Troop `surge' won't work, so what will?

January 09, 2007|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA -- Just a week into 2007, it's clear that the war in Iraq will haunt the Bush administration, the new Congress and all of us this year. President Bush has been reviewing Iraq options and plans to make a major speech this week. The time he has taken indicates the grimness of the choices, and the execution of Saddam Hussein won't affect Iraq's downward spiral.

Many readers have asked me what I think should be done, so here are my thoughts for the new year.

Above all, we must clarify our purpose in Iraq. President Bush says: "Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and is an ally in the war on terror." This premise assumes we are dealing with a unified country, and that the country has a viable government. Both assumptions are false.

In reality, our only plausible goal is to contain the mess we've made.

Iraq is convulsed by a brutal civil war between Shiite and Sunni Arabs (with ethnic Kurds mostly on the sidelines). Its central government is weak; Iraqi security forces are also split by religion and sect. Even as Mr. Bush ponders, sectarian militias are changing Iraq's makeup. In Baghdad and other cities, hard-line Shiite and Sunni militias are driving out all members of whichever sect is the minority in their respective areas.

As White House officials discuss the formation of a new, moderate, multisectarian political bloc in Baghdad that would isolate Shiite and Sunni radicals, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is rejecting the strategy. Mr. al-Maliki won't isolate the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia. Nor does he seem capable of pursuing reconciliation with moderate Sunnis.

So, as civil war continues, how can we contain the mess?

The option the president supposedly favors would call for a temporary "surge" of up to 30,000 U.S. troops to Baghdad. The goal would be to stabilize Sunni and mixed areas (and hope Mr. al-Maliki would then curb Mr. al-Sadr). The surge would follow classic counterinsurgency strategy: Clear and hold an insurgent area and follow with an infusion of U.S. aid.

The potential consequences of our Iraq debacle are so awful that I would endorse a troop surge if I thought it would work. But I don't.

There are too few additional U.S. troops available for too little time to crush the Sunni insurgents; they would flee to Sunni-dominated Anbar province and return to Baghdad once we left. Moreover, the situation in Baghdad is no longer a classic insurgency. It has deteriorated into a civil war that the Shiite-led government is determined to win. U.S. troops would be caught in the middle.

A surge could wind up strengthening the power of the anti-American Mr. al-Sadr, who is backed by Tehran, while hastening the creation of a radical "Sunnistan" in Anbar. As the civil strife worsens, Iraq's neighbors - Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - would feel compelled to give their Iraqi coreligionists more support.

What to do?

At this point, our primary goal should be to try to prevent Iraq's civil war from dragging in surrounding countries. A wider Sunni-Shiite struggle would guarantee more carnage. It would also threaten oil supplies and send oil prices soaring.

That means we must make one last try at promoting Iraqi reconciliation. Shiite leaders don't yet want our troops to leave (they still fear a Baathist revival). Sunni leaders don't either (they fear being slaughtered by Shiites). This gives us some leverage. There should be no timeline yet for U.S. withdrawal, lest we encourage all-out civil war and a regional free-for-all, but we should let Iraqis know our patience is limited. We must also try to prevent the complete takeover of Sunni areas by religious radicals who could turn them into a refuge for Islamic fanatics. That will require arming and aiding Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar who publicly oppose radical Sunni Islamists. This strategy is risky - those arms may go astray - but there is no better choice.

Finally, the goal of containment requires that we promote a regional conference with all of Iraq's neighbors that involves consultations with Syria and Iran. The administration opposes such a move, which offers no panacea. Yet I believe Iran (and Saudi Arabia) can be made to see the danger of a proxy war over Iraq's corpse.

We have little leverage left to prevent such a grim scenario. But our leverage will shrink further if we fail to recognize facts on the ground.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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