By Anthony H. Cordesman
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; A19
The United States and the government of Iraq should have a common goal: To restore Iraq to full sovereignty and withdraw American forces as soon as the insurgency is defeated or contained and Iraqi forces are able to take over the security mission -- and as soon as the United States is reasonably confident that Iraq has reached some degree of political stability.
But there is a price that U.S. forces will have to pay to have any chance of serious success. It is this: If an amnesty that brings insurgents into the Iraqi political process is possible, the United States cannot indulge in political posturing over whether some of the insurgents who join the government are people who attacked and wounded or killed Americans.
Violent terrorists and extremists will be excluded from such Iraqi proposals in any case. But there are a significant number of Sunnis and other insurgents who saw the United States as an invader, an "occupier" and a "crusader," and who saw their struggle as a war.
This will mean amnesty for some who struck American as well as Iraqi targets. There are as many as 20 such Sunni movements, and ultimately some Shiite elements may be involved. If Iraq is to have peace and reach a stable series of political compromises, these insurgents need to be brought into the political process. They need to be treated as combatants and not as criminals or terrorists.
This not only is the best way to minimize future U.S. casualties, it is also the best way to give meaning to the sacrifices of American soldiers. The goal and purpose of their service is a free Iraq, not punishing the enemy.
Another price to be paid: It must be shown, by the Iraqi government, that it will separately investigate any charge against U.S. personnel in Iraq. The new government cannot claim to be free or sovereign while ignoring American abuses to date. We have made real mistakes, and a handful of soldiers have committed real crimes. The Iraqi people must see that their government will not ignore this or defer to us because of its dependence upon us.
At the same time, we need to understand that honest investigations of this kind will save American lives. Iraq is filled with false charges and conspiracy theories. Exaggerating or falsifying U.S. incidents and crimes is a key propaganda weapon for our enemies. Iraqi investigations that refute such charges, explain the necessities of battle, and show that U.S. and Iraqi forces are cooperating will defuse such charges and the anger and vengeance that follow. It will also give credibility to our efforts to end the involvement of the Iraqi police and security forces in abuses, death squads and other actions that move the country toward civil war and that aid the insurgency.
The third price is a steady increase in Iraqi decision-making and command authority, and Iraqi control over the actions of U.S. forces. The rate at which this occurs should be left to the U.S. ambassador in Iraq and the U.S. military. If it comes too fast, it will endanger victory. If it comes too slowly, it will endanger Iraqi political unity and credibility.
Part of this transition will have to be some better mechanism for jointly reviewing operations and any further charges against American forces. Iraq is far too volatile to allow Iraqi authorities to arrest and try American personnel. They would inevitably become human sacrifices to those Iraqi political interests that want to rush American forces out or serve their own factional interests. Joint review boards or fact-finding groups, however, are very feasible. So is the idea of a special Iraqi tribunal or prosecutor that would raise charges for consideration by U.S. courts-martial. This would give the Iraqi government the ability to exert the proper kind of pressure to prosecute and ensure that complaints and charges get full and immediate U.S. attention.
The final price is making it clear that the United States will not seek military bases in Iraq and will help Iraq move toward possession of a counterinsurgency force capable of defending the country against foreign threats. Far too many Iraqis see our present bases as the prelude to permanent occupation, and many in the Iraqi military question whether we really will give Iraq the ability to defend itself. If the United States makes it clear that it has no intention to stay any longer than Iraq wants and needs U.S. forces, this will be a further major demonstration of our integrity and credibility, and it will undermine the insurgency while potentially bringing some factions back into the peaceful political process.
Every one of these steps will ultimately save American lives and reduce American casualties. Every one will increase the probability that past American sacrifices will have real meaning. Each will show we are serious about creating a free and independent Iraq, and will help to restore the honor tarnished by a handful of soldiers who endangered and dishonored their comrades.
The writer holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is the author of "The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons."