Frederick W. Kagan: 'Redeployment' will not 'incentivize' the Iraqi military. It will lead to its collapse.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter). He formerly taught history at West Point.]

The United States has two options in Iraq: stay and try to win, or cut, run, and lose. Attempts to chart a middle course--partial withdrawal or redeployment, accelerated hand-over to the Iraqis, political deals with Syria or Iran--ignore the realities of the military situation. The real choice we face is this: Is it better to accept defeat than to endure the pain of trying to succeed?

The U.S. military, under the stewardship of CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid, has worked hard from the outset to avoid creating an Iraqi military that is dependent upon the continued presence of U.S. forces. The fear of such dependency is one of the pillars that has supported U.S. strategy from the outset. In order to avoid it, the U.S. military has never fully committed to conducting coherent and comprehensive counterinsurgency operations on its own, preferring to wait until the Iraqis are able to undertake them. We are still waiting, and the insurgency is strengthening its organization and inciting chaos through mass murder and sectarian violence.

The Iraqi military, unfortunately, is still a work in progress. Although there are growing numbers of trained Iraqi soldiers formed into increasingly competent tactical units, those units remain highly dependent on American logistical support for food, shelter, ammunition, and transportation. This situation is not entirely the fault of the American military. It stems also from the failure of the Iraqi government to establish ministries capable of performing their assigned tasks--a failure abetted by woefully inadequate assistance from the nonmilitary agencies of the U.S. government. Abizaid and the U.S. military are right to feel let down in this regard by the rest of the government, but only partly. Their failure to establish reasonable security and safe working conditions in Iraq, particularly outside the Green Zone, where much of this effort would have to take place, is the principal cause for the lack of economic and political development.

Wherever the blame for this failure lies, there is no denying that it has occurred. The Iraqi military cannot function without a significant American logistical presence. It cannot continue to improve in quality without a significant American training presence, which includes a partnership between Iraqi combat units and coalition combat units conducting counterinsurgency operations. These facts make nonsense of any idea of significantly reducing the American presence as a way to "incentivize" the Iraqi military. Redeployment on any significant scale will not incentivize the Iraqi military. It will lead to its collapse....

The pullback of U.S. forces to their bases will not reduce the sectarian conflict, which their presence did not generate. It will increase it. Death squads on both sides will become more active. Large-scale ethnic and sectarian cleansing will begin as each side attempts to establish homogeneous enclaves where there are now mixed communities. Atrocities will mount, as they always do in ethnic cleansing operations. Iraqis who have cooperated with the Americans will be targeted by radicals on both sides. Some of them will try to flee with the American units. American troops will watch helplessly as death squads execute women and children. Pictures of this will play constantly on Al Jazeera. Prominent "collaborators," with whom our soldiers and leaders worked, will be publicly executed. Crowds of refugees could overwhelm not merely Iraq's neighbors but also the FOBs themselves. Soldiers will have to hold off fearful, tearful, and dangerous mobs. Again, endless photographs and video footage of all this will play constantly. Before long, it will probably prove necessary to remove the embedded U.S. troops from the Iraqi military units. The situation will become too dangerous; the Iraqis will increasingly resent the restraint the embeds place on their actions; and the U.S. military will become fearful of being implicated in death-squad activity. It is a matter of chance whether the embedded troops are pulled before any are kidnapped or taken prisoner by Iraqi military units turning bad or being infiltrated by radicals.

What will be the effect of all this on American soldiers? The result could be worse than what we suffered in Vietnam. There will be no "decent interval" here during which we withdraw in reasonably good order--the withdrawal itself is likely to occur in the midst of rising violence. Instead of pictures of Americans on the embassy roof in Saigon, we will see images of Iraqi death squads at work with U.S. troops staying on their bases nearby. And let us not forget that in the world of Al Jazeera, we will be accused of encouraging those death squads. The overall result will be searing and scarring. The damage to the morale of the military could be far greater than what will result from burdening soldiers with longer or more frequent tours of duty in a stepped-up effort to achieve vic tory. Those who are concerned about the well-being of the Army should fear defeat of this type more than anything.

The only question that matters is: Can we still do anything to improve the situation in Iraq? The answer is yes. We can and must restore basic security to Baghdad and to the key cities and towns of the Sunni Triangle. In the past, I have recommended beginning with the outlying areas along the upper Tigris, Euphrates, and Diyala river valleys, both because clearing and holding smaller towns is easier and in the hope that success upon success in the heart of the Sunni Arab areas would demoralize the remaining fighters in Baghdad. That approach is no longer feasible. The U.S. and Iraqi governments have made it clear that the war will be won or lost in Baghdad.

Operation Together Forward, the recent joint Iraqi-American operation to pacify the capital, failed for a number of reasons. First, for lack of resources, it proceeded too slowly from neighborhood to neighborhood. Second, again because of resource constraints, there were not enough American troops left behind in neighborhoods that had been cleared--with the result that insurgents slipped rapidly back into those areas and destabilized them again. The price for conducting the operation was high--forces had to be drawn from al Anbar province, the hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency, and the situation there has been deteriorating as a result.

The lessons of the U.S. military program in Iraq are reasonably clear by now. American forces, working with Iraqis, can clear areas dominated by terrorists and insurgents. The efforts to do so lead initially to an upsurge in violence as the insurgents resist, but then to greater calm. In places like Tal Afar, Al Qaim, and other small towns along the Upper Euphrates River valley, Sadr City in 2004, and even Falluja (in the second battle in 2004), clearing operations have succeeded. In many of these cases, however, the U.S. command left inadequate American forces behind to help the Iraqi troops hold the area, with the result that insurgents gradually infiltrated and began to destabilize these regions once again. The lack of any coherent plan to move from one cleared area to another, moreover, often meant that stabilized towns were islands in a tumultuous sea....

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