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.
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.