A New Way Forward in Iraq

On-the-Ground Diplomacy Backed by Force Can Work

Brian Katulis on why redeploying troops to support local operations against al-Qaeda will encourage Iraq’s neighbors to help us manage conflicts.

Something positive in the Middle East may yet emerge in the wake of President Bush’s tragic and costly misadventure in Iraq, but that time will come only after Congress and the American people compel the president to abandon his latest gamble with American lives and money. That opportunity comes this week, when Congress begins debate on several plans to stop the escalation in Iraq.

The Bush administration and its conservative allies openly acknowledge that the ongoing escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq is their last roll of the dice even as they continue to duck responsibility for the serial mistakes they’ve made there over the past four years. What they refuse to acknowledge is the fact that their “surge” strategy is not just too little and much too late, but also completely misguided.

Crafting a realistic plan to cope with the complex chaos of multiple conflicts in Iraq requires first and foremost an understanding of that gruesome reality on the ground. The rolling escalation of U.S. soldiers and Marines into neighborhood after neighborhood to defeat a classic guerilla insurgency misfires as a strategy to put an end to what is essentially a brutal civil war between Iraq’s Shi’as and Sunnis. The president’s strategy also ignores growing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the northern part of the country, and fails to address intra-Shiite tensions in the south.

What’s worse, relying on the national Iraqi Army and Police to join in the efforts ignores the undeniable fact that these national units are fractured along the same ethnic, tribal and religious lines as the country itself. President Bush’s strategy aims to turn back the clock to a time three years ago when an extra 20,000 troops just might have made a difference in stopping the outbreak of multiple levels of sectarian violence. Not now.

The reality on the ground is different today. The Center for American Progress recognized 18 months ago that U.S. troops in Iraq were only exacerbating the civil wars unleashed by the invasion of the country without enough troops to win the peace. We called then for the strategic redeployment of U.S. forces in Iraq to fight the larger war against terrorist networks that still needs to be won. Events in Iraq and Afghanistan since then only confirm the wisdom of our strategy.

The United States must prepare for a national government in Iraq that remains split by ethnic and political factionalism and incapable of uniting the country. The U.S. must act on this fact by supporting those local and regional leaders around the country who can help us fight our real enemies in Iraq—foreign terrorist fighters inspired by and in some cases affiliated with al-Qaeda—and who can help contain the multiple ethnic cleansing campaigns now engulfing the country.

And we must bring together the key regional players with the most at stake in each of these ethnic conflicts so that violence involving Sunni and Shi’a, Shi’a and Shi’a, and Arab and Kurd is tamped down by those with the most at stake in preventing wider regional ethnic and religions conflagrations. Only then will we be able to support local Sunni and Shi’a leaders in a joint quest to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Redeploying our troops in support of such a strategy is as necessary and prudent as the Bush administration’s “surge” is misguided and rash. But we also recognize that other plans put forth that include the concept of strategic redeployment or phased redeployment alongside more regional diplomacy have been overtaken by events on the ground. Today, a negotiated national political settlement among Iraq’s warring political factions may be unobtainable. Equally problematic would be the creation of a loose confederation comprised of Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish mini-states; it is probably too late to divide the nation along defined ethnic and religious lines without horrendous humanitarian costs.

That’s why the United States must enlist those countries surrounding Iraq or with a stake in preventing wider ethnic or religious warfare in the region to help us in ways that play to their own national self interest. Instead of a “one-size fits all” Iraq policy, or attempts to partition or segment the country, the U.S. should segment its Iraq policy—tailoring it to the fundamentally different challenges that exist in the different corners of Iraq.

Turkey, Iran, and Syria all have a clear need to ensure that the Kurds of northern Iraq do not become the catalysts for a wider war along the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. So too, do Kuwait, Iran, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia in southern Iraq, and Muslim-majority countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan in central Iraq and Baghdad, all of which have a stake in stemming some of the most vicious Muslim-on-Muslim violence the world has ever seen.

Arab countries or predominantly Muslim countries are not going to help America cope with the chaos the Bush administration created in Iraq through some grand bargain. Yet all of these nations individually have a clear self interest in helping the United States manage the mistakes of the Bush administration that threaten to spill over into their own territories. Those series of diplomatic initiatives—in league with the redeployment of U.S. troops—are a sustainable set of strategies that could, in time, rebuild American influence and power in the region and the world.

None of this can happen, however, until the Bush Administration’s current escalation in Iraq is stopped and then reversed over the next 18 months. Congress holds the power of the purse and boasts sole authority to take our nation to war. This week Congress must exercise those powers to ensure our men and women in uniform and American taxpayers don’t pay dearly for the president’s last gamble in Iraq—a strategy doomed to failure.

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Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who is responsible for examining U.S. national security policy in the Middle East.

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For more on the Center’s policy proposals on Iraq please go to our website’s National Security page or visit our Strategic Redeployment page.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow