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June 19, 2005

Top 10 Things To Do and Not To Do in Iraq
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

There's a lot of great discussion underway at theWashington Monthly, IntelDump and Matthew Yglesias on what to do next in  Iraq. It's too soon to talk of cutting and running and offering public timetables for withdrawal. The minute that's out, we may as well fold the tent since we've declared defeat and our opponents know its simply a matter of waiting it out.

Given the importance of the Middle East to America's security and what we have put at stake in Iraq, there are at least a few more tacks to try before walking away.  Phil Carter and Richard Clarke talk about the permanent damage to our military if we stay in, but there's also harm in pulling out: the almighty American military bested by a ragtag insurgency in its most important ambitious and important mission in decades . . . again (see this post at Operation Truth about how vital it will be for the military of the future to be able to deal credibly with guerilla forces).

As preposterous as it was for Bush to declare that we're fighting terrorists in Iraq so they won't make it here, that message enlarges the meaning of defeat. That's not to say the time to seriously consider a swift pull-out won't come, but there are enough sound measures we haven't yet exhausted to make that call just yet.  Here are 10 things we should and shouldn't do in the next 3-6 months (dealing with military situation – not reconstruction, constitution-making etc. though there are plenty of to-do's on that front too). If we fail at them or they don't work, let's reconsider.

1. Launch a full-court press to get other countries involved in any capacity feasible. See full post here.  Ideally foreign troops would do things like policing towns where    U.S. forces have already cleared out the insurgents.

2. Re-start talks on expanded UN participation. A UN umbrella may be one of the only ways to attract foreign troops back into Iraq. If the U.S., for example, topped up the regular reimbursement rates for troop contributors, its not impossible to envision some developing countries with peacekeeping experience coming forward, particularly for tasks away from the front lines.

3. Make a long-term investment in the training of Iraqi military leadership. There has been so much pressure to quickly get Iraqi forces to a point where they can take over for us that the emphasis of the training effort has been on immediate, short-term results.  But keeping Iraq stable is a long-term proposition, and to achieve it Iraq's military leaders will need years of training.  We should make that investment starting now.

4. Rethink the risk-reward calculus for American soldiers. Our military personnel, reservists and National Guard members are getting much more by way of danger, disruption to their lives and long-term disabilities than they bargained for. We should ensure that every American service-member feels well taken-care of in terms of armor and equipment (still serious issues) and that military benefits aren't stingy (see this piece about homeless veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars).  In addition to being the right thing to do, this will further motivate our forces in Iraq and help ensure that the damage Iraq has wrought to military recruitment efforts doesn't wind up being fatal.

5. Invest heavily in better understanding the insurgency.  Confusion about the nature of the insurgency is clouding military and political decision-making.   Has the insurgency gotten stronger or weaker in the last year?  What is its precise connection to the constitution-making process?   To what degree is the U.S. presence fueling the insurgents – what role do other factors play?   How are insurgents likely to react to, e.g., news of potential American withawal?  finalization of an Iraqi constitution?   partition?

See post continuation for 5 things the U.S. should not do in the next 3-6 months.

Five things the U.S. should not do in the next 3-6 months:

1. Announce a timetable for withdrawal. I think its premature to look at withdrawal in the short term because there remain credible measures that might achieve our goal and have not yet been tried. While there's reason to think our presence is fueling the insurgency, its not clear that's the only factor, nor that the political and constitutional processes are far enough along to keep going if the security situation further worsens.   

2. Leave open the possibility of permanent military bases in Iraq. See details here and in this piece by Gary Hart.  By taking steps to build permanent U.S. military outposts in Iraq, we have handed the insurgency a propaganda tool that plays into Arab peoples' worst fears about American intentions in their region.

3. Mislead the public about how the war effort is going. The public already feels misled because of the WMD fiasco.   As thinkprogress points out, the deceptions continue (also see Andrew Sullivan's recap of Scott McClellan flailing in defense of Rumsfeld's remark that the insurgency is in its last throes).  A misled public will be far less inclined to stay the course, even if it makes sense to do so.   A misled public will also be deeply wary of using force in future, which could cause a relapse of post-Vietnam syndrome.

4. Let money be an obstacle. It hurts to realize that the budget for the Iraq war has ballooned far beyond Pentagon planners' wildest expectations, and that the costs are still mounting.  We need to keep track of all this and recognize that better planning could have a avoided a good deal of the run-ups, but as the world's richest country in the most important military engagement in a generation, resources should not be a constraint.

5. Be naïve about the prospects for Iraqification. Given the rest of the world's understandable reluctance to involve itself in Iraq, the Administration seems inclined to put all its eggs in the fraying basket of Iraqification. Yet all concrete signs suggest that the fledgling Iraqi forces are nowhere near capable of fending for themselves, nor will they be any time soon.   Mustering nad holding drills may be easier and less humiliating than begging for troop contributions, but we need to be doing both.


