The Long Range Iraq Plan and its Critics

BY Herschel Smith
7 years ago

The broad outlines of the long range plan being formalized by senior military leadership was divulged several days ago.  The plan includes an extension of force deployment in Iraq to provide security, along with pressure on the government and various political and religious factions to resolve differences.

Fred Kaplan weighed in on the plan at Slate in an article entitled Interesting But Doomed: Why Petraeus’ Ingtriguing New Iraq Strategy Will Probably Fail.  The plan has numerous critics, but Kaplan’s most recent article warrants close study, including (we think) at the same time both misperception and compelling argument.  In order to mine his complex thoughts on the matter, his article will be cited at length, followed up by commentary and analysis.  Kaplan writes:

If the U.S. military had, say, 100,000 more troops to send and another 10 years to keep them there; if the Iraqi security forces (especially the Iraqi police) were as skilled and, more important, as loyal to the Iraqi nation (as opposed to their ethnic sects) as many had hoped they would be by now; if the Iraqi government were a governing entity, as opposed to a ramshackle assemblage that can barely form a quorum—then maybe, maybe, this plan might have a chance.

But under the circumstances, it seems unlikely. One officer who’s familiar with Iraq planning put it this way to me: “No one who understands the situation is optimistic. I think the division among those who have thought deeply about the situation is mainly between those who are still fighting and trying to influence the outcome and those who have concluded that the principal objective must now become disengagement.”

Kaplan outlines in broad form the known problems with the Iraqi government and culture, and then summarizes his opening remarks by citing bleak insider views about the situation.  Then he gets specific.

First, to define “localized security” as including “Baghdad and other areas” is to finesse the major challenge. Securing Baghdad and securing “other areas” have long been considered two separate goals. The former involves pacifying the capital, to give the national politicians enough “breathing room” to make their deals. The latter involves keeping the rest of the country—or at least the major cities—sufficiently secure that democratic politics can function from the ground up as well as from the top down. Ever since late last year, when President Bush ordered the “surge” and hired Gen. Petraeus to create a counterinsurgency strategy, the plan has involved securing the capital and the provinces simultaneously.

The problem—a familiar one—is that we don’t have enough troops to do this all at once. No one who has seriously analyzed the problem ever believed that a “surge” of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. combat troops would be sufficient. It was assumed from the outset that at least two or three times that many would have to come from the Iraqi army (whose soldiers, furthermore, would have to take the lead in many operations) and the Iraqi police (who would need to maintain order once the troops seized new territory).

Yet Iraqi forces have not materialized in anything like the necessary numbers. Many army units are infiltrated with sectarian militiamen. Many, if not most, police units are thoroughly corrupted.

The second, “intermediate” phase of the plan is more intriguing, but ultimately unpersuasive. For a few months now, U.S. field commanders have formed alliances with Sunni tribesmen, especially in Anbar province, for the common goal of crushing jihadists. The new plan, as the Times puts it, is “to stitch together such local arrangements to establish a broader sense of security on a nationwide basis.”

But in these alliances, we’re dealing with tribesmen who are cooperating with us for a common goal. It is not at all clear on what basis these various local Sunni factions can be stitched together into some seamless security quilt—or why, because they’ve agreed to help us kill jihadists, they might suddenly agree to stop killing Shiites, compromise their larger ambitions, redirect their passions into peaceful politics, and settle into a minority party’s status within a unified government.

Kaplan has within a few words hit on three salient themes: (1) force size, (2) ‘whack-a-mole’ counterinsurgency, and (3) the inability to utilize Iraqi security forces and police to assist in the COIN campaign due to corruption and sectarian divisions.  Kaplan then targets the strategy of alliance with the Anbar tribal leaders and explains why he believes that this ultimately will fail (or at least, most probably will fail).

Alliances of convenience rarely outlive their immediate aims. Josef Stalin formed an alliance with the United States and Britain for the purpose of defeating Nazi Germany. But once the war was over, he had no interest in integrating the Soviet Union into the Western economic system.

The idea of extending the alliances may have come, in part, from Stephen Biddle, a military historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who, according to the Times, was a member of the “Joint Strategic Assessment Team” that helped conceive the new U.S. strategy.

In a July 12 interview at the Council, conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, Biddle said that the only way to secure all of Iraq is “to negotiate a series of cease-fire deals with Iraq’s current combatants in which, even though they retain the ability to fight, they decide it’s in their own self-interest to … decline to fight.”

He referred to Anbar as “a model” for this concept, and added, “There are now similar negotiations ongoing in a variety of other places around Iraq.” In Anbar, he said, the alliance “dropped into our lap”; the Sunni sheiks came to us and asked for help. “If it’s going to happen elsewhere, we’re going to have to take a more proactive role. … We have to start using the military not as a device to secure everything uniformly but as a device for creating incentives and disincentives—sticks and carrots—to push along the process of local cease-fires with particular factions.” For instance, he said, we would have to tell each faction: “We will defend you if you cooperate; if you don’t cooperate, we will attack you” …

Some set of “sticks and carrots” could conceivably extend the alliances of convenience into a sustained cease-fire of normal democratic politics. But if so, the deal would have to be hammered out by a recognized government in Baghdad. Neither Gen. Petraeus nor Ambassador Crocker (nor, for that matter, President Bush) has the political authority to make such a deal—much less the military firepower to enforce it.

