Five Ways to Win Back Iraq

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

July 1, 2005

Iraq is not another Afghanistan. Notwithstanding what President Bush said in his speech on Tuesday, our primary problem in Iraq is not terrorism, and the administration’s single-minded focus on terrorism may help explain why we have not yet adopted a true counterinsurgency strategy or properly tackled so many of the country’s other problems.

Nevertheless, critics of the president who make parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are equally wrong. Iraq is far more important. Because of its oil wealth, its location in the most politically fragile region of the world, and its importance in the eyes of Arab nations that wonder if democracy is possible for them too, Iraq is critical to American interests in a way that Vietnam never was.

There is one way, however, in which Iraq is like Vietnam: how the United States is handling it. We lost in Vietnam for a complicated set of reasons. But the most important was that we refused to use an effective counterinsurgency strategy. We focused more on hunting down Vietcong guerrillas than on protecting the Vietnamese people, which in turn prevented the South Vietnamese economy from growing and giving the people an economic incentive to support our side of the war. We also tolerated a series of corrupt, unstable South Vietnamese leaders who made little effort to connect with the people and spent their time squabbling over power and graft.

Iraq, however, may not be doomed to the same fate. For one thing, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his government are far more popular and better-intentioned than President Ngo Dinh Diem of Vietnam and his kleptocratic colleagues ever were. And, because the Iraqi insurgents are as happy to blow up Iraqi civilians as American convoys, they do not enjoy the broad appeal of the Vietcong (let alone the firepower of the North Vietnamese Army).

So it is unfortunate that we are squandering these advantages by repeating many of our own mistakes from 40 years ago, and in doing so alienating the Iraqi people and raising the risk of chaos and civil war. So how do we save the reconstruction of Iraq? Again, Vietnam – as well as Northern Ireland and other guerrilla wars – has much to teach. There are at least five specific lessons that must be adapted to today’s cause:

Think safety first A main point of counterinsurgency operations is that ensuring the safety of the people and giving them an economic and political incentive to oppose the insurgency is more important than fighting the insurgents themselves. Insurgencies wither on the vine without popular support. Thus the first big change would be to de-emphasize chasing insurgents around the Sunni Triangle, and to instead put a higher priority on protecting Iraqis as they go about their daily lives.

Many Iraqis will tell you that they are less concerned about terrorist attacks than about street crime and the burgeoning organized crime syndicates, which scare them into staying home and hinder the distribution of goods, paralyzing Iraq’s economic and social life.

Meanwhile, most of our operations against insurgents have done little but further antagonize the Sunni tribes of western Iraq. We should instead be building safe zones in cities and rural areas, and guarding communications and transportation sites, to allow Iraq’s political and economic life to revive. We need to shift the bulk of our troops from trying to pacify insurgent hotspots that may never support reconstruction and toward keeping the peace in areas dominated by Shiites and urban Sunnis, who for the most part want nothing to do with the insurgency but long to live normal lives. (Fortunately, Kurdish security forces are more than adequate to police their own streets without our help.)

Provide enough manpower for the job What is going to make or break Iraqi popular support for reconstruction is safe streets, jobs, clean water, reliable electricity, ample gasoline and the provision of other basics. Achieving these goals will require more than the 155,000 troops in the country, and it is time for the Bush administration to bite the bullet, whether by deploying additional standing forces, calling up reserves, or spurring recruitment by increasing pay and benefits (and maybe even providing a rationale that the American people would buy).

Moreover, we need to relearn the lessons that the marines and Green Berets learned in Vietnam and the British learned in Northern Ireland. American troops need to be on the streets, patrolling on foot with Iraqis, to reassure civilians. This is the only way to create a safe “space” for Iraq’s economy and society to revive.

Let them learn When Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took over the training of Iraqi security forces last year, he told me that it would take three to five years before they could take over from American troops. He is still right. Unfortunately, we have regularly rushed Iraqi units into frontline duty before they were ready to try to make up for the shortfall in our troops.

It is not just that these Iraqi units need time to train; they need time, years perhaps, to develop command relationships, unit cohesion and a sense of commitment to the community. Another reason to have American forces deploy in mixed formations with the Iraqis in the populated areas that support reconstruction is that this will create safe zones in which newly trained Iraqi formations can cut their teeth before being thrown into the forbidding terrain of the Sunni Triangle. History guides us here as well: while conventional wisdom holds that South Vietnamese troops were virtually worthless, many units that fought alongside American forces eventually proved quite effective.

Get beyond Baghdad The capital has become a giant bottleneck for everything going on in Iraq. This has been true throughout history to a certain extent, but there is no reason to perpetuate it. Iraq’s transitional government consists of a large number of political parties whose true popularity is unclear at best. Many Shiites, for example, voted for the United Iraqi Alliance list because Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani encouraged them to do so, not because they necessarily liked or knew much about its constituent parties. Many other political groups have even less claim to popular support. Yet, unsurprisingly, many of these parties are using their positions to secure as big a piece of Iraq’s economic pie as possible and to insure that they have a lasting role in future governments.

Perhaps the most underreported story in Iraq today is the theft of its oil revenues. Thanks to the high price of crude, Iraq should make well over $20 billion from oil sales this year, yet almost none of this money seems to be going to actual reconstruction projects. One senior Iraqi official told me recently that the theft of oil revenues today is making Saddam Hussein’s regime look frugal by comparison.

Moreover, in their determination to snuff out competitors, many politicians have fought tirelessly to prevent any delegation of authority or direct distribution of money or supplies to provincial or local officials. This tendency to keep things centralized is reinforced because the American Embassy’s personnel cannot leave the capital’s heavily fortified “green zone,” and thus focus most of their efforts on the central government.

Reconstruction is most likely to succeed if it can grow from the bottom up. Certainly the top-down approach we are now employing has rarely worked in the past. We need more American civilians and international aid workers to move about in Iraq and find out what the people are getting and what they desperately need. And we need to push resources out from Baghdad or circumvent it, shipping supplies directly into the hands of the Iraqis who can help at the local level.

Buy off the Sunni sheiks There is no question that bringing the Sunni population—particularly the tribes that are the principal supporters of the insurgency—into the Iraqi government and making them feel that they have a stake in the system is critical to long-term stability. In the shorter term, however, we can put a big dent in the insurgency by reaching out to Sunni tribal leaders and paying them protection money.

Buying your enemies may sound un-American, but it is a time-honored tradition in Iraq. A great many of the insurgents are Sunni tribesmen. Many were members of Saddam Hussein’s security services who have been thrown out of work and marginalized under the new Shiite-Kurd dominated government. Others are fighting on the orders of their sheiks, who also feel threatened by the new order and have been given no incentive to work with us. But throughout the history of modern Iraq, these chieftains were paid by whoever was in power in Baghdad (the Turks, the British, the dictators, the Baathists) to refrain from attacking the roads and government facilities and to keep other groups from doing so. Already some prominent Sunni sheiks have made overtures to the American authorities and the Iraqi government; they are willing to keep the peace if the price is right.

The course we have adopted in Iraq so far is not working particularly well and it could fail altogether. To date, most of the changes offered by both sides of the political aisle amount to little more than tinkering with the current strategy. But if we’re going to succeed in stabilizing Iraq and defeating its insurgency, we are going to have to make a radical shift to a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, even though it could be politically very painful. No matter what one thinks of the invasion, it is clearly in our best interest, to say nothing of the Arab world’s, that we succeed in Iraq. To do so, we will have to apply some lessons we learned from bitter history.