The Duck of Minerva

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Posen’s plan for Iraq

December 8, 2005

A friend of mine emailed me a link to Barry Posen’s “Exit Strategy: How to Disengage with Iraq in Eighteenth Months”, which appears in the next issue of the Boston Review. Posen argues, citing familiar evidence, that the occupation is not going particularly well. The insurgency shows no evidence of diminished strength and the Iraqi government shows no signs of being able to take over crucial administrative responsibilities. At the same time, the US presence makes the problem worse.

First, Iraqi politicians will not apply sustained pressure to their security forces to improve themselves so long as they know that the Americans will remain to protect the state from the insurgents. Second, the Iraqi units themselves will not grow in capability and confidence so long as they are relying upon American command and control, firepower, and tactical acumen. The assertion that they would profit from more training, more professional leadership, more organization, and better equipment is true, though the American and Iraqi governments have already had two years to pour resources into these problems. But how do the insurgents do so well with no large training bases, no safe place to organize, no secure electronic command-and-control network, and only the weaponry they can obtain covertly? The answer is almost certainly motivation. The insurgents care more about ejecting the United States than Iraqi politicians and soldiers care about stopping the insurgents—in part because the Iraqis can rely on the United States to do it for them.

Posen’s onto something important here; a great deal of evidence suggests that motivation and morale makes an enormous difference in the relative effectiveness of fighting forces. Some historians argue that French morale during the Napoleonic Wars accounted for a great deal of Napoleon’s success. Similarly, the New Model Army was far more capable than other units during the English Civil War precisely because of its superior morale and motivation.

Third, the political leaders of Iraq’s three main factions will not make difficult compromises so long as the United States remains in Iraq. Ironically, the U.S. presence probably encourages the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni Arabs each to believe that they are stronger than they are. The Kurds have become accustomed to American protection from the Shia and from Turkey, so they have felt free to demand what amounts to an independent state and control of Iraq’s northern oil fields. The Shia rely on American soldiers to do the hard fighting against the Sunni Arab insurgents, which permits Shia politicians to believe that they can safely strive for a religious state and preserve their monopoly over Iraq’s rich southern oil fields. Some Shia politicians also support purges of officials and soldiers—most of them Sunni Arabs—who may have had an affiliation with Saddam’s regime but who were pragmatically drawn into the Iraqi administration and security services by Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister. The Sunni Arabs probably believe that only the presence of U.S. troops can prevent them from re-establishing their domination of Iraq. Only U.S. troops have been able to dethrone them in the past, and many do not even believe the widely accepted estimate that they are outnumbered three to one by the Shia. They also seem to have forgotten that they preserved their domination of Iraq with chemical weapons, artillery, tanks, and aircraft—all of which are gone. They will not reconcile themselves to a diminished position in Iraq until they discover that they cannot beat the Shia and the Kurds in a fair fight.

The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that it also suggests that American forces are the only thing deterring an all-out civil war. Would the Kurds and Shia really tone down their demands if they didn’t feel protected by US forces? Well, the converse might be the case. Without US protection they would have strong incentives to expand their own military capabilities, thus setting off precisely the kind of security dilemma that Posen himself once argued underpins ethnic civil wars. But Posen, as we’ll soon seen, believes that a US withdrawal will lead to a civil war, but that this outcome, if managed properly, might be better for US interests than the current trajectory of the occupation.

Fourth, the American presence fuels all four social sources of insurgent support. Sunni Arabs almost surely see the United States as the agent of their fall from the top of the social order and the American presence as an obstacle to restoring their power and resources. U.S. military action, however precise by historical standards, nevertheless directly harms Iraqis and their extended families. Every killing or arrest produces more insurgents, and it is easy to see how when every victim may have two or three brothers and many more male first cousins. Finally, and obviously, the American presence stimulates both religious and nationalist opposition. It is easy to forget that, for a time, even some Shia violently opposed the American presence for these reasons.

This is the core argument for either diminishing the US “footprint” in Iraq or leaving entirely. While it is clearly correct to say that the US presence feeds the insurgency, it does not necessarily follow that US withdrawal would shut it down. As a number of people note, the “withdrawal now” crowd often makes the same kind of errors that pro-invasion politicians made in the period leading up to the war: they focus too much on best-case scenarios and not enough on what options the US might have if things didn’t turn out so well.

Posen, however, does have a more sophisticated plan for what the US should do, and he doesn’t assume a best-case scenario.

Military disengagement is a serious business and requires a serious military and diplomatic strategy. The first step should be a campaign to remind other nations of America’s enduring interests in the Persian Gulf and how those interests are manifest in Iraq. Many world powers share these interests and may prove more helpful once they see that stability in Iraq is also their problem and responsibility. More locally, Iraq’s neighbors should be reminded that Iraq’s territorial integrity is a fundamental American interest. It may be desirable to institutionalize this commitment in an executive agreement, a congressional resolution, or even a security treaty. These neighbors—including Syria, Iran, and Turkey—need to be quietly warned about the political, economic, or military price they might pay for actions, conventional or covert, against the Iraqi government.

Warnings may need to be accompanied by inducements. The United States should make it clear, for example, that if Syria and Iran cooperate to stabilize Iraq, the United States will temper its ambitions to overthrow them—and perhaps even help them. The Bush administration needs to rethink its interest in spreading democracy in the Middle East—especially to the states on Iraq’s borders. Though these autocracies may fear that democracy is naturally contagious, they are more likely to fear the armed forces of the United States. Ideological contagion they can fight the old-fashioned way—with propaganda and rigged elections; fighting the United States directly is much tougher. Some of these states, most notably Syria and Iran, may therefore have an interest in bleeding the United States while it remains in Iraq and thus ensuring the failure of its broader project. Dropping the insistence on the spread of democracy may provide Iraq with the breathing space it needs to become a stable, loosely federated state.

