Changing Course In Iraq Is Not an Option


May 17, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Financial Times on May 17, 2004.

The killing on Monday of Izzedin Salim, president of Iraq's Governing Council, on the very doorstep of the US-guarded "Green Zone" coalition headquarters in Baghdad illustrates how untenable the situation in Iraq has become and how difficult it will be to set any new course.

Despite urgings by pundits and political advisers for radical course corrections in Iraq, the Bush and Blair administrations are not facing attractive choices. Any significant reinforcement of troops to the level, say, that US army generals such as Anthony Zinni, the former Centcom commander, or Eric Shinseki, the former army chief of staff, advised earlier seems out of the question for both the US and UK. Gen Zinni has said his Iraq war plan in the late 1990s called for 350,000 troops - yet the coalition troop strength is currently less than half this figure. Nor are new volunteer nations likely to join the multinational coalition amid rising casualties and the scandal over US abuse of Iraqi detainees. On the contrary, further defections from the coalition seem more likely. At this stage, the limit on multilateralisation of the Anglo-American effort in Iraq is not residual unilateralist sentiment in Washington, but growing reluctance within the United Nations and most of its member governments to assume the considerable risks involved in such a mission.

On the other hand, any marked draw-down of coalition forces over the next six months, while Iraq moves from occupation to sovereignty to national elections, would risk a complete breakdown of that delicate process and, perhaps, spark a civil war. Yet significant adjustments are clearly needed in US-UK strategy - if not in force levels, at least to reverse growing hostility among Iraqis and plunging public confidence in the US and UK in the strategies of the respective governments.

To start with, London and Washington should recognise that they are now combating a full-blown nationalist insurgency - not simply conducting a counter-terrorism campaign. Indeed, the coalition's most dangerous adversaries are no longer foreign fighters or former regime holdouts, but growing numbers of nationalist insurgents. Their fervent nationalism gives them legitimacy and appeal among the very population that US-led troops are trying to secure. One does not defeat such a movement simply by killing insurgents, but by winning popular support and marginalising the rebels. An occupied population looks to its occupiers for one thing above all - not democracy nor electricity, but security. This is what the US and UK have so far failed to provide. If the coalition is to have any chance of regaining Iraqi consent for its presence, it must put public security at the forefront of counter-insurgency strategy. If public security is the primary objective, reducing Iraqi casualties is the means. If fewer Iraqis are killed for whatever reason month to month, the coalition is winning. If the number goes up, the coalition is losing - as it is at present. A form of "reverse body count" should be the metric for success.

The Anglo-American coalition does not have enough troops to secure Iraq and, for the reasons cited above, it never will. Given the extent to which Iraqis - many of whom were well- inclined to start with - have turned against the coalition presence, it is not even clear whether more western troops would help solve the problem. Rather, it now seems Iraq will have to be secured increasingly by Iraqis. Unfortunately, the 200,000 Iraqi police and soldiers whom the coalition has recruited for this purpose remain largely untrained and ill-equipped. Fixing these deficiencies is likely to take one or two years. The only other sources of even marginally trained and motivated manpower in Iraq are the communal militias. Some are friendly to the Anglo-American coalition, some neutral and some incorrigibly hostile. Like it or not, the coalition may have to look to the former two categories to supplement its own efforts and those of Iraqi national forces to maintain public security from now to the year-end elections. This is far from ideal, but probably necessary to be able to hold elections at all.

Iraqis are not going to fight in adequate numbers to secure their country under US or coalition command. If it wants Iraqi help, Washington will have to relax its insistence on unity of command and recognise that after June 30 the Iraqis will be both allies and hosts - not clients or subordinates. Obviously the US will have the preponderance of power within this alliance, while the new Iraqi national authorities will have very limited capabilities to control their own forces or influence the coalition forces. Nevertheless, after June 30, US generals will have to lead by persuasion. The sooner Washington acknowledges this reality, the quicker the new Iraqi regime can begin pulling its weight in securing Iraq.

Successful counterinsurgency campaigns give primacy to political objectives. The first objective, and one over which the US, UK and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, are intensifying efforts, is the June 30 transfer to a fully sovereign Iraqi government. The next and overarching goal must be to organise and secure national elections by year-end. Anglo-American strategies should all be geared toward regaining the consent of the Iraqi people and achieving that overriding priority.

The writer is director of the International Security Policy and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit research organization

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