I heard the most illuminating – and the most depressing – assessment of Iraq yet last Wednesday at Michigan State University where Stephen Biddle, one of the most – if not the most -- respected military strategists in the United States, was speaking. (Full disclosure: Biddle was invited as part of a lecture series called the Symposium on Science, Reason and Modern Democracy that my husband co-directs at the MSU political science department.)
Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and award-winning author of Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, and an early opponent of the war, explained why America's pre-surge strategy in Iraq was a colossal failure. And even though the current U.S. strategy is on the right track, he put its odds of success – defined not as the creation of some fancy-shmantzy pluralistic democracy in Iraq, but just "sustainable stability" -- at no more than 10 to 15 percent. And that too if the U.S. maintains the current approximately 160,000 troops for at least 8 to 10 years till a new generation of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds has had a chance to grow up without each side feeling that it was about to be slaughtered by the other. This is an enormously difficult and expensive proposition with huge opportunity costs. But if the U.S. is not prepared for such a commitment, he believed, it should hit the exit doors now. This would certainly lead to an all-out civil war with epical bloodletting and nightmarish geo-political consequences for the whole region – but at least it wouldn't cost anymore U.S. lives.
What, most emphatically, wouldn't work was the middle-ground that every Democratic presidential candidate, with the exception of Joe Biden, was proposing: Cutting troop levels in half and changing their mission from combat to peace-keeping. This would make U.S. troops sitting ducks for both Sunni and Shiite militias without preventing their mutual slaughter. "This is a situation where the extreme options – total withdrawal now or a big troop commitment for about 10 years -- are clearly better than the middle one."
Meanwhile, Joe Biden's plan for carving up the country into a loose federation of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves was wishful thinking too, Biddle felt. To convince Sunnis, who have little oil in their areas, to go along with such an arrangement, Biden proposes that an oil-sharing formula be written into the Iraqi constitution. But who'll enforce the constitution? Given that Sunnis constitute only 20 percent of the population and have only minimal political representation, it would have to be the Shiite-dominated government. So we would basically be asking the Sunnis to lay down their arms for the sake of a piece of paper that would be enforced by their mortal enemies.
But the most interesting part of the lecture was Biddle's explanation for why America was not able to control the insurgency till General Petraus took over. Till then, Biddle noted, the U.S. was not fighting Iraq – it was refighting Vietnam. Essentially, there are two types of insurgencies: A classic ideological insurgency and a sectarian-communal civil war. Vietnam was the first type of conflict where different groups were struggling with each other to impose their idea of good government on the rest of the country. Iraq, however, is the second kind of conflict where each is trying to protect itself and its identity. "The Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are fighting a zero-sum game with existential stakes."
Indeed, U.S. efforts to apply the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq, namely political reconciliation through elections, economic reconstruction and rebuilding an indigenous military, actually "poured gasoline on the flames of the Iraqi insurgency." For instance, consider the creation of an indigenous force: In an ideological conflict, this would make perfect sense. Afterall, unlike foreign troops, locals have a direct stake in the well-being of their country. Moreover, since they speak the local language, they can more easily separate innocents from guerillas and avoid targeting the wrong people – something that is essential to gain the confidence of the larger population. But in Iraq's case, none of this applied. In a country riven by ethnic hatreds, there was no reason to believe that an indigenous army would protect all Iraqi lives equally – or that it would be possible to convince anyone that it would. Thus, as far as the Sunnis were concerned, Biddle noted, the force that we put together was nothing short of a "Shiite militia on steroids." Their response under the cirumstances was completely rational: escalate their insurgency and prevent this force from ever taking root. Even the much vaunted elections in Iraq fuelled the sectarian fires because, in a war of identity, electoral politics creates a further incentive to demonize the other groups. They gave Shiites an opportunity to say to fellow Shittes, "Vote for me and I'll protect you from the Sunni Devils" – and vice versa. "Elections, did not mitigate underlying conflict, they intensified the centrifugal forces that were breaking-up Iraqi society."
If things have calmed down a bit since General Petraeus took over in February, it is not necessarily because going in he had a more accurate understanding of the nature of the conflict – but sheer dumb luck. Even though we were screwing up badly in Iraq, as it turns out, al Qaida was screwing up even more. In Anbar Province, a predominantly Sunni area, al Qaida was systematically terrorizing the local population, leaving Sunni leaders with no option but to approach our units as the lesser of the two evils.
The success in routing out al Qaida in Anbar with local cooperation gave birth to what, Biddle calls, Petraus' new bottom-up approach in Iraq in addition to the top-down model that U.S. had hitherto followed. The top-down apporach aimed exclusively at controlling the security situation in Baghdad in order to create the politcal space for a power-sharing compromise. "Petraus has decided to do this (stabalize the country) retail, as opposed to imposing a wholesale formula from the top."
The new approach involves cutting bilateral deals with every local faction – and Biddle counted 20 main ones – under which the U.S. gives them the following option: Either stop shooting at us and, in return, we will not only let you keep your arms but also place U.S. troops in your neighborhood to protect you from your enemies. Or, if you decline, we will raid your homes, take away anything that you can possibly use to defend yourself. "And, once we are finished, guess what your enemies across the street will do to you."
"We have to counter existential stakes with existential stakes," Biddle notes. "We can't convince them to lay down their arms for three hours more of electricity a day."
If the U.S. had the troop strength and the resources to fully implement both the top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously, then U.S. prospects of succeeding would be better than the one- in-10 odds that Biddle gives them. But that would require nothing short of reinstituting the draft – a political impossibility. So sooner or later General Petraus will have to decide to give up one or the other.
In the end, Biddle noted that the administration's strategy of maintaining current troop levels was rational – and CATO Institute's strategy of getting out now was rational. Everything else was irresponsible or wishful thinking.
But these choices themselves testify that Iraq is a tar baby the U.S. never should have grabbed. Thank you President Bush!