If we cannot win and we cannot quit, then what are we to do?
If so many of our citizens are unwilling to pay a modest price in Iraq, then we cannot ask so few to pay the ultimate price.
Successful attrition requires that the insurgents be finite in number. In Iraq, the enemy was never finite. Each anarchic day turned moderates and pragmatists against the American occupation.
THINKING SOLDIER Author Nathaniel Fick led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By Nathaniel Fick
America’s delusional debate on Iraq is paralyzing our country. The war’s supporters argue that victory is still possible, that we can achieve it with one, last-ditch effort, and that doing so doesn’t require sacrifice from most of our citizens. The war’s opponents claim that we can safely withdraw from Iraq without disastrous long-term consequences for the United States. But we have the proverbial wolf by the ears, and we can neither hang on nor let go. The sooner we recognize this sad, mad irony, the sooner we can find a third way forward, minimizing wasted lives and further damage to America’s standing in the world.
Military force can no longer win the war in Iraq. The conflict has passed through at least three distinct phases since the 2003 invasion, and American military strength on the ground had a chance at success in only the first two. Recalling this history is useful in charting our next moves.
The three-week march to Baghdad was largely a conventional blitzkrieg, and American units battled precisely the enemy described by the Bush Administration: hardcore Baathists, foreign jihadists, and criminals. We won those fights, but were unprepared for the aftermath. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity, our arrival in Baghdad ushered in chaos and anarchy. The Iraqis desperately needed more troops to help patrol the streets, provide medical care, and begin the gargantuan task of rebuilding the country’s long-neglected civic infrastructure. Without those troops, violence bubbled up across Iraq, and citizens, with mounting skepticism, were unable to send their children to school, buy gasoline, or even walk the streets after dark.
By August 2003, the war slid into its second phase as these average Iraqis–not ideologues or dead-enders–began to take up arms against us. Some were motivated by disillusionment with the Americans’ inability to restore order and basic services. Others, with families to feed, accepted payment to bury bombs in the roadside.
So began two years of insurgency in Iraq. If history and the Army’s own Counterinsurgency manual are any guide, then quelling an insurgency among a population of 26 million people requires over half a million troops committed to counterinsurgency tactics. These tactics, anathema to the training and culture of most conventional militaries, emphasize performing concrete acts of assistance to the population, rather than killing the enemy. Successful attrition requires that the insurgents be finite in number. In Iraq, the enemy was never finite. Each anarchic day turned moderates and pragmatists against the American occupation. More soldiers and Marines were desperately needed to reverse this trend. The United States averaged only 150,000 troops on the ground in 2004 and 2005, and was reluctant to adopt the proven tactics of counterinsurgency. A vicious downward spiral ensued, as American forces were insufficient either to squash the insurgents directly, or to sap their popular support by showing a better way forward to the people of Iraq.
The war’s third phase exploded early in 2006, with the bombing of the fabled Golden Mosque in Samarra, ushering in a year of savage sectarian combat. This is where we are today. Hundreds of Iraqis die each week as factions, tribes, and sects choose their own agendas over national unity, and there is little that twenty-year-old, English-speaking Americans can do to stop them. Yet our government’s response now is to “surge” in Iraq, sending more than 20,000 additional troops to augment the 140,000 already there. As the previous phases of the war show, this is military folly for at least two reasons.
First, it isn’t really a surge at all; it’s an incremental escalation of about fifteen percent over the current number of troops in Iraq–in Jon Stewart’s observation, a gratuity, not a surge. This may be the maximum possible for an over-engaged military to provide and a disengaged electorate to accept, but it’s far short of the minimum necessary to make any significant difference. Many in the military call this the “JEL” option–“Just Enough to Lose.” A real option for doubling-down in Iraq would involve hundreds of thousands of troops over a period of years, not tens of thousands over a period of months.
