Iraq: Go Deep or Get Out

By Stephen Biddle
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The president's shaky political consensus for the surge in Iraq is in danger of collapsing after the recent defections of prominent Senate Republicans such as Richard Lugar (Ind.), Pete Domenici (N.M.) and George Voinovich (Ohio). But this growing opposition to the surge has not yet translated into support for outright withdrawal -- few lawmakers are comfortable with abandoning Iraq or admitting defeat. The result has been a search for some kind of politically moderate "Plan B" that would split the difference between surge and withdrawal.

The problem is that these politics do not fit the military reality of Iraq. Many would like to reduce the U.S. commitment to something like half of today's troop presence there. But it is much harder to find a mission for the remaining 60,000 to 80,000 soldiers that makes any sense militarily.

Perhaps the most popular centrist option today is drawn from the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations of last December. This would withdraw U.S. combat brigades, shift the American mission to one of training and supporting the Iraqi security forces, and cut total U.S. troop levels in the country by about half. This idea is at the heart of the proposed legislative effort that Domenici threw his support behind last week, and support is growing on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

The politics make sense, but the compromise leaves us with an untenable military mission. Without a major U.S. combat effort to keep the violence down, the American training effort would face challenges even bigger than those our troops are confronting today. An ineffective training effort would leave tens of thousands of American trainers, advisers and supporting troops exposed to that violence in the meantime. The net result is likely to be continued U.S. casualties with little positive effect on Iraq's ongoing civil war.

The American combat presence in Iraq is insufficient to end the violence but does cap its intensity. If we draw down that combat presence, violence will rise accordingly. To be effective, embedded trainers and advisers must live and operate with the Iraqi soldiers they mentor -- they are not lecturers sequestered in some safe classroom. The greater the violence, the riskier their jobs and the heavier their losses.

That violence reduces their ability to succeed as trainers. There are many barriers to an effective Iraqi security force. But the toughest is sectarian factionalism. Iraq is in the midst of a civil war in which all Iraqis are increasingly forced to take sides for their own survival. Iraq's security forces are necessarily drawn from the same populations that are being pulled apart into factions. No military can be hermetically sealed off from its society -- the more severe the sectarian violence, the deeper the divisions in Iraqi society become and the harder it is for Americans to create the kind of disinterested nationalist security force that could stabilize Iraq. Under the best conditions, it is unrealistic to expect a satisfactory Iraqi security force anytime soon, and the more severe the violence, the worse the prospects.

The result is a vicious cycle. The more we shift out of combat missions and into training, the harder we make the trainers' job and the more exposed they become. It is unrealistic to expect that we can pull back to some safe yet productive mission of training but not fighting -- this would be neither safe nor productive.

If the surge is unacceptable, the better option is to cut our losses and withdraw altogether. In fact, the substantive case for either extreme -- surge or outright withdrawal -- is stronger than for any policy between. The surge is a long-shot gamble. But middle-ground options leave us with the worst of both worlds: continuing casualties but even less chance of stability in exchange. Moderation and centrism are normally the right instincts in American politics, and many lawmakers in both parties desperately want to find a workable middle ground on Iraq. But while the politics are right, the military logic is not.

The writer, who was in Iraq in March and April, is senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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