Surge in Iraq: Responding to US Domestic Imperatives
If Mr. Durand points out one thing, it is that current crisis is the result of continual missed opportunities in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, both invasions were undertaken without mid- to long-range planning. Once the US was inside the occupied country, it had no plan at all. The ensuing lack of preparedness and disarray in Washington left a gap of 18 crucial months, which may have permanently turned the tables against the US.
Chat: The New US Strategy in Iraq
LEMONDE.FR | 10.JAN.07 | 18:10 • Updated 11.01.07 | 17:59
Debate with Etienne de Durand, Fellow, IFRI and expert in strategic issues, Thursday January 11, 15:00
Q. IS 20,000 troops too little, too late? Can they produce change and take control of a difficult situation?
A. The answer is sadly, yes. Too little, too late. But we should not merely consider this figure in itself but the way in which the troops will be used, and especially where they are concentrated, as Bush said himself: They will be concentrated in Baghdad. It also remains to be seen whether these are combat units or not. You should know that the great majority of the 130,000 men already in Iraq and who have been there for the last few years do not include combat troops –front line troops– but support units. It does appear that the five brigades to be deployed are combat brigades. So yes, they could make a difference in Baghdad, at least temporarily.
However, the troops are insufficient for the entire country because, that would require 400,000 men, not 150,000. The plan relies heavily on Iraqi security forces and especially their attitude. And we know that the Iraqi police are widely infiltrated by Shi'ite militias, especially those of Moqtada al-Sadr. Those militias are more a part of the problem than the solution, if I might say so. In other words, everything will depend on the attitude of the Shi’ite government.
Q. Sending 20,000 additional troops seems like an aberation. However, perhaps it’s finally a responsible attitude on the part of President George W. Bush.
A. As Bush said himself, it’s a question of the least bad option. It was never meant as an ideal solution. Over the short term, it appears very difficult to prevent the situation from deteriorating. But over the long term, the problem is that a counter-insurrectional strategy implies a long-term effort. A timely effort lasting only a few months will not improve the situation.
I think that there are two potential contradictions in the Bush plan. The first, as I said before, is the attitude of the Shi'ite government and the Shi'ite population. The current plans assumes that the problem consists in reinforcing the Iraqi government, which is too weak, and that if it is given enough time and the right means, it will succeed in strengthening itself and improving its control of the country.
However, contradictorily, if the Shi’ite government intends to represent only the Shi'ites and to make no real concession to the Sunnis, short-term reinforcement of the capacities of this government and improving the security situation will not resolve the problem. It may well worsen it.
A certain number of Shi’ite leaders have indicated that they want the Americans to use their troops against the Sunnis exclusively. In other words, the Americans are doing the work of the Shi’a. But the US plan consists of fighting the Sunni insurgency and controlling the Shi’ite militias and the Shi’ite death squads.
There is a second contradiction, which is a fundamental problem: Bush’s strategy is a short-term strategy responding to a political imperative –that of the domestic US politics. We know very well that a counter-insurgency strategy requires years. When you read the statements of certain US military officials, starting with those of General Petraeus, the new commander-in-chief in Iraq, it is clear that he envisages success over the medium term, –even the long term–, i.e. over several years.
Q. How do you interpret Mr. Bush’s new strategy relating to the war in Iraq? As a desire to be done with “limiting collateral damage” or to continue in the direction he has followed since the start of the war?
A. I think that the new US plan must be seen through the lens of US domestic politics. George Bush is prisoner of a very complex situation. There are two urgent aspects: on the one hand, to rapidly respond to the war-weariness of the US population –especially since the Democrats now control Congress, and on the other George Bush pride himself to being very determined and very willing –some would say very stubborn– and he does not want to concede defeat. But from the moment in which he can no longer do what he has been doing until now (the "stay the course" formulation that has characterized his program over the last few years), he’ll certainly have to try something else. Which is either withdrawal or the start of a withdrawal, or, conversely, one last try.
Within the context of US domestic policies, it is very bad to be an administration that concedes defeat. And I think that Bush would not only prefer to withdraw with a half a success or even a failure –but not a defeat– but would like it to happen under the Democrats, assuming they win the elections in 2008, who will have to pick up the pieces and assume the blame for the defeat.
IRAQ AS AN INTERNATIONAL ISSUE
Q. Why does Bush continue to ignore the recommendations of the Baker Commission, a pullout plan but with a diplomatic aspect involving neighboring states?
A. The problem with the recommendations of the Baker Commission is that they are partially contradictory and, moreover, do not say how things would work. Let use take the question you raise as an example: opening negotiations with Iran and Syria assumes willingness on the part of the Syrians and the Iranians to talk as well as diplomatic concessions that would not too costly. I’m not informed on the secret negotiations that may be going on, but from what we know about the Iranian government, nothing permits the assumption that they would be willing to make concessions, since they are in a position of strength. One of the rules of the game is to avoid negotiating from a position of weakness. In other words, if the current plan stabilizes the situation slightly, and even temporarily, the Americans would be better placed to negotiate with Iraq’s neighbors.
Q. Doesn’t Iran have a vested interest in a worsening situation to advance its nuclear program and become the dominant power in the region?
A. Yes and no. It is quite clear that the current situation serves the interest of Iran and that, in particular, the heavy American military presence in Iraq places the US in a difficult situation should the US envisage using military force against Iran to counter its nuclear program. However, it’s undeniable that the Iranians “jumped aboard a moving train”, and took advantage of the situation. However, Iran has no interest in seeing Iraq sink into all-out civil war because this could easily transform itself into potential overt regional war: pitting the Shi’a against the Sunni. Finally, they would like to see the US mired in Iraq and weakened militarily and politically, without, however, a civil war and the potential regional conflict.
Q. How are the other great powers (China, Russia…) intervening in Iraq? In other words, are these powers throwing a wrench in the works to counter US strategy and weaken the US?
A. It is hard to find anything out about potential secret negotiations conducted by China or Russia. But what is certain is that a weakening of the US would not be unwelcome. We see this in the management of the Iran nuclear dossier in the UN Security Council. And again, over-interpretations should be avoided, such as a defined and caricatured Chinese policy. Given her energy needs, China does not want the Middle East, the largest supplier of hydrocarbons, to sink into chaos. This is one of the reasons why they are reticent to sanction Iran.
Q. What roles does the falling price of oil play in US strategy?
A. I am not an expert in energy issues. Anything I say should be treated with caution. I do not think that the declining price of oil plays any role in US strategy in Iraq. I think you’d have to attack the question from the opposite direction: a precipitous retreat from Iraq would end in civil war and widespread chaos and would inevitably have a negative impact on the price of a barrel of oil. And this strengthens the desire of George W. Bush to persevere. And in general, I think that the decline in oil prices plays more of a role in relationships with Iran. It is clear that the prospect of financial sanctions, even military sanctions, is difficult to contemplate when the price of oil is high. In other words, the potential stabilization of Iraq or a partial US pullout while keeping the price of oil low would give the United States and the West in general greater margin for maneuver vis-à-vis Iran.
THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND
Q. Is it true that the current Iraqi government, and especially the president, are incapable of independent action? If it can’t do anything without US approval, why does it exist? Does the new US strategy include granting more power and credibility to this government?
A. I believe that the Iraqi government does indeed have a certain amount of autonomy. Things have changed since 2003 and 2004. However, it is true that the government is heavily dependent upon the United States, militarily as well as financially. The classic problem is that in this type of situation, if the foreign occupation goes overboard, the local government would no longer have an interest in cooperating, such as in fighting corruption or pro-Shi’ite sectarianism. If, on the other hand, the Americans drastically diminish their assistance, or cut it off, the risk is seeing the Iraq government collapse and the country sink into total chaos. This is the classic problem the US had in South Vietnam.
With this prospect, Bush’s most recent plan is to briefly reinforce his military and to provide economic aid to the Iraqi government in order to facilitate the transition. Once again, the problem is that this plan assumes that the Iraqi government has a real desire to quash the Sunni insurrection, and, in the end, to become the government of all Iraqis and not only the Shi’ites. Moreover, in his speech, George W. Bush insisted that the US intends to gradually hand over responsibility to the Iraqi government and that its support will not last forever. In other words, if there is no significant improvement of the situation in 2007, the United States will certainly change its strategy.
Q. With or without the presence of US troop, Iraq seems doomed to sectarian war. In other words, the current Iraqi government desperately lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunni fringe. What do you think?
A. Despite what a Western viewpoint would tell you, political legitimacy does not depend solely on elections. Right or wrong, the Sunnis see themselves as the country’s élite, who not only fostered the modernization of Iraq at a certain period in time but also its national unity, especially towards Iran. On the other hand, the Shi’ites, both objectively and subjectively, have always constituted an oppressed “minority” (despite being a majority), and now intend to hold on to the power that has come to them for the first time. In other worlds, significant reciprocal concessions are needed for the two communities to reach an agreement. But these concessions are likely to be unacceptable within both communities by a certain number of people and politicians. There is no certainty that overt civil war is avoidable but it is certain that in the short term a US pullout would bring about a civil war.
