Iraq: An Opinion


I just wrote a long, rambling, back-and-forth and back-and-forth post about Iraq that started nowhere, went nowhere, and made no coherent sense. I won't inflict it on you. Instead, I'll just associate myself with an actual position on what we should do - specifically, the position David Kilcullen articulates in George Packer's New Yorker piece this week:

In Kilcullen’s view, allowing the surge to run its course into next spring, while doing as much damage as possible to Al Qaeda in Iraq in the meantime, would make it likelier that a gradual withdrawal of troops would not leave behind the chaos of previous drawdowns—from Falluja and Mosul in 2004, from Tal Afar and Baquba in 2005, and from Baghdad in 2006. He said, “The longer you stay there doing police and counter-intelligence work, the more long-term stability there is once you leave.” He compared the surge to a course of antibiotics: “You keep taking it as long as possible, even after the symptoms are gone, to kill the underlying infection.”

... Kilcullen argued that next summer, when the surge is scheduled to end, American forces could be reduced to a level—say, eighty thousand—that might allow most of the core interests to be protected. Such a move would involve difficult calculations: as American commanders pull back from more stable areas—starting in the northwest, the west, and the south, where there are fewer sectarian divisions—they will risk a return to higher levels of violence. On the phone from Baghdad, General Petraeus said, “There’s an issue of what you might call ‘battlefield geometry.’ Where do you thin out and how do you do it? It’s not as simple as ‘Put in five brigades, one each month, take out five brigades, one each month.’ You might want to thin out in one place and not another. As you do that, you do want to modify your mission.” He added that “you may still be emphasizing protecting the population in one area,” while in more secure areas American forces might take on a role of supporting and advising Iraqi Army units. The changes in mission will come sector by sector and incrementally, with commanders hoping that today’s local ceasefire or the formation of a friendly Sunni militia in one town somehow holds and leads to long-term stability.

But, when the surge ends, there will have to be a strategic turn, away from Americans in the lead. An indefinite war in Iraq “costs us moral authority across the world,” Kilcullen said. The occupation of Iraq remains hugely unpopular with America’s democratic allies and throughout the Arab and Muslim world. “We need that moral authority as ammunition in the fight against Al Qaeda,” he added. “If we’re not down to fifty thousand troops in three to five years, we’ve lost the war on terror.”

The situation in Iraq obviously balances dozens of competing American interests against one another, but the two interests that weigh most heavily in my mind these days are 1) our obligation to mitigate the death toll in a civil war that we ourselves created, and 2) our obligation to minimize the number of Americans who are asked to die for what will almost certainly be remembered as a mistake. (This is why the Huckabee-Paul face-off was so riveting to me: I sympathized with both of them.) Obviously, these obligations push in opposite directions - the former militating for a long-term presence (because, as Reihan says, even if you're making the civil war less bloody only at the margins, those "margins" might mean tens of thousands of lives saved), the latter for an immediate withdrawal. I see the Kilcullen strategy as an attempt to balance the two: I freely admit that it's imperfect in almost every possible way, but today, at least, it seems like the best course.

The question then becomes whether this strategy requires a timetable for withdrawal, in which troop levels are required, by Congressional fiat, to drop consistently from 130,000 in the spring of next year to 80,000 in, say, the following spring. There are good arguments against such timetables, but without them, I have no confidence that this White House - and possibly even the next one - will ever be willing to take the plunge into the unknown that dramatically reducing troop levels requires. Because that's what it is: A leap in the dark, with the possibility that what comes next will be much, much worse than the awfulness we have now. But it's a plunge we have to take.

So that's my opinion, at the moment at least. Have at it.

Photo courtesy Joint Combat Camera Center.