Do or Die in Iraq


JANUARY 29, 2007

Do or Die in Iraq

Where we've been; where we should go


It is difficult to determine precisely what is new about President Bush's new strategy toward Iraq. Exhortations about lowering unemployment, sharing oil revenues, and reconciling with the Sunnis are already part of the strategic repertoire of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who is being replaced as commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

What are the additional American soldiers expected to do? Increasing their numbers is a temporary input. Every surge ebbs. Keeping U.S. forces in very large numbers in Iraq is an approach that probably can't be sustained for longer than a year. We are simply running out of time in Iraq, because the American public has already seen our soldiers dying for almost four years, without progress. Economic incentives, meanwhile, of the kind that alter people's perceptions and draw support away from the insurgents, require multiyear persistence. Political reconciliation requires refractory Iraqi politicians to reach reasonable compromise - again, a multiyear task.

Strategy in Washington is only tenuously connected to the realities of the violence in Iraq. The U.S. manages crises from the top down: The White House, the diplomats, and the generals seek to motivate Iraq's political leaders, who will presumably cajole the shadowy leaders of the Sunni insurgency and the Shiite militias. This is the model of the Washington policymaker: Power speaks to power, based on rank. Our best and brightest will craft a strategy calculated to persuade Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, who putatively influences those below him.

The insurgents and the death squads, on the other hand, have no such hierarchical pyramid. An insurgency grows from the bottom up. A guerrilla who doesn't know his neighborhood stands out as though he were wearing a uniform. Indeed, if the insurgents did wear uniforms, the war would be over in a week. A few years ago, when Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi bumped into a checkpoint near Ramadi, he asked his driver what tribe controlled the area. He then leaped from his car and escaped via a local contact. Only later did our intelligence cells in Baghdad learn what had happened in that remote city. Insurgent militias survive by putting down local roots.

To put it bluntly, the philosophical convictions of 60-year-old executives have no point of contact with the tribal nihilism of the 20-year-old killers embedded like ticks in local villages and city neighborhoods. The latter don't give a tinker's damn what the Gucci politicians cluck about in Baghdad. Maliki, coddled in the Green Zone, is a party politician installed by American force of arms. Unlike our Founding Fathers, he and his ilk were handed a democracy they did not fight to establish. The streets outside the Green Zone are controlled by their enemies: killers whose souls have been corroded, and who will continue to murder, because that's what they do. They're not going to be won over by jobs cleaning streets or promises of oil-revenue sharing. Like the mafia, they have tasted power and they're not giving it back. They have to be put down, in jail or in the earth.

That's the role of our soldiers. They're the ones out on the streets. Putting aside the economics and the politics, what is "new" about what they will be told to do? The starting point is to examine where we stand today, and how we got there.


Our military troubles began in May 2003, when Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall commander in the region, applauded the president's decision to fire Franks's deputy in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, and to appoint L. Paul Bremer to administer Iraq in his stead. The White House gave Bremer control over the mission, structure, and budget for Iraqi security forces, while Central Command remained responsible for security until the Iraqis were ready to take over. Thus President Bush, cheered on by General Franks, abolished the core principle of unity of command in war. Bremer brusquely dissolved the Iraqi army, dismissed most Baathist officials, and antagonized both the Iraqis and the U.S. military at all levels.

In July 2003, Gen. John Abizaid, who had taken over regional command after Franks retired, declared that Iraq was in the throes of an insurgency. But Abizaid permitted his deputy in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, to persist with offensive operations that alienated the population and contradicted the basic tenets of counterinsurgency.

Iraq boiled over in April 2004. The president, angered by the horrific pictures of the lynching of four American contractors in Fallujah, ordered the Marines, against their advice, to assault the city. At the same time, Bremer moved to arrest a deputy to the radical Moqtada al-Sadr, who then told his Mahdi Army militia to rebel. Thus the Americans ended up fighting both Sunnis and Shiites.

Several days later, faced with adverse Iraqi political actions, Bremer and Abizaid reversed course. President Bush ordered the astounded Marines to stop, when they were just two days from concluding the battle. When Sadr was trapped in mid-April, the American civilian and military commands could not bring themselves to order him either killed or captured. By the end of April, the Iraqis believed the Americans had lost decisive battles against both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite radicals.

That was the moment for the president to review the performances of the generals and a military strategy that was in disarray. It didn't happen, because the abuses of Abu Ghraib seized everyone's attention.

In July 2004, after Sanchez had been allowed to operate out of his depth for over a year, Army Gen. George Casey took over. Casey worked collegially first with Ambassador John Negroponte, then with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and directed a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at clearing and holding key cities, while training an Iraqi army. After wresting control of the police from an incompetent U.S. State Department jealous of its bureaucratic turf, the U.S. military intended to train the wretched Iraqi police by 2006. The effort would be three years too late, but better late than never. Casey envisioned withdrawing U.S. forces in late 2007, as Iraqi forces took over.

