Monday, May 15, 2006

Both and Neither

In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Fred Kaplan ponders a couple of questions surrounding our military designs in Iraq: Are we planning on a withdrawal of forces in the near future or, on the other hand, are we making preparations to "hunker" down in semi-permanent bases for years to come? The answer Kaplan reaches is, for Iraq, characteristically enigmatic: both.

Late in February, U.S. Army generals in Iraq started asking military historians and archivists to dig up official records from the 1970s involving the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. The generals were especially interested in the nitty-gritty of pulling out- procedures for disposing and transferring military property, for example, and the precise sequence of demobilization. The message was explicit: we're going to be staging another withdrawal soon, from Iraq; once it begins, it could spin easily out of control; so we need a plan for an orderly exit now.

And yet, in three years of occupation, the U.S. military has taken steps that suggest a total pullout is unlikely for years to come. The most tangible sign of these measures is the far-flung network of Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. There are more than seventy FOBs scattered across Iraq, many of them elaborate renovations of Saddam Hussein's former network of military bases and presidential palaces. Some FOBs consist of just a handful of barracks, but more than a dozen of them are vast complexes reminiscent of the West German garrisons from Cold War days. [...]

And so we are operating in an odd state of limbo. It's clear that we're getting out of Iraq, and soon, yet it's equally clear that we're staying, in a fairly big way. We are simultaneously engaged yet disengaging, hunkered down yet packing up.

The confusion, and seemingly conflicting directives, is a malady familiar to the Iraq endeavor. The invasion that had a hundred different rationales for a hundred different supporters has spawned an equally diverse plethora of those justifying a continued occupation (myself included).

There are those making the case on the morally-tinged, strategic side of the debate akin to the "pottery barn rule" (that our presence will mitigate the effects of the low level civil war; prevent the outbreak of a full blown civil war; and/or stave off a larger regional war and as such, out of a moral duty to the country we broke, its inhabitants and in the pursuit of our strategic interests in preventing the creation of a failed state, we should stay put).

On the flip side are those making the case for maintaining a military launching pad for future operations (or at least preserving the viability of such a threat); those in favor of keeping our troops in the middle of oil country to ensure that the flow continues; and, relatedly, those that see our continued military presence as a means to put the squeeze on other oil powers (perhaps Russia and Saudi Arabia) as well as the oil starved (China).

The difference in occupation objectives can have real world effects on the policies adopted to manage the occupation, however. The competing rationales for the invasion (from the idealistic to the cynical) plagued the mission from the get-go by creating a conflicting set of policy goals that scratched the surface of several grandiose endeavors (such as liberal democratization, an overhaul of the economic system, establishment of a viceroy and/or faux-democratic rule by hand-picked exiles, etc.) but lacked the focus, resources and wherewithal to succeed in any one area. So too is the current "going and staying" message creating it's own disjointed repercussions.

For example, at a time when reconstruction dollars are drying up, and various administration outlets are making noises about the limitations on our mission with respect to rebuilding Iraq, money can be found for the euphemistically palatable "enduring bases."

There's nothing provisional about these places. They're often referred to as 'enduring bases,' and there are plans to keep them operating, in American hands, even if all our combat regiments go home. The Pentagon is requesting $348 million in emergency funds this year for further base construction, beyond the billions already spent.

While it is imperative that we improve upon our increasingly unpopular image amongst the Iraqi people in order to make our continued presence tolerable, doing so without being able to point to tangible gains in terms of reconstruction will be all the more difficult. Not to mention the fact that, to the extent it's not too late already, improving conditions for the average Iraqi should contribute to the overall counterinsurgency effort. Yet our funding priorities scarcely pay heed to these concerns.

The impenetrable sieve that is Swopa has flagged a couple of articles that further illustrate the herky-jerky pace of our military operations which is, predictably, generating successes and setbacks in alternating fits and spurts. From the Los Angeles Times:

In the region around Qaim, a northwestern Iraqi town near the Syrian border, Marines are fanning out from their main base and moving into villages as part of a new strategy to root out insurgents who enter the country here.

The troops have set up 19 small base camps throughout the area and begun routinely patrolling insurgent hot spots north of the Euphrates River. The deployment follows a strategy favored by a new generation of counterinsurgency experts: disperse, mingle with the population and stay put.

But the shift comes as the Pentagon appears to be moving the overall U.S. military effort in the opposite direction across much of the country. Army units are being concentrated in "super bases" that line the spine of central Iraq, away from the urban centers where counterinsurgency operations take place.

The two approaches underscore an increasingly high-profile divergence - some say contradiction - on how best to use U.S. forces in Iraq, and are evidence of a growing debate in the upper ranks about the wisest course of action.

The contrast also reflects the complicated mix of military goals and concerns as U.S. troops begin their fourth summer in Iraq. Top commanders are eager to begin shrinking the U.S. footprint, an implicit step toward a gradual withdrawal of American forces. At the same time, some field commanders are determined to break an endless cycle that allows insurgents to move back into key areas as soon as U.S. forces move on. That requires large investments of manpower.

