U.S. options to control violence in Iraq narrowing

Country lacks the support and resources for all-out war effort, leaving few palatable choices.

Civil wars come on slowly at first, and then in a rush. They follow the track of contagion and the law of the tipping point.

A recent war game organized by two former CIA analysts, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Daniel Byman of Georgetown University, posed this question: What actions could the United States plausibly take to control the unfolding civil and sectarian strife in Iraq? Scenarios ranged from a redeployment of U.S. forces to complete withdrawal, and even included voluntary ethnic and sectarian relocations to separate Sunni from Shiite and thus keep a step ahead of the ethnic-cleansing mobs.

Participants in the game included former senior military, intelligence, and policy-making officials. One insight gleaned from the exercise was that the United States faces a dwindling and increasingly unsavory set of options in Iraq.

That and other hard truths have already dawned on the Iraqis. Shiites have discovered that majority rule is not the same thing as keeping that majority cohesive or using it to run an effective government. It also means living with a minority that is willing to bomb your holiest places of worship into dust.

Sunnis, on the other hand, have grasped that the new Iraq is marginalizing them on a barren slice of the land they once ruled. These changes have left them afraid of the knock on the door by the Shiite death squad and the shadow of a threatening Iran.

The Kurds see their paradise of autonomy in Iraq's north surrounded by ravenous neighbors who smell the blood of a civil war they can scarcely resist. All Iraqis observe Americans nervously eyeing the exit door.

"Everyone in Iraq has read about American public opinion polls and gotten the message loud and clear that the United States is losing patience and political will to stay in Iraq," said a knowledgeable diplomat stationed in Baghdad. "All sides are now keen to get a brokered deal before the Americans depart, so that the gains they've realized in the last few years aren't put in jeopardy. Iraq's neighbors are very worried that a U.S. withdrawal and implosion in Iraq could suck them into a chaotic civil war to defend their own perceived interests, possibly leading to conflict with each other."

The existential dangers for so many of those involved point to another sobering truth: Iraq may have started as a war of choice for the Bush administration, but it has become a war of great and unintended consequences. Immense risks lurk down every strategic road.

Given the fractured state of the American body politic, it is almost certainly too late to rally the country behind an all-out war effort -- think tax increases; a war Cabinet; a full mobilization of the National Guard and the Reserves; a civilian reconstruction corps; a larger Army and Marine Corps; longer combat tours for troops; mandatory combat-zone deployments for U.S. diplomats and aid officials; a return to national service; and possibly even a limited draft.

Yet absent a plan that puts the nation on either an all-out wartime footing or the firm path to retreat, the United States is largely condemned to some tweaked-around-the-edges variation of the administration's current approach on Iraq of "muddle through and hand over." And America, the experts agree, is already losing that war.

Downward Spiral

On Monday, September 18, former Secretary of State and longtime Bush family confidant James Baker sat in a room full of recognized national security analysts gathered at the U.S. Institute for Peace in downtown Washington. Each expert expressed his or her views on the situation in Iraq.

Baker was there as co-chairman -- along with former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind. -- of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan assemblage of foreign-policy luminaries tasked with charting a new course in Iraq that might win the support of the White House and Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans. The study group is expected to release its recommendations shortly after the November elections, to avoid sullying them with the muck of Washington's bitter partisan politics.

For Baker, the former chief political adviser to President George H.W. Bush and the man who coordinated the Florida recount effort for George W. Bush in 2000, the institute meeting must have seemed an inauspicious welcome back to the inner circles of Washington policy-making. According to several attendees, the experts' presentations to the dean of the Republican foreign-policy establishment were unremittingly negative on the outlook for the Bush administration's effort to plant the flag of democracy in Iraq.

"There must have been 25 experts in that room from every part of the political spectrum, and I was absolutely struck by how the overwhelming consensus was that things are very bad and getting worse in Iraq," said one participant, a description that was confirmed by others. "The only real debate centered on the need to lower our expectations, and to try to extract some stability out of a failed democracy-building experiment."

