The Magazine

Exit Strategy or Victory Strategy?

From the November 17, 2003 issue: Following through on the president's promise for Iraq.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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But for that to happen, we need to defeat the increasingly dangerous Baathist and international terrorist groups operating in Iraq. There aren't enough American troops there today to conduct the kind of counterterrorist and counterinsurgency strategy that is needed. In an effort to compensate, the administration has pursued one illusory quick fix after another. First there was the illusion--now dispelled--that international troops would come in and substitute for American forces. With U.S. troops scheduled to rotate out of Iraq in March, Pentagon planners counted on the introduction of two new international divisions. This expectation was fanciful, as we pointed out two months ago. It was unlikely that many foreign forces were ever going to participate in the aftermath of a war their governments did not favor.

The second, more current and more dangerous illusion is that Iraqi forces can substitute for American forces during the dangerous and critical months ahead. Under the guise of transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people, a necessary goal in political terms, the Pentagon is looking to reduce significantly the military burden on the United States and shift it onto the Iraqis, and the sooner the better. "It's their country," Rumsfeld says, as if the United States had only fleeting responsibilities in Iraq after invading it. But of course the reason Rumsfeld wants to pass the responsibility to Iraqis has nothing to do with whether they are ready or able to take on that responsibility. It is simply that he wants to bring the level of U.S. forces down.

Two months ago, when signs of deteriorating security in key parts of Iraq became unmistakable, the administration accelerated the enlistment of Iraqis into various security forces. We expressed concern at the time that the too hasty enlistment of Iraqis, some of whom served in Saddam Hussein's murderous security structure, risked alienating average Iraqis and, more significantly, risked putting unreliable people in positions to do great harm. We also questioned whether Iraqi forces could or should take on the task of fighting international terrorists and well-armed Baathist remnants. Two months and a few bombings later, a desperate Pentagon is accelerating the acceleration.

Consider this: In early September, Rumsfeld declared there were 55,000 Iraqis in security forces with another 50,000 planned for 2004. Now suddenly the numbers have doubled. 100,000 Iraqis are allegedly available today, with another 100,000 coming by next summer.

And what do these numbers mean? The Pentagon has been hammering the American provisional government in Baghdad to reduce training requirements for the Iraqi security forces so as to be able to point to rapidly increasing numbers of them, almost regardless (sources in Baghdad tell us) of the actual quality and utility of the training they are getting. It turns out that in order to get this many Iraqis ready for action, training schedules have been absurdly shortened--a 12-week police training program now miraculously takes only 2 weeks. It turns out the Americans don't even have enough weapons and uniforms for all the Iraqis they train. And it will almost certainly turn out to be the case that, as we hurriedly stand up these new Iraqi security forces, more Saddam loyalists will make it into their ranks.

Never mind the message it sends to the Iraqi people to put their old tormenters back on the streets to watch over them. How will we know whether the Iraqi recruits can be trusted not to carry out sabotage? Can American authorities possibly do background checks on so many Iraqis so quickly? Rumsfeld has an admirably frank answer to that question: No, they can't. He seems to believe it's a tolerable risk. It isn't. A few weeks ago, a car bomb was detonated next to an Iraqi police station. The car in which the bomb was rigged was itself a police car. How did a suicide bomber get hold of a police car? Probably, someone recruited by the United States was playing a double game. It takes only a couple of mistakes in background checks to have a disaster, and that assumes you're really conducting background checks. But such incidents will multiply as the hastily assembled and inadequately vetted Iraqi forces take the field.