The Right Way

Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq
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.

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.

Once these enclaves are secured, and as additional Iraqi security forces are trained, they should be slowly expanded to include additional communities. This approach, which has been put forward most notably by the military analyst Andrew Krepinevich, is typically referred to either as a “spreading ink spot” or as a “spreading oil stain” because the counterinsurgency forces slowly spread their control over the country, depriving the guerrillas of support piece by piece. The administration has embraced this idea rhetorically, but not operationally.

If implemented properly, a true counterinsurgency approach can succeed in winning back the entire country. However, it means ceding control over some parts at first and taking some time before all of Iraq will be seen as a stable, unified, pluralist state. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that the United States and the Iraqi government currently do not control much of the country, because it is in the hands of insurgent groups or militias. Thus, the strategy is really about acknowledging that we can control only part of the country with the forces currently available—and using them to exert our control over the most important parts rather than squandering them playing Whac-A-Mole with insurgents in parts that we cannot control.

The key to this approach is that it “solves” the problem of inadequate force levels, which was one of the original mistakes of the war. The problem here was that we did not have an adequate concentration of forces to secure the country against either the insurgents or the problems of Iraq as a failed state (like organized crime and the militias). The guiding principle of a spreading-oil-stain approach is that it allows the counterinsurgent force to concentrate in part of the country and then slowly pacify the rest, using time to substitute for numbers.

Numbers in warfare are always slippery, but it is impossible to avoid them for planning purposes. For both counterinsurgency operations and stability operations, the canonical figure is that there need to be twenty security personnel (military and police) per 1,000 of the population. The population of Iraq today is roughly 26 million, which would suggest the need for 520,000 security personnel. However, the 4 million or so Kurds who live inside Iraqi Kurdistan enjoy considerable safety because they are protected by approximately 70,000 peshmerga fighters. To secure the remaining 22 million people, then, would require about 440,000 security personnel. This number is the baseline figure for what will be required ultimately to stabilize Iraq. Unfortunately, we are far from that number. At present, the United States has 135,000 to 160,000 troops in Iraq at any given time. They are joined by roughly 10,000 British and Australian troops, along with a grab bag of other detachments that may withdraw in 2006 and so should not be considered for planning purposes. There are probably some 40,000 to 60,000 Iraqi security personnel in the army, national guard, police force, and other units that are capable of participating in security operations in a meaningful way. This yields a total of 185,000 to 230,000 Coalition security personnel, a force that should be capable of securing a population of 9 million to 11.5 million, or about half of Iraq’s population outside Kurdistan.

If the United States and the Iraqi government were to begin with only this baseline of troops and were to employ a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, withdrawing most of their forces from those areas of Iraq most opposed to reconstruction and instead concentrating the troops and resources on areas of high importance and high support for reconstruction, its starting oil stain could encompass Baghdad, all of central Iraq, and a significant portion of southern Iraq, with a smaller “economy of force” presence in northwest Iraq to prevent the situation there from deteriorating. Different strategists might draw the oil stain differently, but that is a very big area to start with and would allow the further pacification of the rest of Iraq within a number of years.

4. Train Iraqi forces properly. A showy  “acceleration” is worse than useless.

The single greatest problem with all American efforts to train a new Iraqi military has been (and to some extent, continues to be) political pressure to quickly produce more trained Iraqi units in order to “show progress” in Iraq. This has been disastrous. The first training program instituted by Major General Paul Eaton’s team was a perfectly reasonable one, and could have achieved its objectives had the Bush administration not demanded that Eaton both speed up the training course and increase the numbers of Iraqis trained. Even today, both the administration and its critics continue to press for accelerated training—meaning getting people through the training pipeline in shorter amounts of time—and a more rapid deployment of Iraqi forces to take over for American soldiers.

This is the worst approach we could take. The quality of Iraqi forces is far more important than their quantity if our goal is for the Iraqis to shoulder a greater and greater share of the burden of securing their country. The only way to produce troops sufficiently capable of doing so is to give them the time, in both formal and informal training, to develop such quality.

