The Washington Post is having a Jekyl and Hyde moment on Iraq. A column in yesterday's op-ed page by David Ignatius, which reported an upcoming shift in the U.S. policy in Iraq, was followed today by a report from Ann Scott Tyson, which also reports an upcoming policy shift, but reflects some dramatically different priorities. Put on your seat belts because we're going off road.
Ignatius claims that the Administration now embraces a regional solution to the security situation in Iraq and that President Bush accepts the recommendations advanced by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq study group (that in and of itself is a news flash).
According to Ignatius the heart of the plan involves the following:
- Train Iraqi security forces and support them as they gain sufficient intelligence, logistics and transport capability to operate independently.
- Provide "force protection" for U.S. troops who remain in Iraq.
- Continue Special Forces operations against al-Qaeda, in the hope of gradually reducing suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on the Iraqi government. "That's the accelerator for sectarian violence," said one official.
- Focus U.S. activities on the two big enemies of stability and democracy in Iraq – al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.
- Maintain the territorial integrity and independence of Iraq.
- Ensure the near-term continuation of democracy in Iraq by encouraging top-down reconciliation of former Baath Party members to play a role in the new Iraq while supporting bottom-up reconciliation, such as the recent push against al-Qaeda by Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, and recent peace feelers from radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
- Shift 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.
- Build the Iraqi 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. In other words, put more U.S. folks in charge of Iraqi governmental institutions.
- Finally, 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.
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The folks leaking to Ignatius pay lip service to the notion of a regional fix and are determined to rely primarily on the Iraqi forces for carrying the fight to the "enemy" with one exception. U.S. "special forces" will retain the primary mission of hunting down and attacking Al Qaeda.
Tyson says something very different – the Iraqi troops cannot be trusted to protect Iraqis so the United States will focus its tactics on protecting Iraqis, taking over and running the Iraqi government, and purging the Iraqi government of Shia religious elements. If true, this raises a more fundamental question – what the hell have we been doing for more than four years?
My guess is that we are seeing the debate between two elements of the Bush Administration. The folks leaking to Ignatius still believe that we can train enough Iraqi troops to take on the insurgency and persist in the belief that most of the violence in Iraq comes from Al Qaeda elements.
Those feeding Tyson apparently believe that if we can persuade the Iraqis we are competent (because we can protect them) then we will win their hearts-and-minds and weaken the hand of Iranian influence in Iraq.
Both proposals are fools errands and will only hasten the U.S. defeat in Iraq. The plan reported by Ignatius ignores the fact that Iraq's security forces are dominated by Shias and heavily influenced by militias controlled by clerics with close ties to Iran. The majority of the violence in Iraq is not Al Qaeda based nor is it driven by foreign fighters. However, this formulation is consistent with the U.S. belief that "we are fighting them there so that we don't have to fight them here". Ignatius is reporting a version of sticking with the status quo. Let's call it "Surge Lite".
Tyson's sources are really delusional and are dangerously ignorant of the sectarian currents flooding Iraq. According to comments this afternoon on CNN, Tyson's sources believe that the U.S. cannot sustain its current force level beyond the Spring of 2008. That is fascinating because the plan described by Tyson will require at least 300,000 to 400,000 troops to accomplish the missions of protecting Iraqis throughout Iraq all day, every day and to safeguarding the U.S. advisors who take over the Iraqi government ministries. Where will those troops come from? We do not have the troops to meet that number and there is no other source outside of Iraq who is willing to pony up that number of bodies. So we are going to move away from Iraqi forces, rely more on U.S. forces, and do it with fewer forces by next Spring? Your bullshit alarm should be blaring. This plan is "Surgis Maximus".
How about the proposition to purge Shia elements linked to Al Hakim and Moqtada Al Sadr from the Iraqi government? What drugs are the people who drafted this plan using? Peyote laced mushrooms perhaps? Please excuse the snark but previous efforts to take on Shia religious influence in Iraq during the past four years have always been accompanied by major surges in violence and more U.S. casualties. If we are going to fight the Shias in earnest we should accept the reality that U.S. casualties in Iraq will soar to unprecedented levels and that the civil war will intensify rather than abate.
So what do we do in Iraq? That depends on what our ultimate objective is. If we want a stable government in Iraq we must accept the fact that it will be dominated by Shias who will have close ties to Iran. If we go that route we must be prepared to work out an accomodation with the Iranians and quell the anger of Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Turkey, who in turn will be more likely to support and encourage groups who share the goals of Al Qaeda.
If we want to contain Iran, however, the goal of a stable government in Iraq will have to be put on a back burner and we should look for ways to work covertly with secular Sunnis and Shias. We will be promoting civil war in Iraq, but one targeted against religious extremists with Iraqi tribes taking the lead. This is not the kind of policy we can easily tout in public.
Regardless of which goal we pursue the United States should move immediately to end the tactic of putting U.S. troops on the pointy end of the spear for entering houses and searching for "bad guys". Every time U.S. soldiers enter an Iraqi home and take someone into custody we are recruiting new insurgents. The majority of these folks have not been engaged in attacking our troops prior to being detained. However, after we have picked them up, questioned them and released them, the insurgents have new recruits who are newly committed to attacking us to recover their honor. Until we come to grips with that fact we will continue to sink ourselves in the mire of an insurgent swamp that has no easy, painless exit.
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