Friday, January 06, 2006

Vietnam lessons learned too late

Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War
By James Dobbins
From Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

Summary: By losing the trust of the Iraqi people, the
Bush administration has already lost the war. Moderate
Iraqis can still win it, but only if they wean
themselves from Washington and get support from
elsewhere. To help them, the United States should
reduce and ultimately eliminate its military presence,
train Iraqis to beat the insurgency on their own, and
rally Iran and European allies to the cause.
James Dobbins is Director of the International
Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand. He was a
U.S. Special Envoy in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia,
and Afghanistan.


The recent American presidential campaign has had the
perverse effect of postponing any serious national
debate on the future U.S. course in Iraq. Electoral
considerations placed a premium on consistency at the
expense of common sense, with both candidates
insisting that even with perfect hindsight they would
have acted just as they did two years ago: going to
war or voting to authorize doing so. The campaign also
revealed the paucity of good options now before the
United States. Keeping U.S. troops in Iraq will only
provoke fiercer and more widespread resistance, but
withdrawing them too soon could spark a civil war. The
second administration of George W. Bush seems to be
left with the choice between making things worse
slowly or quickly.

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the
ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States
can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations,
misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation,
Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and
consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every
day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose
further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion.

The war can still be won--but only by moderate Iraqis
and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining
the cooperation of neighboring states, securing the
support of the broader international community, and
quickly reducing their dependence on the United
States. Achieving such wide consensus will require
turning the U.S.-led occupation into an Iraqi-led,
regionally backed, and internationally supported
endeavor to attain peace and stability based on the
principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.


In the eyes of the Iraqi people and of all the
neighboring populations, the U.S. mission in Iraq
lacks legitimacy and credibility. Only by dramatically
recasting the American role in the region can such
perceptions begin to be changed. Until then, U.S.
military operations in Iraq will continue to inspire
local resistance, radicalize neighboring populations,
and discourage international cooperation.

Within Iraq, the most pressing issue is when and how
to stage the national elections currently planned for
January. Continued insecurity could prevent anything
approaching a free campaign and a fair ballot. On the
other hand, prolonged postponement of the elections
could precipitate civil war. The United States has
little choice, consequently, but to try to accommodate
the preferences of the moderate Shiite leadership for
early elections. At the same time, the electoral
system must be adjusted to ensure that the minority
Sunni population will be adequately represented in the
new government, even if large elements of that
population are prevented from voting or choose not to
in protest. Making such adjustments could delay the
balloting by a few months, but not doing so would
ensure an unbalanced result and risk pushing Iraq one
step closer to civil war.

Assuming elections do occur, the new government will
emerge with only modestly enhanced legitimacy. Shiites
and Kurds may be adequately represented, but the
Sunnis will not be. If they cannot or do not vote, the
Sunnis will be underrepresented. If the electoral
system is modified to peg the number of
representatives to the number of eligible rather than
actual voters, the Sunnis will be represented by
individuals they regard as unrepresentative. Elections
are always polarizing events, and in a fragile, deeply
conflicted society such as Iraq's, they could deepen
the gulf between Sunnis on the one hand and Shiites
and Kurds on the other.

In the meantime, the insurgency will continue to rage
and probably gather further momentum, at least in
Sunni areas. If Shiite extremists do not gain
influence within the new governing establishment, they
too are likely to continue opposing it violently. U.S.
and international forces will remain widely unpopular,
and they could come under pressure from the new
government to leave or to drastically curb their

Yet if keeping U.S. troops in Iraq provokes further
resistance, withdrawing them prematurely could provoke
much worse: a civil war and a regional crisis of
unpredictable dimensions. A middle course is the best
option. Wielding the promise of withdrawal, for
example, could give Washington valuable leverage,
compelling Iraqis, Iraq's neighbors, and much of the
international community to look beyond their desire to
see the United States chastened and toward their
shared interest in Iraq's long-term stability. Thus
the Bush administration should carefully modulate two
simultaneous messages: a clear desire to leave Iraq
and an equally clear willingness to stay until the
Iraqi government, with the support of its neighbors
and the international community, proves capable of
securing its territory and protecting its citizens.
Washington should establish that its ultimate goal is
the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces as soon as
circumstances permit and that it has no intention of
seeking a permanent military presence in the country.


