The impasse in Iraq is not due principally to a lack of resources, but rather to the mission and the strategy informing the war.
From the outset, the US goals in Iraq have been overly ambitious and intrusive. This is the heart of the problem there. No amount of troop presence will suffice to stabilize the nation in the way the Bush administration intends.
Success in counter-insurgency efforts does not principally hinge on troop numbers, nor, for that matter, does it hinge on the methods or techniques of counter-insurgency and population control – as the US Army and Marine Corps’ feverish search for an effective counter-insurgency doctrine might imply.
The play of insurgency and counter-insurgency involves a three-sided relationship between government forces, anti-government ones, and the citizenry. A key aspect is the relative “rootedness” and standing of the insurgent and counter-insurgent forces vis a vis the values, culture, and aspirations of the general populace.
In this contest, foreign occupiers suffer a distinct structural disadvantage – by virtue of being both “foreign” and “occupiers”. In this regard, the most disconcerting data from Iraq concerns popular attitudes toward US forces. The percentage of Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, desiring US withdrawal within a year or less has steadily increased as has the percentage who support attacks on US troops.
A foreign occupier’s presence is dependent, ultimately, on coercive power. Overcoming this disadvantage in the contest for “hearts and minds” depends on their being relatively modest in aims and discrete in methods – assuming that the mission permits it. Unfortunately, the American mission does not.
What the Bush administration has sought to do, at the point of a gun, is thoroughly reinvent Iraq – its public institutions, legal system, security structures, economy, and political order. This is a revolution as profound as any, but foreign in origin, design, and implementation. The desired end state is a friendly and pliable Iraq – wide-open to American influence, dependent on American power, and supportive of US interests and aims in the region.
It should not be surprising that our efforts – which have flooded the country with nearly 300,000 foreign handlers – have bred resentment and resistance, both active and passive. Nor should it be surprising that, when the experiment’s democratic trappings actually work, they work against us – bringing to power parties at odds with the American purpose.
The strategy that led us into Iraq and that continues to guide American efforts evinces two fundamental errors. The first is a naive optimism regarding the utility of military force. The second, an underestimation of the power and dynamics of identity politics – nationalism, tribalism, and religious communalism. Together, these errors blinded the war’s architects to the likely effects of American presence and combat operations – beginning with a failure to appreciate the chaos that war would unleash.
Strategically, the United States sought to leverage Iraq’s communal and tribal divisions. The ability to take and hold the country with an economy of troops depended on a condominium with fundamentalist Shia groups. Relative peace in the Shia-controlled areas was the prerequisite for rooting out the Baathists – the initial target. From the start, however, the Shia fundamentalist parties rejected essential elements of the US vision for Iraq, although they needed the cover our military could provide. The Kurdish community, while more amenable to US ends (including Iraqi detente with Israel), also has had its own agenda – independence – not to mention its own scores to settle.
The war’s architects expected that the US mission could balance among Iraq’s communities and create an opening for the eventual triumph of a friendly, secular “middle” – a more or less liberal, unifying force. In the meantime, American military power was to play a suppressant role -- neutralizing or containing the most intransigent actors, especially on the Sunni side.
Unfortunately, the envisioned Iraqi “middle” had no significant constituency other than American power – a circumstance that tarred it as comprador. And, despite America’s military prowess, the ethno-religious forces proved to hold the stronger hand. Indeed, the very exercise of American power served to swell their ranks and status. It is they, not we, who have controlled majority sentiment. Thus, we have never been able to truly command the situation that we unleashed.
The broad brush and blunt effort to neutralize Baath party members and stamp out Baathist influences prompted a communal response from Sunnis. Not only did it feed an anti-American insurgency, they also created support for Sunni-based terrorist groups intent on targeting the Shia community, as such. And, of course, Sunnis generally could see that, despite its declared goals, Operation Iraqi Freedom was bringing to power their ethno-religious rivals, not secular “unifiers”.
The descent into communal conflict was accelerated by the actions of the Iraqi security forces, who are barely reconstituted ethnic militias. These, and clandestine Shia groups, soon began doing to Sunnis what Sunni-based terrorist groups had been doing to the Shia. And US operations aiming to contain radical Shia elements had the same effect as similar efforts in Sunni areas: they recruited citizens to radicalism.
Thus, what began as an American conceived and controlled operation to depose a dictator and his clique became, step by step, a centrifugal communal conflict that the United States could no longer control. Ironically, public opinion polls show that Iraqi Sunni and Shia do strongly agree on one thing: their disdain for Americans and their desire to have us leave.
Many critics have derided the Bush national security team for incompetence in the post-invasion stability and reconstruction efforts, but the more consequential incompetence has to do with thinking that this enterprise was practicable in the first place.
Carl Conetta is the co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, http://www.comw.org/pda/. This piece is adapted from More troops for Iraq? Time to just say "No" by Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #39, 10 January 2007. http://www.comw.org/pda/0701bm39.html