New New New Strategy for War Stresses Iraqi Politics

The latest new plan for bringing stability to Iraq is a joint military and diplomatic venture, Ann Scott Tyson reports in a front page story in today’s WaPo.

Top U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq are completing a far-reaching campaign plan for a new U.S. strategy, laying out military and political goals and endorsing the selective removal of hardened sectarian actors from Iraq’s security forces and government. The classified plan, scheduled to be finished by May 31, is a joint effort between Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American general in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. More than half a dozen people with knowledge of the plan discussed its contents, although most asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it to reporters.

Given the level of buy-in Petraeus’ broad-based development reportedly entailed, I strongly suspect that they were not only authorized but encouraged to talk to reporters. Indeed, there a plenty of high level names quoted later in the piece.

The plan has three pillars to be carried out simultaneously — in contrast to the prior sequential strategy of “clear, hold and build.” One shifts the immediate emphasis of military operations away from transitioning to Iraqi security forces — the primary focus under the former top U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. — toward protecting Iraq’s population in trouble areas, a central objective of the troop increase that President Bush announced in January. “The revised counterinsurgency approach we’re taking now really focuses on protecting those people 24/7 . . . and that competent non-sectarian institutions take the baton from us,” said Kilcullen, offering an overview of the campaign plan. In contrast, he said, U.S. operations in 2004 and 2005 “had the unintended consequence of killing off Iraqis who supported us. We would clear an area, encourage people to sign up for government programs, but then we would have to leave and those people would be left exposed and would get killed.” The plan recognizes that there are too few troops to protect all of Iraq’s population, and so focuses on critical regions such as greater Baghdad.

Next, the plan emphasizes building the government’s capacity to function, admitting severe weaknesses in government ministries and often nonexistent institutional links between the central government and provincial and local governments. This, too, is in contrast with Casey’s strategy, which focused on rapidly handing over responsibility to Iraq’s government. Such a rapid transition “was derailed as a strategy,” said one person involved with the plan. Instead, he described the focus of the next 18 to 21 months as “a bridging strategy” to set the necessary conditions for a handover.

Finally, the campaign plan aims to purge Iraq’s leadership of a small but influential number of officials and commanders whose sectarian and criminal agendas are thwarting U.S. efforts. It recognizes that the Iraqi government is deeply infiltrated by militia and corrupt officials who are “part of the problem” and are maneuvering to kill off opponents, install sectarian allies and otherwise solidify their power for when U.S. troops withdraw, said one person familiar with the plan. “For the surge to work, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus have to identify the Iraqi nationalists and empower them, while minimizing” two other groups — namely, “the militant sectarians . . . and the profoundly, personally corrupt,” said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who recently returned from Iraq. Dodge, one of the assessment team members, was speaking in his capacity as an Iraq expert and declined to comment on anything about the plan.

The emphases are in the right place, since all agree that security and the provision of basic services is key. Indeed, disrupting those is the basis of the guerrillas’ activity. Whether actually achieving these things is possible, however, is the big question.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    So two days ago, David Ignatius told us authoritatively, based on interviews with high-ranking civilian and military officials, that the US had decided it had no good prospects for effecting political reconciliation, but we could concentrate on making sure Iraqi troops could really maintain their vehicle engines. Or something. Basically, train the troops. One day ago came the so-called “lily pad” plan.

    Today’s “new new new” plan, as James acutely calls it, is . . . pretty much the opposite of the new new and new plans reported earlier in the week.


    Also, say what they want, the quoted passages read like “Oil Spot: The Rerun.” AND it sets us on a collision course with the Iraqis with actual political power (and local constituencies), those awful sectarian crooks in the ministries. I hold no brief for those people, but I don’t expect them to go quietly.

    Bottom line: Why bother even following the news? Tomorrow they’ll announce an even newer new new new strategy that will be incompatible with this one but essentially a retread of some cunning strategy that was supposed to solve all our problems two years ago but made them worse.

  2. Tlaloc says:

    Whether actually achieving these things is possible, however, is the big question.

    The answer is obviously “no.” Petraeus literally wrote the army book on counterinsurgency, and according to that book 20-25 soldiers/1000 population is the baseline minimum.

    20/1000 means 540,000 troops for Iraq. 150,000 just for baghdad.

    Now granted the army counterinsurgency manual does say that that number is a rule of thumb and may need to be adjusted for the specific conditions of the war in question. Does anyone believe the specific conditions of Iraq are on our side? And furthermore that they are so on our side as to make is so we can prevail with 1/3 of the troops we’d otherwise need?

    We simply do not have the capacity to pull it off. We might have made a big gamble early on and put essentially our whole available force in country at once to try and rapidly pacify the area, and risked that the progress wouldn’t survive the necessary withdraw afterwards.

    That probably wouldn’t have worked, but at least it would have had a chance. The course we did pick never had any chance and has too fatigued and abused our military to make the other plan possible.