TCS Daily

Enacting the Exit Strategy

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 5, 2004 12:00 AM

With the election behind us, it won't be too long before President Bush's allies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere -- people who for the good of the Party have been biting their tongues for months -- demand change in his administration's defense policy in Iraq.

And if effective changes are implemented, then by this time next year the U.S. could be starting a drawdown U.S. troops from a stable Iraq led by a democratically elected government. If they're not implemented, the U.S. will have an even bigger mess on its hands than it does already.

Two major changes are required:

Swiftly defeat the insurgency in Falluja and other strongholds: The 10,000-20,000 insurgents pose the biggest challenge to Iraq's emergence as a stable, secure, independent and democratic state. They also represent a terrorist base whose tentacles both within Iraq and without grow longer by the day. The U.S. occupation of Iraq is doomed to continue as long as there's a substantial armed challenge from these terrorists and insurgents.

U.S. forces building up outside the insurgent base will need to use surprise and speed to crush the fundamentalist, Sunni insurgency. Rightly, the U.S. military and Iraqi government have been preparing the groundwork by pressing locals to stop protecting insurgents in their midst. With the city now purged as best as can be expected, the military will need to assault it quickly and decisively, just as it assaulted and recaptured the insurgent stronghold of Samara in September-October. In that operation, over 100 non-Iraqi insurgents (read: terrorists) were captured.

Speed, not slow besieging, is essential because if the U.S. acts in the hesitant, stop-start manner it tried in April in Falluja, it will be pilloried in the Arab media and will squander already tenuous support in Iraq itself. The Falluja operation does risk civilian casualties because, by their very nature, insurgents hide among civilians. But the longer that risk is dragged out, the worse for the U.S. That's partly because at some level, Sunni support for the insurgents in Falluja is understandable: Iraq's Sunni minority is being dragged into democratic elections that, while virtuous, pretty much guarantee dominance by the country's Shiite majority. At an ethnic and tribal level, any election outcome will be an unhappy one for Sunnis, and hence their sympathy for the resistance. Sunni civilians' unease about the political future will only be exacerbated if the U.S. now wages war against them in Falluja.

On the other hand, press reports show the locals understand the armed, fundamentalist insurgents represent an even worse future for Iraq. If the U.S., supported by Iraqi forces, can rout the insurgents quickly and hand the city back to locals, as Samara has been, the outcome will be welcomed in the longer term. That's even if there is understandable grief and anger at the destruction and casualties in the short term. To rout the insurgents, though, the U.S. will need surprise and speed.

Intensify efforts to hand over the defense and policing of Iraq to Iraqis: If Falluja is Iraq's biggest headache, then Iraq's dependency on U.S. forces is the United States' biggest headache. The longer U.S. troops stay, the more they will become the object of resentment within Iraq and in the entire Muslim world. That's not so very surprising, considering the essential human desire to be free of foreign domination, no matter how well-intentioned.

The trouble is the U.S. has no one to whom to pass along the job of defense and stabilization. President Bush said during one of the election debates that 125,000 Iraqi troops will be trained by year's end. That's not enough, and what's worse the figure counts police as soldiers. According to the U.S. State Department, on Sept 22 Iraq had 46,990 trained soldiers on duty, well short of the 77,175 required. And it had 49,691 trained police on duty, while 172,070 are required.

Iraq falls short in equipment, too. In late September the Iraqi police had 7,721 vehicles where they needed 31,726; and they had 110,035 weapons where they need 268,296. The Iraqi military for its part has a little over half of the 103,983 pieces of weaponry and 4,421 vehicles required.

After wasting the first post-war year in Iraq not focusing on the essential task of equipping and training Iraqi forces, the U.S. is only now facing the reality of the task at hand. It has added funds and manpower to the training effort, and shows signs of improving. But even steady progress will be slow. The U.S. should revisit the question of bringing Baathist-era soldiers and police back to work, to bolster the Iraqi ranks. It's a matter of self-preservation for the U.S.: Only when Iraq can help itself will U.S. men and women in uniform be able to get out of the bullseye of Iraqi and Muslim resentment.

Contrary to what candidate Kerry would have had us believe, third nations are at this point of declining utility to the U.S. in Iraq. Unless of course Europeans with plenty of experience in Iraq -- such as the French -- could be convinced to take up more of the policing or training burden. But the likelihood of that seems slim indeed. And even U.N. support seems unlikely, given the secretariat's recent efforts to influence the U.S. election with tenuous claims about missing explosives, and embarrassing revelations about its own staff's lucrative involvement with Saddam's regime.

And contrary to what some American pundits would have us believe, success in Iraq does not rest with an increase in U.S. troops for the country.

Defeat the insurgency, hand security over to Iraqis, and plan for a stable, democratic Iraq that can be left in Iraqi hands by 2006 sometime. That's the exit strategy, and that's where the Bush administration should now focus its attention in full.


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