Second, our window of opportunity to use military force to effect political change in Iraq has shut. More troops in 2003 could have stopped the looting, sealed the borders, and demonstrated our commitment to making Iraq’s future better than its past. More troops in 2005 could have provided the security necessary to begin ferreting insurgents out from among the passive civilian population–a prerequisite for all other progress. More troops in 2007 will do little to quell sectarian violence, and could possibly inflame it further.
This does not mean that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq. America’s military forces, however insufficient for victory, are the lone dampening rods preventing a complete meltdown.
Unconstrained by our military presence, Iraq’s Shi’a majority would move decisively to consolidate control. Iraq’s Sunni minority would intensify its resistance, including efforts to enlist the support of their religious brethren in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Muslim world. Iraq’s Kurdish minority would attempt to opt out of a Shi’a-Sunni conflict by increasing its autonomy, exacerbating neighboring Turkey and Iran’s concerns about their own Kurdish minorities. Faced with Sunni intransigence and Kurdish separatism, Iraq’s Shi’a would increasingly turn to Iran for help. Withdrawing American forces from Iraq, under any rubric or justification, would serve as a catalyst for instability across the Middle East.
If we cannot win and we cannot quit, then what are we to do? There are few new ideas, and no easy answers. Three steps, though, can maximize our chances of salvaging a tolerable outcome in Iraq, which might be defined as preventing genocidal killing, checking Iran’s destabilizing bid for regional hegemony, and thwarting al Qaeda’s attempt to organize with impunity inside the country.
First, our government must re-engage the American people in this fight. We undertook a total war to transform the political culture of Iraq from a socialist Sunni Arab dictatorship to Western-style liberal democracy, but we only mobilized limited resources to do it. The entire burden of this war has been borne by the fraction of one percent of our population that wears a uniform, and by their families. We cannot just shuffle forces around, hire a smart general, and hope that everything will turn out fine. It won’t. President Bush has squandered so much public trust that citizens will not re-engage voluntarily; our elected officials must lead the way. Unfortunately, the time for idealistic calls to service is past: too few will answer. Americans must be hit where it hurts: their pocketbooks. We should abandon the folly of tax cuts during wartime, and instead implement a series of taxes to pay for the war, care for our returning veterans, and encourage lower gasoline consumption and higher investment in renewable energy. If so many of our citizens are unwilling to pay a modest price in Iraq, then we cannot ask so few to pay the ultimate price.
Second, American combat forces must begin to withdraw from Iraq’s cities, where our conventional troops are increasingly unable to intervene effectively in sectarian strife. We can move a portion of our troops, perhaps a quarter of the current force, to remote airbases in Iraq’s vast deserts, where they can bolster regional stability without stoking resentment and providing targets on the streets of Iraq’s cities. The resulting violence in Baghdad and parts of Anbar province will be as terrible as it is inevitable. But this is no longer a classic counterinsurgency campaign, and the best we can do now is to ensure that the violence does not spill over into the rest of the region.
Our most promising insurance policy in this regard are the teams of American advisors working with Iraqi military and police units. In a high-risk, high-reward strategy, these troops don’t hole up in comfortable mega-bases; they live in remote outposts with their charges, learning their language, sharing their danger, and living the rhetoric that the United States can only stand down in Iraq when Iraqis begin to stand up. There are currently about 3,000 of these advisors. Their ranks should be expanded at least five-fold, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group. Besides making military sense, this recommendation, like others made by the group, has the indispensable advantage of support from both political parties and the American people as a whole–an absolute requirement for the success of any policy of such importance.
It would be a critical blunder to commit our little remaining deployable land-power to the so-called “surge” in Baghdad, leaving America without a strategic reserve at a time of growing danger elsewhere in the world. This new strategy will fail because the United States lacks the capability to clear and hold the city, and the Iraqi government lacks the will to help. When it fails, our over-committed military and under-committed citizenry will be even worse off as Iraq begins its final descent into chaos. §
Nathaniel Fick is the author of the New York Times bestseller One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Corps Officer. He led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a member of the Board of Visitors at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth, and served as a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. For more information, visit www.nathanielfick.com. “Salvaging Iraq” © 2007 Nathaniel Fick, used by permission of the author.