Whether we ultimately stay or go, we need to contain the burgeoning forces of chaos now—and that requires fixing Iraq’s policing problems. An expert explains how.

Iraqis need combat advisers out on the streets at the point of battle, but advisers alone won’t turn the tide. Iraq is being lost because American forces have a detailed program for protecting civil rights, but none for winning a war. Thus the second part of any workable solution must be the Iraqi government’s determination to disarm the militias and imprison insurgents and murderers. (The third part of any solution is technical: establishing an effective fingerprint-identification system.) General John Abizaid, who has emerged as Maliki’s staunchest supporter, assured Congress in mid-November that the Iraqi prime minister “will take on the militias,” and lead. Abizaid, who compares Iraq’s leaders to our Founding Fathers, was betting the war on a feckless politician with a poor track record. President Bush seemed to be doing the same when he met with Maliki in Jordan in late November. “One of his frustrations with me is that he believes we’ve been slow in giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people,” the president said. “And today we had a meeting that will accelerate [the transfer of military authority] … I appreciate his courage.”

But the generals and advisers I spoke with told me that Maliki has not supported his own military. Maliki shielded Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army from dismantlement, they said, and Maliki’s ministries failed to provide the necessary financial and logistical support to the Iraqi army and police. American advisers in Anbar province had to drive to Baghdad each month to wheedle Iraqi police and soldiers’ pay and food allowances from sclerotic ministries. Maliki had not cracked down on the Shia militias, and had done nothing to offer terms for reconciliation with the Sunnis.

Yet Maliki was insisting that the United States give him operational control of all Iraqi forces, a step that could lead to an army commanded by sectarian loyalists. To insure against that, we should insist on a U.S.-Iraqi joint review board empowered to relieve from duty any Iraqi military or police officers found guilty of malfeasance. If our advisers have no effect on indigenous leaders, there is no sense in advising. The Iraqi army cannot survive without American advisers, and we need a hedge against sectarian politics.

Abizaid’s deadline for Maliki to take on the militias runs out between February and April. What happens, I asked a senior American general in Iraq, if Maliki doesn’t exert leadership? “Then,” the general said, “we continue muddling through.”

In 1979, President Carter dispatched a U.S. Army general to Tehran to tell the Iranian army not to interfere as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power on a tide of popular support. Khomeini returned the favor by seizing the U.S. embassy and establishing an anti-American theocracy.

If Maliki continues to fail, President Bush will face a similar choice: insist on a democracy that has failed or signal that military rule behind a rubber-stamp assembly is preferable to collapse.

Muddling through is not a strategy.

Presented by

Bing West

F. J. “Bing” West, who served as a marine in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, is the author of The Village and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In