Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Way Ahead?

The much-anticipated report from the Iraq Study Group (ISG) is out. Thanks to a wave of pre-release media leaks and public statements by group members, there's really nothing in the report (and its recommendations) that we haven't heard before.

In fact, key portions of the security strategy are nothing more than existing policies--on an accelerated timetable. Consider these four "main" military missions for U.S. and Iraqi forces, as outlined in the ISG report; they are essentially the same tasks our armed forces have been performing since the overthrow of Saddam's government in 2003.

  • Provide political reassurance to the Iraqi government in order to avoid its collapse and prevent disintegration of the country.
  • Fight Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations in Iraq
  • Train, equip and support Iraqi security forces
  • Deter even more destructive interference in Iraq by Syria and Iran.
To facilitate the drawdown of U.S. combat forces, the ISG panel recommends a major increase in the number of American military personnel assigned to training roles. They propose a five-fold increase in the number of imbedded trainers, to roughly 20,000. The ISG believes that an accelerated training program will result in a corresponding improvement in the combat capabilities of the Iraqi Army, allowing most U.S. brigades to leave the country by early 2008. The ISG rejected proposals for a major, long-term increase in U.S. forces, believing that such an option is unsustainable, and would provide no incentive for the Iraqis to assume a lead role in security operations.

The plan also calls for the U.S. to maintain a strong military presence in the region, but future operations in Iraq (beyond early 2008) would be limited to training, support and limited "strikes" against terrorist targets inside that country.

Are these proposals realistic? You'll note that I avoid the question of whether they should actually be implemented. Early indications suggest that the ISG report will form the backbone of our "new" approach in Iraq, so there's virtually no chance that they will be rejected. General Casey, our top commander in Iraq, apparently believes the training requirements can be met. In fact, the ISG recommends that we follow his plan for completing the training and equipping mission by 2008, as he outlined a couple of months ago.

But training is a tough nut to crack, particularly when you're trying to build a security force from the ground up. Cynics argue that we made a major mistake by disbanding Saddam's army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. While Saddam's military appeared formindable (at least on paper), it was, in reality a hollow and corrupt force, built on conscripts and cronyism. It lacked capable, mid-level leaders (read: company grade-officers and NCOs), capable of carrying out tactical operations with consistent skill and competence. Rebuilding the army from the ground up takes more time, but the end result is worth the additional effort.

However, achieving that result by a arbitrary, accelerated deadline is a totally different matter, and that makes the 2008 timetable a cause for concern. I believe General Casey is an honest and able man, but generals are not immune to political pressures; under present circumstances, 2008 was probably the "longest" timetable he could support without getting fired. Now, the ISG is ready to make it a firm deadline. Readers will note that study group's members included a former Secretary of Defense (William Perry), but no retired Army or Marine Corps generals. Why not?

More distressing the plan's "security" element is (as Andrew McCarthy notes), the apparent lack of emphasis on taking the fight to the enemy. Mr. McCarthy observes that "stabilizing" Iraq while Iran and Al Qaida remain ascendant do not constitute victory. And he's right. Unfortunately, the Baker-Hamilton plan isn't about military victory; it's about cutting some sort of diplomatic deal to cover our departure from Iraq, while also addressing such over-arching issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the panel's concerns about regional implications and long-term consequences, many of their recommendations are little more than glittering generalities ("Verifiable cessation of arms shipments through Syria for Hamas;" "Persuade Iran to take steps to improve the situation in Iraq.") Worthy goals, to be sure, but ensuring their achievement is a much more difficult task. The panel seems to believe that the "right" incentives can encourage positive behavior from Tehran and Damascus, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary. In response to our renewed overtures, Iran and Syria will greedily demand their carrots (and get them), while continuing to undermine U.S. interests in the region. Then what?

But (obviously) that's a problem for another time and another blue-ribbon commission. Mr. Baker, Mr. Hamilton and other members of the group are focused on the short-term, outlining their "New Diplomatic Offensive" as the centerpiece of their strategy, and emphasizing engagment of our regional foes. It's a classicly American, "bipartisan," bureaucratic "solution" for complex issues that require vision, fortitude, and patience. But those qualities don't fit the current U.S. political model; ISG recommendations are designed to provide a near-term political cover, just in time for the 2008 elections. Implentation of the ISG recommendations will achieve that goal, putting us on the road to "getting out of Iraq." But the plan unveiled today will leave that country--and the region--a much more dangerous place.

1 comment:

Sidney Falco said...

I think your comments miss the point about the nature of a stable Iraqi future. As long as the US maintains a vague enduring military commitment to Al-Maliki, the feuding political factions will continue militia assassinations against each other. If real bipartisan leadership doesn't emerge in Baghdad, then there is no reason for the US to stay.