Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A True Expert Opinion on Iraq (And My Thinking)

Tragically, Iraq has become a tremendously political issue.

Many senior Democrats have staked a firm position that the vast majority of American combat troops need to be withdrawn as quickly as logistically possible. On the other end of the spectrum, many Republicans have equated withdrawal with "surrendering" to al-Qaeda. Many journalists and other "experts" have become equally invested in one side or the other.

This dynamic, combined with the extraordinary complexity of the issue, makes it tough for an intellectually honest person to confidently identify the best strategic course of action for the United States.

About a year ago, I was beginning to become convinced that our efforts were futile due to the cultural divisions in Iraq. It was this sense of futility - not a lack of appreciation for the strategic consequences - that led me to think we should probably withdraw or at least dramatically reduce our commitment to Iraq (and double-down on Afghanistan).

This mindset was challenged, ironically, when I read Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco (which I highly recommend). In his very successful attempt to catalog the failures of the Bush Administration before, during and after the invasion of Iraq, he highlighted many issues which struck me as quite...correctable (and by "correctable" - I do not mean "avoidable" - though many certainly were). I am choosing not to list them here because supporting this assertion is somewhat tangential to the main point I want to make with this post.

Fiasco made me think that the new surge might be worth a shot. I felt this way not because I believed more force was the answer, but because the new leader, General David Petraeus, was actually the first commander with the appropriate counter-insurgency background to design and execute an appropriate strategy to make real progress. (This was one of the "correctable" points in Fiasco).

Today, I am back in the undecided camp.

I am no longer willing to say definitively that the endeavor is futile; however, I am extremely annoyed by those that pronounce the "surge" a success. The violence reduction is undeniably a positive tactical development. Yet without knowing WHY violence has declined, we are foolish to celebrate it as a strategic achievement.

For example, if it has occurred primarily because the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has decided to order his militia to stand down until we leave, then the violence reduction is minimally valuable. If our new tactics have convinced him or his followers to genuinely engage in the political process, then we may be making strategically meaningful progress. Unfortunately, events in the last week seem to suggest the former and not the latter.

Likewise, our alliance of convenience with the Sunnis may evaporate once al-Qaeda is sufficiently destroyed. There is no obvious reason to believe that they will not, at some point, continue the warfare against the Shiites and the Americans that we saw prior to their decision to focus on al-Qaeda. Although it is possible we are building sustainable connections with Iraqi Sunnis, our experience in Afghanistan in the 1980's with the Sunni insurgency against the Soviet Union should give us pause. Many of our former "allies" in that struggle joined (or today lead) the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Anyway, as I said previously, I am back in the undecided camp and looking for the rare additional fact or insightful analysis to push my thinking one way or the other.

Today, I read an article that gave me a little more hope that we could prevail. Admittedly, the author of the article was a little more important to me than the content.

Lt Colonel John Nagl is a personal friend, but objectively one of the greatest thinkers I know. In addition to serving in both Gulf Wars, he is a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in Strategic Studies from Oxford. From my personal experience with him, I know that he is politically savvy yet still intellectually honest. He understands, via firsthand experience, the situation on the ground in Iraq. He also, quite literally, wrote the Army and Marine Corps book on counter-insurgency. He has also recently left the Army, so I feel confident that he is able to express his full unfiltered opinion.

I'll let you read what he wrote here if you are interested.

Most of his essay is focused on military tactics and institutional changes that are needed in the 21st century military.

But one of his conclusions is that Americans need to demonstrate more patience. He believes that we and the Iraqi moderates can prevail.

His opinion has pushed me ever so slightly more into the let's wait and see camp.


Unknown said...

Today, I read an article that gave me a little more hope that we could prevail.

I say this without sarcasm: what does it mean to "prevail" in Iraq? What is the precise, concrete goal? What does "victory" involve? How do we know when we've "won"?

Jared said...

Your question is not only fair but possibly the most important one to ask.

I'm not sure I've heard any one compellingly articulate what success looks like...and I'm willing to admit I didn't reflect on it before writing this post - though I've thought about it quite a bit over the last few years.

I'm going to think more about this and maybe put my thoughts in an additional post.