American forces have lost the support of the Iraqi
population and probably cannot regain it. The
insurgency can be defeated only by Iraqi forces under
Iraqi leadership, and only to the degree that those
forces can dramatically reduce their dependence on the
United States. Military operations should be governed
by a counterinsurgency strategy emphasizing
pacification--that is to say, priority should be given
to securing the civilian population, not hunting down
insurgents. In the end, insurgencies are defeated not
by killing insurgents, but by winning the support of
the population and thus denying the insurgents both
refuge and recruits.

Counterinsurgency campaigns require the close
integration of civil and military efforts, moreover,
with primacy given to political objectives over
military goals. They require detailed tactical
intelligence, which can be developed only by Iraqis
and is best gathered by a police force in daily
contact with the population. Training the Iraqi police
and building a counterterrorist "special branch"
within it should take priority over all other
capacity-building programs, including the creation of
an Iraqi military. Given the United Kingdom's superior
experience in domestic terrorism and
counterinsurgency, Washington should ask London to
take the lead in creating special units within the
Iraqi police.

No population will support a force that cannot protect
it, so enhancing the Iraqi people's security should
take priority over other military and civil
objectives. Doing so will require freeing the
population from intimidation by the insurgents, and
that will require military action. Yet if such action
is U.S.-led, employs heavy ordinance, produces
large-scale collateral damage, and inflicts numerous
innocent casualties, it could be counterproductive. In
the end, the success or failure of an offensive such
as the November assault on Falluja must be measured
not according to body counts or footage of liberated
territory, but according to Iraqi public opinion. If
the Iraqi public emerges less supportive of its
government, and more supportive of the insurgents,
then the battle, perhaps even the war, will have been

Pulverizing cities to root out insurgents may restore
some control to the Iraqi government, but the benefits
are unlikely to last long if the damage also alienates
the population. Sacrificing innocent Iraqi lives to
save American ones is a difficult tradeoff. Using
better-calibrated warfare tactics--manpower instead of
firepower, snipers and special forces instead of tanks
and artillery--could mean saving innocent Iraqi lives
at the cost of more U.S. casualties. Of course, the
U.S. government must concern itself with American as
well as Iraqi public support for the war. But for now,
Washington should be especially mindful of the losses
it inflicts on Iraqi civilians, because today the lack
of support for its efforts among them is a far more
immediate threat than the lack of support at home.

Such caution is all the more warranted because, in one
important respect, the Iraqi insurgency is very
different from the communist and nationalist
insurgencies of the Cold War: it lacks unity of
command and an overarching ideology. The only factor
that unites Muslim fundamentalist mujahideen, secular
Baathist holdouts, and Shiite extremists is their
desire to expel American forces--a goal that a
majority of the Iraqi people seems to share, too. If
that rallying cause can be weakened by diminishing
Washington's involvement, the Iraqi government should
be able to play on divisions among the rebels,
steering some of them away from violence and toward
the political mainstream, while marginalizing or
dividing the rest. Washington should encourage the
Iraqi regime in such efforts, including by offering
amnesty to those prepared to renounce violence and
enter the political process. The United States never
sought to try German, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese
soldiers for shooting at Americans. Washington is
currently backing the Colombian government's plan to
offer amnesty to right-wing paramilitaries and should
encourage a similar effort in Iraq.


