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.