In November and December 2005, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution convened a small group of experts on Iraq, the Iraq Policy Working Group, which under the direction of Kenneth M. Pollack, the Saban Center’s Director of Research, elaborated an integrated alternative approach to the current U.S. military, political, and economic policies in Iraq. On February 15th, 2006 the Saban Center held a policy forum luncheon at which Kenneth Pollack presented the end product, A Switch in Time: A New Strategy for America in Iraq. Pollack, the principal drafter of this monograph, was joined by Brian Katulis, Director of Democracy and Public Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress and a member of the Iraq task force, the Iraq Policy Working Group.
Pollack noted that many alternative approaches for the reconstruction of Iraq had been duly criticized by the current U.S. administration for their superficiality and lack of detail. He pointed out how difficult and yet important it was to spell out detail for the formidable task of rebuilding Iraq. A Switch In Time: A New Strategy for America in Iraq provides such detail, he said. The report lays out what and how needs to be changed in order to establish a stable and democratic Iraq. Pollack noted that the strategy proposed in the report differed from the Bush Administration’s approach in its principles. Specifically, the Bush Administration has a fundamentally different assessment of key problems in Iraq and where these problems lie.
Pollack said that the report was written with an important question in mind, “What would an integrated strategy for Iraq be?” He argued that many of the major problems in Iraq were consequences of disintegration of various aspects of the reconstruction. Therefore, the report proposes a holistic approach integrating military, political, economic, and bureaucratic aspects of the reconstruction of Iraq.
Pollack pointed out that by overthrowing Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003 and by not replacing his regime with a capable administration to govern Iraq, the United States created a security vacuum in Iraq. He argued that the security vacuum generated two major problems that undermined the reconstruction effort in Iraq. One is the insurgency, and the other is the failed state, a condition under which the government and its institutions are incapable of providing stability, security, and basic needs for its citizens. Pollack pointed to a principal disagreement with the current U.S. government, because the current U.S. government regards the insurgency as the greater of these two problems. Therefore, in Pollack’s opinion, the Bush Administration’s strategy is focused on how to overcome the Iraqi insurgency and how to bring the Sunni Arabs into the political process. While Pollack and the Iraq Policy Working Group agreed that the insurgency was a very important problem, they viewed the insurgency as an exacerbating factor to the primary problem of the failed state. The recommendations put forward in the report derived from that view of the Iraq Policy Working Group, Pollack added.
On the military side, Pollack said, the Iraq Policy Working Group recommended the “oil stain” counterinsurgency strategy, whereby an area that is already favorable towards political and economic reconstruction is thoroughly secured and then gradually expanded to encompass other parts of the country. One of the rules of the “oil stain” approach is to achieve a ratio of twenty security personnel per thousand of population in order to create the necessary security in the “oil stain” area for either counterinsurgency or a redressing the problems of a failed state. Pollack noted that despite the fact that the Bush Administration, and the military in particular, were gradually moving towards an “oil stain” approach on the tactical level, they did not yet apply the “oil stain” at the strategic level where the principal problems in Iraq are concentrated. Pollack argued that according to the twenty per thousand ratio, which is considered to be canonical, Iraq (excluding Iraqi Kurdistan) requires 450,000 security personnel to be stabilized. The United States does not have 450,000 security forces in Iraq, Pollack stated. However, he noted that the combined number of the U.S. and other Coalition forces (such as British, Australian, and other), along with Iraqi security forces, yields a total of 200,000-220,000. With this number it is possible to start an “oil stain” capable of securing half of Iraq’s population—a large “oil stain” by historical standards.
Pollack emphasized that the key to a successful counterinsurgency campaign was to start securing areas where the population was dense and its support for the reconstruction strong. He proposed to start an “oil stain” in Baghdad, central Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan and much of southern Iraq. According to Pollack’s plan, the area to be secured last would be Anbar province in western Iraq. Pollack pointed out that the Bush Administration’s approach with respect to Anbar province differed from the strategy proposed in A Switch in Time. The Bush Administration has focused its effort on Anbar, while the “oil stain” strategy calls for redeploying and concentrating the troops in the heartland of Iraq, its center and the south. Pollack clarified that the Iraq Policy Working Group did not suggest abandoning Anbar province completely. Instead, it elaborated several recommendations for Anbar and western Iraq. Pollack also cautioned that were the “oil stain” strategy applied, the United States would have to temporarily tolerate a higher degree of terrorist presence and insurgent activity in Anbar. The key, Pollack emphasized, was to understand that properly applied counterinsurgency and stability operations would create security not by means of an offensive against the insurgents but by adopting a pervasive defensive presence.
Pollack felt that the greatest failure in Iraq and the biggest impediment to the U.S. being able to reduce its troop levels in Iraq is the lack of sound Iraqi political and military institutions capable of providing security and stability throughout the country. Therefore, he advised adopting the “oil stain” strategy to enable the securing of areas in which sound and capable political, military, and economic institutions could develop. However, Pollack noted that the lack of security was not the sole impediment to Iraq’s reconstruction. He identified corruption as another major stumbling block undermining the rebuilding of Iraq. Despite the fact that A Switch in Time proposed over forty recommendations for fighting corruption in Iraq, Pollack argued that there was no easy solution to the problem. Pollack envisages fighting corruption and building central government institutions as long-term processes.
