Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Intelligence

Should We Withdraw From Iraq?

Over the weekend, I finally got ’round to reading a New Yorker article that I’d had my eye on for a while. I’d seen it when the magazine arrived a few weeks ago, but then couldn’t find it, and got distracted by articles in other issues in the meantime, till I finally located it and sat down and read it.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me that I think that the Iraq debacle has been just that. It’s an unmitigated disaster. The lengths to which the current administration has gone to deny the truth, even to itself, have been stunning. This article covered the administration’s resistance to the term “insurgency:”

“They didn’t even want to say the ‘i’ word,” one officer in Iraq told me. “It was the spectre of Vietnam. They did not want to say the ‘insurgency’ word, because the next word you say is ‘quagmire.’ The next thing you say is ‘the only war America has lost.’ And the next thing you conclude is that certain people’s vision of war is wrong.”

One might quibble about this, and disagree, and argue that it is not, in fact, an insurgency that has been challenging our troops in Iraq (never mind the brewing civil war!), but the truth is that those officers in the fields who have embraced the term have been able to catalyze real improvements in Iraq. Why? Because once you accept that you’re dealing with an insurgency, it obviously makes sense to use principles of counterinsurgency in order to affect change.

Such is in fact the lesson of Tal Afar, a city in the northwestern desert of Iraq, “a place that was being called the next Falluja” when command of the city was taken over by Colonel H. R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty. McMaster led the counterinsurgency effort Iraq by setting an example at Tal Afar. In the last year he has achieved some success at it–and I say “some success” because the nature of counterinsurgency effort is to be very gradual. It comes from slowly building up trust with the people with whom you work, including those tied to the insurgents:

The classic doctrine, which was developed by the British in Malaya in the nineteen-forties and fifties, says that counterinsurgency warfare is twenty per cent military and eighty per cent political. The focus of operations is on the civilian population: isolating residents from insurgents, providing security, building a police force, and allowing political and economic development to take place so that the government commands the allegiance of its citizens. A counterinsurgency strategy involves both offensive and defensive operations, but there is an emphasis on using the minimum amount of force necessary.

Thanks to McMaster’s leadership, there is now a tenuous peace in Tal Afar, and things are developing, but it crucially relies on the presence of American military personnel to maintain order. Because without order, peace and justice are luxuries. So what does the military plan to do next at Tal Afar? McMaster and his units will be sent home, their tour of duty complete, and US responsibility in Tal Afar turned over to new troops who have no experience there. This is bound to be detrimental to the effort, as the counterinsurgency doctrine requires deep familiarity with disputing parties, and vice versa. Without trust, the whole thing falls apart, and trust takes a great deal of time and effort to develop.

All of this is a long way to getting to my point. Unlike most liberals, I think, I am quite certain that we should not be pushing so hard to get our troops out of Iraq now. The fact that the Administration–particularly Rumsfeld–is pushing so hard in that direction should give us pause.

I was deeply opposed to the war from the outset, and dubious as to our prospects for the occupation (especially given President Bush’s outspoken opposition to nation building). I seriously expected this administration to fuck it up, and hoped that I was mistaken. I wish I had been wrong. But now that we’ve gone in there and made a horrible mess of things, we have a responsibility to make things right–or as right as we can. And only in the last six months have some folks with good heads on their shoulders started to make a difference there. When we invaded, we took on a huge responsibility, and abruptly leaving the country to disintegrate into civil war just as we’re starting to make serious progress is abandoning that responsibility, not to mention the people we set about to “make free.”

And need I point out that it’s in our best interests to make good on our promises in Iraq? If we leave, the country will dissolve into civil war. And if the lessons of Afghanistan tell us anything, it is that a country at civil war breeds terrorism. Iraq would be worse, because we’re more directly to blame for the situation there. We made the country unstable, angered a lot of people, and now we’re talking about getting out?

I think that that we need to enlist the help of our allies (those we have left), increase the allied presence in Iraq, train the people there in the principles of counterinsurgency, and make things right. Any other choice, as far as I can see, would be disaster.

I’m not the only one. I leave you with this last tidbit from the article (though you really should read the whole thing for yourself):

Kenneth Pollack, who served on the National Security Council under President Clinton—and whose book “The Threatening Storm” made an influential case for the war in 2002—recently led a small group at the Brookings Institution in writing a detailed report on a new strategy for Iraq. It calls for the Administration to shift the focus from the pursuit of insurgents in the Sunni heartland and, instead, to concentrate overstretched American and Iraqi forces in cities where the reconstruction effort is still somewhat popular—providing security while allowing economic development to flourish. This strategy, known in counterinsurgency doctrine as the “ink spot” approach (because zones of security gradually spread out from population centers), has also been proposed by the military expert Andrew Krepinevich. It was put into practice in Tal Afar. Pollack’s proposal demands that, in spite of intense political pressures at home, there be no troop withdrawals anytime soon, since the total number of American and Iraqi forces is now only half of what experts say is required to secure the country. It also counts on a level of international help that the Bush Administration has never shown the ability, or the desire, to muster. In a sense, the report asks the country to offer the same commitment and imagination, to take the same risks and make the same sacrifices, as the soldiers in Tal Afar.

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