- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Kenneth M. Pollack, a leading Persian Gulf expert, who is the principal author of a new study on Iraq being published by the Brookings Institution, A Switch in Time: A New Strategy for America in Iraq, says 2006 may very well be critical in Iraq because of public opinion in both the United States and Iraq. He says that the American public is showing “growing unease” with the way reconstruction is going and has the sense “that we don’t really know what we’re doing.”
The Iraqis, he says, are growing increasingly disenchanted with the American efforts in Iraq and may look to someone else for relief. “And that ‘someone else’ is invariably either an insurgency or a militia group,” says Pollack, who is director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “These are the forces of chaos inside Iraq.”
Pollack, whose 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, the Case for Invading Iraq, outlined the potential threat to the United States from Saddam Hussein, has since been critical of the way the war has been waged, especially the failure to provide suitable planning for post-war Iraq.
In particular, Pollack argues in his new report that the U.S. military strategy of launching offensive operations in western Iraq has been a failure and that it is time to station troops in populated areas in central and southern Iraq to ensure security.
You are the principal author of a major new study by the Brookings Institution on Iraq that is just being published. In this study, you say that 2006 is a “make-or-break year” for Iraq. Can you explain why?
I think 2006 is critical because of public opinion in both the United States and Iraq. Our report did not address U.S. domestic opinion, but I think it’s very clear—from all the polls that we’re seeing—that while the American public remains committed to the idea that reconstruction of Iraq is critical to U.S. security, there’s a growing unease with the course of reconstruction, [that] in a sense, we don’t really know what we’re doing.
Beyond that, in Iraq, where we do focus the report itself, it is very clear that the Iraqi people—while they, too, remain absolutely committed to the concept of reconstruction—are becoming increasingly disenchanted with it. They’ve seen the United States in Iraq for nearly three years now, and the United States has very consistently failed to provide them with the basic necessities of life that they crave: security, jobs, gasoline, electricity, clean water, sanitation. These are the constant complaints of Iraqis.
Unfortunately, with each passing month that the United States and the new Iraqi government doesn’t deliver on those basic necessities, you find more and more Iraqis souring on reconstruction altogether, deciding that the United States and the Iraqi government just can’t provide them with those necessities. And so they’re going to have to look to someone else. And that “someone else” is invariably either an insurgency or a militia group. These are the forces of chaos inside Iraq.
This year is particularly important because you now have the election of a new, supposedly permanent government, a government that is not supposed to stand for reelection for four years. In the past, Iraqis have been disappointed with every government they have seen succeed Saddam. The ORHA [Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] under [U.S. administrator General] Jay Garner, the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] under [L. Paul] “Jerry” Bremer, the interim government of Ayad Allawi, and now the transitional government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, all have failed the Iraqis in their eyes. But each time, they knew there was another government on the horizon, so they were able to say to themselves, “Well, this one failed us, but perhaps the next one will succeed.”
It looks as if Jaafari will again be prime minister, this time of the permanent government. As you say, he was not a very popular figure, among other politicians or among the population. Do you think this is a disaster in the making?
I think it could have very severe ramifications for Iraq, for exactly the reasons you’re citing. The Iraqis saw Jaafari in power and they were terribly unimpressed. Already I’m getting a sense from some friends in Iraq that people are bewildered by this choice, and don’t understand why the Shiite alliance would be putting back someone like Jaafari, who has so consistently failed them in the past. If he doesn’t turn things around very quickly and start delivering on these basic services, which are the most important to the Iraqis, I think that you could see the Iraqis souring on reconstruction very quickly.
Of course, a lot will depend on who else is in his government, and that’s going to take several more weeks of negotiation, I guess.
Absolutely. At this point in time, all we know is that he’s going to be the one to lead it. But it took—what, six weeks, maybe eight weeks—just to come up with his name. And now we have to have negotiations over who is going to get which ministry, and how many people from each group, and how many Sunnis—if any—are going to be let into the cabinet. The negotiations are going to be even more painful at this point.
Do you think Iraq is headed further toward a breakup of the country into the main ethnic sectors, as the Sunnis fear?
Well, I don’t think this is the kind of move that would give Iraqis heart that their government is moving in the right direction. Certainly, the forces of chaos and entropy are all over in Iraq. They’re lurking just under the surface. I was out there in November, and I was struck by how much people are concerned with civil war, compared with previous trips to Iraq.
That said, I think it’s important to say that I think it’s a real myth that we continue to subscribe to, that it is likely that Iraq will just simply divide up into three separate statelets: a Kurdish statelet, a Sunni-Arab statelet, and a Shiite-Arab statelet. The problem is, the Sunni and Shiite communities of Iraq are themselves deeply divided. The first thing that would happen in any civil war is that they would likely fragment, and you would have severe infighting among them. Beyond that, you have enormous areas of mixed population inside Iraq, and you would probably undergo a long process of ethnic cleansing to determine who is going to control those parts of Iraq.
So if we ever did get to a situation where we had three separate statelets in Iraq, it would take some time, and probably many tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, would die before you got to that point. And of course, there would be all kinds of spillover effects for Iraq’s neighbors. We are likely to see fragmentation and civil war, not this kind of easy, clean breakup into three pieces that some people have been positing.
