The Magazine

Be Careful What You Wish For

From the September 15, 2003 issue: Depending on foreign troops in Iraq is asking for trouble.

Sep 15, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 01 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The next few months will tell us whether the Sunnis have decisively separated themselves from the Shiites and Kurds. If they have, we will have no choice but to begin serious counterinsurgency operations throughout the troublesome Arab Sunni zones. Counterinsurgency actions always require lots of low-tech manpower. The American military should have swept through the "Sunni triangle" immediately after the fall of Baghdad, when the ex-Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists were more disorganized than they are now. Hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-Baathists and virulently anti-American Sunni fundamentalists should have been put in detention camps. (Iraq's Kurds and Shiites, about 80 percent of the country's population, would have cheered.) The military brass in Iraq, like many of the State Department civilians first sent to retired Lt. General Jay M. Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, favored retaining the services of senior Baathists and so failed to move decisively against the remnants of Saddam's regime, believing they were no longer a serious threat. Diehard Baathist military and internal-security officers were allowed to live unharassed. The Pentagon and the State Department must now compensate for past mistakes.

Rumsfeld and the White House hope to do so, it seems, by introducing more foreign troops. Rumsfeld, a forceful advocate of doing a lot with a small, up-to-date army, probably realizes that counterinsurgency operations may threaten the transformation of his forces. It's difficult to emphasize high-tech, high-impact, and mobility--all worthwhile goals for America's military--when the battlefield at hand demands old-fashioned, labor-intensive, very personal combat. More foreign troops deployed to low-danger police operations in theory would free up American soldiers for conflict in the Sunni triangle. It also might, in theory, allow more U.S. soldiers to go on R&R. Also, Rumsfeld, who has probably juxtaposed the word "democracy" with "Iraq" less often than any other senior U.S. official, may well see the future of his transformed U.S. military as strategically more important than the future composition of the Iraqi government.

The military brass, like Colin Powell, didn't want to fight this war. They are probably thinking more about an exit strategy for U.S. troops than they are about internal Iraqi politics. Getting more foreign troops in--handing security for Najaf, the seat of the Iraqi Shiite clergy, to the Spaniards--may cause them little anxiety. Ditto for Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Moroccan troops. For the Pentagon and the White House (unlike the State Department and the Democratic party elite), the use of foreign troops in Iraq is just a pragmatic question. Calling up more National Guard units seems to be out of the question; calling up foreigners isn't.

It's just this type of pragmatism, however, that could irretrievably damage the Bush administration in Iraq and reverse the enormous progress it has made against terrorism. It has been possible--up until now--to find many Pentagon officials who realized, for example, that deploying French or Russian troops to Iraq would probably be highly counterproductive given the pro-Saddam reputation both have among the Shiites. Neither Frenchmen nor Russians are viewed in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East as harbingers of democracy.

Neither is the United Nations at all liked in Iraq. Indeed, many Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, and Kurds, for a variety of reasons, hate the institution with intensity. Once upon a time, the "right wing" of the Bush administration appeared to be sufficiently attuned to internal Iraqi dynamics to know that having the United Nations on its side was not necessarily beneficial. Many Pentagon and White House officials used to be keenly aware of the need to repair the image of American power in the Muslim Middle East. The war in Iraq was for them never just about finding weapons of mass destruction. Confronting the central tenet of bin Ladenism--that America is weak and cannot hold its ground against true-believers willing to die for the cause--helped animate the administration's fighting spirit after victory in Afghanistan. There is good reason to believe that here, too, the "right wing" of the administration is going wobbly. Negotiating with the French, Germans, and Russians at the United Nations immediately after the bombings in Baghdad and Najaf, as the administration did, clearly sends a signal to all but the blind and deaf that the United States can't take the heat. In the Middle East for the first time since Saddam's fall in April, you can hear the intelligentsia loudly (and hopefully) speculate about the United States' abandoning Iraq.