Change is coming for U.S. policy on Iraq. We have a new Congress committed to change. The American people have signaled that there must be change; it’s not clear what kind of change they want, but the voters know defeat when they see it and the American people do not like to lose.
Yet policymakers and pundits alike are looking at the same grim strategic realities today as before the elections. We have vital national interests in Iraq that must be defended. At the very minimum, they include: Iraq cannot become a new base for Islamic radical fundamentalist terrorist attacks on the U.S. and our allies; the U.S. must retain sufficient credibility as a friend or an enemy that we retain our influence in the Middle East and other areas of conflict; enough Middle Eastern oil must continue to flow to the world markets.
Whether this war was started over oil is irrelevant now. The first strategic reality is that the modern world, especially the U.S., runs on cheap energy from petroleum and 30 percent of the world’s oil supply comes from the Middle East. War disrupts oil production and transmission.
Getting out of Iraq will be much harder than getting in. We cannot deceive ourselves by comparing withdrawal from Iraq with our withdrawal from Vietnam. The North Vietnamese goal was to unify Vietnam under their control as a Marxist-Leninist state. Once we withdrew the U.S. military forces that interfered with their achieving that goal, they cared little about the U.S. Radical fundamentalist Islam, however, wants to destroy us and send us to hell.
The American people view the Iraq war as a failure, and they do not support failed enterprises, especially military ones. It is hard to imagine a situation today in which the American people could be persuaded to raise and deploy enough troops to turn Iraq into a free, independent country that is politically and economically united and viable. We will have to cut our strategic coats, therefore, to fit the cloth. Any solution calling for continued military action has to accommodate this reality.
In Iraq, the Shiites and Sunnis are close to civil war, or in an intensifying civil war — take your pick. Once U.S. forces withdraw, nothing will restrain the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis from fighting for control of Iraq’s territory, people and resources. This will be a fight for survival: Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will find it hard to keep from being drawn — or jumping — into the fighting to protect their co-religionists.
The favorable factor is that the Kurds have much of the oil and they can hold their own region with only nominal U.S. troop presence.
U.S. strategy has been to provide the shield behind which the Iraqi military and police can grow. Our intention, that the Iraqis eventually take responsibility, was sound. It is their country, after all, and President Johnson was right: We have no business sending American boys to do the job local boys should do. Although the concept is good, our execution was cursed by the familiar failings in Iraq: poor planning and insufficient resources. Even so, the Iraqi army and police are getting better; the insurgents are just getting much better much faster. Counterinsurgent forces have to be at least reliable, and there must be many more of them to provide the security behind which institutions can be built. If Iraq is chaotic now, with U.S. forces actively operating on the ground, it is wishful thinking to believe it will improve when U.S. forces are gone.
The only way we can achieve our essential national interests in Iraq with the troops we have is to reposition them to secure and hold enough contiguous territory to constitute a corridor for oil to flow from the Kurdish areas to the port of Basra, plus as much of Baghdad and its suburbs as we need to hold the oil corridor. This will require major changes in the way the U.S. military operates, both to hold the corridor and to restore the credibility of our military and our country, to friends and enemies alike.
One of the keys to U.S. success in fighting conventional wars is decentralized command and control. This works because we have developed and mastered a common doctrine for fighting and winning conventional battles. One reason for our failure in Iraq has been our attempt to make decentralized command work with no doctrine for dealing with an insurgency.
The Army and Marines have finally devised in Field Manual 3-24 doctrine that deals intelligently with insurgents. The newly adopted counterinsurgency doctrine stresses a multifaceted program to protect and control the people while we gain their support, rather than trying to destroy the enemy.
Strong leadership will be needed from the Pentagon and Green Zone to require our forces to adhere to the new counterinsurgency doctrine. Too many of our commanders have proven themselves as immune to new ideas as the generals in Flanders in the World War I, who mindlessly sent their troops over the top again and again, blindly unaware that they were fighting a different kind of war.
Classic counterinsurgency is also a different kind of war with its own rules and methods. Trying to use conventional warfare against insurgents has failed. The classic counterinsurgency doctrines in FM 3-24 have succeeded wherever they have been applied intelligently. We must abandon the comfortable doctrines that have served so well in conventional war but failed against insurgents. Our commanders must either use the classic counterinsurgency doctrines in the new field manual, modified as necessary to fit the situation in Iraq, to gain control of the population in the oil corridor and Baghdad, or be replaced.
Further, intelligent risk-taking must be encouraged. For example, our troops must get out of the huge forward operating bases and live and fight where the people — and therefore, the insurgents — live. Force protection cannot be used as an excuse to concentrate our forces in forward operating bases that are nothing but large, self-administered prisoner of war camps.
At the same time, the Pentagon civilian leadership must mandate a crash program to build effective Iraqi forces in the corridor to complement our troops. Eventually, the Iraqis we support may gain confidence and become strong enough to gradually expand outward; first, however, U.S. forces must do what only they can do now, which is stabilize the base and deter Iraq’s neighbors from openly joining the fighting.
In Iraq itself, in addition to securing the oil transmission corridor, we must ensure that radical fundamentalist Islamic jihadis cannot establish secure bases in the rest of the country from which to launch attacks on the U.S. and our allies. While we rigorously apply the military principle of economy of force, in which we concentrate our strength in vital areas, the rest of the Shiite and Sunni areas must be left to special operations forces and occasional, carefully targeted large-unit raids to keep the insurgents from getting too comfortable there and al-Qaida from using them as sanctuaries from which to launch new terrorist attacks on the U.S.
If we are skillful, holding the oil corridor is achievable. Doing so and denying Iraq to Islamist attacks on the U.S. should restore some of our country’s credibility as an ally or a foe.
It will be expensive and difficult, but the costs of failing — or not trying — would be catastrophic. AFJ