Foreign Affairs June 2006

Hunkering Down

A guide to the U.S. military’s future in Iraq

But then there’s the nightmare scenario: What if there is no Iraqi government to defend? What if the political stalemate between Shiite and Sunni Muslims persists and the “low-grade civil war”—which has been rumbling since Saddam Hussein left Baghdad—erupts into anarchy, an unbridled sectarian war of all against all? If America’s mission is to hold Iraq together, what happens if the country falls apart? What do the American troops there do?

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked this question at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in March. His answer was a parody of obfuscation. “The plan,” he replied, “is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to.” No senator asked the logical follow-up question: To what extent are they able to? Nor did anyone pose a more worrisome question: Even if the Iraqis could deal with a civil war themselves, would they want to? If Sunnis and Shiites can’t form a national government, if they devolve into implacable sectarian foes, what’s to keep the nascent Iraqi army from devolving into sectarian militias?

This is already happening, to a disturbing degree. Southern Iraq is pretty much controlled by Shia militias, northern Iraq by the Kurdish peshmerga. In the turbulent middle territories, nearly all the Iraqi battalions consist entirely of either Sunnis or Shiites, and most of them are more loyal to their religious faction or tribe than to an Iraqi nation.

If Iraq shatters, the Bush administration will be faced with four choices: (1) Try to stop the civil war. (That would involve sending a lot more troops, which seems politically out of the question.) (2) Pick one side and fight alongside it. (Several senior U.S. officers, including two generals, told me they can’t imagine a president going this route.) (3) Get out quickly. (4) Hunker down, and stay neutral, till the smoke clears.

Unlike the first two choices, options three and four are at least feasible, because of the FOBs. Almost all these bases are, among other things, air bases. If we decided to get out, personnel could be flown out by helicopters and cargo planes. Missiles, munitions, and ammo stockpiles would probably be blown up on the spot. The heavy equipment would pose a problem. The U.S. Army has about 450 M-1 tanks, 700 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 300 Stryker vehicles, and 700 M-113 armored personnel carriers in Iraq, all of which could be moved by air, but not quickly. (The C-5, the largest U.S. military cargo plane, can carry just two M-1s; the next largest, the C-17, can carry only one.) Most of these vehicles would probably leave in much the same manner as they had entered—a thunder run south to Kuwait (or north through Kurdistan to Turkey), perhaps while protecting convoys carrying supplies that weren’t airlifted out. Insurgents could attack the convoys and do some damage, though they’d also be answered by lots of firepower. (Then again, maybe the insurgents wouldn’t want to impede our exit, or maybe they’d be too busy killing rival Iraqis.) Another option would be to leave behind the heavy armor. Building replacement models would cost more than $5 billion, which is hardly trivial, but not much more than the monthly cost of continuing to fight the war.

The easier option, though, would be to hunker down—especially since we’re doing that already. Thousands of troops still go out on dangerous combat patrols or take part in raids and offensives, but the number and scope of these operations have gone down dramatically in the past year. “Most troops are engaged in support functions,” one U.S. officer in Iraq told me. “They stay on the big FOBs and never leave.” (The combat soldiers have a name for these support troops: “fobbits.”)

As the U.S. presence on the ground has diminished, strikes from the air have intensified; they’ve gone up 50 percent since a year ago, and the number of Iraqi cities hit by these strikes has doubled, from eleven to twenty-two. But when they’re on the ground, the pilots and crews—as well as their target planners and traffic controllers—rarely, if ever, step foot off the FOBs.

The FOBs are quite secure. Most of them are situated several miles outside cities—far enough to be invisible to most Iraqis, and close enough so U.S. troops can intervene on short notice. They’re surrounded by fortified defense perimeters extending well beyond the base buildings. In this sense, Iraq is not Vietnam or Somalia or Lebanon. By the time the helicopters fled from the Saigon embassy rooftop, all the U.S. troops had been out of Vietnam for more than a year. The eighteen soldiers gunned down in the streets of Mogadishu had inadequate armor and air support. The 241 military personnel killed in Lebanon when a truck bomb crashed through their gate were on a base that was barely defended. Iraq’s insurgents have never been able to mount a sustained assault on an American position. In a full lockdown, the operational trick would be to keep the supply routes open and safe. (Two-thirds of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq, and three-quarters of injuries, have been caused by roadside bombs—a testament both to the vulnerability of convoys and to the security of the FOBs.)

But if things fall apart, the political trick will be to make a case that the mission still makes sense. It would be hard to justify a massive force that just sits there, but an argument could be made for a stripped-down core of 30,000 troops. If all-out civil war erupts, Iraq’s neighbors may feel compelled to step in, for reasons of security or aggrandizement—Iran on the side of Shiites, Saudi Arabia backing Sunnis, Turkey quashing the Kurds. The United States would be foolish to get militarily involved in an ethno-regional conflict, but it could help deter or mediate one—and having some troops on the ground, and planes in the air, creates diplomatic leverage. But if this becomes a new rationale for military presence, it can work only as one piece of a larger diplomatic initiative. And it would be best to make contact and establish routines with all the bordering nations now, while we are still merely concerned about the dangers and not yet ravaged in the storm.

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Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate.

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