The gloom in the room reflected the unmistakable downward trajectory of a failing state beset by insurgency, a sustained assault by foreign terrorists, and a civil war of sectarian slaughter.

This summer about 3,500 Iraqis died violently in a single month, the highest monthly total since the United States invaded in March 2003. The number of sectarian killings in Baghdad each month has more than tripled since February. In September, for instance, an estimated 1,450 Iraqis were killed in the capital; many of the victims were rounded up en masse from their workplaces and tortured by death squads before being dispatched with a bullet to the head. Sectarian violence, according to press reports, has already "ethnically cleansed" or displaced from their homes more than 300,000 Iraqis, and an estimated 1 million more have left the country to escape the unrelenting bloodshed.

"The situation in Iraq is obviously very serious, and the next few months will be critical," said a senior U.S. government official.

"While the Baathist insurgency and Al Qaeda terrorists remain lethal and deadly, they are not a strategic threat to Iraq's future like the sectarian violence," the official said. "Iraq is a country where sectarian differences are the tectonic plates of the entire society, and if this sectarian violence loosens or cuts the bonds that hold Iraq together and those plates start to separate, it's difficult to see how this or any other Iraqi government can succeed. So we're in intense discussions with the Iraqi government, and our message is that you must make the hard decisions to reach a reconciliation agreement and disarm militias in the weeks to come. Time is not working on Iraq's behalf."

GIs Still Targeted

The violence aimed at U.S. and coalition forces has likewise risen sharply. Between January and July of this year, the number of improvised explosive devices that were either detonated or defused nearly doubled, marking a record high. Insurgent attacks against U.S. and coalition forces occur every 15 minutes on average, or more than 100 times each day, according to a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.

At least 69 American troops have been killed in Iraq so far this month, making it one of the deadliest stretches for coalition forces since the 2003 invasion. U.S. intelligence analysts predict that next year will be worse.

In an effort to stanch the bloodshed, U.S. commanders are keeping about 147,000 troops in Iraq at least through next spring, 40,000 more than they anticipated needing earlier this year. The National Guard and the Reserves have been put on notice that they may have to throw more forces into the fight again earlier than expected, and the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, has extended the combat tours of units already in Iraq. Soldiers in those units and their families understand that for an unlucky few, the extension will amount to a death sentence.

On October 12, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker said that the Army now plans to maintain its current level of 120,000 soldiers in Iraq through 2010. The Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, said that the Army is coming dangerously close to the point where its units are home for only 12 months between combat deployments. That is barely time enough to rest, retrain, and re-equip.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported recently that so many units and their equipment are committed to or exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan that only two or three of the Army's 42 combat brigades are fully ready to respond to a sudden crisis -- say, a showdown with North Korea.

"Iraq has driven home the point that the U.S. Army is simply too small to maintain the current level of deployments, or to conduct similar kinds of major stability-and-security operations in the future," said Dan Goure, an Army expert with the Lexington Institute, a defense consulting group.

The strains evident in the force also reveal that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Schoomaker gambled and lost big, Goure said, when they decided not to permanently increase the size of the force a few years ago, when many former generals first sounded the alarm and when Congress seemed ready to act.

"The Army's own experts will tell you that these wars of counterinsurgency take 10 years or more, and the Army is already fraying at less than the halfway point," Goure said. "That has taken the option of significantly increasing troop levels off the table at a time when [Central Command leader John] Abizaid is clearly worried that Iraq is approaching a tipping point to civil war that could plunge the entire Middle East into chaos. That's pretty scary."

Tipping Point

According to a recently leaked military intelligence analysis later confirmed by the Pentagon, American commanders have essentially ceded the Sunni epicenter of Iraq's western Anbar province to insurgents and Qaeda terrorists in order to rush scarce troops to the "Battle of Baghdad." That campaign to secure the capital, the center of gravity in the entire Iraq enterprise, still hangs very much in the balance.

