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Don't Repeat the Mistake of April 2003

9:17 AM, Mar 27, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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These two editorials are worth a read.

The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, a centrist Democrat, argues in today's Washington Post that the best way to prevent a large-scale civil war is to not repeat what happened in Baghdad in April 2003. Back then, unchecked small-scale looting eventually spiraled out of control.

Administration officials have been right in recent weeks to argue that there is no large-scale civil war underway in Iraq....

But if the political process continues to falter and the risk of civil war looms larger, we will also need a military plan for quelling it. Much of the American debate has been asking how to handle an all-out conflict in which Iraq has already fractured and violence is rampant. But the more important question is how to quell violence in the early stages, before such a scenario develops fully....

On this point, initial indications are that American thinking is on the wrong track. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated that U.S. forces would not become heavily involved in any civil strife, leaving it instead to Iraqis to sort out the problem. This approach, which mirrors the relatively passive approach U.S. troops took to the reprisal violence after the Feb. 22 bombing, has an understandable appeal. But it is akin to our decision to stand aside and allow wanton looting after Saddam Hussein fell in April 2003, and it could have comparably disastrous consequences....

Civil wars with a heavy ethnic dimension do not typically begin as full-blown conflicts but rather develop an internal dynamic in which hate, rage and fear increasingly influence the actions of a growing number of people.

In such a situation, stemming violence early is critical. Checkpoints need to be manned, curfews enforced, vigilantes arrested or shot, mosques and schools and hospitals protected.

Yes, Iraqi forces can do many of these things and should. And, yes, many of them will. But Iraqi security forces are at present politically untested. Most units are dominated by one group or another. If the country begins to descend toward civil war, the temptation of many will be to take sides in the sectarian strife rather than stop it.

The foreign coalition can do a great deal to discourage this. By deploying with Iraqi police and army troops on the streets, it can provide enough manpower to do the labor-intensive work required to restore order as anarchy begins to spread.... It can act as a glue, helping to hold them together by working with them and providing an example worthy of emulation.

In his statements about letting Iraqis handle their own civil strife, perhaps Rumsfeld was trying to drive home to Iraqis the message that they should not count on the distant American superpower to bail them out if civil war begins. This message is grounded in a sound logic; Iraqis do need to step up to the plate and solve more of their own problems. But as a full indication of what our military plans would be for any incipient civil war, it is not the right strategy. Now is the time to reassess.

And in the current Weekly Standard, Frederick Kagan and William Kristol make a similar point.

WITHIN HOURS OF THE BOMBING of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra on February 22, the media were filled with warnings that Iraq is sinking into civil war. Of course, almost any insurgency is, in a sense, a civil war, and sectarian violence has marked this insurgency from the very beginning. But the fact is that we are not facing a civil war in Iraq, with large-scale military formations fighting one another along ethnic and sectarian lines. Moreover, we can very likely prevent this outcome, and, even better, make real progress toward victory....

U.S. forces have trained the Iraqis in how to set up checkpoints and search houses. And they have spent many hours teaching them that their loyalty is to the government and not their sect; that they must treat prisoners with respect; that they must behave professionally at all times. The continuing presence of U.S. soldiers is critical to the Iraqis' performance. The Iraqi army is holding together as well as it is because it is backed up and supported, materially and psychologically, by the U.S. Army--and by a sense that the U.S. Army will be there for quite a while to come. It is this simple: No stable and energetic U.S. Army presence--no successful Iraqi army. And without an Iraqi army, expect civil war.

Iraq is at a critical turning point, and U.S. forces are essential to helping the Iraqis get past it. Reducing the U.S. presence in the near future makes no sense, and constantly talking about reducing our forces is counterproductive and enervating. If U.S. force levels are (at least) kept steady while reliable Iraqi forces continue to increase--and the U.S. Army and Marines continue to join with the Iraqis in aggressively fighting the insurgents--the overall level of force that can be brought to bear against the insurgency, and in support of a political process that can hold the country together, will increase. And victory will then be achievable.