Sunday, February 20, 2005

Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War

James Dobbins
“Summary: By losing the trust of the Iraqi people, the Bush administration has already lost the war. Moderate Iraqis can still win it, but only if they wean themselves from Washington and get support from elsewhere. To help them, the United States should reduce and ultimately eliminate its military presence, train Iraqis to beat the insurgency on their own, and rally Iran and European allies to the cause.

James Dobbins is Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand. He was a U.S. Special Envoy in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

In the eyes of the Iraqi people and of all the neighboring populations, the U.S. mission in Iraq lacks legitimacy and credibility. Only by dramatically recasting the American role in the region can such perceptions begin to be changed. Until then, U.S. military operations in Iraq will continue to inspire local resistance, radicalize neighboring populations, and discourage international cooperation.


American forces have lost the support of the Iraqi population and probably cannot regain it. The insurgency can be defeated only by Iraqi forces under Iraqi leadership, and only to the degree that those forces can dramatically reduce their dependence on the United States. Military operations should be governed by a counterinsurgency strategy emphasizing pacification--that is to say, priority should be given to securing the civilian population, not hunting down insurgents. In the end, insurgencies are defeated not by killing insurgents, but by winning the support of the population and thus denying the insurgents both refuge and recruits.

Counterinsurgency campaigns require the close integration of civil and military efforts, moreover, with primacy given to political objectives over military goals. They require detailed tactical intelligence, which can be developed only by Iraqis and is best gathered by a police force in daily contact with the population. Training the Iraqi police and building a counterterrorist "special branch" within it should take priority over all other capacity-building programs, including the creation of an Iraqi military. Given the United Kingdom's superior experience in domestic terrorism and counterinsurgency, Washington should ask London to take the lead in creating special units within the Iraqi police.

No population will support a force that cannot protect it, so enhancing the Iraqi people's security should take priority over other military and civil objectives. Doing so will require freeing the population from intimidation by the insurgents, and that will require military action. Yet if such action is U.S.-led, employs heavy ordinance, produces large-scale collateral damage, and inflicts numerous innocent casualties, it could be counterproductive. In the end, the success or failure of an offensive such as the November assault on Falluja must be measured not according to body counts or footage of liberated territory, but according to Iraqi public opinion. If the Iraqi public emerges less supportive of its government, and more supportive of the insurgents, then the battle, perhaps even the war, will have been lost.

Pulverizing cities to root out insurgents may restore some control to the Iraqi government, but the benefits are unlikely to last long if the damage also alienates the population. Sacrificing innocent Iraqi lives to save American ones is a difficult tradeoff. Using better-calibrated warfare tactics--manpower instead of firepower, snipers and special forces instead of tanks and artillery--could mean saving innocent Iraqi lives at the cost of more U.S. casualties. Of course, the U.S. government must concern itself with American as well as Iraqi public support for the war. But for now, Washington should be especially mindful of the losses it inflicts on Iraqi civilians, because today the lack of support for its efforts among them is a far more immediate threat than the lack of support at home.

Such caution is all the more warranted because, in one important respect, the Iraqi insurgency is very different from the communist and nationalist insurgencies of the Cold War: it lacks unity of command and an overarching ideology. The only factor that unites Muslim fundamentalist mujahideen, secular Baathist holdouts, and Shiite extremists is their desire to expel American forces--a goal that a majority of the Iraqi people seems to share, too. If that rallying cause can be weakened by diminishing Washington's involvement, the Iraqi government should be able to play on divisions among the rebels, steering some of them away from violence and toward the political mainstream, while marginalizing or dividing the rest. Washington should encourage the Iraqi regime in such efforts, including by offering amnesty to those prepared to renounce violence and enter the political process. The United States never sought to try German, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese soldiers for shooting at Americans. Washington is currently backing the Colombian government's plan to offer amnesty to right-wing paramilitaries and should encourage a similar effort in Iraq.
con·cept: Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War