"You could argue that the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra was a devastating blow to the entire effort in Iraq, because what that did at the end of the day was take the gloves off of the militias, particularly the Shiite militias," said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Army's Combined Arms Center, speaking recently at the Brookings Institution.

Petraeus spent much of the past three years in Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and as the commander in charge of training Iraqi security forces. "Samarra started a downward spiral of tit-for-tat sectarian violence that has proven difficult to arrest, and which is at the center of the battle of Baghdad today. So Samarra was a big event that a lot of us knew was significant, and sadly, its aftershocks have played out each day with the discovery of more dead bodies."

This violence has largely paralyzed the Iraqi government. Despite vigorous arm-twisting by senior U.S. officials visiting Iraq, most recently Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has time and again shown that he is unwilling to confront or politically incapable of taking on militias that enjoy strong support inside his own coalition.

On October 2, Maliki announced yet another new security plan, the latest in a series of increasingly desperate attempts to stop the bloodshed, even as leading Sunni and Shiite politicians in his "unity" government accuse each other of sanctioned murder by militia.

On October 15, Iraq's government indefinitely postponed a critical national reconciliation conference as a result of the unremitting violence. Rampant corruption and the lack of security, meanwhile, continue to hamstring reconstruction efforts in a country still beset by spotty electricity, chronic gasoline shortages, and 30 to 60 percent unemployment.

Vietnam Parallels

The grim drumbeat of negative news has forged a consensus among Americans and Iraqis: Both have had enough. Despite concerted efforts by the Bush administration to link Iraq to the greater war on terrorism, a clear majority of Americans now believe that the war, which has cost more than $320 billion in national treasure and the blood of more than 2,700 fallen warriors, was a blunder.

Even once-strong supporters of the war in the Republican Party have begun to openly voice their growing pessimism on Iraq. For their part, an overwhelming majority of Iraqis now blame the U.S. military presence in their country for provoking the violence, and seven in 10 want U.S. forces out of Iraq within a year, according to a September poll by the independent Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

"Perhaps the most striking trend to me is how much less optimistic the Iraqi people are about the future than just a few years ago," said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution whose "Iraq Index" has tracked reconstruction and security operations in post-Saddam Iraq.

O'Hanlon considers the Iraq mission to be so close to outright failure and civil war that he recently proposed that the U.S. and Iraqi governments consider a "voluntary ethnic relocation plan" to get in front of a potential wave of ethnic and sectarian cleansing and genocide that could kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The drawback to the plan, he concedes, "is that if you implement it prematurely or fail to time it just right, you could ignite exactly the kind of ethnic cleansing you're trying to avoid."

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst, is a longtime Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The reality is that the United States went to war in Iraq without the fundamental tools to win, because we simply do not have the civil-military structures to do nation building on this scale," he said.

As a result, U.S. authorities have spent nearly $40 billion in U.S. aid and Iraqi funds in a reconstruction effort with very little to show for it, he noted, and rushed elections and a constitutional referendum that actually exacerbated sectarian divisions.

Most recently, on October 11, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi parliament passed a federalism bill that would allow the formation of autonomous regions in the country, including what many see as a Shiite mini-state in Iraq's south. The measure passed despite the strong objections of, and a boycott by, the Sunni coalition. The Sunnis fear a dismemberment of Iraq and a diminution of their power, although the law did include a concession to their concerns by putting off the formation of such regions for 18 months.

"We've now reached a point where no matter what military action or strategy the United States adopts, it won't matter unless the Iraqis can reach some form of political reconciliation," said Cordesman, who concedes that such an accommodation will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under current levels of violence. "So this remains a very high-risk operation, with some unfortunate parallels to Vietnam. In Vietnam, we also focused on pacifying major areas of the country but ignored the fact that there was no functioning central government to hold it all together."

Diplomatic Midget

How did it come to this? How did the world's only superpower, with the post-9/11 wind at its back, end up in just a few short years contemplating an ignoble and potentially generation-shaping defeat in Iraq? In its spirit of bipartisanship, the Iraq Study Group has pledged to look only forward and not to rehash the miscues of the Iraq enterprise in another exercise of finger-pointing.

