U.S. Has No Victory Strategy for Iraq

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December 12, 2006

U.S. Has No Victory Strategy for Iraq

Those who advocate 'total victory' are recklessly dangerous  Alon Ben-Meir  OhmyNews International 

After nearly four years of successive disasters in Iraq, which unleashed a civil war and brought the country to its knees, not to speak of the monumental American losses, there are still those dreamers, including the president, who speak of victory. Knowing what we know about the grave situation in Iraq today, we can no longer engage in such recklessly wishful thinking.

As Mr. Bush reviews his options, in the wake of the Iraq Study Group's report, he must clearly demonstrate the cause and effect of every aspect of any "victory strategy" he envisions before embarking on another perilous misadventure. Sadly, the reality in Iraq precludes a victory in any classic sense, and the only realistic solution lies in dividing Iraq into three self-ruled parts -- a Kurdish part that actually already exists, a Shiite part, which is in the making, and a Sunni part which must be created.

But some influential voices, including those of Senator John McCain and Richard Pearl, a prominent neoconservative, advocate increasing American combat troops for a limited period to bring order to Baghdad and crush the insurgency. There is no greater fallacy than the notion that the insurgency can be crushed. Mr. McCain, with his rich military experience, should know better: he should know that a determined insurgency cannot be overwhelmed, especially when it is deeply embedded in supportive communities that provide both cover and unlimited resources. 

Moreover, the Sunni insurgents in Iraq operate extremely adeptly within this environment; they are patient, have enormous caches of munitions, select their targets carefully, and take their time to strike at will. When faced with overwhelming power, they melt away into their respective communities, where they can wait for weeks, months, or even years to surface again and with only greater intensity, as the Taliban in Afghanistan have shown insurgencies can do when operating within their own country. Increasing American forces may initially show some signs of success in fighting the insurgency, but the success will not be enduring. Rather, it will prove to be nothing but a recipe for additional American casualties and the complete disintegration of Iraq.

In addition, increasing American trainers by many thousands more, an idea strongly advocated by the Iraq Study Group and embraced by the victory seekers, will not in itself work either. Accelerating the training of unified Iraqi forces so they can assume expanded security functions to reduce and eventually eliminate American involvement is necessary, but the focus must be shifted to the Sunnis. While it seems on the surface self-evident that better trained Iraqi security forces should be able to do the job, the reality is that the military and the police are infested with Shiite militias, whose questionable loyalty has severely undermined their neutrality. 

Although historically Iraq was already divided along sectarian lines, the war has intensified that division and the greater loyalty of the security personnel remains to the tribe or sect they belong to rather than to the nation. Moreover, as long as the current government and future governments are led by Shiites, they will remain beholden to their militia, which they will rely on to strengthen their power base as well as safeguard Shiite interests before any other.

Nevertheless, in contrast to many conservative Republican politicians, who have spared no words in tearing apart the Study Group's report, I find it contains many good points that the White House should embrace, including the recommendation to withdraw American combat brigades in the beginning of 2008. But to achieve anything that offers the United States any possibility of a face-saving way out while leaving behind conditions with the potential for stability, the administration must promote the Sunnis’ self-rule over their three provinces while maintaining loose federal ties.

Unfortunately, the Study Group failed to address the absolute need of the Sunnis to govern themselves, as it is a prerequisite for achieving even a modicum of stability in Iraq. As long as the Sunnis fear for their lives, there will be no hope that the sectarian killing and insurgency will end. To ally their fears, the Sunnis can build their own security forces with American or preferably European training to protect them now and in the future in a similar vein as the Kurdish Peshmerga. This can be facilitated now especially, since the Iraqi government is nearing an agreement on the distribution of oil revenue, something that the Sunnis must secure to establish an economically viable entity of their own. To that end the United States must insist that equitable distribution of oil revenue becomes a basic law of the land to be administered by a federal agency.

The Sunnis, who have lost power, must now be persuaded that ruling all of Iraq is no longer possible, and the only realistic alternative they can achieve is self-rule with equitable revenue sharing from the sale of oil. If they are persuaded, it may represent a partial victory for the Sunnis and lead to a somewhat dignified exit for the Americans.

Given these realities, those who advocate total victory over the insurgency by military means must be listed in the column of the recklessly dangerous bordering on criminal. They are gambling with the lives of thousands of Americans and the future standing of America without offering a shred of evidence that their strategy for a so called victory is anything but a hallucination.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com 


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