Let’s go back to the U.S. role, which the report focuses very heavily on. On one hand, you’re very critical about the U.S. military strategy of offensive operations in western Iraq against insurgent areas. You’re arguing that those forces would be better off inside the highly populated areas of Iraq, giving more security. Could you elaborate on that?
Absolutely, and of course, this goes along with the analysis I’ve already laid out. Over the last hundred years, we’ve seen many, many counterinsurgency and stability operations—the kinds of military operations meant to deal with the failed state, which is one of the problems we have in Iraq. The principal lesson of each of these wars is that you start by securing the population by making them safe. If you can make the population safe, then all kinds of other positive benefits can come from it, and the reconstruction can succeed.
The problem that the United States has made is that we’ve focused our military resources principally on playing whack-a-mole with insurgents out in western Iraq, which is a recipe for failure that you’ve seen over the same period of history, and all these same wars. And of course, by denuding the south and the center of Iraq where most Iraqis live, both Sunni and Shiite, we’ve left those parts of the country in a security vacuum. The center and the south have nobody to police them effectively. So instead, they’ve turned to the militias and they’ve turned to organized crime.
In many cases, the militias and organized crime have simply taken over and terrorized the population. All of this is the principal threat for civil war in Iraq. If civil war comes about in Iraq, it will be because of the control of the militias and organized crime in the south and the center, not because of the Sunni insurgency. Therefore, our starting recommendation is that we have to shift that emphasis, pull the troops out of western Iraq—where, frankly, they are not doing a whole lot of good—and move them into the center and the south. [That way,] we can establish that security presence, that safety zone among the population, which history has repeatedly demonstrated is the sine qua non of success in these kinds of operations.
Now let me just ask a simple question. If this is so well known, it must be well known to the U.S. military as well. Why does the U.S. military not go along with this approach?
Well, it’s a heck of a good question. My first point is that there are a number of U.S. military officers who are aware of this, and many have been arguing for it for a long time. We’re now seeing a very important change in Baghdad, with General Pete Chiarelli, who had been the commander of the First Cavalry division in Baghdad and did a marvelous job with them, going back out there to be the commander of all coalition ground forces in Iraq—the No. 2 guy on the ground in Iraq. Chiarelli gets this stuff. He understands how to make a counterinsurgency work. A lot of people are very hopeful that he’s going to make some changes.
As to why they haven’t done so already, it’s hard to speculate. We posit two answers, which we have encountered over the course of our study. One is that the U.S. Army just doesn’t like counterinsurgency operations. They never have. They’ve never made counterinsurgency operations a priority, and those people who really study it and are good at it, typically don’t do very well in terms of promotions and moving up the chain of command. Beyond that, it’s also the kind of thing that would probably be politically embarrassing for the administration to adopt, because it would mean recognizing and admitting to something that we’ve all known all along, which is that the number of troops that we have in Iraq is not adequate, at least not to secure the entire country simultaneously. So instead, we would have to be moving to this tried-and-true strategy, where you start by securing a part of the country, the part where most of the people live and where the people are the most supportive of reconstruction, and only later on gradually expanding out to encompass the rest of the country.
What about the Iraqi forces themselves? When you were there in November, did you find that the Iraqi forces were still far behind?
Well, I’ll put it this way. We’re doing better than we ever have before in terms of training Iraqi forces. There’s no question about that. And the Iraqis are making progress. But they’re still very far from where we would need them to be were they to take over the reconstruction all by themselves.
There are between 40,000 and 60,000 Iraqi troops who are really capable of participating meaningfully in reconstruction. That’s important for a few reasons. First, it points out that this rating system that Centcom [Central Command] has been using and that we’ve heard so much in the past where only one Iraqi battalion is rated fully capable—is not a very helpful measure. The fact of the matter is, in counterinsurgency operations, there are a lot of troops who don’t need to be as capable as, say, an American armored division. They can have much more limited capabilities, and still play a very meaningful role in reconstruction. And that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got a lot of Iraqi formations, probably between forty and eighty battalions, which are capable of playing some role. That’s a very positive sign, and more are being trained. But we’re still far from where we need to be. We probably need somewhere along the lines of 400,000 to 500,000 Iraqi troops who can play that kind of role.
Then we’ve got a bunch of other problems. In particular, there is no Iraqi logistical support for these formations. All their logistical support is coming from the United States. That’s fine, it’s reasonable, it’s a conscious decision that the United States made, to emphasize training combat battalions over building up the support structure. But what that means is, the United States can’t walk away anytime soon, because if we were to walk away, even those forty to eighty well-trained and reasonably confident Iraqi battalions would disappear in about a week. They would all turn into insurgents and militia men because there’s no logistical support to actually allow them to sustain themselves in the field.
So you don’t have a time fixed on when the U.S. troops should get out?
No, we don’t. Everyone would like U.S. forces to leave, and everyone would like them to leave sooner rather than later. But the fact of the matter is the reconstruction of Iraq is critical to U.S. security. We start the report by talking about some of the reasons why this is true. What we point out is that the kinds of problems we face now in Iraq require solutions that are going to take time. It is only on the order of at least four or five years before we have meaningful progress on any of them.
The problem is, in the past, when we’ve tried to speed up the process of reconstruction, everything has just broken. And again, this is one of the constants of history. You can’t speed up these kinds of operations. You have to give them time. If you try to, they will simply fail.