War in Iraq

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about the conflict in Iraq

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Q: What would be best for Iraq's security and stability over the next two years?

58%: Significantly fewer troops than we have in Iraq today, and less daily interaction with Iraqis

“Iraq would be most stable if a massive presence of U.S. troops brought order to the country, secured the borders, and enabled the Iraqi government to gradually assert its control. However, this would require an increase in the U.S. presence of several hundred thousand troops — and is essentially out of the question. Accordingly, I think we are inevitably headed toward fewer troops in Iraq, and the U.S. should do what it can to help prepare the Iraqi government and army for a diminished U.S. role.”

“We need to demonstrate that we will not be a participant in an Iraqi civil war. As long as Iraqi political leaders believe that we will support them at all costs, they will not make the hard political choices that just might provide the type of political solution to the civil war that has already begun and will only continue to grow — absent a change in the current Green Zone–centric politics of the administration and the Iraqi political elite.”

“Drawdown should be to a gradual, residual presence that should focus on giving advice, sustainment, and specialized forms of support to Iraqi security forces, e.g. logistics, mobility, airpower, and electronic intelligence.”

“On balance, I would opt for fewer troops. It is the only choice which offers hope of our becoming less of the problem.”

“Fewer troops, except that there need to be more daily interactions with nonmilitary Iraqis to complement the lower profile of the military.”

“More troops would be best, but is utterly impossible given the politics and the strain under which the Army and Marine Corps now labor —and which has been under-reported in the press, and disgracefully ignored by Congress. We can argue all we like, but fewer troops is where we are headed.”

“Unfortunately, the time for ‘ significantly more US troops’ has come and gone, both there and here. We sure should have stabilized the country and quelled the insurgency before handing off to a callow, inexperienced, cobbled-together Iraqi government.”

“We need to withdraw all combat forces in 2007 and keep only trainers and U.S. Mission security units. Our over- the-horizon presence can prevent the creation of terrorist sanctuaries.”

“We must reduce our troop presence primarily to reduce the strain on our Army, which is suffering from recruiting shortfalls, as well as a decline in the quality of people entering the service. However, our troops should have greater interaction with Iraqis through a program of expanded embedding of U.S. troops in newly trained Iraqi Security Force units.”

“I see a force presence in the region; however, that may go in and out of Iraq if required.”

“Interaction with Iraqis is good —just not with guns!”

“More troops would work better if we were not currently perceived as planning a strike on Iran. But to add many more and visible troops in this circumstance will just further inflame matters, appearing as it would to confirm rumors that this is stage one of a new aggression toward Iran. In the present circumstances, it would be better to have fewer troops. A poor solution, but better than the others.”

“I think it is possible that the current situation —a level of violence too high for normal life or investment or growth but short of civil war — will continue for a number of years. Many societies in Africa have lived with this kind of violence for decades. If the United States reduces its troop levels, it will also reduce casualty levels and hence also the immediate pressure and leverage on various Iraqi factions to compromise. We broke it, but we don't own it forever — as a matter of practical politics if not of morality. And sadly, it can remain broken for a long time.”

26%: Significantly more U.S. troops than we have in Iraq today, with a stronger daily presence in Iraq's population centers

“More troops would be better for Iraq, but not necessarily for the U.S., and only if it is clearly understood that the U.S. presence was for a finite period.”

“The basic condition for successful governance in Iraq — security —is still absent. More U.S. ground forces are needed to secure and hold pacified areas, train Iraqi soldiers over a longer time horizon (at least five years), and seal the borders. More troops are also needed as tensions with Iran increase — U.S. troops may be needed to put down Iran-sponsored militia.  More U.S. troops could avert a full-fledged civil war.”

“To immediately establish a federalist system of government —divided by Kurd, Sunni, Shia, and Baghdad—with a weak overarching central government, we need a significant increase in the troop level; however, it needs to be from the international community and from the newly formed and trained Iraqi army.”

“We need more U.S. troops in Iraq, not to have a stronger presence in population centers but to seal the borders and train Iraqi troops and police so that they can gain control over their country.”

16%: About the same U.S. troop levels and visibility as today

“If we do not shift responsibility to the Iraqis, they will not take it ... and they will blame us for continued division and violence.”

“The political will does not exist to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and the U.S. military would be hard pressed to sustain a larger presence even if it did. Iraqis will read any unilateral U.S. decision to dramatically reduce the number of U.S. troops as a sign they are being abandoned to the wolves, thereby persuading militias to accelerate their plans to go to the mattresses.”

