Building an Iraq Exit Strategy

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U.S. soldiers recruit local men to help improve security along Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia

One argument against the U.S. simply leaving Iraq is based on the notion that to do so would just encourage more terrorism. Hasty retreats from Lebanon in 1985 and Somalia in 1993 are Exhibit A and B in Osama bin Laden's argument that despite its overwhelming military power, the U.S. runs when its nose is bloodied. The converse, however, may also be true: That the continued presence of U.S. occupation forces in Iraq fuels an anti-American insurgency there and swells the ranks of Islamist terror networks worldwide. Or, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put in his internal Defense Department memorandum leaked two weeks ago, "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us? Does the U.S. need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists?"

Thus are quagmires formed.

Even the relentlessly upbeat Defense Secretary suggested that victory in Iraq could be assured only after "a long, hard slog." The dramatic escalation of attacks on the U.S. and its allies in Iraq over the past three weeks — the "Ramadaan Offensive," of which the downing of a Chinook helicopter that killed 16 soldiers was simply the most dramatic in a series of daily, deadly attacks — has turned up the domestic political pressure on the Bush administration to provide answers over what is transpiring in Iraq, and how soon Americans might expect to be out of there. Although administration officials have stuck fast to the suggestion that the attacks are the work of Baathist "bitter-enders," criminals and foreign terrorists, U.S. commanders on the ground are far less certain about the composition of the force or forces confronting them. Whoever is conducting these attacks, however, has clearly found a sufficiently permissive environment in the environs of the Iraqi capital and the "Sunni Triangle" to the north and west to mount and intensify an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. The insurgents are largely invisible to U.S. forces not because they're disappearing into some cover provided by natural features such as mountains or jungles; they're taking refuge in the civilian population. And the limits of intelligence-gathering on the insurgency thus far suggests that the local population is therefore either not sufficiently sympathetic to the U.S. forces to blow the whistle on those doing the fighting, or else not sufficiently confident in the ability of the U.S. forces to protect them from retribution should they do so.

Indeed, an extensive opinion survey of ordinary Iraqis by Zogby International recently misquoted by Vice President Cheney to imply that a majority of Iraqis were firmly behind the U.S. occupation found, in fact, that almost two thirds would like the U.S. forces to leave within a year, and that a majority had an unfavorable view of the actions of the U.S. military in Iraq. While there's no reason to believe the insurgents carry the support of anything close to a majority of Iraqis, the Zogby International findings suggest that a majority may, in fact, be inclined to stand on the sidelines in the clash between the Americans and the insurgents.

That could be bad news for the Bush administration, since the preferred strategy for addressing the security crisis, now, goes under the name "Iraqification" — accelerating the transfer of security and political authority to Iraqis under the tutelage of the U.S.

The attraction of "Iraqification" of security duties is obvious: The U.S. is plainly in need of help in pacifying the insurgency, and little is forthcoming from abroad. Turkey's retraction of its offer to send upward of 10,000 men until the U.S. can twist the arm of the Iraqi Governing Council to reverse its opposition to such a deployment has left Washington forced to contemplate calling up more reserves. Getting Iraqis to take on more of the security burden is obviously preferable. But accelerating the training and deployment of Iraqi forces also raises a number of dangers. It assumes that Iraqis will somehow be more capable than the far better-trained and -equipped Americans — and equally willing — to hunt down and eliminate the insurgents. But if the composition of the insurgency is not fully known, nor are the hearts and minds of the ordinary Iraqis who would make up a new army.

The question of raising new Iraqi security forces also plays into the factional politics of post-Saddam Iraq. Some members of the Iraqi Governing Council have suggested, for example, that the U.S. ought to resurrect the Iraqi regular army, which they argue should never have been disbanded. Others in the IGC, however, see the old army as dominated by Sunni officers, and some of the Kurd and Shiite parties want a greater role for their own militias. Political power in the old Iraq issued from the barrel of a gun, and the contenders for power in the new Iraq are in no rush to prematurely turn theirs into plowshares.

"Iraqification" only works on a security level if it occurs with a transfer of political authority to Iraqis. That may be why Ambassador Paul Bremer is now talking of accelerating the process by which Iraqis adopt a new constitution and elect a government. But constitution-making is a deeply contentious business in Iraq, which has, pretty much since it was constituted as a nation-state by the British after World War I, been ruled by the Sunni minority. The Shiite majority, naturally, insist on nothing short of a majoritarian democracy, while the Kurds demand the right to govern northern Iraq as an autonomous component of an Iraqi federation (the consternation of neighboring Turkey). Right now there's substantial disagreement over how a constitution should be adopted — the key Shiite religious authorities have insisted that only a democratically elected body can legitimately adopt a constitution — much less what it should contain. Accelerating the timetable for elections, some analysts warn, runs the risk of empowering either a weak central government without demonstrable popular support, while others suggest a rush to the polls could work to the advantage of radical demagogues such as the Shiite militant Moqtada al-Sadr.

As the Bush administration grapples its way to an exit strategy, the neo-conservative vision in which an invasion of Iraq would create a Middle East beachhead of liberal-democratic, secular, free-market, pro-Western and Israel-friendly sentiment is looking increasingly like the stuff of fantasy. The leading U.S. constitutional adviser to ambassador Bremer last week told the British Daily Telegraph that "The end constitutional product is very likely to make many people in the U.S. government unhappy." Dr. Noah Feldman added that "any democratically elected Iraqi government is unlikely to be secular and unlikely to be pro-Israel. And frankly, moderately unlikely to be pro-American."

The basis of an exit strategy right now, however, is escalating the fight against the insurgents, while accelerating the political transition. The hope is that greater Iraqi involvement in both security and self-government will turn the momentum against the insurgency. Casualties will likely continue, but poll numbers suggest that a majority of the American electorate may be willing to accept those as long as it remains persuaded that the administration has a coherent plan for turning things around in Iraq. Even if it involves a "long, hard slog."