Blind to Choice

Bing West, a Marine officer in Vietnam and a former assistant secretary of defense, comments on the military's reaction to the Iraq Study Group Report

Also see:

A Turning Point
The Iraq Study Group may be remembered as the Walter Cronkite of this war. By James Fallows

The Iraq Study Group
A reaction. By Robert D. Kaplan

Will the Administration Listen?
A historical look at why the Iraq Study Group's report may end up as yet another casualty of war.

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

What a tale of woe we are told by the Iraq Study Group. The situation is deteriorating, the ISG has concluded, meaning we are losing. They then put forward 79 recommendations to rectify the problem, most prominently urging that we do less unless the Iraqi government does more. The problem is that President Bush has embraced the Prime Minister as a man of courage who will do the right things. Maliki, in turn, has demanded full control over the Iraqi security forces, while protecting the Shiite radical Moktada Sadr, his militia and death squads.

The report was most useful as a barometer of sentiment among the American political elite. Regardless of how things eventually turn out, Iraq has been judged a colossal geopolitical failure. Regardless of how President Bush responds to the report, no Republican will run for president by promising to maintain anywhere near 140,000 American troops in Iraq.

But how does the military view the report? "We're inundated out here," Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, our corps commander in Iraq who is just finishing up his tour, told me in a telephone interview. "I haven't had a chance to read all the recommendations carefully."

Chiarelli went on to stress two points. First, he liked the ISG recommendation that the number of advisers be increased by shifting soldiers from our combat battalions. "That has a lot of merit," he said. "We're all looking closely at that option." Inside military circles, Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, overall commander of the Marines in Iraq, has been the prime voice urging this shift.

When I was visiting advisory units in Anbar Province in October, I was repeatedly told that without more advisers, the Iraqi army would pull out of tough Sunni areas as soon as U.S. combat units are thinned out. Chiarelli and Mattis, among others, are taking steps to bulk up the advisers. So that recommendation by the ISG has been favorably received.

Second, Chiarelli strongly endorsed the ISG recommendations for projects that increase Iraqi employment. "Look, a 50% level of unemployment in Anbar and parts of Baghdad provides foot soldiers for the insurgency," Chiarelli said.

He went on to point out that the rest of the U.S. government never showed up for the fight. It's the U.S. military that's been carrying the load—fighting the insurgents, jump-starting projects in hopes of providing basic services, and so on.

Our military also says that the Shiite government must reach out to reconcile with the Sunnis. In fact, General George W. Casey, our overall commander in Iraq, is more concerned with addressing the politics of Iraq than the military situation.

And how are the politics going? Our military, to put it mildly, is exasperated. When I spoked with Chiarelli, he was insistent that the armed Shiite militia must be dealt with. Prime Minister Maliki protests that he must take a political course to resolve the matter, especially with the radical Moktada Sadr and his Mahdi army. But the issue of Sadr is going to come to a head. Our military is not going to back off.

Also building is a show-down over authority to fire Iraqi military or police officers for malfeasance. In Jordan in late November President Bush praised Maliki (who lives in the Green Zone) for his courage: "One of [Maliki's] frustrations with me," the president said, "is that he believes we've been slow about giving him the tools necessary to protect the Iraqi people. And today we had a meeting that will accelerate (the transfer of military authority)."

Our military commanders in Iraq thus having received their operational orders from the President, hastened to obey. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the military spokesman in Iraq, said "We should see the complete transfer of command and control of all Iraqi army divisions by late spring, early summer."

Left unsaid was whether Maliki would agree to a joint U.S.-Iraqi board to approve key Iraqi military and police leadership.  Given Maliki's track record, left to his own devices he will pack the security forces with personal loyalists, destroying unit effectiveness and morale.

But with more advisers to provide confidence and to approve key positions, the army—Shiite and Sunni—may hold the country together. General John P. Abizaid, who has commanded the Central Command throughout the insurgency, has assured the Congress that Prime Minister Maliki will move against the Shiite militias by February, and will emerge as a real leader, backing his army. Currently, the army has more allegiance to their advisers than to their government. The advisers are the ones who drive to Baghdad and wrest pay and food provisions from recalcitrant government ministries.

So where are we headed? Down two tracks: the one is the development under American advisers of the Iraqi security forces; the other is the emergence of a responsible Iraqi government. It may be that Abizaid is correct that Maliki is on the verge of a character-altering epiphany. But if Maliki is incapable of moving against the militias or offering reasonable terms for reconciliation, President Bush will face the choice of sticking with a failed democracy the U.S. created, or tolerating a behind-the-scenes power play by a fed-up Iraqi military.

Four years ago, al-Qaeda in Iraq did not exist. But it does now, and it's damn dangerous. Due to our own fecklessness, Zarqawi took over Fallujah in the summer of 2004, and it took a bloody battle to expel him. His successor cannot be allowed to set up a sanctuary in another city and impose Taliban-like rule.

We must be prepared to let Maliki fail and not fail with him. We are training Iraqi troops to be the cement holding Iraq together in place of Americans. We should not be blind to the choice that opens.