The Magazine

Back to Your Studies

The unbearable shallowness of the Iraq Study Group.

Dec 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 14 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In a country like post-Saddam Iraq, where sectarian nerves are raw, only forceful American leadership can ensure the necessary combat ethics and discipline to keep military units from imploding into militias. If the United States is going to embed enough soldiers to ensure Iraqi military integrity, then we are talking about continuing U.S. military control of the Iraqi army. And we ought to admit that the Iraqi police forces, roughly 200,000 men, are unreliable and cannot be used in counter insurgency efforts, perhaps even in basic crime prevention. We may, after a few years, make the Iraqi army more effective. At present, its official troop strength of 135,000 bears no relationship to the number capable of counterinsurgency operations. But Iraq is likely to descend much further into hell while we wait for this improvement. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army will fracture as internecine strife rips up the nation. Sunni versus Shiite, Sunni versus Sunni, Shiite versus Shiite, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs versus Kurds--all are probable unless the United States soon reverses the dynamic in Mesopotamia.

The ISG tells us that things are "dire" and that urgent changes are called for. They are obviously right, which is exactly why the United States must take the lead. Only the U.S. military is capable of moving quickly and decisively in clearing and holding Baghdad and other centers of the Sunni insurgency. Iraqis will have critical supporting roles in both these functions (as they have had in every single successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq). But they will be supporting us. We will not be supporting them.

Let us be clear: The Sunni insurgency and holy war against the Shiite community cannot be broken unless the cities of Baghdad and Ramadi are pacified. Unless these two towns are cleared and held, there is no way any Shiite government in Baghdad can begin the process of slowly neutralizing the murderous Shiite militias that now operate often with government complicity. The militias have gained increasing support from the Shiite community because they are the only effective means of neighborhood protection and offensive operations against Sunni insurgents and holy warriors. Only the militias slake the very human desire for revenge.

The Iraqi army, despite the strenuous efforts of Generals Abizaid and Casey, simply isn't effective, either on defense or on offense. And the Americans, who started withdrawing from Baghdad's streets in the fall of 2003 (perhaps the most catastrophic decision ever made by General Abizaid), have retreated further into large, well-fortified bases. Revenge killings of innocent Sunnis are an ugly and unavoidable outgrowth of this process. They cannot be stopped unless the United States and the Iraqi government first significantly diminish the Sunni Arab menace--that is, clear and hold Baghdad and Ramadi.

According to the ISG, the bulk of American manpower in Iraq could be out of the country by 2008. How in the world does this happen? The Iraqi army is going to take down Baghdad and Ramadi without us in the lead, while we are withdrawing? The ISG didn't cite one--not one--military operation in Iraq since 2003 that would lend credence to the idea that Iraqi military forces any time soon can handle small clear-and-hold operations, let alone massive efforts to neutralize major cities. The ISG does cite the critical need for the United States and the Iraqis to have better intelligence in Iraq. But how does good tactical counter insurgency or anti-sectarian intelligence develop? Physical control of the terrain that comes through troop saturation. The more physical security Americans and Iraqis bring to a given area, the better our intelligence is.

The ISG's troop-withdrawal scenario would probably destroy meaningful intelligence collection throughout the Sunni triangle. The ISG wants to erect political "milestones" for the Iraqi government that would be impossible to meet but would trigger U.S. troop reductions regardless of the security situation. Contrary to its intent, the ISG would guarantee that radical Sunni Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, would expand their bases of operations in an intelligence void. The notion that the United States can maintain small units of special-operations forces inside Iraq, or "over the horizon," to neutralize al Qaeda and other Sunni holy-warrior organizations is impractical since we are very unlikely to have the intelligence to make special operations feasible. We won't know where their personnel are with any precision. We won't be able to distinguish between radical Islamists who just loathe us and radical Islamists using Iraq as a refuge and training base for attacks against Americans in the Middle East and elsewhere.