The Wrong Message To Iraq

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, January 14, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta

The test of any effective strategy in war is whether it recognizes the realities of the situation on the ground and makes the changes necessary to overcome those realities and achieve the mission.

The principle failing of U.S. policy in Iraq is that it has never been able to fully recognize or easily adjust to the brutal realities of that war. Much of our strategy has been based on the false hope that the leaders of Iraq would take responsibility for governing and defending themselves without having to pay any price for failure. That is the wrong message.

Unfortunately, the president’s revised strategy announced Wednesday continues to send the same message: that the United States will provide additional troops and support, and that the U.S. commitment is open-ended regardless of whether Iraq makes progress on national reconciliation, security and governance.

The Iraq Study Group that I served on made very clear in its report that the United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq and that if the Iraqi government failed to achieve essential reforms, a price would be paid in reduced political, military or economic support. That tough message is essential based on the following realities of Iraq:

Spiraling violence

As pointed out by the report of the Iraq Study Group, the violence in Iraq is “increasing in scope and lethality.” Attacks against U.S. coalition and Iraqi security forces are persistent and growing. The last three months of 2006 are among the deadliest of the war for U.S. forces. Total attacks are averaging 180 per day.

Sectarian violence is out of control. Sunni and Shia killings are rapidly escalating as a result of the Sunni Arab insurgency, Shiite militias and death squads, al-Qaida and affiliated jihadist groups and organized criminality. Attacks against civilians are four times higher over the last few months. More than 17,000 Iraqis were killed in the latter half of 2006 alone. That means 3,000 civilians are being killed every month.

Weak Iraqi government

Despite the election and pledges for unity, the composition of the Iraqi government is basically sectarian and key players within the government too often act in their sectarian interest. Iraq’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders frequently fail to demonstrate the political will to act in Iraq’s national interest.

While there is widespread agreement on the reforms needed — reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shia, a revised constitution that promotes unity and federalism, de Baathification to restore some of the experience needed to govern, oil-revenue sharing, provincial elections, amnesty, and providing basic services and security — the government has largely failed to achieve any of these goals. The lynch mob handling of Saddam Hussein’s execution has only served to fuel tensions between Sunni and Shia in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

Unreliable Iraqi Army and police

While there has been some progress in the training and effectiveness of some Iraqi Army units, significant questions remain about the ethnic composition and loyalties of the units and whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.

Half of the Iraqi divisions are reluctant to redeploy to other areas of the country. Only two of six promised Iraqi Army battalions joined U.S. forces in Baghdad. Units lack leadership, equipment, personnel and logistical support and some have refused to carry out their missions.

Soldiers are on leave one week a month so they can visit their families and take them their pay. They face no penalties for absence without leave. The Iraqi police are much worse. Because of poor training and discipline they engage in sectarian violence and lack the authority or will to control crime.

Unclear mission for U.S. forces

About 141,000 U.S. military personnel are serving in Iraq along with 16,500 personnel from our coalition partners. Many units are under significant strain. Nearly every U.S. Army and Marine combat unit and several National Guard and Reserve units have been to Iraq once and many are on their second and third rotations. Their equipment is wearing out and many do not have fully functional equipment for training.

In “Operation Together Forward,” which began in August 2006, 15,000 U.S. troops were to work with Iraqi Army and police to “clear, hold and build” in Baghdad, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood. But the violence has jumped more than 43 percent. Perpetrators of violence leave neighborhoods in advance of security sweeps only to filter back later. The Iraqi government has been unable or unwilling to stop such infiltration and continuing violence.

The government has also resisted sustained operations on Sadr City where the Mahdi militia numbers as many as 60,000 fighters. U.S. forces can “clear” any neighborhood, but there is not enough support from Iraqi security forces to “hold” the neighborhoods so cleared. The same holds true for the rest of Iraq.

These are the realities that convinced five Republicans and five Democrats of the Iraq Study Group that the strategy in Iraq must be changed if the Iraqi government is to take responsibility for the nation. The primary recommendations made clear that the primary mission of the U.S. forces should be to transition from combat to support of the Iraqi Army; that subject to unexpected security developments, all U.S. combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008; that if the Iraq government fails to achieve its reforms on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States will reduce its political, military or economic support; and that the United States should embark on a new diplomatic offensive in the region aimed at establishing an international consensus for stability in Iraq that includes every country in the region, including Syria and Iran.

It is these realities that convinced our military commanders that additional troops would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation. A senior American general told the Iraq Study Group that adding U.S. troops might temporarily help limit violence in a highly localized area but past experience indicates that the violence would simply rekindle as soon as U.S. forces are moved to another area.

Another American general told us that if the Iraqi government does not make political progress, “all the troops in the world will not provide security.” Gen. John Abizaid, our top commander for Iraq and the region, testified recently: “I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.”

So if these are the realities of Iraq and the conclusions of many of our respected military commanders, why does the president believe that another 21,500 troops are needed to produce a result that more than 141,000 troops have been unable to accomplish?

The real reason is that the president is taking one last chance at encouraging the Iraq government to do what it has so far failed to do. It is a very risky strategy, based on everything we have learned over the past four years of fighting and dying. Unless the United States is prepared to draw the line and make clear that there will be consequences if the Iraqis fail to make political progress, then the president’s latest policy only sends the same wrong message to the Iraqis.

The mission in Iraq as stated by the president is to get Iraq to govern, sustain and defend itself. The brutal realities of Iraq make clear that that will not happen by simply repeating what has not worked in the past. It will only change when the president is willing to say that the United States will no longer provide additional troops or a blank check to the Iraq government if it fails to govern, sustain and defend the nation. Unless the Iraqi government gets that clear, tough and unambiguous message, the current situation in Iraq will continue to deteriorate and ultimately fail.

Leon Panetta’s column runs every other month in Commentary. He is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

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