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Ms. Nossel,

Much of your approach seems to me to be based on irrational and futile pining for competent foreign legions to come to Iraq to bail us out. Though I am much inspired by your image of some hapless third world peacekeeper-suckers being enticed by money or other trinkets into the Iraqi quagmire, to take over for the various Europeans and other erstwhile US vassals who have already bailed, you may want to bear in mind that what is going on in Iraq is a whole war, not simply a peacekeeping and stabilization operation. So I'm not sure their peacekeeping experience is going to cut it.

And while you speak in the abstract of getting other countries involved, you offer no concrete details about what are you willing to pony up as part of your "full-court press". Maybe we can follow Max Boot's suggestion and sell some redeemable citizenship indulgences to tired and poor mercenaries from some teeming foreign shores? Of course, given your "let money be no object" approach to the problem, I guess there are no limits at all. Maybe we could even offer to give away more AIDS drugs to those gallant third world Trumans-in-the-rough! Then instead of asking them to fight for democracy and the principles of free trade, we could give them the opportunity to fight for their lives.

You also seem to be jumping the gun a bit - making recommendations for phase two while coyly avoiding substantive discussion of phase one. Could you explain your strategy for "clearing towns of insurgents" so as to make them policeable by helpful foreign troops?

Your citation of the currently popular Malayan insurgency model strikes me as a bit of the mark. Malaysia had a pre-existing, functioning government, supported by the ethnic Malays who were the majority of the population, against a Communist insurgency backed by the minority ethnic Chinese.

You may remember that we wrecked the existing government in Iraq, and disbanded its army, security and intelligence forces. It is the remnants of that government which are now our chief opponents. The US's awkwardly engineered governement of the moment is no real government at all, but a futile exercise in US wish-fulfillment. It does not represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people, the various sizeable components of which have their own long-term political agendas, with national, religious and sectarian aims, none involving a government of all Iraq on the lines of that conceived by the earnest US constitutionalists, law professors and democracy enthusiasts who have chipped in their Cloud Cuckoo Land design. Few Iraqis are willing to rush to the defense of this doomed institution.

You really seem to believe that the problem of the Iraqi security forces is a matter of training, and recommend a shift from short-term to long-term training strategies. My impression is that very few Iraqis really want to fight for the cause that engages your interest - the extention of US influence and conceptions of good government into Mesopotamia:

The money-is-no-obstacle approach you recommend suggests to me you are living in the mythic past, working within a framework of virtual US omnipotence that no longer exists, and never did exist. While the new Democratic hawks talk of preserving American leadership, hegemony and authority, the rest of the world has already gone on to the next phase, in full awareness of the changing scene, one in which that so-called hegemony and leadership no longer exist:

Iraq is America's Suez, and we had better get used to it fast, and adjust our vison to the real world, or more tragedy awaits.

It would also help if we kept track of civilian casualties, and held troops accountable when they shoot people without provocation. Every week there are media stories about civilians getting shot for no apparent reason, and the culture of impunity has been a major reason why our troops are so unpopular. Treating Iraqi detainees -- many of whom are probably innocent -- like human beings would also be helpful.

BTW, after 3 years of lying to the American people, if Bush starts telling them the truth, support for this war will snap like a broken chicken bone. Most of this support comes from Bush's 40% true believers, and if he says that the "liberal media" have been right all along about how bad this is going, they'll start heading for the exits.

In any case, given that these 10 things will not be done, and that we will have more of the same for the next 31/2 years, I have no problem calling for a withdrawal.

Ms. Nossel: My cousin in Iraq thanks you for advocating he not be brought home from this war which he was lied into. His wife and infant son also thank you.

Can I have your address, so I know where to send the thank you card if he gets injured or killed?

Also, I would like to thank all liberal hawks everywhere for again supporting this execrable war. You really helped all of us out!

Mr. Nossel: I have a few questions for you. How bad would the situation on the ground have to become for you to consider withdrawal? While a public timetable might be counterproductive, the US military is already stretched to the breaking point, and the insurgency has fought it to a standstill. The damage to the reputation of the "invincible" US military which you fear has already been done.

Which brings up my second question: How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?

"...The minute that's out, we may as well fold the tent since we've declared defeat and our opponents know its simply a matter of waiting it out"

You should realize that the insurgents ALREADY "know its simply a matter of waiting it out".

Try to remember what history teaches: the imperial occupying force always leaves in the end. Insurgents have infinite time. They will be there, however long it takes.

While the imperial occupation forces remain, they serve as great recruiters for the insurgency, and not much more than that, besides being targets.

