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Organizing the use of force in Iraq


The United States is currently engaged in what is advertised as its largest movement of troops since the Second World War -- the rotation of Army forces into and out of Iraq. When the rotation is complete, about 105,000 soldiers will be in Iraq, down from the present 130,000 or so, but still much more than U.S. decisionmakers had hoped or planned for by this time.

The stress of the long-term occupation of Iraq has led the Pentagon, with the greatest of reluctance, to expand the size of the Army over the next few years. This means, perversely enough, that we are building up in order to be able to pull out more slowly. Force levels are too high to be sustained indefinitely. But they must be kept relatively high for as long as possible, because our objectives remain unachieved. (The cynical would say that this is merely a way of deferring impending failure to a less politically sensitive moment.)

So what do we expect to get from the extended presence of American and coalition partner soldiers in Iraq? How can they best contribute to our political goals (discussed here and here)? Is there any hope to break out of the trap we're caught in?

There is an obvious military aspect to the reconstruction of Iraqi security forces, but this is essentially a training mission. Then there is the matter of providing for security and order as the basis of all progress towards political (and economic) goals. Already, the administration has held up the Sunni Arab insurgency as an excuse for why elections cannot be held quickly.

Even if we don't accept this line, suppressing the insurgents is clearly necessary. First, it serves to protect the Shi'ite community rather than waiting for acts of communal self-defense or retaliation that would lead directly to civil war. Second, unless the insurgency is suppressed, there is little hope for shifting actions in the name of Sunni communal interests from violent to non-violent forms.

But this cannot be the last thought anyone thinks about the use of force in Iraq. The U.S. military must also provide to Iraqis a model of the proper relationship between security forces and citizenry in a free society -- admittedly, a very difficult task while a low-intensity conflict continues, but not optional while building a democracy is considered a near-term goal.

The U.S. Army expects to hand off to Iraqis eventually. Should the Iraqis behave in the same fashion, like an occupying force? If so, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand how they will ever pass the key political milestones of limits on government power and conciliatory leadership.

Simply put, armed men who suppress one community for the benefit of another are already a familiar feature of the Iraqi experience. Even if the American version is mild by comparison, it's not enough to start repairing Iraqis' broken-down doors at the conclusion of raids based on bad tips, hoping this will mend wounded feelings. It's past time to reconsider the strategy of breaking down every door available in hopes of netting the maximum possible number of adversaries.

MORE FUNDAMENTALLY, it's past time to revisit how we got to a point where fixing the doors we break down became our last, best hope for winning the hearts and minds of average Iraqis. At this distance, there is no good way to identify the operations and tactics that will strike the right balance between firmness and conciliation. Possibly there is no way to achieve that balance. But we can at least revisit how these decisions are made in the first place.

Back in November, I received a letter from an Army friend in Baghdad, who almost despaired of the Army's ability to pursue a pacification mission. He wrote:

You know, the Army is a land-fighting unit, and that's it. [...]overall we just suck at handling what we're trying to make a large-scale friendly occupation, and rebuilding of a government. Honestly, some of the officers who are in charge of figuring out what's going on out there know surprisingly little about the culture and Islam.[...] No Army is ever going to invade a completely foreign country, and know exactly what's going on culturally. But I do think we can put someone in charge who's better than these infantry officers who are so simple-minded and ignorant ("Wahabi bad. Attack Wahabi."). Or can we? Who would we use? Do we have an army of trained diplomats?

Our area is run by an infantry battalion, and the only way they know how to handle problems is attack things. Here we are, [...]three people, trying to build relationships with key leaders and key communicators, and all our supported unit [the infantry battalion] wants to do is figure out what to attack. Did you know some areas are controlled by field artillery units? They're even worse. Fortunately, at least they try to raid places on foot, instead of firing shells.

But the problem is not with the Army, which never should have been put in the position of trying to run a country at gunpoint. The problem is that the civilian body that's supposed to be achieving our overarching political goals in Iraq -- the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III -- lacks any ability to give orders to the Army in Iraq.

Instead, the Army takes direction from U.S. Central Command, headed by General John P. Abizaid. Abizaid, in the famous formulation of Washington Post defense correspondent Dana Priest, is a "proconsul," a regional authority figure more powerful than any ambassador, let alone the head of the permanently overtaxed CPA. We should reverse this wrongheaded order of precedence. First, for the purposes of Iraq, Abizaid's CENTCOM, which in Pentagon lingo is a "supported command," should become a "supporting command" -- one that provides forces and logistics to another body, in this case the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq. (U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) already enjoy a comparable arrangement with U.S. Pacific Command.) Second, and crucially, the "USFI," currently led by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, should answer to Bremer, the local civilian chief, not to Abizaid, the regional military honcho.

This approach defies two American traditions. First, in theory, civilian authority over the military is vested more or less exclusively in the President and the Secretary of Defense (prior to the present administration, they were known jointly as the National Command Authority). Nor (second) do Americans conceive of their country as the sort of old-fashioned colonial state that once might have created such arrangements.