That plan was shattered by the cumulative effect of years of mass slaughter of Shiites by Sunni killers. Because the U.S. had not trained and controlled the police and had not removed Sadr before, the Shiite community in Baghdad was dominated by gangs that retaliated by killing and driving out Sunnis. Prime Minister Maliki responded by shielding Sadr and his deputies from arrest by American forces. The U.S. was caught in the worst of worlds: Shiites believed the Americans were aiding the Sunnis, while the Sunni insurgents were killing Americans.

At the end of 2006, the Sunni insurgency was still raging, no insurgent groups had agreed to stop fighting, Sunni insurgents were blowing up innocents in Baghdad, and Shiite death squads were retaliating with a slow but steady ethnic cleansing. The Iraqi army at the battalion level, with American advisers, was progressing, but the ministries in Baghdad were unresponsive. The police in the Sunni Triangle were intimidated, while those in Baghdad were penetrated by the militias and untrustworthy.

General Casey's strategy was based on "standing up" a professional Iraqi army while persuading the Shiite politicians to disarm the Shiite militias and reconcile with the Sunnis. The problem wasn't that the Iraqis couldn't provide better security; it was that they wouldn't. "The longer we in the U.S. forces continue to bear the main burden of Iraq's security, it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to take the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias," the New York Times quoted Casey as saying. "And the other thing is that they can continue to blame us for all of Iraq's problems." Casey's straightforward assessment was similar to that of the Iraq Study Group: He identified senior Iraqi sectarian leaders as the main impediment.


Politically, after the defeat in the midterm elections, the president had to take action perceived as drastic. Shifting personnel - Rumsfeld, Abizaid, Casey, and Khalilzad - brought some respite, while requesting more money and sending in more troops signaled resolve. But what was the new strategy?

On the surface, it seemed a rebuke of Casey's approach: American soldiers would now do more of the heavy lifting while requiring little of the Iraqi government. The focus would be on Baghdad and its 7 million residents. The political component sought to reassure Maliki and shore up support for him in the National Assembly, while decreasing Sadr's power. Presumably Maliki would then use force against Sadr's militia, while the assembly proffered reconciliation and amnesty terms acceptable to the Sunni "honorable resistance," leaving extremists like al-Qaeda in Iraq isolated.

There were two holes in the strategy. First, we didn't control the strategy; Maliki and other Iraqi politicians did. The president's effort to impose a Western-style democracy depended on a political elite that had proven feckless. His old-new strategy left the U.S. hostage to Maliki, a middling politician. General Abizaid told Congress that by April at the latest, Maliki "will take on the militias" and lead his armed forces. But so far, Maliki has protected Sadr and neglected his own army. The president has been giving Maliki extraordinary reassurances and support, and Maliki may end up seeing the light. In any case, it's a fair bet that by April violence in Baghdad will markedly decrease, owing to the determination of American soldiers.

The second hole in the strategy was a neglect of the practicalities of war. Counterinsurgency manuals stress that the proper path to quelling an insurgency is to remove the defects that caused the rebellion and bring security to the people. This approach appeals to American moral instincts: If someone rebels, he must have a reason that can reasonably be addressed. In the Iraq case, on this view, the essential defect in 2003 was proclaiming a democracy that shifted power from Saddam's Baathists to the Shiites. Rescind that power, and the Sunnis will stop killing Americans and Shiites.

Clearly, that's absurd. Yet it has become American military mantra to assert that countering an insurgency is "80 percent non-kinetic" - in other words, what it requires is robust employment, free electric power, decent governance, and political reconciliation. In reality, the argument that increasing employment will decrease support for the insurgency is based more on hope than experience. In any case, it is a task not for the U.S. military, but for the civilian agencies that never showed up in Iraq. As long as our troops are in places like Ramadi and Haditha, they will be seen as the infidels who destroyed houses, killed Sunnis, and handed power to the Shiites. The brave Iraqis who learned pidgin English watching soaps on television and serve as our interpreters consistently say they are outcasts - unable to trust Iraqi soldiers, police, or neighbors, scorned because they are assisting Americans. We are not going to win hearts and minds; we are a tool both sides want to use to their advantage.

Although our generals say they do not want a "Shiite occupying army" inside the Sunni Triangle, that is what exists today and will not be much changed in a year. Yes, the number of Sunni soldiers and police is increasing and some Sunni tribes are moving away from al-Qaeda. But for the next several years, the majority of Iraqi soldiers in the Sunni Triangle will be Shiite, and most Sunnis will resent their presence. Winning hearts and minds takes decades, even centuries. The Catholics in Northern Ireland resented the presence of British soldiers over the decades, regardless of placatory words from Whitehall. Union troops occupied the American South from 1865 to 1877, and ushering in racial equality took another century.

