THE BLOG
12/08/2006 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Endgame In Iraq (Part 3) -- The Military Endgame

[This is the third and final installment of my series of articles on Iraq. Part 1 appeared on Wednesday, and Part 2 ran yesterday. I apologize for the massive length of this series, but it's a complicated subject, so I hope you'll forgive my excess.]

In the previous two articles in this series, I addressed the political situation, diplomatic possibilities, and the situation within Iraq itself. This final installment deals with what options America has militarily at this point. There is some overlap with the previous articles, but from a slightly different perspective.

The good news on the military front for America is, of course, the fact that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer in charge. So what can the incoming Secretary of Defense do now about the situation?

Military Endgame In Iraq

Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of good news for him to look forward to.

The idea of more training for the Iraqi forces is currently being floated around Washington as some sort of panacea. But would sending up to 20,000 troops with special training (as military trainers) really help the Iraqi army get up to speed? What the "more training" argument misses is two facts: (1) more time may not help in any appreciable way, and (2) the army that we have already trained is laughably unprofessional.

Think about this: we take a kid just out of high school in America and turn him into a professional United States soldier in a few months' time. We have been training the Iraqi army in a serious way for over two years, consistently beating the drum of "when they stand up, we can stand down," and they're still not ready to do it. Will another six months of further training really help?

At the beginning of this two year period (and for obviously political reasons) Rumsfeld and other Pentagon spokesmen kept giving wildly optimistic numbers for how many Iraqi army and police had been trained. When the numbers got so high (earlier this year) that nobody was really paying attention to them anymore (and when the continued use of them just kept reminding everyone that the "stand up" phase was supposed to be over), they then started talking about how "combat ready" various parts of the Iraqi army were.

All of these numbers were wildly optimistic, that is to say, "not grounded in reality." Walter Pincus of the Washington Post quotes Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies after a recent trip to Iraq: "[the Department of Defense] severely distorted the true nature of Iraqi force development in ways that grossly exaggerate Iraqi readiness and capability to assume security tasks ... US official reporting is so misleading that there is no way to determine just how serious the problem is and what resources will be required. ... all unclassified reporting on unit effectiveness has been cancelled." Pincus' article is worth reading for an overview of the sad state of both the Iraqi army and police forces.

If you want more details about the sorry state of the Iraq army, here is another excellent article by Pincus worth reading. The picture it paints is shocking, and I would say "unbelievable," except that the source material comes from a US Army publication [* see footnote below] -- not exactly the "liberal" news media.

This is the Iraqi army today: Iraqi soldiers are allowed leave for one week every month to take their pay home to their families (since the Iraqi banking system no longer functions). They are allowed to sign up for the army with the understanding (in writing) that they will stay and serve in the same district where they currently live. They are allowed to refuse deployment to other areas of the country, with no penalties or punishment. The army is divided along sectarian lines, with no incentive whatsoever to create an integrated force. Desertions are so common it's hard to get solid numbers on the number of soldiers who have been trained by the US military who have just disappeared -- presumably with their uniforms and weapons, along with the training we have given them (leaving us, in essence, training both sides for the upcoming all-out civil war). The final point is the scariest -- when these Iraqi soldiers are actually deployed in the field and they come under attack, they tend to shoot in all directions until their ammo is gone (called a "death blossom" by the US troops attempting to train them).

More training (whether six more months or two years) isn't going to help, with these constraints. And Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is now pressing for the US to give bigger and better weapons to the Iraqi army, including tanks and helicopters. Look for these to also be used by the militias in the near future. The sad reality is that the Iraqi army is not going to become an integrated professional fighting force any time soon, more training or no training.

The police force is even worse, as their current slogan seems to be: "We only become death squads at night." The lesson to be learned from all this is that you just can't train people not to hate each other, at least not in the timeframe we have to work with.

Unless Jack Murtha convinces America to leave Iraq immediately (not very likely at this point), American troops are going to be in Iraq for months (possibly years) to come. But what will they be doing? There are already reports in the press that we have stopped talking at all to the Sunni insurgents (not that such overtures were ever spotlighted by the American media to begin with). We are now "picking a winner," by throwing our lot in with the Shi'ites and Kurds (for now). This would leave the Sunnis to their fate -- which may be a big reason behind Cheney recently being summoned to (Sunni-dominated) Saudi Arabia for a good talking to.

But which "winner" should we really pick? Backing the Kurds would be fine, as long as they keep their aspirations within Iraq and don't cause a regional war to erupt with Turkey and Iran -- but that outcome will depend more on what Turkey and Iran do, than what we do.

Backing the Shi'ites means carrying the water for Iran, and assisting in setting up another Islamist state in the Middle East, one under some degree of control by Iran. This is what we went into Iraq for? To turn a secular dictatorship into an Islamic theocracy complete with Sharia law? That's going to have a hard time playing in Peoria. There are Shi'ite groups that are not influenced by the Iranians, but it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Plus, we'd have to figure out which faction of a faction we're backing in a war already crowded with adversaries.

Backing the Sunnis is completely out of the question, as that would mean reinstating the Ba'athist regime (albeit without Saddam in charge). This result means our Iraq adventurism will be seen by history as George W. Bush's personal vendetta against the man who tried to kill his daddy. Iraq would be exactly the same as before we invaded, just with a different Sunni dictator in control. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The Pentagon made some news a few weeks ago by leaking their strategy document, but it was kind of a joke: three options were given, but two of them were obviously political strawmen trotted out to give support for their preferred option. Let's look at their military assessment point-by-point: the choice between "Go Big," "Go Long," and "Go Home."

Go Big. Senator John McCain has been trying to make this case for a long time. It can be summed up as: "Rumsfeld was wrong." A light and fast force may have been sufficient to conquer Saddam's military, but it was never enough to pacify the country and keep order afterwards. Unfortunately, to truly and effectively stop the violence in Iraq might require more than 500,000 new American troops in Iraq (a real "occupying force"), not the pathetically timid 20,000 they're now talking about adding.

This is obviously impossible, for two glaring reasons: there is absolutely zero political support for doing so -- and even if there was, we just don't have the troops. Short of a draft (which is just not going to happen), this would be impossible. McCain may well have been right about the need to provide more troops for the task; but the time to have provided them was about a week after we took Baghdad. Now it just looks like insanity, speaking both politically and militarily.

Go Long. The conspiracy theorists have long maintained that our true reason for invading Iraq was to secure a source of oil for America, and for permanent US military bases somewhere (anywhere) in the Middle East. But as time goes by, their assertions start looking more and more reasonable. Consider this: why would the military review the options in Iraq and come up with only three choices (two of which are obviously politically impossible), given the current state of domestic politics in America? Perhaps to give Bush some support?

The "go long" option is basically equivalent to Bush's "stay the course" policy: we're going to stay in Iraq as long as we damn well please; and if we just pull back to our fortified bases and hunker down, everything will turn out OK in the end.

American soldiers actively out "in the field" in Iraq have a derogatory name for other soldiers who never leave our new "forward operating bases" (or "FOBs") which we are currently constructing all over Iraqi: "Fobbits." The "go long" strategy would mean all American forces in Iraq would become fobbits. We would abandon patrolling the cities, villages and countryside to the inadequate Iraqi security forces, and pull back to the safety of our FOBs. Perhaps we might help patrol Iraq's borders, but that's about it. One is reminded of medieval walled cities undergoing siege warfare -- in essence "pulling the drawbridge up," and letting the rest of the country go to hell in its own way. As long as the oil keeps flowing, and as long as al Qaeda isn't actively setting up training camps, we would continue with this bunker mentality.

This wouldn't make a whole lot of sense, it must be pointed out... but then when does military intelligence have to make sense? American bases in remote desert locations, surrounded by a country steeped in bloodbath and chaos? Even if al Qaeda bases appeared, we'd probably just call in some airstrikes to deal with them. This translates to: "Being there for the sake of being there," which is not exactly a comfort to the mother of a deployed American soldier, with her son in Iraq.

A "phased withdrawal" seems to be firming up as the consensus opinion in Washington (other than President Bush, of course, who still seems to be in denial), although how "phased" and how long it will take is still open to a wide debate. But the question to ask about phased withdrawal is: "Why?" Advocates for phased withdrawal, or "go long lite" ("go kinda long?" or, maybe, "go out ten yards and do a buttonhook?") once again are failing to address the: "What happens in Iraq?" question.

What happens if things get demonstrably worse in the middle of our pullout? Should we reverse the pullout at that point, or accelerate it? Anyone pushing phased withdrawal (that is not timetable-based) needs to have answers to those two questions. Very few are actually addressing them.

If we're pulling out after "milestones are met" by the Iraqis, what happens when the Iraqis backslide, and the situation takes a turn for the worse? Do we reverse course and put more troops in until the situation calms down again... or do we throw up our hands, declare Iraq permanently broken, and pull everyone out immediately at that point? Advocacy for phased withdrawal simply cannot be taken seriously without the answers to these questions.

If we reverse course and put more troops in, how is that different from "staying the course?" If we pull out everyone immediately, then what is the point of waiting -- why not pull them out now? The ISG Baker-Hamilton report has at least started a conversation in Washington about this, but it needs to be taken much further.

Go Home. This option was set up by the military as a straw man to be easily knocked down, but it could actually become our official policy in a short period of time. How short a period will depend on the political strength of Murtha's anti-war wing of the newly-elected Democratic majority in Congress (the Murthites? Murthamaniacs?). The fallout from a quick American withdrawal from Iraq may be drenched in Iraqi blood, but then again it may be drenched in the exact same amount of blood if we withdraw everyone next week, as if we stay for another two years. If this proposition is true, it argues for withdrawal as soon as can be realistically arranged.

While the Pentagon set this up as an outlandishly naive policy to be refuted strongly, this may be our best possible exit strategy. The American public could either (1) be properly prepared for the consequences of such a pullout -- to the point of accepting the resulting slaughter as a very unpleasant necessity; or (2) not even see the slaughter, due to all the American media in Iraq "getting out of Dodge" before the big shootout. In either case, the whole exercise may actually be seen as some flavor of the same "peace with honor" that was supposed to accompany the American withdrawal from Vietnam. In other words: "Declare victory and go home." We would (in reality) be: "Declaring failure and going home," but Karl Rove would successfully spin that into "victory" somehow, I'm positive.

There is one scenario which would allow the US military and (more importantly, to them) the White House to save face, and that is if whatever Iraqi government was currently in control of the country demanded that we leave, perhaps with the caveat that our desert bases could stay for a while. This endgame would likely be played out after some form of an Iraqi coup d'état. After all, whoever grabs the reins of power would only increase his popularity with the Iraqi populace by immediately demanding we leave. It would prove that the new Iraqi leader wasn't held in sway by the Americans, which would be politically advantageous to him among average Iraqis.

So this could be a win-win situation all around, both politically and militarily, and both within Iraqi politics and within American politics. Because this is looking more and more like the best answer for both countries, it is hard not to believe that this will be the way the cards fall.

Bush could reluctantly (at least publicly) go on television and explain to America that we really, really tried to create a democratic Iraq, but -- gosh darn it! -- they just weren't ready for it. If time proves that we left before the job of "spreading democracy throughout the Middle East starting with Iraq" had a chance, well then, history will just have to judge that the Iraqis themselves didn't want it badly enough. Therefore the neo-cons and the White House should be held blameless for at least trying. Oh, and let's give Rumsfeld a medal for his tireless efforts in attempting the impossible, while we're at it.

See how it all hangs together? The more I review the options available to the US at this point, the more this looks like the most reasonable way out of the Iraqi quagmire.

Of course, there is one further military option, but it should (hopefully, at least) be filed under: "Insanity." That option is attacking Iran, as a diversion to the morass in Iraq. There was a recent article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker which explored this in frightening detail. Hopefully, though, congressional Democrats would nip this in the bud before the neo-cons get too excited about it, as it would result in piling a new disaster upon our current Iraq disaster.

