There hasnât been much discussion of the Iraq war on Club Troppo lately. But Iâm impatient to form an opinion about what the Coalition of the Willing should do in general, and what the Labor Party should advocate in particular. Since Australia is part of that Coalition, with a commitment of several hundred troops in a region of marginal importance to our own security, itâs high time Rudd came up with a complete analysis and a credible policy other than âbring the troops home soonâ. (There’s no Iraq policy at all on the ALP web site at present). Itâs not so much that itâs bad politics: the Australian mood has changed, and Labor isn’t as vulnerable to being labelled âcut-and-run cowardsâ as they were two years ago. But Labor should still have an ethical policy that promotes the least catstrophic outcome for the country we helped to propel into chaos.
To this end Iâll attempt a survey of the available plains: the Bush-Petraeus plan, Plan B (from Byman and Pollack), the McCain Plan, the Baker Plan, sundry Democrat and Republican proposals, and anything else that comes to my attention in the comments.
The Bush-Petraeus Plan
This looks like a paradox at first blush. Anyone who has read Thomas Ricksâs Fiasco will remember that if President Bush is but one of the numerous villains of the piece, General Petraeus was one of the few heroes. The resolution of the paradox is that this is really Bushâs plan; his resort to Petraeus represents a partial facing-up to his administrationâs mistakes; and Petraeusâs acquiescence is a matter of duty rather than choice. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
The Bush plan is in essence to continue with the current strategy but to do it smarter, learn from the mistakes so far: recognise that itâs a non-conventional war, stop behaving like a bull in a china shop, stop underestimating the enemy, stop boosting the insurgency by antagonising the locals, and so on. More specifically, it involves putting General Petraeus in charge, and concentrating on the task of securing Baghdad. Petraeus is the US militaryâs leading expert on counterinsurgency, who by all accounts achieved brilliant results in Mosul in his first tour of Iraq with the 101st Airborn Division in the first months of the war. His philosophy was to use overwhelming force to subdue opposition at the outset, and then win the hearts and minds of the local population, by consulting with local leaders, keeping prisoners to minimum and treating them with dignity, domiciling the soldiers amongst the local population rather than in massive, sealed-off bases, and concentrating efforts on repairs to infrastructure. The idea seems to be that if the extra 20,000-odd troops all go to Baghdad this will facilitate the overwhelming force part, and then Petraeusâs good judgement will deliver the rest.
Which is not to say that Petraeus himself believes it can still be done, according to Barry Posen, a professor at the MIT Center for International Studies and one of the generalâs mentors. Posen’s view, as summarised in this Boston Globe story:
Petraeus finds himself in [a minefield] as he assumes a command and embraces a strategy that may be inherently flawed — and inherently contradictory to his own sense of doctrine.
“Imagine the commander in chief comes to you and says, ‘The good news is I want you to do the thing you have talked about your whole life…The bad news is that it is already a mess,'” explained Posen. “So what do you imagine a good soldier is going to do at that point? Say, ‘No sir, I don’t think I can help you, it is too far gone’? No, he is going to do the best he can.
“He has to say it is a mess to buy time,” Posen said, “but he has to say it is a redeemable mess. And that is what we heard from David Petraeus in Washington [at the Senate confirmation hearing].”
More on Posen later. The big problem with the Bush plan in its official version, from Petraeusâs point of view, is that it relies heavily on the cooperation of the Iraqi government and the participation of Iraqi troops. Giving the Iraqis ownership of the insurgency problem is a good objective in principle, and the main reason Petraeusâs predecessor General Casey long resisted the idea of increasing troop numbers.
But itâs hopeless. The main difficulty is not that that Iraqi troops lack the skill and organisation to fight insurgents, which they do, but that their goals are not the same as the Americansâ. Tribal and sectarian leaders have decided to pursue their own causes and vendettas as long as the chaos prevails. The government is controlled by a coalition of Shiite groups whose common cause is the subjugation if not elimination of Baathists in particular and Sunni Muslims in general. In short, the Iraqi army has become a tool of Shiite hegemony, and is in large part indistinguishable from the Shiite militias.
