The Right Way

Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq

2. Shift the strategic emphasis from offensive to defensive military operations.

President Bush stated last summer that “the principal task of our military is to find and defeat the terrorists, and that is why we are on the offense.” While this is an accurate description of the American military approach, it is, unfortunately, wrong in terms of what is needed. The right formulation would be that “the principal task of our military is to protect the Iraqi people, and that is why we are mainly on the defense.” Instead, the approach we are employing in Iraq—concentrating our forces in Iraq’s western provinces where the insurgents are thickest and support for reconstruction weakest—means committing the cardinal military sin of reinforcing failure. Such an approach has resulted in failures against guerrilla warfare throughout history. Moreover, it has meant ceding control over much of the populace to the forces of chaos (the militias), which is the cardinal sin of stability operations (the name for operations designed to deal with failed states). Our efforts to “take the fight to the enemy” and mount offensive sweep operations designed to kill insurgents and eliminate their strongholds have failed to work, and likely will continue to do so, as was the case in Vietnam and other lost guerrilla wars.

Large-scale offensive military operations cannot succeed, and can be counterproductive, against a full-blown insurgency. The guerrilla does not need to stand and fight, but can run or melt back into the population and so avoid crippling losses. If the counterinsurgency forces do not remain and pacify the area for the long term, the guerrillas will be back within weeks, months, or maybe years, but they will be back nonetheless. Meanwhile, the concentration of forces on these sweep operations means a major diversion of effort away from securing the population.

This is precisely what is happening in Iraq. While there needs to be an offensive component to any strategy no matter how defensive in orientation, the offensive component in counterinsurgency campaigns should mostly consist of limited attacks on unequivocally clear and important insurgent strongholds, or immediate counterattacks against guerrilla forces when they are vulnerable after an attack of their own. One of the hardest things for highly effective conventional militaries like ours to understand is that in unconventional warfare, like counterinsurgency and stability operations, the path to victory is to remain on the strategic defensive in the military arena while going on the offensive in the political and economic arenas.

The administration’s recently adopted “clear, hold, and build” strategy is a step in the right direction, but still falls short of the mark. Of greatest importance, it is being implemented in the wrong part of Iraq (the Sunni Triangle) and so is continuing to draw off forces from where they are most needed, in southern and central Iraq, where the public favors reconstruction but is souring on it because of the persistent state of insecurity. However, even within the Sunni Triangle, the United States is not employing enough troops to meaningfully “hold” areas or enough resources to really “build” there. For instance, during Operation Iron Hammer last September, the U.S. 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, boasting nearly 5,000 troops, cleared Tal Afar, but was replaced just a few weeks later by a battalion roughly one-tenth its size. That is simply not enough troops to “hold” Tal Afar. Similarly, after the Marine reduction of Fallujah, the United States left only a brigade-sized formation there, which has been large enough to prevent the town from reverting back to the control of the insurgents and Sunni militias but not enough to actually preserve security and stability there or make it possible for meaningful economic and political reconstruction to begin.

3. Emphasize population security in the south and center of Iraq.

In a pattern reminiscent of our disastrous early experiences in Vietnam, the American (and Iraqi) military forces have concentrated on trying to capture or kill insurgents and clear out their strongholds in western Iraq, where both the population and support for American reconstruction is thinnest. As noted above, not only is this unlikely to succeed but, in so doing, we have denuded central and southern Iraq of the forces so desperately needed to maintain order, enable the economy to revive, and prevent the militias from taking over. By leaving these areas without adequate protection, the Coalition has left the people there prey not only to insurgent attacks but to crime and lawlessness more generally, which has crippled economic and political revival. It has also left the vast bulk of Iraq’s population vulnerable to the militias, which take over wherever there is not a significant Coalition military presence and provide the people the protection, food, and other basic necessities that the Americans and the Iraqi central government have not supplied. In this way, through intimidation or accommodation, the sectarian militias have taken over much of central and southern Iraq, where most of Iraq’s population resides.

Not only do the militias distort reconstruction but, along with the Sunni insurgents, they are the force most likely to bring civil war to Iraq. In fact, the militias are probably a greater threat to the future of Iraq than is the insurgency. As President Bush rightly pointed out, the insurgency is itself composed of at least three different primary groups: the Salafi Jihadists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia; the last of Saddam Hussein’s leading henchmen, who know that the new Iraq has nothing to offer them except the hangman’s noose; and a large group of Sunni tribes and others who are much more like the Shiite (and Sunni) militias that now dominate central and southern Iraq than they are like the other two groups. Like the other militias, these groups are fighting because they seek power and control over swaths of Iraq, they fear what the new Iraqi government will mean for them, and they fear the violence of the Shiite militias just as the Shia fear them. Incidents of ethnic cleansing, assassination, and other violence by Shiite militias and Sunni militias/insurgents against one another and against Iraqi civilians are becoming more and more common in Iraq and will provoke a civil war if they are not brought under control.

The security vacuum the United States created after the fall of Saddam Hussein is what made it possible for the militias to establish themselves; the only way to reverse this phenomenon is to fill that vacuum. Very few of the Shiite militias have ever tried to resist Coalition forces when they moved into an area in strength, because they understood that doing so was essentially suicidal. Once the Coalition has concentrated sufficient forces to move back into a population center in central or southern Iraq, it should be able to do so. Then, Iraqi and American forces must remain in strength over time, and in so doing obviate the rationale that drove the locals to support the militia. This is critical, not only to create a basis for defeating the insurgency but to prevent the failed-state aspects from causing the country to spiral out of control.

Presented by

Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Persian Puzzle (2004).

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