In Iraq, the time for the counterinsurgency strategy of "clear, hold, and build" has passed. We are not going to stay in Baghdad and a dozen Sunni cities for four more years in order to build sound economies and governing councils. The U.S. military cannot convert the insurgents or win the allegiance of the Sunni population, no matter how nice we are. As long as we are there, we will be attacked.

Our strategy has lagged a year behind changes on the battlefield. In 2003, we charged to Baghdad, employing fire and maneuver. We persisted with that conventional approach until 2005, giving the insurgency 18 months to grow. Then, too late, we changed to counterinsurgency. The mission was not to destroy the enemy, but instead to secure and win over the Sunni population. The primary mission of Casey's subsequent strategy has been to train and advise the Iraqi security forces that will hold the Sunni cities and challenge the Shiite militias. This would require about 15,000-20,000 U.S. advisers, 20,000 more in support, and 30,000 in combat units, remaining in Iraq for years.

This last, though, reflects Casey's "old" strategy. What is the new strategy? The president is leaving that largely to the new commander, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. American troops are to surge into Baghdad, but what are they to do there? There are two choices: defense or offense. Defense means our soldiers will patrol the streets with Iraqi soldiers, search houses, hand out money to clean away the trash, and gradually turn control over to the Iraqis (again).

The Sunni extremists responsible for the mass car bombings will persist, albeit with fewer terrorist successes. A crackdown on al-Qaeda in Iraq will require clearing thousands of square kilometers of isolated farms northeast and especially southwest of Baghdad. That will take years.

The Shiite death squads, moreover, cause more than half the deaths in Baghdad, and they are not foolhardy. They will leave Baghdad or stay in their lairs in Shiite areas, especially Sadr City. As events in early 2005 showed, a live-and-let-live de facto understanding between American forces and the Mahdi Army is indeed possible. By late summer of 2007, or earlier, Baghdad will experience less violence if American and Iraqi soldiers increase their presence. This defensive strategy has a very high chance of succeeding for at least six months after the American troops leave.

The obvious risk is that the killers will return in 2008. Our military strategy, therefore, cannot assume that the Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias will decide to stop killing. The alternative, then, is to adopt an offensive strategy - one that seeks to kill or capture the enemy.

The Viet Cong in South Vietnam sustained huge losses because they chose to stand and fight the American units, a decision that reached its nadir in the tactically disastrous Tet offensive of 1968. In contrast, the Sunni insurgents have learned not to engage American units. Consequently, the insurgents are taking only light casualties.

A few months ago, I accompanied Marine squads on patrols in the violent Fallujah-Ramadi area. Forty grunts on their second tour estimated that they had shot a grand total of about seven insurgents. These experienced riflemen described the insurgents as "ghosts" who emplaced roadside bombs or fired a few shots and fled. American firepower was not diminishing the ranks of the Sunni insurgents, because the insurgents chose not to engage. Nor were American units engaging the Shiite militias. Put simply, we were not killing the enemy.


Military force can be used to identify and imprison the insurgents. But in Iraq, we aren't doing this. In Chicago and elsewhere, police carry palmtop devices that take fingerprints and send them to HQ - and in two minutes the patrolmen have a reply. If the suspect is not in the database, he is automatically entered. Our border police routinely use this system. But for some reason we have not provided such a simple system for Iraq. An insurgency cannot be quelled if the insurgents hiding among the civilians cannot be identified. The lack of an identification system, of the kind many American police forces use, is the greatest technical failure of the war.

The problem is also one of numbers. U.S. and Iraqi battalions arrest at a rate about one-eighth that of U.S. law-enforcement agencies; Iraqi police make even fewer arrests. If Iraqi police had the same arrest and imprisonment rate for violent crime as the U.S., there would be 85,000 inmates in Iraqi jails, instead of 14,000. The Iraqi court system in Baghdad imprisons 10 to 24 criminals and insurgents each week - one-twentieth the number in New York City. It is unlikely that a resident of Baghdad believes his neighbors are 20 times more law-abiding than those in New York.

In Iraq, the "rule of law" is another factor aiding the insurgency. An enemy soldier in uniform is imprisoned for the duration of the hostilities - but an insurgent in civilian clothes can kill an American soldier and, unless the evidence is airtight, walk free in a few days to kill again. Iraqi and American forces have been in the same locations for four years. They know the usual suspects. But to make more arrests, we would have to stop releasing so many detainees.

