How Does This End?

Strategic Failures Overshadow Tactical Gains in Iraq

Report from Korb, Katulis, Duggan, and Juul shows why "staying the course" endangers our overall security and endangers our long-term goals in Iraq.

Read the full report (pdf)

U.S. Army General David Petraeus understood the situation perfectly five years ago. As an indigenous insurgency began to form in the weeks following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-Major Gen. Petraeus asked Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson the fundamental question of the war: “Tell me, how does this end?”

After spending nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, after more than 4,000 lost American lives alongside hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, this remains the central question of this war. Yet the answer to Gen. Petraeus’ question—a unified, independent, and stable Iraq that is an ally in the global war on terrorism—is more elusive today than it was when President Bush’s military escalation began in early 2007.

Since the administration’s escalation began 15 months ago, the president and his conservative allies in Congress have entangled the United States ever more deeply in Iraq’s multiple ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Some short-term security progress has been achieved in certain areas of Iraq. But the measures taken to achieve these results have exacerbated Iraq’s internal divisions and tensions over the long-term.

For example, today the United States independently funds approximately 90,000 predominantly Sunni militiamen across Iraq, many of whom demonstrate little allegiance to Iraq’s central government. In recent weeks, the United States has also provided air and ground military support to one side in an intra-Shi’a civil war that has raged throughout the southern and central parts of Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration continues to provide unconditional and open-ended support to an Iraqi central government bitterly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Consequently, the United States has made achieving lasting national reconciliation more elusive by providing support to different sides in Iraq’s internal conflicts through separate channels. Furthermore, recent events have debunked the simplistic theory that declines in violence would lead to sustainable political progress.

While carrying out the Bush administrations latest escalation over the past 15 months, the United States has continued to divert its attention from the broader battle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, and has ignored overall U.S. national security interests in the greater Middle East. Meanwhile, the United States has lost an additional 1,000 American lives, spent another $200 billion and has continued to erode the capability of our ground forces.

Today, however, Iraq is no closer to becoming a dependable and independent ally in the fight against radical Islamist extremists than it was in January 2007. And the United States is less secure than it was 15 months ago.

This month, General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will present to the Congress and the American people their assessment of political and military progress in Iraq. As they did last September, both men will almost certainly highlight security progress in and around Baghdad, and the passage of Iraqi legislation to achieve benchmarks set by the United States and the Iraqi leadership as a reason to keep substantial numbers of American troops in Iraq indefinitely.

What Petraeus and Crocker are unlikely to acknowledge is that the surge has failed to meet its strategic objective— meaningful national political reconciliation among the diverse Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish political groups within the Iraqi government and Iraqi society.

As General David Petraeus acknowledged earlier this month, “no one” in the U.S. and Iraqi governments “feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation.” Yet the Bush administration and its conservative allies still contend that the passage of legislation to achieve the 18 benchmarks by the Iraqi government and short-term security progress in some parts of the country are evidence of remarkable progress and justify maintaining the current policy indefinitely.

In fact, though, Iraqi politicians have merely papered over fundamental differences on power-sharing agreements that are necessary for long-term reconciliation in order to give the appearance of meeting the bench marks President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki, and the U.S. Congress agreed are necessary to bring about reconciliation. Moreover, overall violence throughout Iraq today is equal to or exceeds the unac ceptable levels of 2004 and 2005. While better than the record levels of violence in 2006 and early 2007, this is hardly evidence that Iraq’s multiple civil wars are over or that “normalcy” is returning to Iraq.

Indeed, the developments over the past year have actually exacerbated rather than lessened tensions between Iraq’s competing sectarian and ethnic factions. Consequently, the Bush administration has sacrificed its stated long-term strategic goal in Iraq—creating an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself—for some short-term and unsustainable security gains and token legislative progress.

Put simply, President Bush’s 2007 military escalation in Iraq has failed strategically despite some short-term tactical gains. Meaningful political reconciliation between Iraqi factions has not occurred (See table on page 12 for breakdown of the fractured and well-armed Iraqi political landscape) and will not as long as the United States gives the Maliki government an open ended commitment to maintain large numbers of American forces in their country.

It is critical that the Congress examine our involvement in Iraq in a strategic context. Senator John Warner (R-VA), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Navy Secretary, asked Gen. Petraeus during testimony in Sep tember, “If we continue what you have laid before the Congress … Does this make America safer?” General Petraeus responded, “Well sir, I don’t know.”

For the Congress and the American people that answer is unacceptable. If Gen. Petraeus is unable to answer the question, Con gress should call other military leaders who are looking at the larger national security picture to testify with Petraeus. These leaders could include: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen; Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George Casey; former Central Command commander Adm. William Fallon; or his interim successor at the Central Command, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The administration’s current policy is built on a failure to understand the long-term problems created by its open-ended American military presence in Iraq. Central to getting Iraq policy right in the future will be a full accounting of the strategic costs with respect to overall U.S. interests in the Middle East, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, military readiness, credibility, and moral standing.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow

 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

Peter Juul

Former Senior Policy Analyst

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