The Long View

This series of articles was written to castigate all and sundry for ignoring the short-term future of Iraq and the logical consequences of our actions, while obsessing on how our troops are going to get out. I think this is disingenuous, and shortchanges the debate we should be having. I would like to see pundits and public both debating not only our exit strategy, but also the likely outcome and aftermath of such strategies.

This will not be an easy task. Most of the scenarios are not good. Many are decidedly bad, and much worse than the situation that exists now. And Americans don't particularly like to hear grim news in general, or hear talk about what could be a hopeless situation for America.

This is dishonest. We need to pull our heads out of the sand (so to speak), and confront the future of Iraq with clear heads and realistic appraisals.

To regain some hope and optimism about Iraq, I also challenge participants in the public debate to look down the road even further than the short-term addressed here. What are the long-term goals in Iraq? Nobody talks about these much anymore, since the neo-con vision of democracy flourishing everywhere in the Middle East has been so soundly discredited.

But we should have some long-term goals in Iraq, and the region. Stability, the free flow of oil (of course), and fighting the real terrorist enemy (al Qaeda and fellow travelers) are three goals everyone can agree upon. But there should also be a serious discussion about what life will look like to the average Iraqi one year... five years... or even ten years down the road.

Ideally, Iraq will stabilize at some point. Border skirmishes and guerilla attacks may continue for some time to come, but will hopefully eventually decrease in both frequency and intensity. At some point, we will honestly be able to say: "The civil war in Iraq is over."

What Iraq will look like at that point is a matter for speculation, however. The country could be Balkanized into three separate entities, with clearly drawn divisions between them (think Yugoslavia). Or it could be a client state of Iran -- an Islamic state complete with the subjugation of women and everything else Sharia law entails. Or it could be a Sunni dictatorship, with a Saddam-like strongman ruling with an iron fist (this would take us essentially back to square one). It could even be a country under Kurdish rule, but the odds are so long on that one as to be seen as a barely credible outcome. It could even be a secular bastion of minority rights for the entire region to admire, but again, that's probably a long shot at this point.

The new watchword will become "stability" in all of these cases. Bush was indeed morally right in initially saying that it's not such a great idea for the US to count as allies in the region undemocratic governments that rule by power and fear alone -- and that it would be better to have democracy flourish. But the reality on the ground may lead us right back to where we were before: "As long as you keep your people under control and keep the oil flowing, we'll look the other way at your human rights abuses."

Nobody is going to be exactly happy at such an outcome. The neo-cons will have to lick their wounds, form another "Project for the New American Century," and try again later. Liberals will feel some schadenfreude at saying: "I told you so. This war was a big, stupid mistake" -- but that's not going to help the Middle East much, either. President Bush will retreat into the Oval Office and start applying his fundraising skills to raising enough money for his presidential library, in order to pay off enough historians to whitewash the entire Iraq fiasco for posterity (although this is going to take even more than the whopping half-billion dollars they've already set as a goal). American soldiers and their families will wonder whether it was all worth it, if Iraq falls back into being a strongman-led state.

But as depressing as these outcomes are, they are still better than the worst-case scenario. If Iraq in essence ceases to be a nation, and dissolves into the miasma of warlordism (much like Afghanistan before the rule of the Taliban), then the entire world will see America's adventurism in Iraq as a colossal and embarrassing failure. This will diminish us even further in the sight of the world, and will once again prove that even if you have the biggest, bestest military ever -- some things are just beyond your abilities. This does not bode well for our ability to deal with (and intimidate) such states as Iran and North Korea in the future.

I mean, it is somewhat satisfying to see the oft-mocked "reality-based" world so resoundingly bludgeon into submission the shameless neo-conservative hucksterism that got us into this war; but we have to be careful to consider the future standing of the United States in world politics at the same time.

 

[* This Washington Post article is a review of a much longer article in the U.S. Army publication Military Review. Their site is not very user-friendly, and I was unsure the resulting link would work. Please drill down on the site to search the July/August edition of Military Review for the article "Advising Iraqis: Building The Iraqi Army" to see the full text of the article. It is a sobering, extensively detailed, and chillingly realistic look at the current capabilities of the Iraqi Army.]