“In the best of all possible worlds I would prefer more troops, but that is politically impossible. Having the same number of troops may also be tough politically, but should assure stability. A reduction in numbers would only make sense if Iraq's military and police improve their performance. The question can only be answered on a tentative basis because of the many variables.”

“Although the U.S. could greatly benefit from more troops in Iraq if we could find them, the more important shift is to better employ the troops on hand to create the kind of security for the bulk of the Iraqi people to finally allow political and economic reconstruction to take root and begin to build from the bottom up.”

None of the above:

“Iraq’s security and stability can’t be accomplished by just putting troop levels up or down. The key is cutting a political deal that works and drawing down our troops in that context.”

"This is the wrong question. The right question is: What kind of political situation in Iraq would allow the troops to leave? You need to use the troops as a way to deal with the politics. That is now, and has always been, the situation."

“There are more important questions concerning ‘Iraqization’ and greater international political support — a Contact Group — that need to be addressed around or before the time the troop-deployment issue gets addressed.”

“This question is impossible to answer independent of assumptions on political developments in Iraq. If it is possible to forge a coalition among Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis with an understanding on the sharing of oil revenues, then it may be possible to quell sectarian violence. Without a political coalition, then sectarian violence will increase, and it would be hard to imagine any scenario on troop levels that could impose stability and order. The first priority should be to forge a political agreement among the key parties, and revenue sharing must be part of that agreement. There needs to be troop stability to enable political negotiations. If the political process fails in the next six months, troop levels and the entire military strategy need to be reassessed.”

“What would be best for Iraq's security and stability would be the Iraqis being able to manage their own problems to the maximum extent possible. Iraq will continue to have problems for years to come, but if they develop the capacity to manage them with minimal help from foreigners, that will be a great success. Also, the magnitude of Iraq's problems may diminish if the Iraqi authorities appear to be in charge of their own country and capable of handling substantial problems.”

“What happens in Iraq is no longer a function of the number of U.S. troops, but rather of whether and how an Iraqi national identity can be forged that is stronger and more enduring than any of the sectarian identities that now define Iraq.”

Q: Do you think it is likely that the sectarian violence in Iraq will turn into a sustained, all-out civil war within the next two years?

51%: NO

“Today's violence is more like gangs struggling over disputed turf than civil war. Each side is sufficiently strong to largely protect their clansmen, and not strong enough to mount organized war against their opponents. It is likely to stay like this for some time.”

“No, but if we [ the U.S.] don't watch what we do, we can cause one.”

“The Bush administration will not end the U.S. occupation, and as long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq they will serve as the buffer that prevents an all-out civil war.”

“There will be five to seven years of degrees of violence and instability, but it will become reasonably stable over time.”

“The prospects are too dark, and unending, of all-out civil war, even for the Iraqis! A sliver of thought convinces anyone of the horrors of civil war, without great outcome to any sectarian group. That thought, however meager, will prevail.”

“It is highly unlikely under any circumstances, but perhaps possible if there is a total failure to contain the terrorists.”

“Once (and if) we get out of the way there will be a spike in the violence, but leaders on both sides understand that they can't win an all out civil war, and so will have an incentive to find some modus vivendi. Still, there will be chronic violence.”

“Chronic violence, yes, but we'd be better off calling it ‘ sectarian’ or ‘ communal’ violence rather than civil war, which conjures up to Americans visions of Sherman's march through Georgia. In Iraq the Kurds have what they want in the north, the Shia what they want in the south. Ultimately, I suspect the Sunnis will get generous autonomy in the provinces in which they predominate, and the only question will be the sorting out of Baghdad, where you will probably see segregation along the lines of Beirut. It will be ugly and violent, but I don't think it will be utter chaos.”

49%: YES

“Unless we can increase security, rapidly improve the economy, solve the unemployment problem, and show the Iraqi people that their elected government can govern, we will enter into civil war. The U.S. government needs to have a strategy, demonstrate leadership, and understand the cultures in Iraq —all imperatives that have escaped this administration! ”

"Yes, but only in the center of the country. I think it's doubtful that the violence will spill into Kurdistan or become all-out civil war in the south."

“There is little evidence that civil war can be avoided by any strategy, but it is always possible that the leaders of the major factions will decide to embrace the kind of political compromise necessary to end the violence and establish a civil society.”

“The security situation hinges on whether Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis agree on provisions for developing the oil sector and sharing oil wealth. The constitution as written gives provincial law on energy issues precedence over federal law, ensuring that Sunni areas will not benefit. If the legal framework for oil and revenue sharing is not changed, Sunnis will have no reason to buy into an Iraqi state, the insurgency will turn into civil war, and outside forces will not be able to impose order. If all three parties see benefit from a unified Iraqi state, then there is a prospect for a political understanding that can underpin security and economic reconstruction. At this point, no viable compromises on energy issues and revenue sharing have been put on the table to stop degeneration into all-out civil war.”

“Yes, unless we succeed in better engaging regional powers in a concerted effort to prevent it.”

“We are already in a civil war in Iraq. I am reminded of June 2003, when the official line about Iraq was it was only ‘ deadenders’ opposing us. Then, when it became PC to speak of insurgents, the official line was that they were ‘ foreign’ insurgents, and then the line became that while the insurgents might be Iraqis, the suicide bombers were foreigners. Then, when the evidence showed that the vast majority of the suicide bombers were actually Iraqis, we retreated into describing ‘ sectarian’ violence. On each of these occasions, the truth as officially spoken lagged behind what we actually knew, but silence was called for in the hope that the denial of reality would lead to a better outcome that would justify the sacrifices that American soldiers and Iraqis had made and justify the illusions about Iraq with which the administration entered this war. We have concentrated on finding new, acceptable descriptions for what is happening in Iraq to bury our failures to understand, or be willing to face, what is actually happening. In the meantime, the number of Americans and Iraqis that have to be really buried continues to mount, regardless of how we describe it. “U.S. political and military leaders, rather than to face up to the fact that we are now in a civil war, are engaged in a search for a ‘ strong leader’ who will use a newly trained and equipped Iraqi security force—backed by U.S. technology and a smaller U.S. force—to impose a unitary Iraq. The belief seems to be that the Iraqi political elite, now facing the abyss of all-out civil war and/or fragmentation, will see a common survival interest in backing a strong regime as the least-bad outcome, and be able to unite behind a regime that imposes emergency measures while maintaining the facade/hope of transitioning to a more ‘ open system’— the preferred term to what was once called ‘democratic’— once the emergency is passed. My personal view is that this will fail, because we continue to underestimate the dysfunctional nature and corruption of the current crew of Iraqi political leaders, underestimate the depth of the insurgent groups, fail to understand the insurgent penetration of the Iraqi security forces we are training, and do not understand that Iranian interests in stability in Iraq have now shifted to wanting to create a vortex of instability as a warning to us as what the future, both in Iraq and the region, will hold if we move against them. The net result is that we will soon face a civil war that no one will be able to describe as anything else.”

“Yes, if there is no real change in how we deal with the crisis.”

“Yes, more likely than not, but not inevitable.”

“Yes, but this is not inevitable. The current trends points to increasing sectarian violence, which over time will erupt into organized warfare among factions (i.e., civil war). The only thing that will prevent this is the continuing fear of the consequences of civil war among many of the leaders in Iraq. Whether they can turn this fear into a positive inducement to share power in a single, though decentralized, Iraqi state is the fundamental question that will determine the country's future.”

“I think the chances of widespread sectarian violence and potential territorial fragmentation are better than 50 percent .”

Not sure:

“Whether or not it happens, we have to anticipate that intergroup violence will increase before they find a modus vivendi. That is not a reason to keep U.S. combat troops in country.”

“I don't know whether civil war is likely. I know it is a possibility, and we need to be prepared in case it does happen. But I also know that many Iraqis, including in particular various political leaders, will exert themselves to avert a civil war. They have shown themselves capable of compromising and meeting deadlines, e.g., for completing the interim constitution, the creation of the interim government, the first elections, the drafting of the permanent constitution, the constitutional referendum, and the second elections. That's an impressive list, and it suggests that the Iraqis may be able to prevent the kind of breakdown that would make civil war more likely.

“’Yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions about predictions of the future are not serious, in my opinion. What is serious, I think, is whether a problem is likely enough to take account of in one's plans, not whether one arbitrarily assigns it a greater than 50 percent chance of happening.”

Not all participants answered every question.

PARTICIPANTS (43): Kenneth Adelman, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Stephen Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Byman, Richard Clarke, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Douglas Feith, Robert Gallucci, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, Anthony Lake, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Jessica Mathews, William Nash, Samuel Nunn, Joseph Nye, Charles Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Anne-Marie Slaughter, James Steinberg, Anthony Zinni.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/07/war-in-iraq/304955/