The Study Group says a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could be so catastrophic that it might force the U.S. military to eventually return there. The Group dismisses the partitioning of the country as an unwise policy goal, since it would lead to the collapse of the security forces and is, in any case, impractical because of mixed populations in so many Iraqi provinces. The Group is open-minded concerning a temporary, small-scale troop surge in the Greater Baghdad area. Regarding the region, the report takes Iran’s nuclear enrichment program off the table as a legitimate negotiating item. It calls for Syria and other Arab countries to engage in direct talks with Israel. It calls for an international force, including U.S. troops, on the Golan Heights to provide the Israelis the security guarantees they would need in the event of a withdrawal. It says Syria must cede hegemonic ambitions over Lebanon, and cooperate with investigations of the assassinations of leading anti-Syrian political figures there. Rather than surrender, I detect an attempt at comprehensiveness.
The Group’s summary of the situation in Iraq is banal, but hard to argue with: the improvement of the Iraqi Army has been “fitful;” the state of the police is terrible; the results of the troop surge in Baghdad last summer, Together Forward, were “disheartening;” the Shia are broken down into factions that reward the extremes; the Sunni leadership, to the degree it exists, is shadowy—that is, barely existent; and the state of the Iraqi economy remains uneven, despite vast oil wealth. While none of this is new, the report is also meant for the general public, not merely for dedicated readers of blogs and newspapers.
The document’s core strategy, as the Group admits, is imperfect. It calls for changing the military mission from combat to the support of Iraqi security forces by 2008, even as we and the Iraqi government immediately launch what it labels a “New Diplomatic Initiative” in the Middle East.
The military piece envisions moving combat forces out of the fray, while we ramp up the number of trainers embedded with Iraqi units, who, themselves, will be augmented by quick reaction forces, search and rescue forces, and, in particular, special operations forces to hunt down al-Qaeda and add to the force protection of our trainers. The problem here, which the Group alludes to but does not address, is just how many special units are going to be needed—and how close to the action they will have to be—in order to adequately protect our embeds. When you subtract the combat brigades, but add in all the extra trainers and the force protection element, you may still end up with tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq. I had predicted (in The Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2006) that by early 2008 we would have about 40,000 left in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group, again, rather than cut and run, appears to suggest a somewhat higher number.
The emphasis on training indigenous forces has its risks, though. Training an entire army of more than 300,000 troops to American standards will create the world’s most lethal ethnic militia if there are no legitimate institutions for it to represent. The Group, by warning of ethnic cleansing in 2007, at least seems vaguely cognizant of this risk. Training has to be tied to political reconciliation, or else such a strategy could contribute to genocide, rather than help prevent it. Smartly, the Group comes out strongly for dispatching our very best military personnel to training missions in Iraq, and for rewarding them through career enhancements. For years now, the Army has been sending the guys no one else wants to these missions, since the traditional way to promotion has been to command Americans; not foreign troops.