The Right Way

Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq
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Special Report:

A Switch in Time: A New Strategy for Iraq
A comprehensive report by the Iraq Policy Working Group on all aspects of Iraq policy, from security to economics to politics.

Iraq hangs in the balance. December’s elections once again demonstrated the desire of Iraqis for a prosperous, pluralist, and pacific country. There should be little doubt that the vast majority of the Iraqi people want to see reconstruction succeed. This is the most powerful of the positive factors that could enable a new Iraqi state to overcome sectarian differences and serve as a force for stability in the larger Middle East.

But both the Iraqi people and the American people are growing increasingly frustrated with the persistent failings of reconstruction. They worry that the United States and the new Iraqi government do not have a strategy that can succeed. For this reason, 2006 will likely prove decisive for the future of Iraq: reconstruction efforts must finally begin to show tangible results, or else people in both Iraq and America will lose faith that positive outcomes are even possible. And the brutal reality is that time is running out. A six- to twelve-month window of opportunity may be all that remains before the spiral toward possible chaos and civil war is beyond control.

Iraq is beset by a host of deep-seated problems. In some cases these are masked by superficial aspects of progress. For instance, security has increased somewhat in many parts of Iraq because sectarian militias have taken control there and because looters and petty criminals have been consolidated into organized crime rings. This is not a meaningful improvement, because it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. While Iraq may seem “safer” for the moment, it is, in fact, less secure for the longer term.

The most damaging reality of all is that the United States created a security vacuum in April of 2003 that it has never properly filled. This has given rise to two related and interlinked phenomena: a full-blown insurgency, largely based in the Sunni tribal community of western Iraq; and a failed state, in which the governmental architecture has essentially collapsed. Thus, Iraq not only faces problems similar to those that the United States confronted in Vietnam—and the British in Northern Ireland, the French in Algeria, and the Russians in Afghanistan—but also many that plagued Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Confronting the problems of Iraq means crafting a strategy that will not only defeat the insurgency but will simultaneously deal with the myriad problems stemming from Iraq as a failed state, one that is at this point held together almost entirely by the American military presence.

The clock may be ticking, but all is not lost; it is possible to imagine a different strategic approach. Over the past several months the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution brought together a group of experts on Iraq, military affairs, reconstruction, and democratization to undertake a thorough review of U.S. policy on Iraq. This group, the Iraq Policy Working Group, reflected a wide range of beliefs and politics. It included military and civilian personnel who have served in various governments. Most of them have also had significant on-the-ground experience in Iraq. The group met to try to answer this question: If America can’t leave Iraq precipitately, what should we be doing differently to give ourselves the greatest prospect of success? The result is a 70,000-word report on all aspects of Iraq policy, from security to economics to politics.

What follows is a summary of some key points about shifting American strategy to make it more likely that reconstruction will succeed. Solutions to the many problems that the United States faces in Iraq do exist. Indeed, there was not a single problem that the Iraq Working Group addressed—from stamping out the insurgency to reconciling Iraq’s warring factions to eradicating the corruption plaguing Iraq’s new ministries—for which an effective response cannot be envisaged. The real question facing the United States is not whether there are workable ideas but whether the administration is willing to change its strategy, quickly and decisively−and whether the American people are willing to give these workable ideas the time they need to show results.

1. Make protecting the Iraqi people and civilian infrastructure our highest priority.

There is a large, coherent body of literature on the practice and history of counterinsurgent warfare, and what is most remarkable about it is that it all draws on the same lessons. So does the literature on stability operations—operations that address the problems of failed states. The principal one is that the most important mission of counterinsurgency forces is to provide basic safety for the population against attack, extortion, threat, and simple fear. If the people are afraid to leave their homes—or worse still, if they are afraid even while in their homes—the guerrillas and other forces of chaos have effectively won. The people will not support the government; they will be susceptible to insurgents and extremist militias; they will not go about their normal business; and the economy will suffer, as will the political system. This is precisely what any insurgent seeks to accomplish, and what the Iraqi insurgents largely have done. Consequently, American forces must fundamentally reorient their priorities to make what is called “area security”—protecting Iraqi towns and neighborhoods—their highest concern.

The United States and the Iraqi security forces must focus on making the Iraqi people feel safe in their homes, their streets, and their places of business. This does not mean simply deploying soldiers in defensive positions around Iraqi population centers (although in some cases that can be helpful). It means establishing a constant presence throughout those areas to reassure the population and deter (or defeat) insurgents or militias. Constant patrols (principally on foot); checkpoints; and security personnel deployed at major gathering points—markets, entertainment, religious or political events, and even main intersections or thoroughfares—create that sense of constant presence. Security personnel should conduct searches routinely for any person entering a large facility—a business or apartment complex, a suq or shopping mall, a sports arena, etc. Fixed defensive positions, checkpoints, or ambushes can be employed against known routes of attack or infiltration by the insurgents. Key infrastructure must be guarded—with personnel for a single facility; and with sensors, patrols, and quick-reaction teams for pipelines, roads, communications lines, or water/sewage lines.

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Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

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