Suzanne, the 10 do's and don'ts seem a bit more complacent about the Bush project in Iraq than many people (and certainly most Democrats) outside the Beltway will tolerate. A war sold on fraud and fundamentally premised on projecting American dominance will neither succeed nor find Americans willing to fight it. We have a perfectly respectable cover for a quick exit strategy: the UN authorization for the international military presence in Iraq expires Dec. 31. We can then leave Iraq to the Iraqis.

We could, but do you think we ought to?

Ultimately, the debate among the chattering classes of DC and NYC may not be what decides this -- with an all-volunteer military, when the people "outside the Beltway" (or more precisely, outside the elites) decide to stop enlisting in the military and to discourage their children from doing so, because they question the misson, this obviously imposes a constraint on the policy, unless we're really going back to a draft, which I doubt.

See for example, this opinion piece from the heart of Red America:

But hey, it sounds like they're raising the maximum age for joining as an officer from 35 to 42, so if a surge of thirtysomething neoconservatives and progressive idealists really want to demonstrate leadership where the rubber meets the road... I'm 34, and I'll don my "pith helmet and jodhpurs" (or Kevlar and ceramics) as for democratic imperialism soon as Max Boot does!


The question of whether to stay or go is somewhat unreal, since (in its present form) it takes as given the conundrum of our having neither the forces necessary to control the country nor the prospect of local forces sufficient to carry the burden in our place.

We have three options: escalate US power massively, continue the present policy, or withdraw. If the first and third are unacceptable, at what point should the second be judged in need of basic change or judged a failure?

Perhaps this is a question that only main street America can answer, since they are the people whose sons and daughters are doing the fighting. But the rest of us have an obligation to answer other questions that came into new focus as a result of 9/11:

1. Is there a positive or negative correlation between the spread of WMD technologies and the stability of modern civilization?

2. If the correlation is negative, can measures short of war to control the spread of dangerous technologies succeed in every case?

3. If the answer in some cases is no, can the costs of submitting the US right to go to war to the judgment of the U.N. Security Council be greater than the costs of disregarding the Council?

4. Would question three be answered differently if US military action in disregard of the UN is so massive and so competent in its planning and execution that it succeeds and no further resistance occurs?

5. If the answer to question one is negative, is it better to treat the world order as fundamentally viable and in need only of having WMD leaks plugged? Or is the trend of modernization moving in a direction that will increasingly stress the ability of the existing nation-state order to contain WMDs?

The first three questions have been the focus of debate. But the last two have not received as much attention. If we are to learn from recent years, it would seem to me that we should give all five deeper thought.

1. Announce a timetable for withdrawal.


Oh, hey, that's a *great* idea- I mean, why *wouldn't* we want to tell the insurgents just how long they have to hold out before we hand Iraq to them? What possible consequences could that have for our troops, Iraqi civilians, or the possibility of democracy in the middle east?

Have you lost your f'ing mind???

Read this:

Rosignol: That's from the list of things NOT to do.

"Invest heavily in better understanding the insurgency."

Despite two years of having the largest CIA station in the world in Baghdad, there is still too much we don't know about the insurgency. One wonders whether more investment would improve our knowledge in a way that makes a difference.

In Vietnam, we poured enormous resources into seeking a detailed understanding of the Viet Cong insurgency and the North Vietnamese army. Unfortunately, the problem in Vietnam was simpler and more basic. We did not isolate the battlefield of South Vietnam from outside infiltration. It is still not clear that the war would have turned out differently if we had, say, extended the DMZ to the Mekong river and fortified it. But not being willing or able to isolate the country undermined everything else we tried to do.

Iraq today is a different situation because the war there is not primarily driven by external forces. But the insurgency is assisted from Syria and cutting it off from outside support, if it could be done, would be a serious blow to it. The more basic problem in Iraq is that we are trying to defeat the insurgents without destroying the whole civilian population. A Baathist counterinsurgency strategy would have crushed the insurgency a long time ago by massacring the civilian population that gave it cover. We won't do that and consequently the war is more difficult to fight.

The insurgent strategy is to wear down American support for the war before Iraqi security forces are able to carry the burden. Our strategy is to replace US troops with Iraqis, or failing that, to drive the insurgency below the level at which its losses can be replaced. What isn't clear is whether insurgent domestic recruitment can offset increased losses. So far as it is possible to measure, insurgent numbers seem to have held steady, as has the ratio of insurgent to coalition casualties. If these numbers don't change, or if Iraqis cannot assume the burden of frontline combat in a timely manner, then the attrition of American forces may be the determining factor.

Rosignol: That's from the list of things NOT to do.


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It would also help if we kept track of civilian casualties, and held troops accountable when they shoot people without provocation. Every week there are media stories about civilians getting shot for no apparent reason, and the culture of impunity has been a major reason why our troops are so unpopular. Treating Iraqi detainees -- many of whom are probably innocent -- like human beings would also be helpful.

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