Monday, November 20, 2006

Iraq roundup

What is to be done about Iraq?

Democrats want a timetable for withdrawal, which critics say is tantamount to surrender and will lead to a full-scale civil war.

The latter point is probably true. But the alternatives aren't particularly persuasive.

Part of the problem is the administration, which still refuses to concede anything to reality.

Dick Cheney: "We'll win this war by staying on the offensive — carrying the fight to the enemy, going after them one by one if necessary, going after those who could equip them with even more dangerous technologies."

President Bush: "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Such sentiments prompted this response from former Republican leader John Kasich: "They were totally obstinate in the end. To keep going around and saying that everything’s great and how it’s all going well in Iraq was ridiculous. There’s such a thing as being firm, and then there’s such a thing as ignoring reality.”

And other influential war supporters are speaking up, too, saying the war has become a disaster.

Kenneth Adelman: "This didn't have to be managed this bad. It's just awful."

Richard Perle: "If I had known that the US was going to essentially establish an occupation, then I'd say, 'Let's not do it.' It was a foolish thing to do."

Then the godfather of realpolitik himself spoke up.

Henry Kissinger: "If you mean by 'military victory' an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible."

Such talk prompted a rebuttal, from Lindsey Graham: "We do not have security in Iraq. The only way you'll ever get a political solution to the differences that exist among the Iraqi people is to control the violence."

Well no kidding. I've been saying the same thing since this blog started. Where has Graham been for the last couple of years?

But note how his response does not even try to defend the administration's handling of the war -- an increasingly common occurence. Everyone seems to recognize the administration's ineptness -- except the administration. Given the ongoing happy talk from Bush and Cheney, it raises one big question: Whatever strategy we eventually settle on, is victory possible as long as this administration is in charge of running it?

What does the military think? Notwithstanding last week's Senate hearings, where the top general in Iraq argued against a withdrawal, the Pentagon sees three stark options, dubbed "Go big, go long or go home."

"Go big" would send hundreds of thousands more U.S. and Iraqi troops into the fray. But it's pretty much a nonstarter, because there simply aren't enough soldiers to do that.

"Go home" was also rejected, with the Pentagon predicting it would push Iraq into a full-blown civil war.

That leaves "Go long", a hybrid approach that would cut U.S. troop levels while expanding their training and advisory role.

"Go long" doesn't strike me as a solution as much as a disguised withdrawal. The eventual goal is to cut U.S. troop levels to 60,000 from the current 140,000. I just can't see how 60,000 troops will obtain better results than 140,000. An immediate withdrawal may lead to spiraling violence, but "go long" just seems like a way to draw out the pain, not a serious attempt to win.

That's why my argument has always been to either get serious ("Go big") or go home. If "go big" is impossible, that doesn't leave too many options. But nobody is eager to sound the retreat.

So what can we do?

The problem is fundamental: corruption in the central Iraqi goverment and infiltration of the Iraqi security forces by sectarian groups. I wrote about problems with the Iraqi army a while back; here's a parallel story on the Iraqi police.

The Iraqi policemen begged the Americans not to make them go out. They peeled off their clothes to reveal shrapnel scars from past attacks. They tugged the armored plates from their Kevlar vests and told the Americans they were faulty. They said they had no fuel for their vehicles. They disappeared on indefinite errands elsewhere in the compound. They said they would not patrol if it meant passing a trash pile, a common hiding place for bombs.

The Iraqis eventually gave up and climbed into two S.U.V.’s with shattered windshields and missing side windows, and the joint patrol moved out. One Iraqi officer draped his Kevlar vest from the window of his car door for lateral protection. During a lunch break, the officers tried to sneak away in their cars.

This is not an example of Iraqi cowardice; it's a rational response to being sent out into a war zone in unarmored vehicles and light kevlar vests, backed by a corrupt and inadequate support network that is unable to pay, equip and supply the field units.

What it does show is just how far the police are from being an effective counterinsurgency force. And since they make up a large portion of Iraqi security forces (perhaps 140,000 police compared to 130,000 Iraqi troops), it's easy to see just how far we are from having the hundreds of thousands of well-trained, well-equipped Iraqis needed to secure the country.

And the biggest obstacle to creating those Iraqi soldiers is not the number of U.S. trainers, although that's a factor. It's the Iraqi government. Until the government demonstrates an ability to keep its house in order, victory is impossible.

If "go home" is unpopular, "go long" isn't a winning strategy and "go big" is impossible, we're left with one alternative: a timetable for the Iraqi government to shape up. The only real question is how much time and wiggle room we give them.

Pull out immediately? No. Pull out unless the Iraqi government can show it can field an effective nonsectarian security force? Yes. And require that proof sooner rather than later.

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