In order to stabilize Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the
United States had to work with Serbian President
Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo
Tudjman, the two individuals personally responsible
for the genocide it was trying to stop. In 2001,
Washington worked with Iran, Pakistan, India, and
Russia to install a broadly representative successor
to the Taliban, even though those states had been
tearing Afghanistan apart for a generation.
Strikingly, however, the United States has marched
into Iraq without any underlying strategy designed to
secure the support of neighboring states. In fact,
insofar as it has cast its occupation of Iraq as the
first step toward the democratic transformation of the
entire region, its public diplomacy has actively
diminished incentives for regional collaboration.

What efforts the Bush administration has made to forge
regional and international cooperation have centered
on democratization and counterterrorism. Both
campaigns have considerable merit and potentially
broad appeal; regimes in the region fear terrorism,
and their people desire more democracy. Unfortunately,
both projects have been irredeemably compromised in
the eyes of Arab constituencies because the United
States has chosen occupied Arab lands on which to test
them. Whatever the logic of trying to sow democracy in
Palestine and Iraq first, the United States' attempts
to do so have largely undermined its broader efforts.
Until Washington's democratization campaign can be
purged of its association with pre-emption and
occupation, it will have little resonance in the

So it is, too, with Washington's war on terrorism. The
Iraqi people need no lessons on the topic of
terrorism: they have lost more compatriots to the
scourge over the past year than Americans have in all
the terrorist incidents of their history combined.
Allowing for its population's smaller size, Iraq
suffers every month--sometimes every week--losses
comparable to those the September 11, 2001, attacks
inflicted on the United States. Unfortunately, Iraqis
are as likely to attribute these losses to the
U.S.-sponsored war on terrorism as to the terrorists

Peace, stability, territorial integrity, and respect
for national sovereignty are the themes on which a
compelling regional strategy can be built to motivate
Iraqis to take responsibility for their own destiny,
induce Iraq's neighbors to support the emergence of a
moderate, broadly representative, and regionally
responsible regime in Baghdad--as Afghanistan's
neighbors have done in Kabul--and secure broader
international support for the effort. The United
States should continue counterterrorism cooperation
with regional governments and support for democratic
forces in the region. But if Washington hopes to build
regional support for the regime in Baghdad, these
goals will have to recede from the fore of its public
diplomacy and its rhetoric at home.


The Bush administration should name a special Iraq
envoy, whose task would be to launch several
simultaneous sets of consultations on the issue, as
the United States did for the Balkans in the mid-1990s
and for Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of
September 11. One such set should center on major U.S.
allies, in particular the United Kingdom, France, and
Germany, and be expanded to include other governments
and organizations in a position to help stabilize
Iraq, such as Japan and the EU. Another set of
discussions should involve all of Iraq's neighbors and
other regional states. Expanded roles for the UN,
NATO, the Arab League, and the Organization of the
Islamic Conference, an association of 56 states
promoting Muslim solidarity, should also emerge from
these consultations.

Engaging Iran will present the greatest difficulties
for the United States, given Tehran's nuclear
aspirations, its support for terrorism against Israel,
and several decades of mutual hostility and
noncommunication. But Iraq cannot be stabilized
without Iranian cooperation. Conversely, if Iraq is
not stabilized, there can be no prospect of dimming
Tehran's nuclear ambitions, however much its actual
capabilities might otherwise be delayed by military or
economic action.

Yet quiet U.S.-Iranian cooperation of the sort
Washington and Tehran achieved on Afghanistan after
September 11 could pave the way for a more
constructive dialogue on both Iraq and other issues.
In early 2002, Iranian diplomats and military officers
offered to expand cooperation with the United States
in Afghanistan and to launch a broader dialogue. But
Washington failed to pursue the offer, and in the wake
of an Iranian arms shipment to Palestine, cut off
further talks. Tehran has nevertheless continued to
support the Karzai government in many symbolic and
practical ways. Equally important, it has not
supported or encouraged any challenges to Kabul's

