Briefing on Iraq Study Group Report
December 17, 2006
Mr. Turzanski led off, noting that the Report is more political than military. What may surprise or disappoint some is that it isn’t a strategy for victory, at least not in the conventional military sense. But the ISG came into being, after all, out of frustration and a concern that possibly this battle can’t be won.
The Report deals with some obvious issues. Less obviously, its recommendation on how to deal with the Iraqi government doesn’t engender confidence, he said. It includes some usual policy elements, such as holding the Iraqi people accountable, establishing goals, and withholding aid should the conditions not be met, but gives no insight what would happen if that indeed were the case.
The most difficult to understand or accept are the Report’s recommendations on Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation. In subsequent interviews Secretary Baker has made clear that he feels we should push hard to separate Syria from Iran, which he says is key in restoring leverage. But Turzanski said that Iraqis are not happy with the idea of an international conference; they want to settle their own affairs. And what can we offer the Syrians or Iranians to compel them to help us, and ensure that we don’t pay too high a cost?
This is where the Israeli-Palestinian situation comes in, Turzanski noted. The ISG recommends that Golan Heights be returned to Syria and that the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve their difficulties. Thus the U.S. and Israel are to mend this, while Syria will be rewarded.
Turzanski was disappointed that elements of the Report were leaked while President Bush was in Iraq last week meeting with President Maliki. The Group is pressing the administration in a direction it has resisted so far, and leaks and some of the publicity it is seeking make it easier for the administration to resist even some of the more helpful elements in the Report.
Mr. Garfield felt that some elements seriously undermined the Report’s value. He supports the recommendations that the U.S. should be talking to all parties in Iraq, with the exception of Al Qaeda, ensuring that wealth is redistributed and the Baathists reintegrated, and offering reconstruction aid. But if implemented, he felt the overall plan would fall short or fail. First, it explicitly states that the United States’ ability to influence events is diminishing, but then makes recommendations that could only be carried out if the U.S. possessed much greater influence. It also emphasizes that it is a realistic plan, but many of the things it would demand—national reconciliation, e.g.—can’t be delivered. The Report thus becomes part of the problem, not a solution.
It also sets out U.S. conceived milestones and deadlines that are unachievable, Garfield said. In any event, the milestones achieved today have proven meaningless: the establishment of a provisional government, for instance, achieved little. We still are only setting Iraqis up for failure if we want to withdraw by the first quarter of 2008. The Report also pays inadequate attention to things that can happen until then, such as loss of control in key provinces and increased attacks and sectarian violence, all of which will undermine Iraq’s ability to develop its forces.
In its external approach, Garfield feels the Report exaggerates the influence of Iran and Syria. Even if Syria did want to use its influence and the price of obtaining this was not too high to the U.S., how could Syria reduce the violence? The ISG was also overoptimistic about the role the Iraqi Security Forces could play. Some 150,000 Iraqi troops would be needed simply to replace Coalition troops one for one, and that level is still insufficient. And even once they are trained, would one really expect to send Shiite troops to Al Anbar?
U.S. troops will increasingly be drawn into combat and need recommitted Coalition forces. New skills will be needed, too, like understanding the Iraqi culture and the troops’ counterparts, language skills, and translators. We need troops trained to take independent operation and exercise patience and initiative. We need the best, not the average, advisors. The U.S. government could not do all of this by itself. Accordingly, Garfield recommended reaching out to academia and the private sector to develop a military training program.
One recommendation Garfield felt was impossible to implement was embedding international police advisors, who would be in a very dangerous position. He recommended instead creating an independent paramilitary force like Spain’s Civil Guard. And to stabilize the security situation, he recommended adding major surge capabilities to take control of key areas, including Baghdad. This would require hundreds of thousands of additional troops, a political nonstarter. But the current composition of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government will only encourage Sunnis to reject it and continue fighting. Garfield noted the North Ireland case, where a deal was brokered that ensured a disproportionate role to Catholics.
In short, Garfield said, there was much to commend in the Report, but as an integrated plan, it was unlikely to survive even until next summer, let alone into 2008.
Dr. Sicherman noted that the ISG had to achieve a bipartisan consensus on a new strategy. But while it met, both the military and political sides of the equation changed. First, the situation on the ground deteriorated more rapidly than anyone expected. Second, the U.S. election offered a no-confidence vote in the Bush administration, amplified by Democrats’ demands for a specific withdrawal date. So the Group compromised. It offered a date certain, though hedged: the first quarter of 2008 for U.S. combat troops—not all troops—to be out of Iraq. The bipartisan consensus behind this is likely to hold until early 2008, when there either will be or will not be a withdrawal.