Pollack explained that the “oil stain” strategy proposed in the Iraq Policy Working Group’s report applied not only to the military but also to the political aspect of Iraq’s reconstruction. He recommended decentralizing Iraqi state power away from Baghdad and building capacity at local government levels. Pollack emphasized the importance of finding alternative ways to distribute oil revenues which he argues could facilitate the building up of central and local governments as well as reducing corruption. In particular, he recommended establishing mechanisms for redistributing money from the central government to local governments and to the Iraqi people directly, at the same time ensuring that the central government retained enough resources for its main functions such as the national defense. Pollack considers that like reconstruction and democratization, the process of oil distribution works best from the bottom up.
Pollack argued that in order to revive Iraq’s economy, it was critical to first establish a sound political system in Iraq and to guarantee security. In Pollack’s view, the “oil stain” was applicable to the economic arena as well. Pollack argued that money should be spent in secured zones of the “oil stain” where construction would not be destroyed by the insurgents and resources stolen by criminals. Pollack identified Iraq’s agricultural sector as a major means for diversifying the country’s economy and absorbing the large number of unemployed young men. Most importantly, he felt that the agricultural sector was an area where the United States could make a meaningful difference.
Following Pollack’s presentation, Brian Katulis articulated his view of the key recommendations outlined in A Switch in Time. He disagreed that the “oil stain” strategy could be applied in Iraq at this point. Katulis expressed a concern that a more visible presence of foreign troops and foot patrols required by traditional counterinsurgency operations risked inflaming the insurgency, leading to more violence and instability. Katulis cautioned that the ink spots (another term for “oil stains”) could turn into blood stains, as a more visible U.S. presence could exacerbate the perception of occupation among the Iraqis thus undermining their confidence in the Iraqi security forces. Katulis stated that majority of the attacks in Iraq were conducted against Coalition troops, which, in his opinion, was indicative of Iraqis’ disapproval of foreign presence in their country. Katulis argued that the “oil stain” strategy could trap more U.S. troops in urban warfare.
Katulis argued that the U.S. military lacks the necessary skills, including knowledge of Arabic and Iraqi culture, required for the traditional counterinsurgency operations proposed in the report. The U.S. military, he pointed out, had been trained for offensive operations and conventional warfare. Its promotion and reward system does not reward the skills required for counterinsurgency campaigns. Furthermore, the U.S. military’s obsession with force protection runs against the strategy proposed in A Switch in Time, Katulis said. Katulis argued that the U.S. military would not be able to make the switch in approach in the six to twelve month period envisioned in the report.
Katulis claimed that the “oil stain” strategy would not alleviate the strains on already overstretched U.S. forces in Iraq. He pointed to the fact that the U.S. military failed to meet its recruitment targets in 2005, even after lowering its standards, and cautioned that continuous pressure on U.S. troops might eventually undermine the U.S. military as a whole. Katulis felt that some of the recommendations in the report relied heavily on military solutions. As an alternative, he proposed reducing the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq and applying other forms of U.S. power there. He strongly supported the redeployment of U.S. forces for three main reasons: first, to rehabilitate the U.S. troops and to focus on broader U.S. national security interests; second, to defeat the arguments of terrorists who believed that the U.S. intends to occupy Iraq permanently; and third, to motivate the Iraqis to take control of their own country.
Katulis concluded that there was no single right option in Iraq. Instead, there were several bad alternatives, and if one looked at the history of U.S. engagement in Iraq over the past two and a half years, the power wielded by the United States has never been, in Katulis’ view, strong enough to influence events in Iraq, and it grows weaker by the day.
In response to Katulis’ criticism, Pollack stated that the “oil stain” strategy would by no means generate more violence. He pointed to the evidence that in those areas of Iraq where U.S. forces implemented an “oil stain” approach, violence had decreased. The mistake, Pollack noted, lay in the sporadic application of the “oil stain.” Pollack emphasized the importance of an adept leadership to the successful implementation of the oil stain strategy. He pointed out that there were leaders in Iraq, like Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, who understood and applied a traditional counterinsurgency approach.
Responding to the argument whether the U.S. presence helped or hurt the Iraqis, Pollack referred to the recent polling data collected by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which was unveiled at the Saban Center on January 31, 2006. The results of the PIPA poll indicated that despite the fact that Iraqis disapproved of the foreign troop presence in their country, most of them did not favor a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops because they felt that an immediate withdrawal of such foreign forces would lead Iraq into civil war and chaos. Pollack argued that Iraqis were concerned about the United States’ inability to assist them and protect them more than they were worried about the U.S. presence in Iraq. He pointed to the evidence that in the areas where the Americans provided security and delivered basic needs, such as water, electricity, and gasoline, public opinion drastically changed in a positive direction.
Pollack disputed Katulis’ contention that the strategy proposed in A Switch in Time relied heavily on military solutions. He clarified that the U.S. military presence in Iraq was necessary to provide security and thus create an environment for political, diplomatic, economic, and other processes to move ahead. Pollack disagreed that the U.S. presence incapacitated the Iraqi government. He argued that the Iraqi government was incapable of performing its basic functions not because of the U.S. presence but because of Saddam Hussein’s misrule of the country that subjected Iraq to wars and twelve years of severe sanctions, all of which crippled Iraqi military and political institutions. The U.S. presence, Pollack concluded, was necessary to help Iraq prevail. However, Pollack cautioned, the United States was running out of time in Iraq and in order to succeed, it was critical that it change its current strategy.