Peace in Iraq and peace in the broader Middle East
should be pursued on their own merits, but they cannot
be entirely divorced. To the Arab people, the United
States' resort to pre-emption, occupation, and
aggressive counterterrorism, with its high collateral
damage and numerous civilian casualties, is barely
distinguishable from Israeli practices. Israel may
have given up on winning over the Palestinian people
long ago, but the United States cannot afford to do
the same in Iraq or elsewhere in the region. One
crucial way the United States can demonstrate its
sincerity toward the Arab world is to reengage in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the United States will
have little success in enlisting the Iraqi population,
neighboring governments, and the international
community to bring peace to Iraq if it cannot
reposition itself as an honest broker in the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process. However dim the
prospects for quick progress in settling the issues of
Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, Washington
must be seen as giving them its highest attention.

As an initial step toward a regional consensus on
Iraq, the United States should ask the UN to convene a
consultative group with the five permanent members of
the Security Council, Iraq, and all its neighbors,
modeled after the Peace Implementation Council on
Bosnia or the group of two great powers (Russia and
the United States) and six neighbors (China, Iran,
Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)
that was gathered to deal with the crisis in
Afghanistan. This core group could be expanded to
include other Arab and Muslim states willing to play a
constructive role and perhaps even contribute forces
to a reconfigured international military presence in
Iraq. The meeting among regional governments and major
donor countries that the Egyptian government convened
in late November at Iraq's request represents a step
in the right direction. But more than one meeting and
one communique will be needed.

In parallel with these regional efforts, Washington
should seek to restore a transatlantic consensus on
Iraq, launching quiet and informal talks with its
principal partners and critics in Europe, including
London, Paris, and Berlin. Whatever can be settled by
these governments could then be sold to NATO, the EU,
and the G-8 group of highly industrialized states plus
Russia; whatever cannot be settled will never find
support in any wider forum.

The transatlantic discussions should first focus on
devising a common approach to Iraq and only later
broach the issue of greater contributions to its
rebuilding. Expanded allied efforts should initially
seek to build Iraq's capacity for self-governance,
encourage efforts within Iraq to bring elements of the
resistance into the political mainstream, and support
the constructive engagement of regional powers. New
military contributions, to the extent that they reduce
the preponderance of U.S. forces and expand the circle
of countries committed to helping Iraq, would be
helpful. But these are unlikely to be forthcoming, and
even if they were, it is unclear whether, at this
stage, the presence of many more European troops would
help stabilize the country. Rather, the major
contribution U.S. allies can now make is to help the
Iraqi government to become more self-sufficient and to
create a regional dynamic in its favor.


Extricating the United States from the costly conflict
in Iraq, ending the insurgency, and leaving behind a
representative Iraqi regime capable of securing its
territory and protecting its population cannot be
achieved without the support of the Iraqi people and
the cooperation of their neighbors. To win that
support, Washington will have to redefine its goals in
Iraq in terms that the populations and governments of
the region can identify with. The U.S.-led campaigns
against terrorism and for democracy are tainted in
local eyes by their association with the doctrine of
pre-emption and their application in occupied Iraq and
occupied Palestine. Whatever their considerable
objective merits and potential long-term appeal to
Arab audiences, the war on terrorism and regional
democratization are not themes around which Iraqis and
their neighbors will unite, as they must if the
current insurgency is to be defeated.

As the new Bush administration reaffirms its support
for the current Iraqi government and for the electoral
process, it should begin to reemphasize the importance
it places on peace, stability, sovereignty, and
territorial integrity. It should commit the United
States to a complete military withdrawal from Iraq as
soon as the Iraqi government can safely be left in
charge. It should conduct a counterinsurgency campaign
focused on enhancing public security and should
support the Iraqi government's efforts to co-opt
elements of the resistance into the political
mainstream. Once again, it should take the lead in
brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. And
it should develop new consultative arrangements to
engage all of Iraq's neighbors, as well as its allies
across the Atlantic, and secure their active
cooperation in stabilizing Iraq, thereby creating the
conditions for an early drawdown and, eventually, for
a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. is copyright 2002--2005 by the
Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.

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