The Report makes much of the importance of Iraq to the region and to the U.S., Sicherman continued, but it does not envision applying more American resources to ensure success, despite the dire circumstances there. Instead, it just re-jiggers the military mission and speaks of the need to get Iraqis up to speed in counterinsurgency. It would fill the resource gap with Iraqis. It also proposes to fill the gap with external assistance, even though it isn’t clear that the Iranians, Syrians, or anyone else are willing to do what they are being called upon to do, or what reward or penalty there would be. In the case of Syria, much effort would go to negotiating the return of Golan Heights to it. Syria is actually more concerned with Lebanon, yet there the administration rules out any increase of Syrian influence. Similarly, the linkage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is predicated on having a Palestinian partner who recognizes Israel, and Hamas is not in that position.
So the external picture and the want of resources adds up to an unattractive position, Sicherman said. The ISG has produced a formula that will probably work in Washington holding together bipartisanship for about a year, but will not work on the ground in Iraq. Its diplomatic advice would have worked in 2004, when it looked like we were winning the war, but that has changed. Diplomacy cannot substitute for troops on the ground. On a positive note, Sicherman concluded, the Report does make long-overdue, interesting recommendations to improve American counterinsurgency capabilities, and that investment is vitally important. Finally, those composing its military part noted the contradiction of trying to get more while doing less and the need for increased surge capability.
To the question whether, even if Iraq could be stabilized, the Shiites and Sunnis wouldn’t start fighting the minute we left, Garfield felt that this was a distinct possibility. To avoid it would require a new political approach that won over enough Shiites and Sunnis to resist those who refuse to join in the new country. It also would require getting police up to a certain standard, which is hard to do while they’re fighting for their lives. Turzanski thought this highlighted why the most critical need in the short-term is a clear articulation of where we stand. Iraqis are now confused on our posture, and we need their cooperation. The lack of information they get is leading to misunderstandings. We’re not speaking with a clear voice, he said, conveying the sense that we’ll take forceful action, when Iraqis think we’re leaving.
Sicherman noted that Iraq had a natural constitution built on three negatives: (1) Shiites and Kurds won’t accept a new Sunni dictatorship; (2) Sunnis and Kurds won’t accept a Shiite Islamic republic; and (3) Shiites and Sunnis won’t accept an independent Kurdistan much less neighbors such as Turkey. They can all share in their country’s oil revenue, but they have to be assured that the others aren’t going to go for broke, and to accept that they can’t get their ultimate objective. Right now we hold the balance. The more Iraqis believe that we’re on our way out, the less possible political compromise becomes, simply because everyone will just prepare for the shootout.
As to the utility of combining U.S. economic and reconstruction efforts, Garfield noted that it’s an influence war, and as such the key is to regenerate Iraq’s economy, improve the standard of living, get utilities working, and provide work. But doing this is hard without security, and when the middle class and educated are leaving and teachers are being killed or leaving. Turzanski concurred that there security must be predictable and violence be under control before any investment can produce results that lead to a stable political situation, so that Iraqis can believe there’s an Iraq worth saving and that they have a role in it. Sicherman felt the key was better organizing the U.S. government for rehabilitating failed states, one of the Report’s best recommendations. This reorganization could be carried out even if doing so isn’t practical on the ground yet, so that we are ready to do it when it is possible.
Sicherman was not sanguine about the prospects of getting a UN resolution compelling other nations to help save the people of Iraq. Even if they wished, few other countries are capable of helping, even among our own allies.
Amplifying on the U.S.’s role as the only external actor capable of balancing the “three negatives” and how it cannot fill this role if there is no political will in the U.S. to do so over the long term, Sicherman observed that no matter how hedged the first-quarter 2008 date may be, it is taken in the region as specific. The U.S. midterm election and the ISG Report both speak in the direction of disengagement. The ISG authors inadequately grasp the balancing act required, which will have to continue until the various Iraqi groups learn that they can’t get all they want and Iraq has military forces like Turkey’s who are cognizant of the risks and won’t permit demagogy. The Report suggests to everyone that we are not prepared to balance in the meantime. It is a fig leaf for withdrawal.
