April 1, 2007  

Beyond the surge

An Iraq plan should be in place now for what comes next

Strategists have long agreed with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Plans are nothing; planning is everything." Our new plan in Iraq, the surge, features more aid and at least 21,000 additional U.S. troops for duty in Baghdad and Anbar province. It is designed to help the Iraqis dampen sectarian violence, defeat insurgents and create a breathing space for reconstruction and reconciliation. While this strategy is plausible, it is already in trouble.

All strategies flow from objectives and the context of a given situation. In Iraq, our objectives are likely to continue in the same vein as President Bush’s: a unified Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself, and ultimately become an ally in the war on terrorism. Standing in the way of our efforts is a high level of sectarian violence, a multifaceted insurgency and rampant lawlessness.

Complicating matters, our fledgling Iraqi allies have often been part of the problem, not the solution. Our international coalition is weak and eroding. In recent polls, a strong majority of Americans oppose the surge. Congress is debating various resolutions, all of which bring comfort to our enemies. The unseemly Bush-bashing among many U.S. presidential candidates reflects excessive partisanship and a war weariness born of frustration and 26,000 casualties.

Planners might consider a number of alternative strategies. More surge? If the surge is successful, it should be maintained as long as we can man it. My estimates suggest that the surge can be manned and maintained with some difficulty for up to 24 months. But it might not survive that long.

The surge can succeed militarily but fail politically. Our allies may not deliver on their promises, or sectarian reconciliation may not take place. The surge may even succeed on the ground but too slowly to stem the tide of U.S. domestic politics. Opponents of the surge will also be able to cite declining military readiness as a point in their favor.

Prompt and rapid withdrawal? The favorite option of the left would make the U.S. pain go away and is perfect for campaign talking points, but it will neither end the war nor help our allies in the region. It is hard to see how it is even remotely in U.S. or Iraqi interests. The recent, authoritative National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s stability said rapid withdrawal "almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation." The NIE goes on to say that neighboring countries might intervene and that massive casualties and refugees would result.

Full Iraqization? As the surge ages or unravels, our planners might want to craft an option that puts more weight on the Iraqis and gradually reduces U.S. force levels. This option would move U.S. combat forces out of cities and feature the steady buildup of Iraqi forces. The U.S. would abandon offensive counterinsurgency operations and shift its main effort to equipping and advising Iraqi forces, while also maintaining maneuver units to protect those advisers or prevent the Iraqi regime from suffering serious defeats.

To succeed, this plan would require a force of about 32,000 troops in Iraq, as well as a regional stability force of 35,000 troops in Kuwait. Along with regional air and naval assets, forces in Iraq would be divided into an advisory element of 10,000 officers, NCOs and civilians to train and advise Iraqi military and police forces; an in-country protection and support force of three mobile brigades (roughly 15,000 troops) to serve as in extremis combat force and as a second line of U.S. protection for advisers and reconstruction teams; a 2,000-soldier Special Forces element to combat foreign terrorists in Iraq; and a 5,000-person headquarters, logistics and air-support element.

Regardless of strategic options, the U.S. should step up diplomacy with its friends in the region. Specifically, the U.S. could ask them for more help in training Iraqi police and military forces and participation in the regional stability force in Kuwait. We should also talk directly to Iran and Syria, but it won’t be pleasant. Allowing insurgents, Iranian special forces, or weapons and explosives to cross into Iraq is beyond the pale and, when verified, should become the subject of immediate, proportional counteraction by the coalition.

With this new plan, the U.S. could work toward its goals, reduce its forces in Iraq by two-thirds, cut its regional troop commitment by half, markedly reduce casualties and equipment losses and pressure regional allies to take up some of the slack. The Iraqis would be forced to seek rapid, effective sectarian reconciliation. This post-surge plan could be easily sustained, reduced in size or reinforced, as the situation warrants.

JOSEPH J. COLLINS is a professor of strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C., and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations.