The Magazine

The New Old Thing

The return of the Iraq Study Group.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The Iraq Study Group is back. Even before the current strategy has had a chance to succeed or fail, some administration officials and platoons of congressmen are once again touting its report from last December as if it were a magic talisman that could save them from making tough decisions and fighting a tough war. It can't.

The ISG report remains seductive in its promise that we can avoid the burden of actually fighting to win in Iraq. Somehow, the report suggests (or is taken to suggest) we can manage to extricate ourselves more-or-less successfully from Iraq by reducing the American military presence and negotiating with Syria and Iran. Granted, the report is a little shopworn, as the situation in Iraq has changed substantially since its completion nearly six months ago. But the magnetism of a "bipartisan" report that offers a middle way between surge and abject defeat remains powerful, and even President Bush has begun singing (albeit in what seems a forced falsetto) its praises.

Of course, there were sensible suggestions in the report. And, in fact, of its 79 recommendations (which the authors, you will recall, insisted must be implemented all together and all at once), the administration has already adopted a sizable number. Several others are sound and should be implemented. A number have been overtaken by events. Many were unwise to begin with. And a handful made sense but were premature. A complete analysis of all 79 recommendations is available at But when people talk about "implementing" the ISG report today, they mean two basic things: reducing the presence of U.S. troops and refocusing on training the Iraqi Security Forces rather than using American soldiers to establish security, and engaging Iran and Syria diplomatically.

The idea of returning to a focus on training rather than on establishing security is superficially appealing because it promises to reduce the exposure of American soldiers as well as their numbers. When the ISG Report first appeared, I pointed out a number of fundamental flaws in this approach. The Iraqi army and police would still be too small to handle the challenge they face, even if they were perfectly trained. During the time we would need to train and increase those forces to the necessary size and skill, rising sectarian violence would have destroyed them. And security forces inevitably drawn from all the sects and ethnicities of the country face an inherently challenging task in reducing ethnosectarian violence.

Nor is it at all clear that shifting back to this train-and-transition model, which was the centerpiece of the failed Abizaid-Casey strategy from late 2003 until January 2007, would reduce the exposure of those U.S. forces that remained. Pushing U.S. advisory teams into more Iraqi units while withdrawing the major U.S. combat forces to a few bases, or out of the country entirely, would put those teams at much greater risk than most American soldiers now face, both because the Iraqi units with which they embed are less skillful than U.S. units and because some of them are heavily infiltrated with sectarian actors. All of this was apparent in December 2006, which is why the president did not adopt this key ISG recommendation.

Since then, the situation has changed significantly. Sectarian violence has dropped considerably as a result of the changed strategy, but the importance of sectarian leaders in the Iraqi government and some units remains. Advisory teams are handicapped in rooting out such leaders because they must rely on the units they are embedded with for their understanding of the neighborhoods in which they operate.

Partnered units conducting their own counterinsurgency operations develop their own intelligence base, which allows them to know when Iraqi units are killing or capturing the wrong people. And partnered units have the power to stop bad actors within the Iraqi Security Forces from doing bad things, as advisory teams do not. Since dealing with bad sectarian actors, rather than providing basic training, has become the key challenge in handling the Iraqi army, a return to the Abizaid-Casey focus on train-and-transition now or probably any time in the next year or so would be a major mistake.