Turzanski noted that the incoming chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), has already indicated his belief that we need to increase troop strength. Turzanski will be interested in seeing how this Report will be digested by a new Congress, especially by those Democrats who don’t agree with the senior party leadership, which is supportive of the ISG recommendations, with the exception of Sen. Joe Biden, who is disappointed that the idea of a three-way division or Iraq was not considered. But more conservative new Democrats will be pulled by facts on the ground, and that the only meaningful thing is to provide more troops. Sicherman noted that as we equip and turn the country over to the Iraqis, President Maliki has stressed that the Iraqi forces do need more assistance and capabilities. Equipment isn’t the major issue for now, Garfield noted. Counterinsurgency forces need large numbers of light weapons.
Turzanski spoke to the role of the Kurds. They have a lot to lose, since so far they are the greatest beneficiary of the U.S.-led invasion. They are grateful now, but he was concerned whether they will maintain their disciplined posture through the uncertainties ahead. That is why he felt it was critical for us to keep reminding them that there is only so much we can do to prevent Turkey from expressing displeasure if they overplay their hand. The Kurds can greatly exacerbate the Shiite-Sunni tension if they act rashly. The U.S. therefore needs to keep engaged with them to avoid this complicating factor.
Sicherman agreed that the Kurds now have all the benefits of independence without the risks and trappings, so for them this is a near ideal situation even if it is not entirely gratifying. Garfield found it odd that the ISG recommended looking at contested lands if Iraq is going to stay united, and worried lest we give the Kurds too much autonomy. Towns like Mosul with all three populations could see much worse sectarian violence then, and Al Qaeda might play the same agent provocateur role as it already does between the Shiites and Sunnis.
The panelists did not think it possible to divide Iraq and leave the Sunnis out, as has been suggested. Garfield again reminded of the Northern Ireland experience, where the Catholics had to be part of the solution. If excluded, the Sunnis would just continue to fight; dividing the country would be impossible in some areas, and it would only encourage other countries to come in on the Sunni side. He also noted that one doesn’t want to lump all Sunnis together, as the majority can be negotiated with. Turzanski agreed that this would only radicalize more Sunnis and create a bigger challenge for would-be pro-U.S. countries in the region. We’d be creating a situation where Sunnis’ most reviled adversaries were given the advantage. Sicherman, too, noted that Sunnis are not all of one mind. Some want to resume a dictatorship, some want a caliphate, but the largest number are just fearful. That’s why the Iraqi and U.S. governments have to practice what he called the “three Cs”: coopt and corrupt most of them, and coerce the rest if need be.
Pulling out in order to let the Shiite-Sunni confrontation drive a wedge between Syria and Iran was not considered sensible. Turzanski was not sure that the Syrians would automatically come in on the Sunni side. He thought it imprudent to risk escalation into uncontrollable ways on the false hope of splitting Syria and Iran, where there is a very complicated situation, with Hezbollah, supported by Iran, helping the Syrian cause in Lebanon.
Finally, as to whether Washington can or should be urged to focus on winning instead of bipartisanship, Garfield saw only two choices: (1) big and long, his preference—taking back control, or (2) stepping back and forcing all parties involved, including the region’s countries, to look into the abyss. Neither option has support in Washington. We’ll most likely continue along some of the lines the Group recommends, such as a bigger training mission, but with no other significant changes.
Turzanski called for presidential leadership—the articulation of U.S. interests and how we’ll secure them. President Bush, he said, has done political shorthand for too long, with shorthand like “stay the course” that lets political opponents fill in the blanks, often with other than what Bush wanted to say. The hour may be late, he said, but if Bush invested himself in articulating how we can fight to win, the public could rally. But this would require a very large investment, our military is too small, and too few of our troops committed.
Sicherman observed that President Bush led everyone, including himself, to believe that the job could be done with the resources on hand. The ISG Report recommendations would have been better applied in 2004. But during this whole period the president has not asked for any increase in resources, even though he has only a 10-division army compared to the19-division army of the 1991 Gulf War. It will be hard for him now to say “I thought we could do it with what we had, but we can’t, and I need more.” However, Sicherman concluded, we now await the views of the U.S. military and their suggestions. Neither the ISG nor the president can resist if those in uniform say that we can do the job but need more, and a bipartisan alignment may form around this option.
 See James Kurth, “Crush the Sunnis,” The New Republic, 11/25/06.