Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Wrong Tense

My thanks to those who publicly and privately gave comments on my recent piece in the Boston Globe. Below is my "extension of remarks" which appeared in today's National Interest online.

Wrong Tense
by Nikolas K. Gvosdev
October 17, 2006

Several weeks ago, I co-authored (with Ray Takeyh) a short op-ed, “The Myths and Realities of Iraq” (The Boston Globe, September 29, 2006,) that said “it is time to transcend the prevailing myths and consider the ramifications of an American departure from Iraq.”

Since the piece appeared, we have been criticized by the usual suspects as being advocates for “cutting and running” or misguided, misinformed policy wonks who will “hand the terrorists a great victory.” One small problem with most of this commentary: it gets the tense of events wrong. Our critics assume that bad things will happen in the wake of a U.S. redeployment and ultimate departure—when it is clear that they have already occurred.

Iraq is now a haven for terrorists, while the United States is still present. It is the only place in the world where prospective jihadists can engage in live-fire exercises with the U.S. military and hone their skills in battle. It is not accidental that techniques pioneered in Iraq—such as the use of IEDs—have been exported to other battlefields such as Afghanistan. There seems to be a fundamental misconception—that there is only a finite number of potential terrorists in the world and the use of Iraq as “bait” will lure this group for destruction at the hands of the United States and its coalition allies. Rather, as my colleague Alexis Debat has been documenting, for the last several years, there has been a steady flow of recruits to Iraq. Sometimes we are lucky and kill a major figure; often what has happened is the terrorist version of Darwinism—the less skilled or inept end up being killed (or being used for suicide operations), while the talented survive. What will happen in the next ten years when the cadre of Iraq-tested terror veterans have dispersed to their homes and new theaters of action?

Why a strategy based on containment rather than engagement is more likely to produce experienced terror veterans is beyond me. Iraq’s well-armed (and thanks to the United States well-trained) Shi‘a and Kurdish militias can pacify their regions; let local Sunni leaders and chieftains make whatever arrangements to neutralize the foreign elements in their midst. And if some recruits make it through the net to find havens in parts of Iraq, our objective should be to prevent their egress from the country, not give them a crash course in how to fight the U.S military and fend off U.S. intelligence.

The other objection raised is that a U.S. departure will signal “defeat.” But as we have argued, that narrative is already in place. The United States had three opportunities to credibly declare victory—the day Baghdad fell, the day Saddam Hussein was captured, the day after the first elections were held. We defined victory, however, as successful transformation rather than the overthrow of the previous regime. Our opponents have seized upon our criteria and are prepared to wait us out. Consider Claude Salhani’s analysis in the Summer 2006 issue of The National Interest:

“The insurgents know that America's chronic attention deficit disorder when it comes to foreign affairs will eventually work in their favor. Odds are the American public will get tired of the war much sooner than the insurgents. The improvised explosive devices that are killing on average 1.5 American soldiers every day in Iraq resound in American public opinion and therefore sway U.S. politicians. Despite America's superior firepower and its highly motivated and better-trained military, the insurgents in Iraq and those supporting them believe they can hold out until the end of the Bush Administration's term of office. They know that the next administration, even a Republican one, will undoubtedly bring with it much change to its Middle East policy.”

U.S. strategy in Iraq needs to be based on a sober assessment of our security needs and what we can realistically achieve, and not be guided by myths and what will play on the Arab street.

The forthcoming November/December issue of the magazine offers differing perspectives about how to move forward in Iraq. Dan Pipes makes a critical point—which I end with here:

“The administration can still frame the debate in terms of U.S. interests, not Iraqi ones. It can contrast Iraq today with yesteryear’s totalitarian model rather than a potential ideal. It can distance itself from Iraq’s fate by reminding the world that Iraqis are responsible for shaping their destiny.”

I think that there is a point, though, about levels. We may have a terrorist problem now in Iraq, but a sudden or precipitous U.S. departure increases that problem tenfold.
The bait strategy only works if, after attracting large numbers of jihadi cadres to Iraq, the US is in a position to seal the country and apply annihilating force to wipe the groups out once and for all--and then use intelligence to track back and wipe out the home cells. That doesn't seem to be what we're doing.
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