Next Steps In Iraq

First off, I want to report that the atmosphere here in Washington is electric with the possibility that Fitzgerald is about to indict up to 22 individuals, likely to include Cheney, Rove, Libby, Fleischer, Matalin and Hadley.

I write this having just come back from hearing retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, speak at the New America Foundation . Wilkerson’s statement, that Cheney and Rumsfeld made the strategic decisions and subsequently “one person” [Cheney] would go into the Oval Office to secure the president’s consent, was breathtaking in its candor—something we’ve been sorely lacking. Indeed, the Financial Times called it the strongest attack since Richard Clarke’s revelations.

And yet, even as that drama unfolds three blocks away, thousands of miles away, America must not get Iraq wrong. Wilkerson was clear on this point as well, saying Iraq is not Vietnam. He fears that if we don’t do it right now, in 10 years another administration will be forced to do something more drastic.

Here’s hoping we can heal our democracy and our foreign policy at the same time. Back to Iraq.

Democrats need to get clear about what happened last week in Iraq. The significant event last week in Iraq was not the polls. Rather, it was the last-minute diplomacy conducted by the U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

First, a little causal background on Khalilzad’s effort: You may remember that in the last week of September, the International Crisis Group released a report saying that if a deal was not struck that uncrossed the Sunni ‘red lines,’ the nation would be headed for civil war. Well, apparently no one in the White House was interested in that perspective. Luckily, there were some folks in Riyadh who agreed, including the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal. The foreign minister came to Washington to plead for action and, apparently, got the cold shoulder. That’s why he took the extraordinary step of announcing his warning publicly , after his meetings with the administration.

The next week, according to an October 1 AFP report, Khalilzad was summoned to Jeddah. He met with the king, the crown prince and the foreign minister. And then all of a sudden, negotiations materialized. The Saudis, it would seem, strong-armed the U.S. into diverting from their civil war-inducing pact with the Shia and Kurdish leadership. The deal that emerged  effectively reopened the constitution to major revisions, after the next national Assembly is elected (December 15) and seated. The mechanism for that is a special constitutional panel formed from the National Assembly.

In other words, we get a constitutional do-over starting next year. That’s exactly what we needed, on the political front.

On the military front, there has also been progress, albeit halting progress. The challenge in Iraq has been and continues to be about turning a war-fighting force into a constabulary force: what Thomas P.M. Barnett  calls shifting from the ‘leviathan’ mode to ‘system-administrator’ mode. When Rumsfeld rejected CentCom’s request for more than 400,000 troops in November 2002, the Phase IV of the war was doomed. We could not do the post-conflict mission the way it should have been done.

Instead, not having enough troops to secure the country, DoD relied on a light multinational force in the relatively quiet Shia south, led by the British in Basra—a loose liaison with the Kurdish militias in the North—and then concentrated Army and Marine combat units in the transitional areas and the Sunni heartland.

From the perspective of playing the hand you’re dealt, this was not such a bad arrangement. The major problem it created was the Shia militias which, combined with the Kurdish Peshmerga, make power consolidation extremely difficult and extend the mission considerably. It also makes laughable a strategy based on training Iraqi national guard when they are either insurgents or militia members.

But we can’t do too much about that now. The pressing problem is that those U.S. combat troops have been operating in the wrong mode. Right now, they’re killing bad guys when they should be protecting civilians. Think Fallujah. When Bush overruled the commanding Marine general and ordered that U.S. forces sack the city, we made 300,000 people homeless. Maybe Bush thought he had to play by what Thomas Friedman calls “Hama rules.”  Or, more likely, he was horrified at the killing and desecration of the four U.S. contractors and made a decision based on rage. Either way, Bush’s decision made civilians the intentional victims of American military power, and right then and there we lost the battle for their hearts and minds. All the door-smashing and humiliation and aerial bombardment that has followed has only reinforced that defeat.

Now, however, Fareed Zakaria mentions in this week’s Newsweek that the operational doctrine has begun to evolve…with the operation in Tall Afar.

This shift could be seen in microcosm in a report last week in The Wall Street Journal on the town of Tall Afar. Tall Afar was an insurgent stronghold, where last month American and Iraqi forces launched a major operation, killing and arresting hundreds. But to avoid the mistakes of the past, when cities were won only to be lost again in a few months, the commanding officer of the American squadron, Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, spent a great deal of time, energy and attention constructing a local political order that would hold. That meant empowering both the Sunnis and Shiites. Hickey reached out to the main Sunni tribal sheik, a man who only a few months earlier had been considered an insurgent leader and imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. “Reconciliation is the key to this thing,” explained Col. H. R. McMaster, commander of U.S. forces in northwestern Iraq. “This insurgency depends on sectarian tension to move and operate.” McMaster articulates a strategy that is part military and part political.

Ah yes, that would be a colonel talking about the need for reconciliation. That is exactly the kind of thinking we need more of in Iraq.

So let’s go back to the politics and the constitutional deal. How are we going to capitalize on this gift from the Saudis? We must now design a robust diplomatic initiative to broker a viable peace in Iraq and shape our military strategy to complement it.

It is now essential to set up some kind of constitutional process that can submit sophisticated, viable and consensus agreements to the panel created by the Khalilzad/Saudi arm-twisting. That should be run by some kind of third party, most likely the United Nations, and it should include the input from the council of neighbors Prince Saud mentioned when he upbraided the Bush administration. For more on what that might look like see my previous post here. But it’s not just me saying this, Larry Diamond is saying very similar things about the need for mediation. And a group of Arab foreign ministers  is making similar noises.

And this is where I respectfully disagree with my colleagues over at CAP. Two weeks ago, CAP released a report called Strategic Redeployment  that argued for a first-year withdrawal of 80,000 troops from Iraq. With the remaining 50,000 they prescribe a shift to a more hunter-killer mode where we care less about Iraqi law and order and instead concentrate on three things: First, try to stand up the seriously infiltrated Iraqi security force; second, identify and destroy any major terrorist concentrations; and third, secure the borders.

But to take advantage of this political opportunity to transparently facilitate a viable constitution, we would need to increase the security of the civilian population, not decrease it. CAP’s strategy quite clearly pulls the military out of the cities, perhaps not thinking that there can be another mode in which our troops can operate. But we can, we have, and many commanders in Iraq have experience in doing just that from the wars in the Balkans. I’ve been with them in the field and trained with them here at home. Pulling out would most definitely decrease human security at the exact wrong moment.

My goal here is to build the peace. Soldiers like Col. McMaster and Col. Wilkerson don’t like to fight unnecessary wars and they especially don’t like to fight them twice. But if we turn Iraq over to the militias now, we will have a civil war. Civil war leads to regional war and that leads to a collapse of the global order. That’s not how I want to change the system. I talked about the human costs of civil war a few weeks ago. Col. Wilkerson, speaking yesterday at that New America Foundation event, said he can see a scenario where Turkey takes the top third of Iraq, and Syria and Iran jump in as well. We just can’t afford that.

Here’s a final angle on this one. In my experience, U.S. soldiers don’t mind a fight when they are being led competently, they know they are allowed to succeed in their mission and that mission is critical to U.S. national security. Right now, this is not the case and as we know, soldiers are voting with their feet. A political-military strategy, supported by the neighbors and backed by the U.N. has the possibility of fixing this mess.

If the choice is between that uphill battle and civil war, I pick the uphill battle.

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