Because security in Iraq is improving, the United States now has a chance to achieve the best realistic outcome of its unfortunate invasion and occupation: extricating the bulk of U.S. forces without making things worse.
The temporary surge of five additional U.S. brigades has helped curb sectarian killings in Baghdad, braking Iraq's slide into civil war. But the surge does not explain all that is happening in Iraq. Other factors will determine when most U.S. forces, post-surge, can be withdrawn and with what consequences.
The two most promising developments in the country are the improved performance of U.S. forces and the progress of the Iraqi army. Until this year, when the Pentagon adopted a counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. forces relied on episodic attacks and sweeps to kill or detain enemy fighters. This left the population alternately exposed to insurgent violence and outraged by American brute force. Consequently, although U.S. forces killed or detained 80,000 suspected insurgents from 2004 through 2006, the number of insurgents swelled from 5,000 to 30,000 during the period.
The new doctrine affords more continuous protection of the population, enlists tribal sheikhs and war-weary citizens, and uses force and detention judiciously. It is working not just in Baghdad, but in combustible provinces like Anbar in the West and Nineveh in the North. More than the surge, the U.S. military's newfound adeptness is isolating Sunni jihadists and Shiite militants — a tenet of counterinsurgency.
Equally encouraging is recent progress — at long last — of the Iraqi army. A second tenet of counterinsurgency is that foreign forces, however adept, are no substitute for capable indigenous ones. Lest we forget, huge foreign military intervention did not produce victory for the French in Indochina or Algeria, for the Soviets in Afghanistan, or for the Americans in Vietnam. An indigenous army can claim a measure of legitimacy that an occupying army — especially a Western one amid Muslim populations — cannot.
Built from scratch starting in 2003, Iraq's army is just beginning to assume chief responsibility for security, province by province. (Iraqi police, in contrast, continue to disappoint.) The army is emerging as one of Iraq's few effective national institutions: an integrated force with units and commanders drawn from every province, people and sect. Generally speaking, they are well-led, disciplined, adequately funded, politically trustworthy, and respected by the people. The most important indicator of their progress is that U.S. commanders are starting to decide that Iraqi brigades can replace U.S. brigades one by one, a process that will gain speed in the coming year.
At the same time, Iraq's security is very fragile. Shiite militia operate freely in and partly control cities in the south. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremists have been hurt badly by Sunni tribes and U.S. special forces, but that does not make them incapable of most-heinous terrorism. We had better expect stepped-up suicide bombings of Shiite shrines and pilgrims with the aim of reigniting civil war. If this happens, Shiite militia armed by Iran will be fighting Sunni tribes armed by the United States. Meanwhile, political and economic progress is lagging progress in security.
What does this decidedly mixed picture imply for the chance to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq? In determining the need for U.S. forces, the key question is not whether they can bring peace to Iraq — they cannot — but rather when can Iraqi forces contain insecurity more or less as effectively as U.S. forces can? Provided the U.S. and Iraqi governments place their highest priority on improving the Iraqi army, its brigades should be able to replace ours without making things worse — at this point, a diminished but realistic definition of success.
Because improvement of the Iraqi army — the main variable — is programmed and fairly predictable, it is possible to plan the withdrawal of U.S. forces, except for residual training, advisory, logistics, and quick-response capabilities. The Bush administration will not announce a fixed timetable, believing that it would constrain our commanders and encourage our enemies. But it would not be imprudent to announce an interim target. Unless the steady progress of the Iraqi army is derailed, it is feasible for U.S. forces in Iraq to be half their current level of 168,000 by, say, Inauguration Day, 2009.
Such a target would have important advantages: U.S. withdrawal would be, and be seen worldwide as, the result of (limited) success, not defeat in Iraq or pressure at home. Iraqi politicians would feel more pressure to end their current standoff. Additional forces would be available for Afghanistan, where they are badly needed. The rebuilding of the U.S. Army could begin in earnest. The president would not be seen as leaving his biggest problem entirely to his successor — hardly a noble legacy. And the country could unify around a reasonable if imperfect plan.
David Gompert is a senior fellow at the Rand Corp. and former senior adviser for national security and defense in the Coalition Provisional Authority. He just returned from a visit to Iraq.
This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on December 2, 2007.