I get very tired writing about Iraq. But I thought I should follow up my last post.
Here are some things we need to know about the war:
- How important are the "foreign fighters" to the insurgency? Are the suicide bombers predominantly foreign fighters, or Iraqis? Is Iraq basically drawing no-account jihadi hangers-on from across the Muslim world, the way many other hotspots have done (e.g., Bosnia, Kossovo, Chechnya) or are we really fighting the A-list guys there? If I had to guess, I'd say the "leaders" of the insurgency are local Sunni clan leaders and former Baathists, and that the jihadi foreign fighters are no-account cannon fodder. But it would be very useful to know where the suicide bombers are coming from, because suicide terrorism is much harder to defend against than other kinds of terror, and if the suicide bombers are primarily Iraqi that suggests (a) that the local insurgency has mastered the psychological techniques of creating human bombs pioneered by Hezbollah; and (b) that there's a pool of radicalized human-bomb-material in Iraq. It would be much more comforting to think that the most deadly enemies are coming from the outside, because if we can separate them from the locals and kill them, then we win, whereas if they are locals then they can be readily replenished.
- How effective are the private armies that we are attempting to merge into the so-far quite ineffective Iraqi army? By private armies, I mean the Shiite and Kurdish militias. The Iraqi army is reportedly characterized by massive corruption and infiltration by the insurgency, and is essentially useless as a fighting force. The peshmerga gets better press. The Badr Brigade I haven't heard as much about. If we chose to, could we hand Iraq over to these forces, to fight their civil war themselves? Or would the result be catastrophe? There would be serious diplomatic consequences to letting the Shiite Arabs and Kurds conduct a reign of terror in the Sunni areas; key allies of ours - Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan (I'll leave Saudi Arabia off the list) are overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated, and would be, to put it mildly, a bit put out by such a result. But that is our only fallback if the Iraqi armed forces don't "stand up" in fairly short order. So? Is it an option?
- The invasion of Iraq was justified in part by the argument that Iraq was involved with international terrorism. Which it most certainly was - but not as closely as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria or the local granddaddy of state-sponsored terrorism, Iran. We reasonably have a causus belli against all of these countries to the extent that they harbor (or even sponsor) individuals who have killed Americans, but we haven't invaded and conquered all of them because (we believed) it wasn't prudent to do so. In any event, it's not obvious to me that state-sponsored terrorism is really our problem, or was what led to 9-11. Rather, it seems to me that the decisive factor that made 9-11 possible was the development of the terrorist-sponsored state. Afghanistan didn't harbor or sponsor Osama bin Laden; rather, to a considerable extent, al-Qaeda ran the Taliban state. That's why the Taliban was willing to greenlight an outrageous stunt like blowing up the World Trade Center: because al-Qaeda didn't care if Afghanistan got flattened in response, and al-Qaeda effectively called the shots. Iran's leadership, however hard-line (and getting harder) is unlikely to make the same calculation. Which leads me to my question: one of the justifications for expansive war aims in Iraq is that we cannot afford to let that country become a harbor for terrorists again. How likely is it, really, that Baghdad becomes Kabul circa 2000 - a failed state effectively hijacked by jihadis? And what are ways of preventing that outcome apart from remaining an occupying power indefinitely?
Here's why I'm asking these questions. We have 140,000 troops in Iraq. We show no signs of wanting to dramatically expand the size of our military. We need to be prepared for major contingencies on Korea and in the Taiwan strait. We may need to be prepared for military conflict in Iran. We need to be prepared to act quickly if the government of Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan were to fall violently; Pakistan is the one place on earth where terrorists really could get their hands on nuclear weapons (well, Russia is another possibility, and North Korea a third, but Pakistan is the most frightening possibility because the nuclear scientists there actually have ties to the terrorists). We need to be engaged in both the Philippines and Indonesia. We need to be prepared to support the Colombian government and, if things get really bad in South America, to defend the Panama Canal. We have a lot of commitments, and it seems to me that the ongoing Iraqi occupation is making it very hard for us to fulfill all of them. Yes, a retreat under fire in Iraq would embolden all of our enemies and rivals, and make conflict at one of these other hot-spots more likely, so that's one reason only to leave Iraq after achieving victory (whatever that means). But the latter truth does not somehow make the former go away. We're overstretched and overtaxed, and it's becoming a problem, as more and more military leaders are willing to admit.
So we need to have an exit strategy. We don't need to announce it, but we need to have one. We need to know what we can live with in terms of an ultimate outcome in Iraq. Knowing what we can live with actually gives us leverage; it makes a threat to withdraw, or cut one deal or another with one or another party, more plausible. We are currently talking to local leaders of the insurgency. What kind of a deal can we promise them? We've developed a decent relationship with the Shiite political leadership. To what extent do they feel the pressure of time to make progress on both the political and the military front? Only to the extent that any threat on our part to reduce our deployment is credible.
Without going into whether the war as such was justified, we're there, and we actually have made some real progress towards our stated goals. The Kurds have not moved sharply in a pro-independence direction, but appear to believe that their best chance remains within a federal Iraqi state. Moktada al Sadr has been neutralized and brought into the political process. Sovereignty was transferred, an election was held, and the former President Allawi is now both alive and sitting in the opposition. That's not nothing. Now we have to plan to cut our deployment dramatically and in a relatively short amount of time, and hand Iraqi security over to the Iraqis. Which means we need to know the answers to my questions above, the answers to the question of what we can live with.
We won't leave Iraq entirely, of course. We'll keep a base in the Kurdish north and a base in Kuwait, and a big contingent of troops, advisors and diplomats in Baghdad, to help the new government and to be there in case trouble erupts. But the deployment will be 10% to 20% of what it is now.
We cannot bear any burden and pay any price, after all. And simply repeating that we must and will makes any attempt to do otherwise look like weakness and failure, which is exactly what staying the course is supposed to prevent.