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Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq

The war in Iraq has reached a critical juncture. With the mission faltering, popular and Congressional pressure on the Bush Administration to redefine U.S. objectives and pressure to reduce U.S. troop numbers in Iraq is growing. This approach has taken on added impetus with the recent release of the Iraq Study Group report, a panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, whose suggestions run parallel to this trend in public opinion. By contrast, a group led by Frederick Kagan, under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has recently released a study proposing a new approach for stabilizing Iraq, entitled Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq. The report proposes shifting the focus of the U.S. military deployed in Iraq from training the Iraqi armed forces to securing the Iraqi population and containing the escalating violence. To achieve this, Kagan and his colleagues propose increasing U.S. combat forces in Iraq by roughly 30,000 effectives.

On December 21, 2006 the Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a policy discussion during which Frederick Kagan presented the views of the AEI team. Kagan argued that victory in Iraq was still possible if the U.S. military shifted its priorities from training Iraqi forces to securing the population and stabilizing Baghdad. In Kagan’s view, Baghdad is the center of gravity, and therefore, securing Baghdad is the key to containing the violence and preventing Iraq from sliding towards de facto partition. Kagan emphasized that it was critical to reduce the levels of violence before attempting any political solution. Sending more U.S. combat troops into Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, is, in Kagan’s judgment, essential and possible. These additional U.S. forces, together with local Iraqi units, would clear critical Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shi’i neighborhoods. They would then remain in these cleared areas to provide security so that reconstruction projects could be launched.

Kagan argued that reconstruction was an essential component of stabilizing Iraq and securing its population. He proposed a two-tier reconstruction plan. At first, the United States would restore essential services, including electricity, water, sewerage, and rubbish collection. Second, the United States will need to develop a set of incentives in the form of improved quality of life to encourage Iraqis to cooperate in maintaining security.

Kagan underscored that the proposed surge in U.S. troops was not an end in itself, but rather means to securing the population and enabling national reconciliation, political and economic development. He cautioned that if the U.S. military did not rapidly take control of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, it would run the risk of irreversibly fracturing the Iraqi society and losing the support of the American public. He pointed out that the strategy proposed by the AEI team required national commitment, the mobilization of the defense industry, the acceptance of extended deployments by U.S. ground forces, and a dramatic increase in reconstruction aid to Iraq. Withdrawal, in Kagan’s opinion, would not reduce the “pain.” Instead, it would generate serious regional and domestic consequences for which the United States will have to pay a higher price politically, morally, and financially.

Following Kagan’s presentation, Michael O’Hanlon provided commentary. O’Hanlon supported the overall strategy elaborated by the AEI team. However, he disagreed that it was possible to indefinitely maintain 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. O’Hanlon expressed a concern that protracted tours in Iraq, which constitute the foundation of the AEI team’s sustained strategy, could “break” the U.S. military. O’Hanlon argued, the United States should view 2007 as a critical year and try a new, more vigorous approach instead of committing to Iraq unconditionally. If the new approach fails and the situation does not improve within a year, then the United States should resort to a “plan B.”

O’Hanlon cautioned that the precipitous or near-term withdrawal of U.S. forces would entail serious strategic implications for the United States and the broader Middle East region. Of greatest importance, a rapid withdrawal could destabilize the Persian Gulf and embolden al-Qa’ida. O’Hanlon argued that the intensity of the conflict in Iraq already resembled the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the early and mid-1990s as the number of internally displaced persons and refugees is growing at around 100,000 per month. Given these developments and the possibility that the U.S.-led Coalition may not be able to contain the escalating violence, O’Hanlon emphasized that it was critical for the United States to develop a “plan B.”

In O’Hanlon’s opinion, the most feasible “plan B” is the idea proposed by Senator Joseph “Joe” Biden (D-DL) of a “soft partition” of Iraq combined with the voluntary ethnic relocation of the Iraqis (put forward by O’Hanlon and Edward Joseph, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies). This approach would involve facilitating the Iraqis’ movements to the neighborhoods where they feel secure, providing them with jobs in the new places of residence, and delivering basic services to them. He concluded that while it was important to attempt the AEI team’s plan, there is no guarantee that it will succeed and therefore it is important to develop an alternative strategy.

A question was raised about the sustainability of U.S. forces for the proposed mission and what could be done to maintain an increased troop deployment. O’Hanlon thought that it was difficult to predict at what point the all-volunteer force might “break.” To increase recruitment and sustain high troop levels in Iraq, O’Hanlon suggested opening military service to foreign citizens as a path to obtaining U.S. citizenship.

Another question was asked about the feasibility of involving foreign troops in Iraq. Kagan thought that bringing in foreign troops would be a useful approach, but he pointed out political and practical difficulties of such a scheme. In Kagan’s view, the British military is unlikely increase its presence in Iraq because Britain has many other commitments across the globe. The French military could provide significant assistance, but Kagan doubted that France would commit troops to Iraq because of political considerations. Kagan expressed skepticism about inviting troops from Muslim countries to Iraq because he thought that their involvement could exacerbate sectarian violence. In essence, he argued that all the Muslims belong to one sect or another and can hardly act as, or be viewed as, neutral. As much as Kagan would like to see foreign troop contributions to stabilizing Iraq, he felt that presently this was not a plausible policy option.

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