Q. Are the former Ba’athists being reintegrated into Iraqi life? Or is "de-Ba'athification" still going on? Wasn’t this the biggest strategic mistake of US policy to have applied in Iraq the principle of "de-Nazification”?
A. It is certain that the de-Ba’athification policies implemented by Paul Bremer when he arrived in Baghdad in June 2003 were a big mistake. Disbanding the Iraqi Army was even worse. Under Saddam Hussein, anyone who wished to rise to a certain level had to be a party member. Consequently, Bremer's decision alienated most Sunnis, who had no direct role in the regime. On the other hand, keeping persons who were directly implicated in Saddam Hussein’s repressive police state in positions of power would have been unacceptable to the Shi’a and the Kurds. Moreover, it was a precondition for national reconciliation. It’s likely an inextricable situation: those people should have been kept in their jobs to preserve state structures and to avoid the anarchy that reigned during the first few weeks of the occupation but in doing so the Americans would have alienated the vast majority of the Iraqi population and would have betrayed their own ideals of democracy.
Since then, the situation has changed somewhat, and it is true that the Americans, like the Shi’ite government, have made a certain number of overtures to the Sunni community and to a number of former Ba'athists who were not terribly compromised by the former regime. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground and inter-community tensions developed faster than political overtures. The inclusion of a certain number of former Ba’athists, as, by the way, the change in posture on the part of US troops to stabilization efforts and the reconstitution of the security forces should have happened far earlier, in 2003-2004.
Q. Do the Democrats have a strategy in the Iraqi crisis?
A. That’s a very good question! The answer is sadly, no. The big weakness of the Democrats, structurally, is not having had much input on security questions for a number of years. And their weakness in the short term is their incapacity to propose an alternate strategy that is not a variation on the theme of a pullout.
Nevertheless, the Democratic victory in the November elections was above all a defeat for the Republicans and a repudiation of Bush’s policies. Given the current circumstances, it is very difficult to come up with a credible strategy, even one that successfully leads to an orderly disengagement.
Q. Senator Joe Biden, a potential Democratic candidate for President in 2008, announced two months ago the idea of splitting Iraq into three parts: the North for the Kurds, the South for the Shi’ites and Anbar Province for the Sunnis, with Baghdad as the national capital. Is this a valid solution?
A. The art of prediction is very difficult, especially when it concerns the future…
The problem with this type of solution is that that it’s abstract and only on paper, rather than a practical, immediate solution. It should be recalled that there are several areas inhabited by multiple communities. Take the example of Kirkuk, which is both Sunni and Kurd. And especially Baghdad, which is multi-confessional, I might add. And you’ll find Sunni communities in Shi’ite areas, and vice versa. In other words, a policy like that would sanction the ongoing ethnic cleansing. Recall also that such a solution finally worked in Bosnia but at the cost of a civil war that produced many victims that was only successfully contained with the deployment of 60,000 NATO troops. For Iraq, 300,000 to 400,000 troops would probably be needed.
Finally, Iraqi power would have to be federalized, with a large Kurdish area, a Western Sunni area and a Shi’ite area, which already exist de facto. This is the direction that would have to be taken to achieve a peaceful political settlement. Creating three distinct areas, all quasi-states, assumes: 1) Solving the problem of mixed areas; 2) finding an agreement on petroleum revenue and 3) finding a solution for other Iraqi minorities which is all too often neglected: Turkmen, Assyrians, etc. I don’t think Senator Biden’s approach is very serious, beyond political posturing.
Q. The US talks about a pullout by the end of 2009, yet it keeps increasing its troop levels. Do they really intend to withdraw some day?
A. The answer is easy. Of course they want to withdraw and if they could they would do it tomorrow given the high political, financial and strategic toll.
Q. Should the US withdraw, what would be the European strategy?
A. It should be recalled that the European countries have had a disparate approach to the Iraq crisis. Some were opposed to the invasion –like France and Germany–, while others were largely in favor and yet others actually participated: the UK, the Netherlands and, at least at the outset, Italy, Spain and Poland. There has been no European strategy on Iraq, rather the opposite.
Today, and especially tomorrow, with the perspective of a US pullout, the Europeans, even if they were able to agree and possessed the will, would not be able to intervene militarily in Iraq, even as “peace keepers”. The only paths that would remain open to them would be diplomatic efforts with Iraq’s neighbors and potentially, if conditions were right, economic and reconstruction assistance.
Chat moderated by Claire Ané