This doesnât mean that the Iraqi Government doesnât welcome a modest troop increase. As Ricks himself put it in a recent interview with Brian Lehrer
It’s a kind of “donut strategy”: you guys get out of here and be useful chumps while we sort out our internal differences, finish the ethnic cleansing, and consolidate our hold on power. I don’t think that’s where the Americans wanted to do so, while they called this “Maliki’s plan,” it’s almost the opposite. It’s “we’re going to send troops into the middle of the city, double the American presence on the streets of Baghdad because we don’t trust your army.
We’ve been operating off balance — basically fighting from our heels rather than our toes since about 2003. The reality of Iraq that they haven’t caught up with, I fear, is that the Shiites have concluded that they’ve won. And that’s why we’re proposing this “donut” strategy. And as you say, if the Shiites have won, then it has won the civil war, won control of Iraq. All we’re doing is being a useful tool to help them out and keep the Sunnis off their back while they consolidate their hold. I think the US is going to try over the next 6 months to operate more independently and say, “No, we’re not just going to be a tool for the Shiites.” Whether they can pull that off is a wholly different question.
…So the bottom line on Petraeus with a lot of officers now is “look — this situation is pretty bad, it’s pretty bleak out there — if anyone can do it Petraeus is probably the guy who can try best.” But even then, what I’m hearing, is they don’t expect it to succeed.
So what exactly does Ricks think Petraeus will try to do? In the Washington Post he writes:
The generalâ¦ plans to send all 17,500 additional U.S. troops ordered by President Bush into Baghdad, regardless of whether Iraqi army units join the fight as planned, according to officials familiar with his thinking. Anticipating an uneven performance by the Iraqi army, military planners are advocating using American force and funding quickly to establish early victories, both in improving security and showing economic progress.
The plan to bring security to Baghdad will begin with the deployment of U.S. and Iraqi troops into nine sectors across the city. For years, most U.S. troops have lived on big “Forward Operating Bases.” Petraeus plans to instead establish battalion command posts across the city. “I plan to ensure that some of our forces locate in the neighbourhoods they protect,” he said in his written statement.
The plan calls for large numbers of Iraqi and U.S. forces to flow into a targeted area like an ocean tide, temporarily overwhelming militia and insurgent fighters. But unlike in the past, when the tide goes out, it will leave behind a substantial residual force of Iraq army and police units, backed up by mobile U.S. troops. In this way, planners hope to “hold” neighborhoods rather than just “clear” them of the enemy.
The trickiest question will be how to handle Moqtada al-Sadr. On this, Petraeus told the Senate that “Actions taken in Sadr City will have to be carefully considered.” Apparently âsenior defense officialsâ are confident that the Mahdi Army will lie low if the if Sadr City is overwhelmed with US troops. But it doesnât seem like much of a plan. Even this optimism is vindicated, what about afterwards?
There are two main conclusions to be drawn. First, whether the Bush plan will amount to any substantial improvement on previous plans depends on how quickly the Administration abandons the fantasy that Iraqi troops will soon take over the job of keeping order in Baghdad. According to Ricks, the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, wants to wait until March to see if the extra American troops are needed.
But people familiar with Petraeus’s thinking say that he is likely to take a different course, ignoring any Iraqi shortcomings and asking for all five brigades of planned U.S. reinforcements, figuring out that a true test of the strategy of clearing and holding, and of protecting the citizenry of Baghdad, will require all those 17,500 troops. “To do what has to be done, they all have to go,” said a senior defense official who met last week with Petraeus.
If the extra troops are delayed until either itâs too late for the plan to work, or until Congress actually blocks the âaugmentationâ, then Bush is just setting Petraeus up for failure.
The second conclusion is that even if the plan works in the short run, it might make no difference in the long run. Who knows, the Spring campaign may achieve surprises.
Yet [concludes Ricks] summer may bring the most dangerous point of the entire campaign, especially if U.S. forces begin to withdraw, warned retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, who has advised top U.S. officials on insurgencies. He predicted that Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias will “wait out the surge, falling upon the Iraqi security forces when the Americans start leaving, causing a Tet-like effect where the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.”
If you think thatâs depressing, you havenât seen Byman and Pollackâs assessment. Weâll take that up in the next instalment.