Is There A Winning Strategy for Iraq?
One hot debate that is currently taking place in Washington and the rest of the United States is whether there is a winning strategy for Iraq? An unspoken aspect of this debate is whether there is a “silver bullet solution” or a quick fix to this imbroglio. It has become clear by now that there is no sliver bullet. However, there is ample room for the evolution of a winning strategy. It requires adoption of a series of carefully planned measures, some of which should be new and others necessitate either tweaking or even radically altering the existing ones. There are, to be sure, a number of lingering problems in the emergence of such a strategy.
The foremost problem is the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. This is not to suggest that the Bush administration needs to withdraw its forces imminently. However, that very reality has become a serious drag on the popularity of President George W. Bush. His approval ratings are down to about 32 percent and his credibility related to Iraq among the American people is seriously tattered. Nothing short of hard evidence—that the ground realities in Iraq are changing—would help the Bush administration inside the United States.
There was somewhat of good news when Jawad al-Maliki emerged as the United Iraqi Alliance’s (UIA) next candidate for the prime ministership last week. Ibrahim al-Jafary was given a boot by the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. As al-Maliki marches on the very difficult road to create a “national unity cabinet,” the chief Iraqi insurgent, Mus’ab al-Zarqawi made a radical departure from his own strategy of lurking in the background. He issued a video of himself, warning the Iraqi Sunnis not to “collaborate” with the occupying forces and their “puppets.”
One can imagine how nervous the Bush administration is feeling about Iraq these days, because it sent two of its “heavy weights”, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, as a show of support for al-Maliki. While that symbolism may mean something positive inside the United States, it has created no positive momentums inside Iraq. If anything, the confluence of these events—i.e., the selection of al-Maliki, the visit of Rice and Rumsfeld, and the release of the al-Zarqawi tape—couches the struggle over the future of Iraq in a new framework along the following lines.
First, after its creation, the new national unity government needs a running start. The United States is fully geared to help in that direction. However, even after such a government is placed, given the state of near-civil war in Iraq, the chances of its success as a working entity are minimal.
Second, in the meantime, the insurgents are not likely to sit on their laurels and allow the evolution of an efficient government in Iraq. Their strategy for forestalling the emergence of New Iraq has been operational for a long time. What might be working against the insurgents now is the fact that the Sunnis are part of the national unity government. If they are generally happy with their share of power in the new arrangement, it is possible that they would think about distancing themselves from the Sunni-led insurgency. However, only wild-eyed optimists can get excited about the near-term occurrence of such a possibility.
The national unity government, on its part, is likely to insist on the palpable and, indeed, unambiguous evidence of cooperation from the Sunnis about their opposition to the Sunni insurgency. But the Sunnis will need a lot of assurance and hard evidence about the institutionalization of their role as one of the power brokers in the New Iraq before they would consider contributing to the dismantling of the insurgency.
Third, there is that obdurate problem related to the role of Shia militias. The revenge attacks on the Sunnis after the Samarra Shrine bombing of last February has created a situation whereby the Sunni side has already decided to follow the Shia template by establishing their own death squads. If preventive measures were not taken, this development would inexorably push Iraq toward a civil war.
So, as soon as it is formulated, one of the first measures that the national unity government will have to take is to dismantle these militias. However, al-Maliki would face enormous opposition from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose al-Badr brigade is quite formidable (reported size 2000, but in reality it is around 10,000 or even more). At the same time, Muqtada al-Sadr is not likely to be a party to any suggestions for the dissolution of his power base, al- Mahdi Army (reported size 10,000). By the same token, the Kurds are not likely to agree for the dissolution of their own militia, the pesh merga (whose numbers are reportedly around 80,000).
Fourth, assuming that these militias are dismantled, then an attendant goal of the al-Maliki government is to develop a highly professional security and police forces for Iraq. Considering the success of the United States in that regards in Afghanistan—where the evolution of the Afghan National Army is more of an impressive reality than the creation of its professional police force—it is also likely to succeed in Iraq, especially once the pace of terrorism decelerates.
While these developments are taking place, the Bush administration should start a dialogue with Iran regarding its interests and objectives in Iraq. The United States must face the ugly reality that, while it assigned itself the right to invade and occupy Iraq, it is refusing Iran the right to safeguard its vital interests in that country. There are a few countries in Iraq’s immediate neighborhood that have more rights than Iran to ensure that their security interests in their immediate neighborhood are not jeopardized.
There is nothing illegitimate or illegal about Iran’s interests in Iraq. Imagine Mexico or Canada having governments that are hostile to the United States. There is no telling how far the United States itself would in order to minimize the chances of the very creation of such a government in its immediate neighborhood. Not granting Iran the same rights is at the very base of the problems that the U.S. forces are facing in Iraq in terms of developments related to Iran’s role there.
Despite a major breakthrough about the creation of a national unity government, the situation in Iraq remains highly precarious. The enemies of democracy and stability are still quite powerful and are convinced that the tide of events has turned enduringly against the Americans. The Sectarian divide among the Iraqi also remains a serious problem. Even after the national unity government is established, it has to undergo a long period of intense test in order to prove its legitimacy to the Iraqis. That, in the final analysis, will be the sure sign that a winning strategy for Iraq is indeed emerging.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms Defense Consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also the USA Editor of World Security Network Online (WSN), and a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate.
Dr. Ehsan Ahrari is WSN Editor U.S.A. and member of the WSN International Advisory Board.