Like all new military units, Iraqi formations, even after their formal training is completed, need time to further jell. Unit cohesion starts to be formed in training, but it is inevitably tested by the first operations that a formation undertakes and can really emerge only in an operational environment—and only if the unit survives its early experiences. So, too, with the confidence of Iraqi recruits, and with the leadership skills of their officers. What’s more, the process of vetting—weeding out those unsuited for the tasks at hand or those working for the enemy—is a lengthy one, and it is not unusual for soldiers and officers to do well in training but fail once placed in actual combat situations. Therefore, Iraqi troops not only need longer periods of formal training; they desperately need longer periods of informal training in the kind of permissive conditions that will enable them to learn and bond without being thrown into high-intensity combat.

The United States believed, at least twice since the fall of Baghdad, that it had adequately trained and prepared Iraqi security forces only to have them collapse in combat. In April of 2004, roughly half of the security forces in southern and central Iraq melted away when confronted by the revolt of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Similarly, in November of 2004, coalition personnel believed that the Iraqi security forces around Mosul were doing fine: they had gone through the existing training programs, were deployed in and around the city, and seemed to be doing an excellent job maintaining law and order. However, that month, Sunni insurgents mounted a series of major attacks, and all but one battalion of these Iraqi security forces evaporated.

The nagging question plaguing Iraq’s security forces is, How can we be sure that this latest force, which also seems to be fully capable and participating in combat operations, does not fall apart like its predecessors in southern and central Iraq in April of 2004 and around Mosul in November of 2004? The only answer to that question is time. The more time we give Iraqi formations to train, conduct exercises, and operate first in conditions that favor success, the more likely they will be to survive the test of real combat.

5. Create a unified command structure.

This is another well-known lesson that the United States continues to ignore. First, there needs to be a single “campaign chief” heading the entire effort. That person should have complete control over both the civilian and military sides of the American effort. There are arguments as to why that person should be from the military, but equally good ones as to why he or she should be a civilian. The historical evidence is equally mixed, but what it suggests is that the personality and skills of the individual are far more important than where he or she comes from. This campaign chief should have the authority and purview of something like a Roman proconsul, and be capable of making executive decisions on all matters to achieve the goal.

Beneath that campaign chief and his or her deputy there must be a fully integrated chain of command. Every division, brigade, and battalion must be part of it, as should the personnel of every civilian agency in country. Ideally the United States would create reconstruction committees at every level of the chain of command, and these committees would bring together, at a minimum, the relevant military commander, the relevant State Department officer, a USAID official, and an intelligence officer, and their Iraqi counterparts. At present, American military personnel are often the only Americans in any given town or neighborhood in Iraq. They have neither the skills, the resources, nor the time to spend on aid contracts, political negotiations, engineering projects, and the like. These are jobs that should be handled by civilian agencies, but because those personnel are not present outside the Green Zone, their jobs fall on the shoulders of the military. Military officers have risen admirably to that challenge, but it is one they should not have to bear.

The administration’s nascent plan to deploy Provincial Reconstruction Teams to Iraq has some merit, but is by no means enough, because it will not erect an integrated hierarchy reaching from the bottom to the top of Iraqi society. The PRTs in Iraq rely too heavily on military personnel and so are better suited to helping with security-sector than civilian-sector reforms. More important, PRTs are teams that work with local Iraqi officials; they are not a hierarchy that integrates the reconstruction effort both horizontally and vertically, which is what Iraq desperately needs.

6. Decentralize power and oil revenues.

Iraq’s central government is now fully constituted but essentially powerless. It lacks the resources and the institutions to tackle any of the challenges facing the country. Iraq’s ministries are understaffed and eviscerated by endemic corruption of a kind that compares unfavorably even with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq’s political leaders are consumed by discussions over power-sharing, and often care little about their constituents. The Iraqi capital is incapable of doing much for the Iraqi people, but quite capable of preventing the rest of the country from providing for itself. In the long run Washington must try to build the capacity of Iraq’s central government. But in the short term it is critical to shift authority and outside resources away from Baghdad and toward local governments that might be able to start delivering the basic necessities Iraqis crave. The United States can help with this process by expanding its efforts to provide funds directly to local governments to be spent at their discretion, and by pressing the new Iraqi government to transfer control over the country’s various police forces from the Ministry of the Interior to local authorities. Without control over financial or security power, local governments will be irrelevant. Washington also needs to help reduce the role of Iraqi ministries by shifting implementation, contracting, and some elements of regulation to local governments.