If our relative troop strength is hindering our ability to undertake successful and lasting counterinsurgency efforts, perhaps removing large numbers to FOBs isn't such a great idea strategically. I concede that there might not be too many options at this point though. Available troops are a scarcity. And the Iraqis haven't exactly been able to fill the void. From the New York Times (also via Swopa):

Indeed, a trend of American troops pulling back to their bases and letting Iraqi troops take the lead has had to be scaled back, and the Americans have had to resume more active operations to help stop the widespread sectarian violence that has killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians in the past few months, a senior officer said. At the same time, attacks on American troops in March and April were at their highest point since last fall.

Nevertheless, with the state of security being what it is, withdrawing to the FOBs should be delayed as much as possible. As with the reconstruction effort, our ability to provide stability will greatly impact the reception we continue to receive in country - although maybe in some counterintuitive ways. On the face of it, our ability to carry out effective counterinsurgency operations is crucial to our efforts to undermine the various insurgencies while winning the support of the Iraqi people. Yet while our continued inability to establish order and prevent the advent of lawlessness has eroded our standing in country, the potency of the fear of the vacuum created by our potential absence is not to be underestimated.

This realization has apparently dawned on many Iraqis - even some Sunni leaders have expressed fear of what might ensue after too hasty a US withdrawal. Zal and the gang have tried to parlay this dynamic into political/military gains with limited success. Yet while some Sunni groups are coming around, the Shiites are growing increasingly troubled by our overtures to those same Sunni groups. So what about the risks that our inability to provide a military solution to the insurgencies might lead the majority Shiites move to boot us from Iraq regardless?

We do have a trump card that might make the concerns expressed above about providing security/reconstruction less relevant. As Kaplan notes, there are structural features of the Iraqi military's reconstruction that might just guarantee us a prolonged welcome in Iraq should we desire one, regardless of other factors:

Here's the little secret that explains the contradiction, understood by all involved: whatever factions end up running the Iraqi government, they'll need - and want - the U.S. military to stick around for many years. This is true no matter what the political mood is stateside.

Over the past year or so - ever since competent American officers were finally put in charge of training local soldiers - the Iraqi army has been growing and improving. Yet the Pentagon estimates that while nearly half of the Iraqi units are able to lead a combat operation, not one can fight by itself. The reasons are plain: the Iraqi military has no air force, no centralized intelligence corps, scant logistics apparatus, and only one armored battalion. As a result, it is - and, for the foreseeable future, will be - unable to coordinate a battle plan, defend the country's borders, provide air support, or protect supply lines. To perform any of these basic tasks, it will need an outside power with professional armed forces. And unless some other country gets involved soon, that outside power will have to be the United States.

Militarily, we may just be indispensable to the Iraqi armed forces. Here's the catch, though: our strategic worth in this regard depends heavily on our willingness to use this capacity. That willingness might be tempered by the facts on the ground. While the Shiites might not try to boot us out just because we are making nice with some Sunni groups, if the increasing violence leads to an all out civil war our options and appeal might be diminished beyond the point of no return. The other portion of Kaplan's article discusses what our options and posture would be (none of them particularly attractive) should a full blown Iraqi civil war erupt:

But then there's the nightmare scenario: What if there is no Iraqi government to defend? What if the political stalemate between Shiite and Sunni Muslims persists and the 'low-grade civil war' - which has been rumbling since Saddam Hussein left Baghdad - erupts into anarchy, an unbridled sectarian war of all against all? If America's mission is to hold Iraq together, what happens if the country falls apart? What do the American troops there do? [...]

If Iraq shatters, the Bush administration will be faced with four choices: (1) Try to stop the civil war. (That would involve sending a lot more troops, which seems politically out of the question.) (2) Pick one side and fight alongside it. (Several senior U.S. officers, including two generals, told me they can't imagine a president going this route.) (3) Get out quickly. (4) Hunker down, and stay neutral, till the smoke clears.

I think Kaplan is correct that options #1 and #2 wouldn't really be on the table. With option #4, however, our indispensability would melt away as we continued to sit in our bases with our air power, armor, logistics, intelligence, etc. Our value would come into question for all groups involved in the fighting. In such a scenario, any and all factions could decide that our presence was no longer necessary and urge our exit. That could create an untenable dynamic.

Further, the fear is that the warring factions would turn to other patrons to garner these necessary military components. This could set off a round of regional tensions between our forces, Iraqi factions and several of Iraq's neighbors. We might be able to use brinkmanship to keep outside interference in check, but our track record in Iraq in this regard hasn't been that great, and there's little evidence to support the contention that our leverage would be increased in the midst of a raging civil war - with fewer troops in country (though I suppose we could re-deploy to handle tense moments).

Kaplan suggests that we should begin diplomatic initiatives with Iraq's neighbors sooner than later, in order to foster healthier relationships more conducive to establishing cooperative efforts around contingencies such as a hot civil war. He's right, but we'll just have to wait and see what the Bush administration's willingness will be to dialogue with Iran and Syria. I'm not overly optimistic - but the possibility remains.

The best option would be preventing the "nightmare scenario" - rather than attempting to manage it, especially considering how our trump card could go bust should we be forced to sit out while the various groups engage in bloodletting. Easier said than done. Yet by once again pursuing alternate strategic tracks in Iraq - and watering down our reconstruction and counterinsurgency efforts by diverting resources and attention to the conflicting imperatives of the FOB strategy - we are failing to utilize all the tools available to ensure that the nightmare remains just another bad dream. As much as things change in terms of our muddled Iraq policy, they stay the same.

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