the opposite effect from what is intended. Instead of spurring Iraqi politicians to compromise, it leads them to be more obdurate.
It’s still possible to stave off catastrophic defeat in Iraq. But the only way to do it is to give Gen. Petraeus and his troops more time — at least another year — to try to change the dynamics on the ground. The surge strategy may be a long shot but every alternative is even worse.
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