Plans for Iraq, Part II: ‘Plan B’


Martyn Indyk put it like this:

If the surge strategy is Plan A, we need to start thinking now about what the United States needs to do if it doesn’t work.

Indyk (who grew up in Australia) was United States Ambassador to Israel in 1995-97 and 2000-2001, and now directs the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution. He was on the 7.30 Report last week to talk about a study the Center has just released: an âAnalysis paperâ entitled âThings Fall Apartâ by Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack.

Byman and Pollock in fact published their conclusion back in August (link via JQ):

Neither of the two could be described as a lifelong critic of American foreign policy. Pollack was a member of the National Security Council under Clinton, and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Byman wrote Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism. But this is how they put it:

The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops — and even they are merely slowing the fall. The internecine conflict could easily spiral into one that threatens not only Iraq but also its neighbors throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with instability, turmoil and war.

Indyk characterises Plan B as a âcontainment strategyâ, which

…essentially gives up the fight in the heartland of Baghdad and those areas in the middle of Iraq – on the grounds that all out civil war, we cannot choose sides in that and hope to prevail – and essentially re deploys the forces and draws them down to about 75,000 80,000 and positions American forces essentially on Iraq’s borders to establish catchment areas for refugees and to provide humanitarian relief for those who are running away from the kind of ethnic cleansing that we fear will take place and, at the same time, by setting up these catchment areas, preventing the refugees from flowing into other countries, so that they are held in positions where they can be looked after, protected and then hopefully returned to their homes once everything settles down, which could take a few years. Also, to move forces up to Kurdistan where they would be welcome, so as to reassure the Turks that nothing untoward is going to happen there and to position some troops in the vicinity of the Iranian border to signal to the Iranians that they cannot come across with conventional forces into Iraq with impunity.

The argument in a nutshell is this:

1. Civil war is nearly a foregone conclusion. Byman and Pollack survey numerous recent civil wars (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Congo, Croatia, Georgia, Kosovo, Lebanon, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Somalia, and Tajikistan) and derive a checklist of conditions for a country to reach a point of no return on the road to civil war. Iraq meets all of the criteria.

2. Most civil wars produce serious spillovers, the key concept in the study. They define spillover as âthe tendency of civil wars to impose burdens, create instability, and even trigger civil wars in other, usually neighboring countries’. The main consequences of spillover are: refugees, terrorism, radicalization of neighbouring populations, secession breeding secession, economic losses, and neighbourly intervention.

3. There are only two ways to stop the catastrophe: by stopping the war, or by containing it. Based on the experience in Bosnia, the authors estimate that at least 450,000 troops (triple the current number) would need to be deployed to stop the war and force a political solution. But there were several circumstances that favoured the success of the Dayton agreement which are not present in Iraq, even if that many troops could be sent. That leaves containment.

4. Interventions aimed at containing spillovers donât usually work, and if one is to succeed in Iraq the method must suit the circumstances. Some methods that have worked in other civil wars should be avoided. Picking winners, i.e. helping one of the parties to get it over with quickly, will only provoke neighbouring countries to increase support for their own proxies. Partition wonât work because the Shia and Sunnis both want to control the whole country, and are in any case splintered amongst themselves into groups that hate each other. Nor should the US dump the problem on the United nations, whose processes are too bureaucratic and sluggish to handle security matters or respond to a sudden refugee crisis.

5. All resources would need to be directed at containment. It would mean abandoning Baghdad and the rest of the centre, and redeploying the troops to âcatchment areasâ in the periphery. There the military would have two tasks: to prevent neighbouring countries from sending weapons and fighters to their clients in Iraq; and to protect refugee camps and prevent them from becoming bases for the respective warring parties.

6. The rest of the containment plan involves aid and diplomacy toward the various surrounding countries that risk getting involved. The aim would be to reduce the influence of militant groups within Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who are allied with factions in Iraq, and who would either drag their governments in the direction of armed intervention, or start secession movements of their own.

This turns out to be a pretty ambitious wish list. As far as economic aid is concerned,

What appears to have prevented such radicalization in the past, against the odds, has been rising levels of socio-economic prosperity and particularly high government capacity in the threatened neighboring states. This suggests that the United States can reduce the risk of radicalization in Iraqâs neighbors by helping them to build government capacity and increase their ability to placate key segments of their populations. Wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia would not receive economic aid, but could instead be provided additional technical assistance to improve the countryâs overall strength in the face of various challenges. Aid also provides some leverage with these governments, making them more likely to hesitate before going against U.S. wishes. Generous aid packages can be explicitly provided with the proviso that they will be stopped (and sanctions possibly applied instead) if the recipient country intervenes
in the Iraqi civil war.

On the diplomatic front, the US needs in particular to act more aggressively to settle the Israel-Palestine dispute, and assist the Lebanese government. This will keep moderate Arabs on side and marginalise groups inclined to join forces with one or other of the warring factions in Iraq. As far as Iran is concerned, notwithstanding any economic aid, the US will need to âLay down a red lineâ: that is, explicitly forbid Iran from carrying certain specified action such as sending in their troops, making claim to Iraqi territory, or inciting secessionist groups. Another idea is to set up a contact group, that is, a regional forum to air grievances and anxieties and discuss common concerns.

It might have made sense to do all these things before invading rather than after. But it’s too llate, and now itâs all a very bleak picture. On the one hand it will most likely all come to nothing anyway:

â¦if the United States is skillful, determined, patient, and lucky, it may be possible to limit the impact of an all-out Iraqi civil war. To be blunt, the same history suggests that it will be very, very difficult to do so. Few nations that tried to contain spillover from an all-out civil war were successful, and while they were all less powerful than the United States and did not attempt a systematic analysis of how to contain spillover from civil wars, the frequency of their failure should be foremost in our minds. It was arrogance in the face of history that led us to blithely assume we could invade without preparing for an occupation, and we would do well to show greater humility when assimilating its lessons about what we fear will be the next step in Iraqâs tragic history.

On the other hand, itâs the only hope:

Unfortunately, the United States probably will not be able to just walk away from the chaos. Even setting aside the humanitarian nightmare that will ensue, afull-scale civil war would likely consume more than Iraq: historically, such massive confl icts have often had highly deleterious effects on neighboring countries and other outside states. Spillover from an Iraq civil war could be disastrous. America has too many strategic interests at stake in the Middle East to ignore the consequences. Thus, it is imperative that the United States develop a plan for containing an all-out Iraqi civil war. As part of a containment approach, our new priority would have to become preventing the Iraqi conflict from spilling over and destabilizing neighboring states: an approach that requires deterring neighboring states from intervening, helping mitigate the risks associated with refugees, striking terrorist havens, and otherwise changing our policy to reflect the painful reality that the U.S. effort to bring peace and stability to Iraq has failed. Not planning now for containing the Iraqi civil war could lead its devastation to become even greater, engulfing not only Iraq but also much of the surrounding region and gravely threatening U.S. interests.

Pollack himself stresses that itâs only a contingency plan, and urges everyone to go along with the Presidentâs plan. This is a bit puzzling, given that a strong theme in their study is the danger of adopting half-measures, indecision, muddling through and so on (this tendency made outcomes much worse in their simulations). In any case he and Byman donât think the Presidentâs plan has much hope, unless troop numbers are increased to nearly half a million, and the public mood is dead against this.

They donât say whether, given the choice, they would favour a massive troop augmentation over the surge with its backup Plan B. But there are some who clearly do, and in the next instalment we examine the McCain Plan.

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14 years ago

They had a long article in the Outlook section of the WaPo last August too. I think their prescription was, unless you put 450K boots on the ground then stop the spillover. Apparently about 2 million Iraqis have moved across the borders and another 1.7 million have been displaced inside the country, that makes about 16% of the population in total displaced. So bad policy and mismanagement is having massive effects locally and internationally. Then you have the 4GW theorists who claim that an insurgencies can only be defeated by domestic forces not foreign ones.

14 years ago

Helena is 1 step ahead of you. What they need to be thinking of is the coming withdrawal.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Cameron, I did point to the WP piece. The link wasn’t working, but it’s fixed now. Your summary is very nice. I missed it because I used Google Australia to see who else had blogged about it.

Lloyd, thanks for that link. I’ll go back to it for part IV!

Kevin Schnaper
Kevin Schnaper
14 years ago

I would suggest Pollack recommends going along with the President’s plan, because success in wartime requies will at home. There is no use talking strategy without shoring up willpower. All strategies, if I may make a metaphor, are like lightbulbs. Without juice, they don’t work.

And willpower has a strange effect, too, in that it can demoralize opposition that is growing weary. There is implicit in every willful strike, this secondary psychological effect.

Secondly, it seems Pollack is making an allowance for his own fallibility in analysis. There are so many unknowables in the battle space over time, it would be foolish to be too rigid. While he was typing up his manuscript, changes on the ground were occurring. And Brookings, a wonderful think tank with fantastic access to information, still doesn’t have the intimate knowledge of the matter that the Pentagon and CIA have.

Which brings up the IG report’s view on the naming of the strife:

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Indyk’s logic seems pretty compelling to me. Needless to say it won’t seem so to the Bushistas whose credibility would be utterly destroyed by its conclusions.

