A Dishonest Debate on The Iraq War

By Jonathan Finer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Perhaps the truest statement uttered about Iraq in a long time came this month from Connecticut's Democratic nominee for Senate, Ned Lamont. The political novice beat Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in this summer's most closely watched primary by sticking to a simple message, relentlessly repeated: Withdraw the troops now. But when asked after a foreign policy address at Yale Law School how he envisaged events unfolding in Iraq once the soldiers are sent home, Lamont stumbled through a vague, but candidly off-message, response. "I think we now have a lot of lousy choices," he concluded.

Lamont is right that perilous decisions lie ahead, with potentially dire consequences no matter who wins the argument. But you'd hardly know that from the midterm election campaign, even though it is shaping up as a referendum on the future of the war. The oversimplified debate on Iraq -- "stay the course" or "send more troops" vs. "pull out" or at least "set a deadline" -- is the policy equivalent of Scylla or Charybdis. Either alternative, particularly if exercised with the lack of forethought and attention to detail that attended the buildup to the war, could bring disastrous consequences.

For politicians in campaign mode, self-assurance almost always trumps intellectual honesty, so there are few, if any, acknowledged tough calls. But candidates who make an issue of the war could start by addressing problems that have no easy solutions. Those, such as Lamont, who want U.S. troops withdrawn, should explain how they will prevent the resulting vacuum from being filled by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- two groups hellbent on exterminating each other's communities -- as has happened in virtually every region vacated by coalition forces so far.

The Shiite south -- including Karbala, Najaf and Maysan provinces, which coalition forces made the first test cases for withdrawal -- is now a virtual Militiastan, ruled by armed gangs and warlords playing the part of politicians. In Hilla, the Iraqi commander of an effective (and even rarer, non-sectarian) police unit that works closely with U.S. Special Forces told me this summer that local officials, including his governor, regularly call him to their offices to pressure him to incorporate more militia members into his ranks, even threatening him with dismissal. He has survived at least a half-dozen assassination attempts.

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, where British forces have dramatically scaled back their patrols (as some withdrawal proponents would like to see U.S. troops do in other cities), the murder rate tripled this year and at least four Shiite militias are waging a bloody turf war. When British troops withdrew from the city of Amarah, militia loyalists ransacked their base and celebrated what they called a victory over "the occupier."

Iraq's Sunni cities, where U.S. forces have conducted their largest operations since the fall of Saddam Hussein, remain dominated by eclectic bands of insurgents who fled or hid among their neighbors during dozens of American assaults and reemerged as U.S. troop levels were drawn down.

Nowhere has this pattern been more evident than Tall Afar, a northern city that President Bush hailed as one of Iraq's success stories. U.S. forces have launched two full-scale invasions there, including one last September that was the largest since the siege of Fallujah. Last week, a suicide bomber killed at least 20 people waiting at one of Tall Afar's crowded gas stations, the latest in a string of attacks there in recent months.

Those who want to maintain the U.S. presence in Iraq -- or even increase it -- have their own explaining to do. They should start with how redistributing or adding troops, whether a few battalions or an entire division, would change what has been an undeniable failure of U.S. forces to control even the terrain in which they are concentrated, such as Baghdad. Periodic "security plans" for the Iraqi capital -- which usually involve shifting thousands of troops from the hinterlands -- have never suppressed violence in a lasting way.

They could also describe how they avoid further solidifying the Iraqi army's dependence on the U.S. Army. In the predominately Sunni town of Hawijah, an insurgent hotbed, a young Army lieutenant named Aaron Tapalman told me this year that he didn't think his battalion was doing much good. "Sometimes I think we just give them something to shoot at," he said.

That comment came at the end of a day in which Tapalman had exhausted every motivational arrow in the infantry officer's quiver -- reasoned argument, appeals to conscience and duty, even intimidation -- to cajole Iraqi soldiers he was training into doing their jobs. First they refused to patrol the town in hardened Humvees because a local sheik had told them they wouldn't go to heaven if they died in an American vehicle. Later, they responded with resounding inaction when ordered to investigate a plastic bag by the highway that could have been a bomb. "Someday we're not going to be here anymore," Tapalman implored them, his face contorted with disgust.

We'll have a better sense of when that warning might come to pass in six weeks. Those elected in November will be forced to choose what they consider the least bad option on Iraq from range of policies sure to cause pain. If you've spent any time in Iraq, you're inevitably asked what should be done. After traveling back and forth there since 2003, the most indelible impression I am left with -- aside from the sheer scale of the destruction and suffering -- is that there will be no easy end to this war. Voters are not being prepared for that reality.

A more robust, and honest, dialogue would be a good place to start. If there's one thing we've learned from nearly four years in Iraq it's that glossing over hard questions is the surest path to failure.

In Lamont's recent address, his most extensive comments on foreign policy to date in a race that hinges on the issue of the war, he said little about the consequences of his call for withdrawal, opting instead for bite-size platitudes about emboldening Iraqis to stand up for themselves and expanding the coalition by appealing to allies for help. Lieberman, who is running as an independent, was even less forthcoming during his own national security address in Hartford three days later. In that speech, the senator, who has called for more U.S. military trainers to be deployed with Iraqi troops and has boiled down the race to "Lamont's plan for giving up on Iraq versus my plan for getting the job done there," did not even mention Iraq.

The writer was a Post correspondent in Baghdad from May 2005 to July 2006. He is on leave from The Post.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company