But in practice, leaders delegate. (There's no mention of any Secretary of Defense or "National Command Authority" in the Constitution.) And old-fashioned or not, it's what the situation calls for. Differences about day-to-day operations in Iraq should not have to be mediated through an incessant stream of appeals to officials in Washington.

A stronger objection is that it's too late, that CPA was born defective, too weak and embattled to carry out its current functions, let alone to run an actual country. But giving either CPA or a suitable successor body the authority and resources to carry out such a mission seems necessary if the U.S. is even to attempt to carry out a strategy in Iraq consistent with the administration's stated policy. The alternative, seemingly, is to let the current "autopilot" approach linger on until it collapses.

Of course, a civilian-first approach is not a panacea. It would only be a start. Worse, all of this discussion is academic. It's not this administration's style to consider creative solutions. And the democratization of Iraq would be painfully unlikely to succeed even with the best-run military operations of all time. Getting Iraqis to accept foreign control, followed by power-sharing among themselves, is fundamentally not a military issue.


Addendum. A response to the comments below is here.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000171.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 2 comments

I agree with your analysis that we must train the Iraqi military and security services to be subordinate to the civilian government. However, I'd like to clarify a couple points.

First, the relationship between the military (CJTF-7) and the CPA is not as disjointed as you make it seem. CJTF-7 is in "direct support) of the CPA. In your terms, the CPA is the "supported command" and CJTF-7 is the "supporting command." This means that, while they don't take orders from the CPA, the military forces are tasked with the mission of assisting the CPA in accomplishing their mission.

The CPA, while comprised of civilians, falls under the Secretary of Defense, not the Secretary of State. Why? Because regardless of what we call it, or what the composition (civilian or military), the IV Geneva Convention considers any government of an occupied territory a "military government." That's the technical, legal term for the CPA. Now, I know we could change those arrangements around if it was politically expedient but the necessity of close cooperation between the CPA and CJTF-7 means that putting them both under the DOD alleviates potential cabinet level bickering.

The truth on the ground is that the military forces are doing much, much more of the work that the CPA should rightfully be doing. Including things that they just aren't trained or prepared for (like your friend said). I think the problem lies in the 90 day rotations for key members of the CPA and their general unwillingness to leave the confines of the "Green Zone." Some of my friends downrange say they have yet to see a single CPA person in their area.

It is, perhaps, a moot point now with the CPA set to dissolve in less than six months. Hopefully, the military can forge close ties to the Iraqi ministries that assume responsibility and work can progress at a faster pace. Then we can all look forward to coming home sooner rather than later.

Posted by Eric @ 02/01/2004 10:03 AM CST

I agree with both of you, who are far more knowledgable about the fine points of USA military organization in Iraq than I ever want to be.

However, all this analysis of details may obscure the major question, to wit, "can the problem be solved in principle?"

I really loathe comparisons to Vietnam, but I am reminded of the arguments about "winning hearts and minds" and the organizational shakeups that took place there, in an effort to do something that was impossible.

The task set by the USA is to impose both national integrity and democracy on Iraq and to leave Iraq to its independence. However, there are powerful forces at work against both goals.

The Kurds insist on autonomy as we know, and some even insist on independence. From their point of view they are right. From the point of view of the US they are wrong, perhaps, but if the USA moves to quash Kurdish aspirations, it will lose its major ally in Iraq.

The Shi'ites of Ayat Allah (Ayatollah) Sistani insist apparently on Iraq united under majority Shi'ite rule.

From their point of view, being the majority, they are also right, no doubt, but such a government would not necessarily be overly tolerant of religious minorities or willing to cooperate with the US and its neighbors.

The Sunnis have their own program. Each major group has its own factions and parties, who advance ideas that may seem very peculiar to the US and certainly inimical to US interests. Al-Jazeera TV broadcast a show in which one panelist claimed that Ariel Sharon visited Iraq, and that Iraq is thoroughly infiltrated by Zionists. It is hard to know how many people believe such ideas, and how many want an Islamic Republic with the same warm friendly attitude to the USA as sister Iran.

All of the above is overlain with lawlessness that was apparently just under the surface during the last years of Saddam, and has emerged to threaten chaos.

The problem is not just the different ideas that these groups have, but rather the apparent readiness of all these groups to blow people up in order to make their points. Sometimes the targets are "logical" - allied military or Iraqi police or provisional authority people. At other times, it is not easy to understand who is killing whom and why. Today 5 Palestinians were killed by a mortar shell.

This sort of violence is reminiscent of the great anarchy of Lebanon, which proved to be "insoluble" by the USA. The Syrians "solved" it by more or less permanently occupying Lebanon.

The assumption underlying your analyses is that there is a way to foster good government in Iraq, and that with a bit of tinkering, we can find that way. Putting the civilians in charge may reduce some of the friction and some of the problems, but in a few months, under the present plan, those civilians will leave. It is unrealistic to think that the problems will be solved by then.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Moderator @ 02/01/2004 10:48 AM CST

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