The Right Way

Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq

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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