Thursday, December 07, 2006


Not What the American or Iraqi People Want

by William M. Arkin

For all the hype, the Iraq Study Group offers two fundamental recommendations that the president might even be able to implement: The group calls for the United States to engage Iraq's neighbors, specifically Iran and Syria. The group recommends a shift in U.S. military force posture and approach from "combat" to training and advice to Iraqi forces.

The Iraq Study Group should be thanked for its service to America in throwing a bucket of cold water on the White House. But post-election, the Commission's many recommendations are merely the opening salvo of a barrage of recommendations that will now emerge from the government, the think tanks, and the politicos.

The wise men have confirmed what the American public has known for some time: Iraq is finished. Our strategy, whatever it is, isn't working. It is mighty disappointing, but not surprising, though that the Study Group couldn't see that there is nothing left that the United States can do to really influence what will happen there. What is more, what it actually is proposing in its two fundamental points isn't necessarily going to make any difference.

I already have written skeptically as to whether Iran and Syria will see it in their interests to assist the Bush administration. I wonder, if the president were to engage them successfully, whether their input would help. Washington's latest sage rule is that we should talk to our adversaries, just as we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Only an extremist -- the president and the vice president, that is -- would argue that we shouldn't at least talk. But I doubt that bringing Iran and Syria into the mix is the panacea that the study group and reasonable Washington now pretends it is.

So, I am left thinking that it is not even a decent bet that asking Iran and Syria to lend their good offices to a healthy Iraq would yield much. It isn't clear that they would play. It isn't clear that they would be helpful if they did. The "process" of diplomacy and the inevitable wait that the United States would have to accept while questionable parties huddled to "negotiate" and arm twist and cut their own deals merely kicks the day of reckoning further down the road.

In the short term, the study group recommends an unclear and contradictory course for the American military. The call for the withdrawal of the U.S. "combat" troops is so qualified and hedged, I'm not sure that the headlines -- that the study group is calling for the removal of all combat brigades by early 2008 -- is even true. On the one hand, the group recommends that the independent conventional forces be removed. On the other, it calls for a significant force to stay, including special operations forces.

What the group is fundamentally proposing though is that the core of the U.S. military effort switches from independent combat to a combined U.S.-Iraqi effort.The number of U.S. personnel in uniform embedded in Iraqi units would increase significantly under this proposal.

Regardless of whether the president surges more forces to Iraq, whether or not he follows through on the study group's suggestion and indeed draws down independent U.S. combat brigades, builds a rapid reaction force, reduces the American footprint, the accelerated training mission is already underway.

Just like the imagined silver bullet of diplomacy with Iran and Syria, the tough question here is whether the training and advisory approach will make a difference. I don't think so for a number of reasons. First, we are assigning U.S. troops to an even more sensitive and intimate mission with Iraqi players when we have already shown time and again that we are culturally challenged when it comes to understanding the Iraqis. Second, we are shifting responsibility for the security and success of U.S. forces to another party, one whose motivations and capabilities are suspect.

This is not some back-handed stay the course argument. I think we should get out altogether.

But let's be realistic about what will likely unfold even if we adapt the group's proposal: First, there is the question again of waiting for the Iraqis to assume the responsibilities we are thrusting upon them. No wonder Baker and others speak of "years" of continued U.S. presence. Second there remains the question of Baghdad's authority and national mandate. It isn't clear that the Shi'a dominated government -- the faction of the Shiite-dominated government -- is interested in a national military for the purpose of bringing the country together.

I understand that this "new" solution is Washington's way of withdrawing without saying it is withdrawing. But there is too much hope associated with the shift: hope that if we just redouble our effort with the Iraqis, they will all of a sudden get it and transform. In here as well is the strange article of faith that less capable Iraqi military units will succeed where more capable U.S. units failed. It seems to me that if we are admitting that there is no military solution to the problem, there is no Iraqi military solution either.

And then there is the question of Americans in uniform being thrust into an impossible position. I know that the embedded American will be there to teach their Iraqi counterparts how to shoot straight, as show an example of camaraderie, and to school them in human rights and the laws of war. But it is only a matter of time before Americans are thrust in the middle of blood letting and abuse.

Here's how I see Iraq playing out in the short term: The president makes an announcement within a month about his "new" plan. Washington is ever so pleased with a new approach. But the a la carte plan is seen by the Iraqis for what it is; it is not a U.S. timetable for withdrawal. It is not an unequivocal pledge not to establish permanent bases. It is sovereignty and authority in name only for Iraq with continued American control behind the scenes. I can't see who any of this equivocation will deflate the insurgency or stem the hatred for America that is fueled by our presence.

The "plan," in other words, is neither what the American people nor the Iraqi people want.

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