The Way Ahead in Iraq

Retired US Army General Barry McCaffrey, military news commentator and Adjunct Professor at West Point, recently returned from Iraq after meetings with military and political leaders, and has reported his findings. McCaffrey has been generally independent in his evaluations of the war effort, and has no political ax to grind. His frank and analytical assessment is illuminating on what must be done now to achieve some measure of victory. The following is a summary of his report.

The Current Situation

Iraq is embroiled in a low intensity civil war, which is slowly worsening. As many as 3000 of its citizens are murdered every month, and many people are desperate. Although we have killed and arrested and huge numbers of insurgents they continue to regenerate their numbers. Their sophistication and lethality increase even while incurring staggering losses.

Meanwhile, US domestic support for the war has dissipated, and many Americans now think the war was a mistake. Congress now is fixated on constraining the Administration in Iraq. US casualties in Iraq now exceed 27,000 killed and wounded. The war costs $9 Billion per month. Stateside troop readiness is deteriorating and equipment is worn out.

Many units have served multiple deployments, and we are now extending those deployments for longer stays. Our deployment rate is simply not sustainable. This year, we will need to call up many National Guard units for involuntary second tours this year. Some believe another round of call-ups could destroy the National Guard structure and endanger domestic security.

Iraq's neighbors (except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) provide little political or economic cooperation to the Maliki government. Our allies, including the UK, are leaving, and we will soon be largely on our own. Moreover, the war in Iraq could result in a larger Middle East struggle, and could produce another generation of Americans who lack confidence in our politicians, media, and military leadership.

Since the arrival of General David Petraeus in Iraq, however, our circumstances have measurably improved.

The Maliki government has authorized the elimination of elements of Sadr organization. Sadr and many of his leaders have fled. The Madi army has grounded their weapons, taken down checkpoints, stopped the intimidation of Sunnis, and ended resistance to coalition forces. Violence has dramatically dropped. The Iraqis themselves are now stepping up with more volunteers for Police and Army units. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are showing greater determination to pursue insurgents. The Iraqi people are encouraged, and Baghdad has sprung back to life.

Many Sunnis now understand that they made a mistake by not participating in the elections. Sunnis are now joining the ranks of the Iraqi Police, and there are now reports of combat between Sunnis and Al Qaeda terrorists.

Sunnis have also become concerned of the tenuous presence of coalition forces that stand between them and an overwhelming Shia-Kurdish majority who were barbarically treated by Saddam.

McCaffrey acknowledges that time is short, but we can still establish a stable and lawful Iraq, who is at peace with its neighbors, and that governs in a consensus among Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.

Reconciliation of the internal warring elements in Iraq will be how we eventually win the war in Iraq --- if it happens. There is a very sophisticated and carefully integrated approach by the Iraqi government and Coalition actors to defuse the armed violence from internal enemies and bring people into the political process. There are encouraging signs that the peace and participation message does resonate with many of the more moderate Sunni and Shia warring factions.
The Way Ahead

No one doubts that opponents of the war will badger President Bush for the remainder of his term. Yet Democratic control of Congress may inadvertently provide a useful backdrop which Ambassador Ryan Crocker could stress the diminishing choices upon the Maliki administration. While it is unlikely that Democrats can constitutionally force the President to withdraw, the next President will likely have 12 months or less to "get Iraq straight" before he or she will be forced to depart.

Therefore, our planning horizons should assume that there are less than 36 months remaining of substantial US troop presence in Iraq. The insurgency will continue in some form for a decade. This suggests the fundamental dilemma facing US policymakers.

The US Armed Forces cannot sustain the current deployment rate. We will leave the nation at risk to other threats from new hostile actors if we shatter the capabilities of our undersized and under-resourced Army, Marine, and special operations forces. The Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs must get Congress to provide emergency levels of resources, manpower, and energy into this rapidly failing system. If we do not aggressively rebuild ---the capability of the force actually deployed in Iraq will also degrade --- and we are likely to encounter a disaster.

The necessary rebuilding and increase in size of our ground forces will go on years after we draw down from Iraq. It is necessary for the variety of threats faced the US faces around the world.

The primary war winning strategy for the United States in the coming 12 months must be for Ambassador Ryan and General Petraeus to focus their considerable personal leadership skills on getting the top 100 Shia and Sunni leaders to walk back from the edge of all-out civil war. Reconciliation is the way out. There will be no imposed military solution with the current non-sustainable US force levels. Military power cannot alone defeat an insurgency-the political and economic struggle for power is the actual field of battle.

A sufficient but not necessary condition of success is adequate resources to build an Iraqi Army, National Police, local Police, and Border Patrol. We are still in the wrong ball park. The Iraqis need the capacity to jail 150,000 criminals and terrorists. They must have an air force with 150 US helicopters. (The US Armed Forces have 100+ medevac helicopters and 700 lift or attack aircraft in-country.) They need 5000 light armored vehicles for their ten divisions. They need enough precision, radar-assisted counter-battery artillery to suppress the constant mortar and rocket attacks on civilian and military targets. They should have 24 C130's---and perhaps three squadrons of light ground attack aircraft. I mention these numbers not to be precise-but to give an order of magnitude estimation that refutes our current anemic effort. The ISF have taken horrendous casualties. We must give them the leverage to replace us as our combat formations withdraw in the coming 36 months.

Finally, we must focus on the creation of a regional dialog led by the Iraqis with US active participation. The diplomatic process in the short run is unlikely to produce useful results. However, in the coming five years --- it will be a prerequisite to a successful US military withdrawal --- that we open a neutral and permanent political forum (perhaps in Saudi Arabia) in which Iraq's neighbors are drawn into continuing cooperative engagement. A regional war would be a disaster for 25 years in the Mid-East. A continuing peace discussion forum may give us the diplomatic leverage to neutralize these malignant forces that surround and menace Iraq.
McCaffrey believes the current "surge" is necessary to provide to US leaders on the ground the political backing and resources they need to achieve their goals. Gen. Petraeus says we must "achieve an outcome sustainable by the Iraqis."

Last November, voters said they wanted a new approach to the war, and President Bush has given it to them with Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy. Domestic opinion is not calling for sudden withdrawal, but realistically McCaffrey thinks a large US presence in Iraq will not last beyond 2009.

The situation in Iraq has improved, as have our chances for our ultimate success there. It is ludicrous now to be cutting off support just as we are beginning to see signs of success.

Jeff Lukens can be contacted here.