Skip to main content
Op-Ed

In the Wake of a Mess

How do we succeed militarily in Iraq? Given the nature of counterinsurgency, this question is inseparable from succeeding in broader political and economic terms as well.

That said, there are aspects to the challenge that can be expressed and discussed largely from a military perspective. In addition, some basic facts and figures pertaining to security merit emphasis.

The starting point for this discussion must be that, despite a recent wave of greater optimism from the Bush administration and some conservative commentators, the security situation in Iraq is poor.

It is not just difficult; it is not just slow to improve, compared with what our initial hopes or expectations might have been. It is simply not promising, because we see no convincing signs of having turned the corner toward defeat of the insurgency.

Strategic failure in Iraq may not be an option, as many are wont to say; but, alas, it is increasingly a possibility. And the principal reason is our inability, so far, to win the counterinsurgency.

The reasons are not hard to guess. While arresting and killing lots of enemy forces, we have detained or killed many innocent Iraqis—a far smaller number, to be sure, but still probably a significant number. That is just one aspect of a broader reality: We are failing to win many Iraqi hearts and minds.

This fact is unfair, to be sure, given the valiant and professional efforts of the overwhelming majority of American troops in Iraq. But it is a fact.

The latest polling about the American presence in Iraq, conducted just before Fallujah and the Abu Ghraib scandal, revealed that Iraqis were still grateful that Saddam Hussein was gone, were still fearful of what would happen once coalition forces left Iraq—but showed distrust of Americans running at more than 80 percent.

It is very difficult to prevail in counterinsurgency when a population so mistrusts the occupying power, because this probably will provide ample recruits to sustain a resistance movement and will be unlikely to provide the kinds and quantities of intelligence needed to find insurgents and capture or kill them.

In addition, two more discouraging points need to be underscored.

First, crime rates remain very high—probably several times what they were in Iraq under Saddam. Normal Iraqis do not find the streets safe. The Pentagon has been reluctant to acknowledge this state of affairs, but virtually all nonofficial visitors to Iraq emphasize it, and most available statistics reinforce the point.

Second, new Iraqi security institutions are being created extremely slowly. After a year’s effort, only about 10 percent of planned army and police forces have been properly trained. It is hard to understand why this should be the case.

What to do? Many of the standard prescriptions are surely right, including:

  • Having transferred sovereignty to defuse anti-Americanism.

  • Getting the $18 billion from 2003’s supplemental appropriation flowing to Iraq faster to improve the quality of life and raise employment levels.

  • Accelerating training of security forces.

  • Bringing some former Iraqi security forces and even some militias into the new security institutions so that we can reduce the American face on security activities.

There are two final points to add.

First, we need to have Iraqi security forces trained within a year. If this means devoting 10 percent of the police academies and military basic training facilities in NATO and Arab countries to the job, so be it. We must view Iraq as a genuine strategic crisis, not just a problem that can be solved with a little more patience and a few more resources.

Second, in line with the latest U.N. resolution, and as former deputy national security adviser James Steinberg and I proposed in May, the United States should announce that the military mission will end once a new Iraqi constitution is adopted at the end of 2005.

The goal here, as with the transfer of sovereignty, is to empower Iraqis—symbolically and practically—and to counter Iraqi anti-Americanism. We should be willing to stay thereafter; in fact, we should want to stay. But the U.S. presence should be under new auspices, in a new mission, with smaller foreign forces and more Iraqi responsibility. Above all, a sovereign Iraqi should explicitly request the new mission rather than have it continue by default.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings