Tony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has issued a new report on the outlook for the war in Iraq, Iraq's Troubled Future: The Uncertain Way Ahead (22 page PDF)
The United States faces extremely uncertain prospects in Iraq. It is more than possible that a failed President and a failed administration will preside over a failed war for the second time since Vietnam. Security is only one part of the story and even security in Baghdad is uncertain. ...
As General Petraeus and other US commanders have repeatedly said, securing Baghdad and its surroundings is only meaningful if the Iraqi government and Iraq's factions can work out arrangements for political conciliation or some form of peaceful coexistence. Local security at best buys time and opportunity to find a viable set of political compromises, and Iraq's complex mix of conflicts are national, not local.
Whether one calls the approach "ink spots" or "oil stains," we already have four examples of military action without a viable political solution. We have seen the light at the end of the tunnel in Saigon, Beirut, and Mogadishu; and it turned out to be on oncoming train. A security first strategy is unworkable, particularly one that is local rather than national. The ideological, political, and economic battles do not have to all be won at the same time, but they must be fought simultaneously, and winning the political battle to the point where some form of stable conciliation and coexistence are possible is the strategic center of gravity. The battle for Baghdad is only a tactic.
Like it or not, the US not only has an enduring strategic interest in Iraq and the Gulf, it has a moral and ethnical obligation to some 27 million Iraqis. The US invaded Iraq for all the wrong reasons, and then proceeded to "transform" it in ways that have done immense damage to the Iraqi people. As has been all too clear from the start, anger at Saddam Hussein's regime does not translate into support for a US-led invasion and the US has won little Arab Shi'ite or Arab Sunni admiration for its actions since the war. ...
In fact, if the US is to have any degree of success in Iraq and in any similar struggles in failed or broken states, it must take a hard look at how its efforts in civil-military affairs have interacted with Iraqi civil-military developments:
• The US invaded Iraq without a valid understanding of the Iraqi government, economy, and sectarian and ethnic differences. It did not have plans, staff, or aid money to deal with the situation; and did not have the force strength to provide security.
• When the US rushed to try to correct this situation, it did so with deep ideological prejudices and lacked the core competence to do so. It focused on US goals in political and economic reform. It focused on national elections and paper constitutions, rather than effective governance, and on rushed efforts to define a massive long-term aid program to "reconstruct" Iraq in American terms. It failed to recruit, deploy, and retain competent civilians, and plunged into a badly coordinated interagency nightmare.
• It took the US until early 2004 to realize that creating effective Iraqi security forces was a critical element of stability, until late 2004 for major resources to flow, until 2005 to realize that the army needed massive numbers of embeds and partner units and that the State Department could not staff the necessary kind of police training effort. It could not actually implement its "year of the police" in 2006, and had to rush half-formed Iraqi Army units into combat and local security missions they were often not ready to perform.
• The US military has had to transform its transformation to focus on counterinsurgency, stability operations, and nation building. Its military have been pushed into a wide range of new training and civil military roles. It still is badly short of experts and fully qualified translators (where it may still have less than 25% of its needs). At the same time, the military has been forced to use its personnel to make up for the grave shortfalls in US government civilian experts and the lack of cooperation from some civilian agencies.
• The US has just appointed an "aid coordinator" in Iraq that may have the strength to bring order to a chaotic mess. Its PRT effort is understaffed and underqualified, it still has poor security arrangements for its aid personnel, and only now is beginning to understand the full limits of Iraq’s oil "wealth," the depth of the structural problems in Iraq's economy, and the need to "reconstruct" in ways that take account of the need for money to flow to Iraqis, rather than foreign contractors; focus on Iraq's state industries, and examine the deep structural problems in Iraq's oil and agricultural sectors.
• As General Abizaid, General Casey, and General Petraeus have all pointed out at different times, tactical victories and military efforts are pointless without political success. The US supported a form of deBaathification almost designed to alienate the Sunnis, and removed much of the nation's secular core from power. The US insistence on national elections in a country without political parties, however, has left a legacy of government divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. The US pressure for a new constitution helped make "federalism" a key issue, and leave more than 50 fault lines in Iraq's government to still be clarified. Political conciliation has been far more cosmetic than real, adding Arab Sunni versus Arab Shi'ite, Shi'ite on Shi'ite, and Arab on Kurd tension and violence to the threat posed by hard core Sunni Neo-Salafi led insurgency.
• The "surge" strategy in Baghdad is the third version in 18 months of what is really a tactical effort to bring local security to the capital city. If it succeeds, it will probably be because the Shi'ite militias stand down, and the US effectively helps a Shi'ite dominated government "win." If it fails, it will probably be because US military friction with the Shi'ite militias becomes violent. It is not clear what the US strategy is if the US does win in Baghdad, or how this will deal with the broader Iraqi civil-military struggle involving Arab Sunni versus Arab Shi'ite, Shi'ite on Shi'ite, and Arab on Kurd. Capitalizing an US success almost certainly would require at least five more years of major US civil-military advisory and aid efforts in Iraq and it is far from clear that the US Congress will give either the current or next President the necessary time and resources.
• As was the case in Vietnam, the US has crippled its own efforts with poorly planned and executed programs that attempt to rush success and which lack adequate regard for local values. It has created reporting systems design to report success, not real progress or the lack of it, for its Iraqi force development and political and economic aid efforts. This reporting has slowly improved in some areas under the pressure of events, but much of the US reporting on Iraqi force development and economic aid efforts still lacks meaning and credibility. This includes basic data like Iraqi force manpower, unit readiness, aid efforts relative to requirements, and reporting on aid based on meaningful measures of effectiveness.
If the US is to influence the situation as effectively as possible, it must reinforce its existing policies with a new degree of realism and with the understanding that Iraqi civil conflicts, and anger against the US and its allies, must be dealt with far more honesty and integrity than the US government has shown to date. It also must prepare for years of continued effort, not a quick withdrawal. The civil-military elements of the long war are going to play out in 10-15 year periods, not according to the classic American plan: "simple, quick, and wrong."