American military planners should be directed to develop “over the horizon” strategies for the defense of Iraq against conventional aggression. The United States should exploit its command of the sea, space, and air to develop credible threats against conventional aggressors. Its ability to mount devastating attacks from the air, in particular, has been demonstrated several times in the Persian Gulf since the 1991 war; Iraq can benefit from American carrier aviation, strategic bombers, and bases in the region. (Iraq may wish to maintain ready air bases to aid rapid reinforcement by American land-based aircraft, as Saudi Arabia did in the 1980s.) American intelligence agencies and the U.S. Special Operations Command should maintain relationships with their official and unofficial Iraqi counterparts among the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni to help them act in their own interests despite the meddling of neighboring states.

An interval of 18 months provides ample time for the United States to help the Iraqis complete the project of training and organizing an army capable of maintaining internal security. In effect, this means training Shia-dominated security forces capable of policing and defending Baghdad and Shia-majority areas to the south. (The Kurds already have functioning police and military forces.) The prospect of taking responsibility for their own security will surely focus the attention of Iraqi politicians—especially the Shiites. Because the United States will continue to be responsible for Iraq’s external defense after the withdrawal, and because the insurgents operate in small groups, it is not necessary to train an army capable of large-scale mechanized operations; infantry units fortified with small amounts of artillery and armor and capable of a limited repertoire of operations at the level of brigade, battalion, and company should prove sufficient. Such a force has not yet been created. But if Iraqis—especially the Shiites—are motivated by the knowledge that they will soon be on their own, they can achieve such a capability with a year’s hard work. Iraq is now full of individuals who have had some kind of military training or experience.

The former Iraqi army was very large, with more than 40 divisions; the new one will be at most a quarter of the size. Though most officers in the old army were Sunni Arabs, it is difficult to see why sufficient numbers of Shiite officers could not be found for this reduced force. Over the next year these leaders will receive refresher courses from U.S. and NATO military officers. If need be, small contingents of U.S. Special Forces, A-detachments, can be attached to the principal Iraqi units to provide continuing advice as well as command and control to link these units with U.S. combat aviation. In wartime, Western armies have forged new units in a year or less for much more demanding tasks. Even the Iraqi army under Saddam grew at a furious pace under the pressure of the war with Iran, adding perhaps three or four new divisions per year in the 1980s, according to figures from the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Necessity and threat are powerful motivators.

Proponents of an enduring American military presence in Iraq cite the risks of a civil war in the event of disengagement. This is indeed likely, and in fact a muted civil war has started already. Kurds are trying to drive Arabs from Kirkuk. Sunni terrorists are attacking Shia neighborhoods with bombs and are assassinating Shia government officials. Shia militias seem to be murdering Sunni leaders. When the United States withdraws, this low-grade war is likely to escalate.

The most likely military outcome of this civil war is a stalemate, and this is what the United States should aim for.

He continues:

The United States can and should act militarily and diplomatically to produce a stalemate. This strategy would essentially mirror the one used to end the Bosnia war: first building up the weaker parties, the Croatians and the Bosnians, and assisting their military efforts against the Serbs; then restraining the first two parties when they became too greedy and recommending to all three a de facto partition of the country reflecting the military stalemate that the United States (and NATO) had engineered. A military stalemate in Iraq would similarly be the stepping stone to a political settlement based on a loose federal structure. The United States should declare as its ground forces depart that stalemate is the outcome it will support. This process will not be easy to fine-tune, but U.S. air support, intelligence, and arms supplies can certainly prevent the establishment of either an al Qaeda or a Baathist state. The United States should be able to prevent the Sunni insurgents from getting control of the oil revenues of Iraq, since the oil fields are in areas dominated by Kurds and Shia. It is unlikely that the government forces or the Shiite militias will be better able to control the Anbar province than the United States has been—and without the help of the U.S. military the chances seem even more remote. With military and diplomatic pressure, the United States can restrict (though not prevent) the flow of money and arms to all three groups, limiting their autonomous power and preserving American leverage.

Posen’s ‘realism’ is clearly hard-core. He’s advocating not only a kind of divide and rule, but one that might have to be accomplished through the manipulation of actual warfare.

I have a great deal of difficulty imagining how this would look in practice; how the US would be able to signal to the various parties that if any of them got too powerful, the US would reign them in. Iraq is not Bosnia, where the US put its weight behind the weaker sides against the stronger ones. In this case, the balance of power lies with the Shia – as Posen himself suggests – or with the Kurds. Yet the Sunni insurgency is not about to work with the US.

So what happens if the US grossly miscalculates? US counter-insurgency strategy, for example, hasn’t involved ethnic cleansing (a “drain the sea” policy); I’m not advocating such a strategy in any way shape or form, but it might actually work. The US isn’t about to pursue it: the negative political externalities are too high, but the Shias might. If they did, and the strategy worked, would the US then bomb the same troops it had trained before pulling out?

It is also possible that kind of quasi-protectorate that Posen envisions for Iraq would create some of the same problems that the occupation does. Indeed, given Posen’s suggestion that the US makes clear its interest in a stalemate – in thwarting the goals of all three major factions – things could get very ugly for those Iraqis – including politicians and officials – who continue to consult with and get support from the American government if the US implemented Posen’s plan.

Read the article and come to your own conclusion; at the very least, Posen’s putting a series of proposals on the table that are far more detailed and concrete than those advanced either by the Bush administration or by advocates of a more expedient US withdrawal. Keep in mind, though, that some of what Posen suggests – a phased withdrawal that maintained a US rapid-reaction force in the region as insurance – isn’t that different from the Murtha plan.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.