In the last few months, the United States has made important course corrections in its approach to Iraq. America has accelerated the return of sovereignty to an Iraqi government, assigned the central role for Iraq's political development to the United Nations, sought a greater role for NATO in Iraq's stabilization and returned primacy for the civil aspects of nation-building within the U.S. government to the Department of State from the Department of Defense.
These changes will culminate on Wednesday with the inauguration of a new Iraqi government, the dissolution of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the opening of an American embassy.
The changes are also being accompanied by a shift in American military strategy toward a less prominent and less visible role for American and coalition forces on the streets of Iraq's major cities. Such a shift can occur only slowly and incompletely as long as Iraqi police and military forces remain ill-equipped and untrained. It is clear, however, that the United States does not and will not have enough troops to secure Iraq, and that this job will have to be done progressively by Iraqis, however inadequately prepared. It is also clear that the visible presence of American forces has itself become a stimulus to resistance and a trigger for violence.
In transferring sovereignty and seeking greater U.N. and NATO involvement, the U.S. administration has co-opted the positions of its foreign and domestic critics. It has also abandoned its early preference for a unilaterally run occupation on the model of post-WWII Germany and Japan in favor of an internationally mandated peace enforcement action organized along the lines of the post Cold War American-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. These steps will help bolster international support and attenuate Iraqi resistance.
Unfortunately, however, the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated beyond the point where even the best-organized peace enforcement operation, on the model of Bosnia or Kosovo, can suffice to stabilize the situation.
Resistance to the American presence in Iraq that began with former regime holdouts and a few foreign fighters has metastasized over the past year into the beginnings of a nationalist insurgency. Having failed to deploy U.S. and international forces in sufficient numbers to pre-empt such a development, the United States will have to depend increasingly upon its Iraqi allies to meet this threat.
In designing a common strategy, American and Iraqi leaders will need to look beyond peace enforcement operations of the last decade and turn to British and American experiences of the past half-century in places like Malaysia, Kenya, Vietnam and Northern Ireland for inspiration.
Study of those prior campaigns suggests the need to closely integrate political and military planning, to give primacy to political objectives, most particularly winning the support of the population, and to make public security the centerpiece of the military as well as civil effort.
The United States and the new Iraqi government will also need to work constructively with all of Iraq's neighbors if they are to have any hope of cutting off external support for the insurgency. Insurgencies that are denied external support and lose their domestic base can be defeated. These must now be the priorities in Iraq.
Mr. Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in Orange County Register on June 27, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.