While it is true that whole bookshelves are now groaning under the weight of tomes detailing the myriad mistakes made in post-Saddam Iraq, experts say that some inconvenient truths must be confronted to appreciate the limited options that the United States has left in Iraq.

It is increasingly clear, for instance, that although the United States may possess a superpower military, its forces are simply too small and ill-organized for long-term occupation and counterinsurgency warfare, and that any reconfiguration is likely to come too late for Iraq.

The Bush administration has also focused on elections as the centerpiece of its democratization agenda, yet recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown conclusively that institution building, a functioning government, and the rule of law are at least as important in turning around failed states. The United States lacks the essential and expensive tools for that kind of large-scale nation building, and neither the administration nor Congress has shown much inclination to sacrifice other priorities to acquire them.

"The big problem is that the United States today is a military colossus and a diplomatic midget, and that has made for a very unbalanced national security policy," said Joseph Collins, a professor at the National Defense University who was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations. "The State Department and U.S. AID are only shadows of what they need to be if we're going to conduct this kind of nation building, but Congress just refuses to fund those activities. That leaves a lot of overstressed soldiers in Iraq doing tasks they're not trained for."

No Way Back

Finally, while the largely unilateral approach that the Bush administration adopted in invading Iraq worked OK in the short-term phase of regime change, it has left the United States bearing the overwhelming burden of the nation-building effort and the counterinsurgency campaign.

History suggests that it requires at least a decade, and probably much longer, to end an insurgency. With the Atlas who has shouldered the Iraq campaign now beginning to shake before the halfway point, few nations are willing to step into the shadow of an imploding state.

"If you look at the relevant historical experiences with insurgencies, the United States might be in a better position in Iraq at the end of a decade or so," said Brian Jenkins, a senior counter- terrorism and counterinsurgency expert at the Rand think tank. "But not necessarily. Israel was in southern Lebanon for 18 years, and the situation just got worse until it became intolerable."

In the meantime, the U.S. presence in Iraq will continue to galvanize Islamic radicals worldwide and drain America of blood, treasure, and moral standing.

That has to be weighed, Jenkins said, against a precipitous withdrawal that could lead to all-out civil war, massive ethnic and sectarian cleansing, and a major psychological victory for Qaeda and Islamic extremists. "The basic problem with the equation is that the costs and downsides of Iraq are all front-loaded and being felt today, while the potential upsides are dependent on a reasonably successful and still murky outcome some years down the road."

Kenneth Pollack is the director of research at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Formerly a Middle East analyst at the CIA and the National Security Council, he was a leading proponent for toppling Saddam Hussein, authoring the book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Today, Pollack confesses to having trouble sleeping at night because he's contemplating Iraq.

"The situation in Iraq weighs very heavily on me, because there is just no denying anymore that the country is flat out in a state of low-level civil war, and the trend lines are heading toward an all-out civil war, which I think will be absolutely catastrophic," Pollack told National Journal.

Even at this late date, he said, the Bush administration is repeating its original "fatal flaw" of not committing adequate troops, resources, and civilian personnel to the campaign, most recently by undercutting the commander's requests in staging the battle of Baghdad.

"One of the many tragedies of Iraq is that we now have experienced military commanders with sound strategies, and we are still failing to adequately support them with the necessary troops, civilian personnel, and funds," said Pollack, who briefed senior Bush administration officials in the White House last February on the need to secure the Iraqi capital and to win the support of its citizens with rapidly reconstituted government services.

"They insisted that I was exaggerating the problem of the militias and that the new Iraqi government would just make the insurgency go away. Frankly, I was stunned by their attitude," Pollack said. "So we have passed another seven months of missed opportunities, during which Iraq's problems have all gotten worse. My real fear is that we've already passed the make-or-break point and just don't realize it. Historians in five or 10 years may look back and say 2006 was the year we lost Iraq. That's my nightmare."