Posted on a bulletin board at Centcom headquarters here is a 1918 admonition from T.E. Lawrence explaining what he learned in training Arab soldiers: "It is better to let them do it themselves imperfectly than to do it yourself perfectly. It is their country, their way, and our time is short."
That quote sums up an important shift in U.S. military strategy on Iraq that has been emerging over the past year. The commanders who are running the war don't talk about transforming Iraq into an American-style democracy or of imposing U.S. values. They understand that Iraqis dislike American occupation, and for that reason they want fewer American troops in Iraq, not more. Most of all, they don't want the current struggle against Iraqi insurgents, who are nasty but militarily insignificant, to undermine U.S. efforts against the larger threat posed by al Qaeda terrorists, who would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans if they could.
I had a rare opportunity to hear a detailed explanation of U.S. military strategy this weekend when the Centcom chief, Gen. John Abizaid, gathered his top generals here for what he called a "commanders' huddle." They described a military approach that's different, at least in tone, from what the public perceives. For the commanders, Iraq isn't an endless tunnel. They are planning to reduce U.S. troop levels over the next year to a force that will focus on training and advising the Iraqi military. They don't want permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. Indeed, they believe such a high-visibility American presence will only make it harder to stabilize the country.
The commanders' thinking is conveyed by a set of "Principles for a Long War" for combating the main enemy, al Qaeda and affiliated movements. Among the precepts they discussed here: "use the indirect approach" by working with Iraqi and other partner forces; "avoid the dependency syndrome" by making the Iraqis take responsibility for their own security and governance; and "remove the perception of occupation" by reducing the size and visibility of American forces. The goal over the next decade is a smaller, leaner, more flexible U.S. force in the Middle East -- one that can help regional allies rather than trying to fight an open-ended American war that would be a recruiting banner for al Qaeda.
"The longer we carry the brunt of the counterinsurgency fight, the longer we will carry the brunt," says Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who commands U.S. troops in Iraq. "The sooner we can shift [to Iraqi security forces] the better." Casey explains: "A smaller U.S. footprint, that is allowed to decline gradually as Iraqi forces get stronger, actually helps us."
Abizaid and Casey know there is tough fighting ahead in Iraq. Because the insurgency isn't strong enough to attack U.S. forces head-on, it has instead used suicide attacks and roadside bombs with deadly effect -- especially against Iraqis. There were 412 suicide bombings in Iraq from January through August, killing about 8,000 Iraqis, according to U.S. statistics. The number of suicide attacks in August was eight times higher than a year before.
To combat this insurgency, Casey has moved to joint U.S.-Iraqi operations, such as the recent offensive in Tall Afar in northwestern Iraq. As part of this Iraqification approach, Casey has embedded 10-man U.S. adviser teams with every Iraqi brigade. The advisers can mentor Iraqi troops but, perhaps more important, they can call in U.S. air support -- so that the Iraqis aren't fighting just with AK-47s but with F-16s and smart bombs.
President Bush and other administration officials continue to speak about Iraqi democracy in glowing terms, but you don't hear similar language from the military. After watching Iraqi political infighting for more than two years, they're more cautious. "I think we'd be foolish to try to build this into an American democracy," says one general. "It's going to take a very different form and character." The military commanders have concluded that because Iraqis have such strong cultural antibodies to the American presence, the World War II model of occupation isn't relevant. They've sharply lowered expectations for what America can accomplish.
What Abizaid and his commanders seem to fear most is that eroding political support for the war in the United States will undermine their strategy for a gradual transition to Iraqi control. They think that strategy is beginning to pay off, but it will require several more years of hard work to stabilize the country. The generals devoutly want the American people to stay the course -- but the course they describe is more limited, and more realistic, than recent political debate might suggest.