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Lessons for an Exit Strategy

In essence, the Iraq war is a contest over which side's assessment turns out to be correct. The insurgents are betting that by exacting a toll among supporters of the government and collaborators with America, they can frighten an increasing number of civilians into, at a minimum, staying on the sidelines, thereby undermining the government and helping the insurgents by default. The Iraqi government and the United States are counting on a different kind of attrition: that possibly the insurgents' concentration on civilian carnage is due to the relatively small number of insurgents, which obliges them to conserve manpower and to shrink from attacking hard targets; hence, the insurgency can gradually be worn down.

Because of the axiom that guerrillas win if they do not lose, stalemate is unacceptable. American strategy, including a withdrawal process, will stand or fall not on whether it maintains the existing security situation but on whether the capacity to improve it is enhanced. Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.

The quality of intelligence will be crucial. Specifically, these issues require attention: How do we assess the fighting capacity of the insurgents and their strategy? To what level must attacks on civilians be reduced, and over what period, before a province can be described as pacified? What is the real combat effectiveness of Iraqi security forces, and against what kind of dangers? To what extent are the Iraqi forces penetrated by insurgents? How will Iraqi forces react to insurgent blackmail -- for example, if a general's son is kidnapped? What is the role of infiltration from neighboring countries? How can it be defeated?

Experience in Vietnam suggests that the effectiveness of local forces is profoundly affected by the political framework. South Vietnam had about 11 divisions, two in each of the four corps areas and three others constituting a reserve. In practice, only the reserve forces could be used throughout the country. The divisions defending the provinces in which they were stationed and from which they were recruited were often quite effective. They helped defeat the North Vietnamese offensive in 1972. When moved into a different and unfamiliar corps area, however, they proved far less steady. This was one of the reasons for the disasters of 1975.

The Iraqi equivalent may well be the ethnic and religious antagonisms between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. In Vietnam, the effectiveness of forces depended on geographic ties, but the provinces did not perceive themselves in conflict with each other. In Iraq, each of the various ethnic and religious groupings sees itself in an irreconcilable, perhaps mortal, confrontation with the others. Each group has what amounts to its own geographically concentrated militia. In the Kurdish area, for example, internal security is maintained by Kurdish forces, and the presence of the national army is kept to a minimum, if not totally prevented. The same holds true to a substantial extent in the Shiite region.

Is it then possible to speak of a national army at all? Today the Iraqi forces are in their majority composed of Shiites, and the insurrection is mostly in traditional Sunni areas. It thus foreshadows a return to the traditional Sunni-Shiite conflict, only with reversed capabilities. These forces may cooperate in quelling the Sunni insurrection. But will they, even when adequately trained, be willing to quell Shiite militias in the name of the nation? Do they obey the ayatollahs, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, or the national government in Baghdad?

And if these two entities are functionally the same, can the national army make its writ run in non-Shiite areas except as an instrument of repression? And is it then still possible to maintain a democratic state?

The ultimate test of progress will therefore be the extent to which the Iraqi armed forces reflect -- at least to some degree -- the ethnic diversity of the country and are accepted by the population at large as an expression of the nation. Drawing Sunni leaders into the political process is an important part of an anti-insurgent strategy. Failing that, the process of building security forces may become the prelude to a civil war.

Can a genuine nation emerge in Iraq through constitutional means?

The answer to that question will determine whether Iraq becomes a signpost for a reformed Middle East or the pit of an ever-spreading conflict. For these reasons, a withdrawal schedule should be accompanied by some political initiative inviting an international framework for Iraq's future. Some of our allies may prefer to act as bystanders, but reality will not permit this for their own safety. Their cooperation is needed, not so much for the military as for the political task, which will test, above all, the West's statesmanship in shaping a global system relevant to its necessities.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is chairman of Kissinger Associates.

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