Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Luttwak on Iraq

In yesterday's NY Times, Edward Luttwak surveys the course of the war in Iraq, and tells us of the only realistic option we have left:
The sooner President Bush can get his extra troops for a “surge” in Iraq, the sooner he will be able to announce that all American troops are coming home because of the inevitable failure of the Iraqi government to “live up to its side of the bargain.” In fact, in the run-up to the surge proposal, it is unlikely that there was any real two-sided bargaining before Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was induced to issue promises — particularly in terms of government troops taking on Shiite militias — that he cannot possibly fulfill. Mr. Maliki, it seems, simply agreed to whatever was asked of him, to humor the White House and retain American support for a little while longer.

...only the Kurdish militias unfailingly obey their political leaders — one is the president of Iraq no less, Jalal Talabani — while for the rest, it may be more true to say that Iraqi militias have political leaders to represent their wishes. The largest and most murderous of the Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army, which is invariably described as belonging to the truculent cleric Moktada al-Sadr, is actually divided under a bevy of local commanders, some of whom obey Mr. Sadr some of the time.

In sum, the most that Prime Minister Maliki can do is not to interfere when American troops arrest suspects and fight militias, as he has done in the past.

Fortunately, there is a promising, long-term policy ready and waiting for President Bush whenever he decides to call off the good old college try of his surge: disengagement. By this, I don’t mean a phased withdrawal, let alone the leap in the dark of total abandonment. Rather, it would start with a tactical change: American soldiers would no longer patrol towns and villages, conduct cordon-and-search operations, or man outposts and checkpoints. An end to these tasks would allow the greatest part of the troops in Iraq to head home, starting with overburdened reservists and National Guard units.

The remaining American forces, including ground units, would hole up within safe and mostly remote bases in Iraq — to support the elected government, deter foreign invasion, dissuade visible foreign intrusions, and strike at any large concentration of jihadis should it emerge. This would mean, contrary to most plans being considered now, that United States military personnel could not remain embedded in large numbers within the Iraqi Army and police forces. At most, the Americans would operate training programs within safe bases.

What would be the result of disengagement along these lines? First, it would not be likely to increase the violence afflicting Iraqi civilians. The total number of American troops in Iraq — even including any surge — is so small, and their linguistic skills so limited, that they have little effect on day-to-day security. Nor have they really protected Iraqis from one another. At most, the presence of American soldiers in any one place merely diverts attacks elsewhere (unless they themselves are attacked, which is a sad way indeed of reducing Iraqi casualties).

Were the United States to disengage, both Arab Sunnis and Shiites would have to take responsibility for their own security (as the Kurds have doing been all along). Where these three groups are not naturally separated by geography, they would be forced to find ways to stabilize relations with each other. That would most likely involve violence as well as talks, and some forcing of civilians from their homes. But all this is happening already, and there is no saying which ethno-religious group would be most favored by a reduction of the United States footprint.

By "take responsibility for their own security" he does not mean, as some withdrawal proponents seem to imply, that this will somehow result in a decrease in violence. What he does mean is that the Shiites and the Sunnis will no longer have luxury of relying on American soldiers to protect their interests and their home territories (to the limited extent that our soldiers do, at least.) What security our soldiers have provided frees insurgents and militias to go rampaging through each other's territories. Removing that security blanket, again however limited that has been to this point, forces them to attempt to secure their respective territories. It does not mean less violence. It certainly does mean more, as American forces will no longer act as a even a limited buffer between the two sides. But I think Luttwak is also being somewhat euphemistic in his last paragraph. By "stabilize relations", he means in the sense that the Bosnian civil war eventually "stabilized" relations between the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims. But as he rightly points out, it's happening in slow motion even with our troops their trying to prevent it. And why should more soldiers die to stop something that can't be stopped? Why should the horror of what the Iraqi civil war will become give us pause about leaving, if there remains nothing our soldiers can do to prevent it?

His proposal is much like that put forth by Fred Kaplan; radically limit the strategic goals of our forces in Iraq to ones that they can actually achieve, which would have the simultaneous effect of reducing the number of forces we need in Iraq and reducing casualties. This isn't withdrawal a'la Vietnam, nor is it necessarily "redeployment", which I have yet to hear clearly explained by those who propose it. It's simply realizing that there are absolute limits to what we can hope to accomplish in Iraq (or I should say, what we can hope to prevent) and adjusting our approach accordingly.

Lest it sound as if I am endorsing this approach because I don't want to be lumped in with anti-war crowd, be assured that if I had to choose between escalating the conflict as we're doing now or bringing our forces home entirely in six months or less, I would choose the latter. It's just that there are limited options in between, ones that reduce the burden on our forces and reduce the number of casualties, yet allows us to maintain some influence in Iraq. We should be discussing and seriously considering them.


copy editor said...

Train and support. That is what we should be doing. There was an opportunity to shift toward this with the Baker/Hamilton Commission. The president declined. What makes one think that he will shift to this during the rest of his time in office? He will do his second most frequent tactic: kicking the can to the next president.

adam said...

I think this is what many having ultimately been arguing for, but written with much more eloquent explanation than the simple terms of "strategic redeployment" and "phased withdrawal." I agree 100% with it.