The Bush administration is retooling its Iraq war strategy. U.S. diplomats will soon sit across the table from their Iranian counterparts, as they did recently with the Syrians, to discuss ways Iraq’s neighbors can play a more positive role. Washington reportedly has also invited the United Nations (Guardian) to have a more direct presence in Iraq, including a larger role for its humanitarian missions and even the potential creation of a UN command. Finally, once the surge of troops into Baghdad tapers down, the U.S. military will increasingly look to shift its role in Iraq away from combat operations and into training and advisory missions (WashPost).
If any of these steps sound familiar, it’s because many of them were recommendations from the Iraq Study Group report, the blue-ribbon panel commissioned by Congress to find an alternative strategy on Iraq. Coolly received by the White House after its publication last December, the report has been dusted off and given a second look by Bush administration officials. While Congress backed off its threat (LAT) to insist on a withdrawal timetable in exchange for approving operational funds for the war, Democrats plan to continue ratcheting up pressure to bring the war in Iraq to a more immediate close. “As I have constantly made clear, the recommendations of Baker-Hamilton appeal to me,” President Bush told reporters. The policy readjustments reflect political timetables in Washington, not Baghdad. “The goal,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post, “is an approach that would have sufficient bipartisan support so it could be sustained even after the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009.” But the shift in policy also takes into account the political realities in Iraq and what the new head of Central Command, Adm. William J. Fallon, admitted recently: “Reconciliation isn't likely in the time we have available.”
On the ground, the U.S. military also appears to be shifting tactics, even as a massive manhunt for three missing American soldiers is underfoot in the “triangle of death” (IHT) south of Baghdad. The force assembled by Gen. David Petraeus has focused less on immediate military victories and more on bringing about political settlements between feuding tribal and sectarian factions at the provincial level in support of “Iraqi nationalists.” Policing techniques may also get a second look. CFR’s Max Boot, writing in the Weekly Standard, recommends building more prisons and appointing more judges. U.S. forces have begun training Iraqi prison guards in Jordan on how to run tent cities, which have been erected outside Baghdad to house the country’s surge in inmates (Bloomberg). Boot also favors the creation of a national database—“an essential prerequisite for a successful counterinsurgency”—to issue all Iraqis identification cards with biometrics data like fingerprints.
Policing Iraq’s borders is also paramount. In January, President Bush authorized a kill-or-capture order against any Iranian agent caught crossing into Iraq and abetting anti-U.S. forces (CBS). Yet Boot has called for stepped-up pressure against Syria, too, for its failure to rid its territory of suicide bombers. Under the law of “hot pursuit,” he argues, U.S. Special Forces could carry out cross-border strikes and “take the fight to the enemy.” International law on this issue remains ambiguous, as this new Backgrounder outlines.