Analysis &  Commentary

Stephen Biddle notwithstanding, reconciliation with the indigenous insurgency in Anbar has been ongoing for quite a while.  It is absurd to claim that the peace between the Anbar tribes and U.S. forces merely ”dropped into our lap.”  As we observed in Al Qaeda, Indigenous Sunnis and the Insurgency in Iraq:

… terrorization of the population (and competing groups) managed to achieve its goal of keeping the population in submission, at least until the Marines prevailed over the course of several years at hunting down and killing many of the rogue elements.  It has been observed that  ?Americans learned a basic lesson of warfare here: that Iraqis, bludgeoned for 24 years by Saddam’s terror, are wary of rising against any force, however brutal, until it is in retreat. In Anbar, Sunni extremists were the dominant force, with near-total popular support or acquiescence, until the offensive broke their power.?

When the population observed that the Marines had no intention of retreat and never lost a military engagement, and also when the tribal leaders saw that the rogue elements were subsuming their role as chieftans and leaders of their people, the storied alliance developed.  This alliance may have been strategic and convenient at first, but is now pivotal and absolutely essential to the success of pacification of Anbar.

The coup is not merely that the tribal chiefs and their people are cooperating with U.S. forces.  It is larger than that.  The coup is that the insurgency, properly defined as indigenous fighters rather than terrorists and foreign fighters - those who were previously pointing a gun towards U.S. troops – are now pointing them at the terrorists.  Not only have many of them made peace with the U.S., but in a development just as important, the U.S. forces have made peace with them.  This has been accomplished with the new difficulty introduced by globalization (foreign fighters), and the new difficulty introduced by religious fanaticism (suicide bombers), and the new difficulty introduced by technology (stand off weapons such as roadside bombs).  This is a counterinsurgency tour de force, and as time judges this victory it will take its rightful place in the great military campaigns of world history.

This alliance was necessary for several reasons, including the corruption and sectarian division that Kaplan mentions.  We have pointed out before (The Use of Miltias and Iraqi Army Unreadiness) by citing the scholarly work entitled Why Arabs Lose Wars, that the weakness of Middle Eastern armies runs even deeper than Kaplan charges.  The alliance with the Anbar tribes didn’t just “drop into our lap,” and the plan was necessary for more reasons that sectarian divisions and corruption, although these counted as major contributors.

But Kaplan’s assessment concerning the risk is important.  For insurgents who only saw U.S. Marines from far away and without the aid of really understanding what they were doing and why they were doing it, they will become a dangerous enemy if after watching (or even participating in) satellite patrols and other TTPs they now revert to being enemies of the U.S. again.  This must not happen.

But there is indeed a clear and present danger that the Sunni / Shi’ite divide is getting worse instead of better.  Electrical power is still sporadic in Anbar, and the promised reconstruction has not been forthcoming from the Shi’ite controlled government.  Hence, in protest, the Sunni bloc recently walked out of the government.  There has been a low-grade civil war for years now, and Michael Yon recently weighed in on the pressure it brings to bear on the situation.

… the civil war continues to exert pressure here. As AQI is run off or bashed down, one of the larger concerns is that the Shia JAM militias will fill the power vacuum. Even as LTC Johnson and others were arranging food drop-offs in late June, the politics of whether to drop supplies to Sunni or Shia first became acute and gave rise to arguments. Soldiers don’t want to be seen as killing al Qaeda only to pump up JAM, which exists to “protect? Shia, usually by attacking Sunnis before they can attack first.

Kaplan’s point about force size is a theme that has been reiterated here, and while U.S. forces are now patrolling with former Sunni insurgents in Anbar and training the police, they are battling Shi’ite insurgents elsewhere.

Kaplan fails to mention two of the more thorny problems for Operation Iraqi Freedom and any possible success of long range security.  First, it will be impossible to reconcile the Sunni and Shi’ite factions with militants like Moqtada al Sadr being left unmolested.  Second, while the U.S. forces have battled indigenous insurgents in Anbar, the battle for Iraq is more than the classical counterinsurgency as we have previously discussed.  There is very much a global aspect to the struggle.  Iranian involvement to destabilize Iraq is well known.  But it is becoming clear that Iraq is becoming a locale for proxy wars of all kinds (such as Iran v. U.S., al Qaeda v. U.S., Sunni v. Shi’a and vice versa).

The role of Saudi Arabia in Iraq is only now being protested.

Bush administration officials are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia’s counterproductive role in the Iraq war. They say that beyond regarding Mr. Maliki as an Iranian agent, the Saudis have offered financial support to Sunni groups in Iraq. Of an estimated 60 to 80 foreign fighters who enter Iraq each month, American military and intelligence officials say that nearly half are coming from Saudi Arabia and that the Saudis have not done enough to stem the flow.

Iraq has become a battlespace for a war between the Shi’a and Sunni, between Iran and the balance of the Middle East (except Syria and Lebanon).  There are a whole host of complex problems with OIF, from force size, to proxy wars, to porous borders.  Only time will tell if the U.S. engages this battle as one of many to come in the long war, or loses its first encounter with militant Islam and global rogue terrorist elements.  In the mean time, the long range plan for Iraq suffers from insufficient force size, lack of support at home, and a lack of willingness of senior military leadership to admit the global nature of the conflict to the American public.




You are currently reading "The Long Range Iraq Plan and its Critics", entry #561 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Iran,Iraq,Islamic Facism,The Long War and was published July 30th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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