What surprises me is the extent to which so many commentators in Australia seem to have tacitly accepted Howard’s argument that ‘if it’s good enough for Australia to withdraw it’s good enough for the USA to do so’ (I ignore Downer’s juvenile ranting about Aussies standing by their mates). There’s much more discussion in the Australian media and in our blogs about what America should do about Iraq than there is about our own continuing participation in the CoW.

The emphasis of the debate should be reversed. For reasons of morality and national security Australian forces should be withdrawn immediately. Then we can debate the implications of American policy as a matter of academic interest, without this lingering suggestion that somehow the American dilemma is also ours.

Kevin Schnaper
Kevin Schnaper
14 years ago

Mr. Lovell ,

You seem to take bad trends for bad conclusions. That’s great if your plan is to just get to the bad end and be done with it. But that argument is hard to fathom morally given that so many human lives are involved. The withdrawal of Aussie troops would be a great blow to US morale and would probably result in a very swift tidal wave of negative public opinion in the US engulfing the entire Iraq project. But since those in power know we must stay to keep things stable, the tidal wave of doubt in the country will only serve to undermine our troops still further, will further embolden Al Quieda and Iran, putting even more strain on US troops, thus inching Iraq ever closer to a Holocaust. This is not a matter of Bush’s standing. He doesn’t have a standing. At this point, it’s a humanitarian question, simply and solely.

Tiny Tyrant
14 years ago


I’d suggest that certainly, the US public would be surprised to hear that Australian troops were in Iraq and the likely effect of their withdrawal on the morale of the US Military would be minor.

The other CoW members have done the bolt with nary a peep from the US.

Kevin Schnaper
Kevin Schnaper
14 years ago

Tiny Tyrant,

You couldn’t be more wrong. I live here. I know. Every “change of heart” and subsequent “redeployment” by a coalition member has been devastating. Devastating to morale, devastating to the notion that there is some kind of moral component to the actions of nations in the world or that there is any such thing as courage left in Europe. The news has carried these pull outs and they have served to embolden the anti-war crowd throughout the nation, not to mention the Ba’athists and Al Quieda in Iraq.

We are all well aware of the Australian and British contributions as well as those of other nations. The only people who are playing down the contributions of other nations are those that are seeking to undermine the current administration as being “alone in the world” which plays extremely well in the press and on the left over here.

Of course, now that the Democrats in this country have played that card to energize their base, and have gotten control of congress, the base is going nuts because the Dems haven’t de-funded the war. Of course the Dems never planned to defund the war. They were simply playing the base like a fiddle to regain power.

Tiny Tyrant
14 years ago

I’m sure Howard and the Australians directly affected by the commitment to Iraq will be glad to hear that.

I’ve only ever read and seen (in the mainstream US media I’m exposed to, such as Fox & CNN) reporting with a patronising tone regarding the efforts of the other CoW members, except the UK. Of course, the patronising tone from the US media is common and not restricted to this example.

For me, it is heartening to know that the US public is capable of appreciating their position compared to other nations (in their level of commitment) in this particular adventure and their chosen style of execution. Hopefully, they’ll realise that it’s not because they were the only ones with the courage to undertake a tough task. Though, the two times I have visited the US the folks I met haven’t given me confidence.

My guess is that the Dems will eventually defund the war, but only when it is politically expedient and the ulterior US interests in Iraq are sorted. You seem to have information to the contrary and I would not be surprised if it is correct. To my mind, it would only be right that Bush and the Republicans are associated with the last four years and immediate future of Iraq.

Thanks for the local US insight.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago


When you google “pulls troops out of Iraq” you get a few hits like this one on Spain. But not that many, and nothing to back up your claim that it’s devastating to morale. Do you have some evidence? I’m actually hoping you’re right (as is Ingolf, I think).

Kevin Schnaper
Kevin Schnaper
14 years ago

I think you’re demonstrating a new-media-centricity that is one of the great problems in understanding anything these days. Maybe its a consequence of being on the net too much :)

When news came about the Madrid Bombing there was tons of talk about it all over the news and chat shows and everyone was talking about the possible consequences. Ii was all over the television and the newspapers for a week with images of the carnage replayed hourly. There was this feeling that “now Europe will realize what is going on and we will solidify the alliance and really fight this thing.”

When news came that Spain was pulling its troops out, there was this collective national head-lowering. You could feel it. It was on the news for a very short period of time. And then it fell off the airwaves. Nobody wanted to talk about it afterward. But the demoralization remained behind. The thought has remained since that, “In the end, we will be alone”.

I don’t think I’ve read many articles about it, I doubt the clips are available anywhere except by direct request from the television stations for exact time and dates for a cost of 15 bucks or something. That is the truth as I see it.