Iraq’s oil revenues must be used both to build central-government capacity and to decentralize power and authority. That oil can be a blessing or a curse. At present it is mostly a curse, fueling the vicious infighting among political elites looking for a bigger (illegal) cut of Iraq’s oil revenue. This revenue must be used instead to create incentives for Iraqi politicians to start caring about their constituents, to promote the decentralization of power beyond Baghdad, and to foster the process of national reconciliation by removing oil as an issue to be fought over.

The only way this will be possible is if Iraq switches to a relatively fixed system of distribution that provides funds to several “baskets.” Some money would still have to go to the central government to pay for national defense, government salaries, and other indivisible functions, but this will cost a lot less if decentralization is pursued. Other money should be provided directly to local governments, preferably in two forms: one portion divided up on a fixed basis by population in each province and municipality, and another in which varying amounts would be apportioned to different communities based on the deliberations of the Iraq National Assembly. The purpose of this latter pool would be to force Iraq’s parliamentarians—who currently pay little attention to the needs of their constituents—to fight for their communities or risk losing their jobs. Finally, yet another basket should provide some money directly to the people in the form of regular deposits into individual bank accounts, which would help capitalize Iraq’s withered banking system. Giving the Iraqi people a direct stake in oil revenues would also galvanize them to oppose both organized crime and the insurgents who steal the oil and its revenues. Finally, putting money into the hands of the people and giving them a choice over how to spend it would allow market forces to help lead Iraq’s economic recovery.

7. Bring in the international community.

Although the topic has largely faded from the op-ed pages, there are important roles to be played by the United Nations and the international community. Now that the December elections have ushered in what is to be Iraq’s permanent and fully sovereign new government, it is a fitting moment for the United States to begin handing over some of the burden of guiding Iraq’s reconstruction to an international body. This would be helpful because the United States is increasingly wearing out its welcome; shifting to a more international approach would allow us to prolong the process of reconstruction longer than would a go-it-alone approach.

Moreover, it remains the case that the United Nations, through its various agencies, can call upon a vast network of personnel and resources vital to nation-building. One of the greatest problems the United States has faced is that we simply do not have enough people who know how to do all of the things necessary to rebuild the political and economic system of a shattered nation. We have not tried to do such a thing since at least Vietnam—if not since South Korea, Germany, and Japan. The UN has worked with thousands of people with the relevant skills in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The ability to tap into a much bigger network is, in and of itself, a crucial virtue of the United Nations.

Is UN participation possible? Very much so, if the United States is willing to address two key problems: security and political cover. The violence plaguing Iraq has driven out most UN and nongovernmental organization, or NGO, personnel, and they are unlikely to return until the security situation improves. Here the answer, once again, is to implement a spreading-oil-stain approach in accord with traditional counterinsurgency doctrine. It is one of the many reasons why this strategy, and no other, succeeds in situations like the one the United States faces in Iraq. If Washington (and Baghdad) can demonstrate to UN agencies and NGOs that there are parts of Iraq that are largely safe—and that their personnel will remain in those safe zones—there is every reason to believe they would be willing to send more help.

The politics might be a bit more tricky. The problem here is that many UN member states cannot or will not participate in a post-conflict occupation that is not under UN auspices. Likewise, many NGOs do not want to be part of something that they see as an act of American imperialism. Their politics notwithstanding, the obvious solution would be for the United States to accept a UN-authorized high commissioner, as we did in Bosnia—a move that senior American military officers in fact favor, precisely because it would help bring in more international personnel and would reduce some of the need for the United States to prevent the newly empowered Iraqi government from doing anything rash. Instead, that thankless task would largely fall to the high commissioner.

The United States must approach 2006 as a watershed year in Iraq. Either America—and it really is America, because the Iraqis simply do not have the military, political, or economic capacity to solve their own problems yet—really begins to get things right or we face the prospect of a vicious cycle propelling Iraq toward a full-blown civil war. For this reason, the gradual, evolutionary changes that the United States has made to its military, political, and economic approaches to Iraq since April of 2003 will no longer suffice. Within the next year—that is all the time they have—Washington and Baghdad must make sweeping changes to prove that they understand the problems and are putting in place new policies that can solve them.

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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