Iraq: The Way Ahead
I spent much of the day traveling to and attending the “Iraq: The Way Ahead” panel at Heritage today.
It was chaired by James Phillips, Heritage Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs. The panelists, who appeared in order of decreasing enthusiasm for the “Surge,” were Fred Kagan, Kenneth Pollack, and Anthony Cordesman.
Both video and audio of the event are already available for download.
Overall, a pretty interesting discussion.
Kagan, as one might expect from the guy who wrote a study that largely inspired the Surge plan, was enthusiastic that it could work given the proper commitment. He said this was a long overdue change in direction and noted that he had long been critical of the administration’s handling of the war.
At the same time, he thinks this particular plan could not have been undertaken back in 2004 or 2005 because neither the Iraqi government nor the Iraqi military were yet in place in a form that would have been capable of supporting it. On that front, he is pleased by the level of support we’re seeing from Maliki and company and sees many positive trends.
He dismissed the argument that Iraq is a “distraction” from the larger war on terrorism and against al Qaeda in particular as “ridiculous.” Indeed, he says much of the sectarian violence we’re seeing in Iraq now is a direct result of calculated attacks by those same terrorists. Further, he sees a situation much like Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the mujahadeen were a non-factor regionally and globally because they were busy fighting the Soviets; one that war ended, and they were free for mischief elsewhere, they suddenly became a huge threat.
In Q&A, asked if he supported an “open-ended commitment” to Iraq, he said that he did. He argued, correctly I think, that one either commits to fighting a war until victory is attained or no longer attainable, or one sets timetables and virtually guarantees defeat.
Pollack thinks the Surge likely to fail but at the same time thinks it the only possible strategy that has even the slightest chance of staving off disaster at this point. Thus, if he were still in government, he would reluctantly support it.
Historically, sectarian civil wars tend to spin out of control with catastrophic regional impact. While he doesn’t know how bad things could get in Iraq if we fail, he knows he doesn’t want to find out.
He likes the “strategic concept” behind the Surge but is dubious that we have the capacity to carry it out. He thinks it good that we’re moving the emphasis from “Killing Bad Guys to Protecting Good Guys.” He notes that the concept has already worked in various parts of Iraq with commanders particularly adept at counterinsurgency-stability operations.
At the same time, he fears failure because we are unlikely to sustain troop levels long term. Going in and cleaning up villages does no good if the enemy can simply “go to ground,” as many of the militias have already done, only to re-emerge months later. If we’re not willing to stay long enough to prevent that, the successes of the Surge will be short-lived.
Moreover, we simply lack the technical expertise in the Federal Government to take care of all the needs we’ve identified in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure. The pat answer seems to be to “hire contractors,” a prospect that fills him with dread given their spotty record in Iraq to date.
Ultimately, Pollack thinks it quite possible that we’ve passed the “point of inevitability” that historians are always able to identify in studying civil wars of the past but that we can seldom spot as they unfold.
Cordesman made Pollack look like an administration cheerleader. While he’s happy that we finally have a SECDEF willing to deal with reality, he doesn’t see much hope in Iraq. Indeed, he thinks that the concept of “winning” may be totally meaningless.
The war is seen as illegitimate by many at home and by much of the world. That will be magnified if we leave Iraq in shambles. There’s no way to spin walking away as anything other than a “huge defeat” for us and a “huge victory” for the enemy. On the other hand, he’s not sure that really matters long term, other than for the propaganda value AQ will get.
He argues we need to “think beyond the next election cycle” and figure out what our goals are in the Middle East and start mending fences.
He’s been around awhile and notes that his first visit to Iraq as a government official was way back in 1971. Contrary to myth, it has always been a failed state. Saddam didn’t turn it into one, nor did the U.S. invasion. Indeed, the sectarian tensions that are now manifesting themselves were evident on that trip.
Contra war supporters, he thinks Iraq is a mess even outside Baghdad and Anbar Province and that’s not likely to change in the next 10-15 years no matter what we do. Iraq is a “kleptocracy” and American experience and expertise is virtually useless in dealing with that type of society.
Ultimately, he thinks whatever happens in Iraq will be determined by the Iraqis themselves. “We can’t impose a plan on them.” We should help all we can with economic aid and the like but our influence will be marginal.
My own views are somewhere between Pollack’s and Cordesman’s. Like Pollack, I think the Surge may be too late to do any good but I think it’s the best among a series of bad options. Cordesman may well be right, though, as to our overestimation of the degree to which Iraqi society is a budding Western democracy just dying for the chance to succeed.