This last will be hard for the U.S. to do. Currently, the U.S. military processes every detainee through four layers of review and releases eight out of every ten. Everyone knows why this "catch and release program" persists: It's driven by an overreaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2003. But the Iraqi security forces cannot win if the insurgents cannot be identified, arrested, and imprisoned for the long haul. If current arrest and imprisonment rates persist under the "new" strategy, the American effort in Iraq is in deep peril.


It's also essential that we use our troops more wisely. American troops in American battalions are less vital than American troops in Iraqi battalions. We have now about 4,000 advisers in the Iraqi forces; a better number is closer to 20,000. They do not have to be of the caliber of our Army Special Forces. The Marines in Vietnam successfully inserted rifle squads into villages to form Combined Action Platoons with local forces. Many more advisers are needed to go out on patrol with the Iraqis, and to extract resources for the Iraqi troops from the sclerotic ministries in Baghdad.

In return for our assistance, we must demand joint U.S.-Iraqi boards that appoint Iraqis to key police and military positions and remove officers for malfeasance. Maliki is pushing for full control over the Iraqi army by the summer. To grant him that would be a huge mistake: He hasn't earned it. The ministries in Baghdad have been unable to support their own forces. If a Shiite government could do what it pleased with the Iraqi army, we would lose all leverage. For sectarian interests to pack the top ranks with loyalists would destroy morale.

The insurgents, death squads, and common thugs now have the initiative; they choose when to attack. Iraqi soldiers and police dare not wear a uniform when they visit their own homes. That tells you who is in charge.

Clear benchmarks for performance under the new strategy can be easily instituted. It is not sufficient to report only incidents of violence. In the early '90s, New York City substantially increased its police force and instituted tough standards. The same can be done in Baghdad. Arrest and incarceration rates can be tracked. So can the location and criminal affiliation - Sunni insurgent or Shiite death squad - of the culprits.

We face two different military challenges. The first is curbing the Sunni bombers and Shiite death squads in Baghdad: The goal is to destroy the Sunni insurgents and to stop the Shiite militias who are murdering and driving out the non-insurgent Sunnis. The U.S. military has the information and the operational skills to break the death squads. This must include moving into Sadr City. The Shiite militias are frightened by what might be coming; that fear should be backed by action. If Moqtada al-Sadr responds by urging a third rebellion by the Mahdi Army, he must be seized, imprisoned, and not released. There is no way of avoiding the risk of citywide chaos for a few days. But things will settle down.

The second challenge is destroying the Sunni insurgents in Anbar province. Anbar, the size of North Carolina, is the lair of the Islamic extremists. These murderers are an especially tough problem, because a few car bombs wreak so much carnage, provoking Shiite rage and revenge. Al-Qaeda in Iraq must be destroyed in Anbar, if we want to keep the bombings in Baghdad from resuming after American forces pull out. The key in Anbar is allying tough local cops or Iraqi battalion commanders with the local tribes, providing a robust adviser corps, and situating American battalions in bases for quick strikes and on-call reinforcement.

A short-sighted consensus is forming to play defense and to concentrate on neighborhoods where the Shiite militias are not strong. Maliki has argued that this would give the death squads a chance to redeem themselves: If they don't disband, we will supposedly move against them in the summer. But they are killers, not patriots, and murderers persist in their trade. Sadr and his followers have to be hit - and hit hard. They have consistently folded under attack in the past, and they are scared now: Sadr has begun betraying his own. If we are serious as New York City was in the '90s, the arrest and long-term incarceration rate in Baghdad will exceed 2,500 per month, of whom 50 percent or more will be members of Shiite death squads. The only institution, finally, that can bring stability to Iraq is not the under-performing office of the prime minister or the fractious national assembly. It is the Iraqi Army. Casey knew what he was doing; that's why Sadr feared him.

In sum, we need a coherent, aggressive military strategy on the local level as well as a top-down political strategy. If we are serious about a military strategy, we will take the following actions immediately:
- Deploy hand-held identification devices to fingerprint all military-age males and deprive the insurgents of the ability to move about and blend in with the population.

- Shift platoons from our battalions to Iraqi army and police units.

- Train our units and advisers in tough police techniques.

- Give cash to our battalions and advisers to buy the loyalty of tribes and reward Iraqi battlefield performance.

- Take the offense in Baghdad, with no area off-limits.

- Imprison insurgents and militia leaders for the duration of hostilities - period.

- Insist on joint U.S.-Iraqi boards for key appointments and removal for malfeasance.

The Iraqi army is the least sectarian organization in Iraq. President Bush should keep open the possibility that the army will control Iraq, as the military did in South Korea and in Turkey in decades past. A stable Iraq under military rule - overt or behind-the-scenes - is preferable to a failed state.

Mr. West, a former Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, has accompanied more than 30 U.S. and Iraqi battalions on operations over the past four years and has written two books about the combat.

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