Five Steps To a More Stable Iraq

Lawrence J. Korb
Lawrence J. Korb

How can we prevent Iraq from deteriorating into civil war or worse? Our best chance is to come to grips with the mistakes we've made along the way and then change course.

The recent eruption of violence by Sunni Muslim insurgents north and west of Baghdad and by Shi'as to the south is a direct result of the failed policies of the Bush administration for the reconstruction and stabilization of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

President Bush and his advisers relied on the advice of Iraqi exiles – like Ahmed Chalabi, who had not been in Baghdad since the Dodgers were in Brooklyn – that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators. They belittled the counsel of military professionals like Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff from 1999 to 2003, and Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, head of the Central Command until 1999. These military professionals – who had been in Vietnam, Bosnia and Somalia – warned that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to provide security in post-Saddam Iraq and that the United States would be seen more as occupiers than liberators.

Instead, we sent in only 130,000 troops, failed to give them instructions about how to deal with the chaos that erupted after the fall of Baghdad, and planned to reduce the number of troops to 30,000 by the fall of 2003.

The administration compounded the problem by appointing Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, who had no background in the Arab or Muslim world, to head the U.S. reconstruction effort. (He was ambassador to the Hague.) Bremer made a bad situation worse by disbanding the Iraqi army and police force. Then he made himself a lame duck by agreeing to the president's demand that sovereignty be turned over to the Iraqis by June 30, a date dictated more by the American political calendar than events on the ground in Iraq. And he incited part of the present violence by closing down radical young Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's newspaper.

Still, even those who opposed the invasion of Iraq as an unnecessary diversion from the war against al Qaeda agree that we cannot simply cut and run. That would have severe long-term consequences for U.S. security.

So how can we increase the chances of creating a stable, prosperous Iraq at a cost acceptable to the American people? There are five steps we must take.

1. The administration needs to admit to the American people that it was mistaken about the primary reasons for the war , concede that we are not winning and acknowledge that creating a stable Iraq will be a long, difficult and costly endeavor.

The president should make clear that it will take at least five years and probably a decade of substantial American involvement to prevail against the insurgents. History has shown that most insurgencies are successful not because they have a majority on their side but because they wear down the established government or the occupying power. Neither Mao in China nor the Bolsheviks in Russia started with a majority. Even the successful British military campaign against the Communist guerrillas in Malaysia took 12 years.

Fighting insurgents will continue to result in American casualties and cost billions. Since the fall of Baghdad, nearly two Americans per day have died, nearly 100 have been wounded daily, and 18,000 have been evacuated for medical reasons. The United States has spent about $1 billion a week for the past 60 weeks.

History demonstrates that Americans are willing to pay the price for military operations if their political leaders level with them. For example, it was not public opinion that forced us to withdraw from Somalia in 1993 or Lebanon in 1983. In fact, public support increased for the mission in Somalia after 18 Army Rangers were killed in Mogadishu. Support increased for intervention in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 troops. But when Presidents Clinton and Reagan made it clear that they had doubts about those missions, public support vanished.

2. The United States needs to increase the number of troops in Iraq to at least 150,000. By the end of April, the number of boots on the ground is slated to drop from 135,000 to 105,000. To keep troop strength up, the administration cannot allow the 1st Armored Division to leave Iraq this month as scheduled, and it must move up the deployment of the 3rd Infantry Division from its planned November date.

But these are only short-term fixes. To ease the strain on our ground forces, the strength of the Army must be increased by at least 40,000 soldiers as well as peacekeeping forces such as military police and civil affairs units, which are predominately in the Guard and Reserves must be transferred to the active component.

3. We have to postpone the June 30, 2004, date for transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis. The administration still does not have a plan for what will happen on that date, and it would be catastrophic to turn over sovereignty without the security situation under control.

Postponing the date may cause some Iraqis to question whether the United States really does intend to make Iraq part of an American empire in the Middle East and could lead to more violence in the short term. However, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has noted, the risks of turning over power on June 30 without the right formula in place outweigh the risks of not doing so.

Moreover, it will give Bremer and U.N. envoy Lakdar Brahimi more leverage with the Iraqi Governing Council and religious leaders; the withdrawal of the June 30 date will give the IGC and religious leaders incentive to strengthen their appeal to the majority of the population not to continue to support the insurgents. The sooner the violence stops, they can argue, the sooner Iraq can get its sovereignty.

Bremer also needs to be replaced as soon as possible with one of the career "Arabists" from the State Department. When sovereignty is returned to the Iraqis, he or she can become our first ambassador.

4. Working with the governing council and leaders like the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the United States must disband militias loyal to various Iraqi leaders – such as Sadr – and slow down the rush to create a large Iraqi security force on an unrealistic timetable.

The leaders of these militias must be given an ultimatum to disband these groups within a short time on their own, or have it done for them. Instead of disbanding the Iraqi army, the United States should have eliminated these militias. Even before this recent outbreak of violence, the continuation of these militias was a recipe for civil war.

In addition, the United States must ensure that the new Iraqi security forces are properly trained and vetted. In its rush to create a new Iraqi security structure of over 200,000 by mid-March, the United States has sent inadequately trained men into the streets. In Fallujah and Baghdad, these poorly trained individuals simply cut and ran and even handed over their equipment to the insurgents. Moreover, the insurgents were able to infiltrate the security forces, and four members of the Iraqi police actually killed Americans on March 8, 2004. No more than 5,000 of these security forces are fully trained and equipped.

5. We need to try to internationalize this occupation as soon as possible. Given the way in which we trashed the United Nations and the major powers in NATO in the run up to the invasion, and given the deteriorating situation on the ground, this will not happen anytime soon. But if we admit to them that we were wrong about the weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's ties to al Qaeda, and if we are willing to cede political and financial control to the United Nations, this can be a long-term solution.

This assumes that the United Nation will get its own house in order by punishing those who profited from and acquiesced in the kickback scandal related to the Oil for Food program and who failed to provide proper oversight of security management at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad last August.

Even taken together, these steps may not work. But if they are not taken, we will surely fail, and the consequences of that failure will be far worse than Somalia, Lebanon or even Vietnam. As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) noted this week, "We are dangerously close to losing control on the ground."

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

This story originally appeared in the Star-Ledger on April 11, 2004.