Mr President, herewith my ten tips to deal with Iraq

By Amir Taheri (THE TIMES, 09/01/07):

This week President Bush is expected to present a new strategy for Iraq based on a Pentagon paper. The paper considers three options: go big, which means more American boots on the ground; go long, which means keep the same number but stay as long as possible; and go home, which is self-explanatory.

It was obvious from a 90-minute discussion with President Bush at the White House recently that he would not cut and run, which excludes the last option. As for the “go long” option, he has little control over it. In two years someone else will be in the White House.

In immediate terms, therefore, Mr Bush is left with “go big”, the option his opponents have already attacked. Those familiar with Iraq know that the real war for its future is waged in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Britain. The terrorists have no hope of riding in triumph into Baghdad, but they continue to fight to persuade US and British opinion that the war is lost and that new Iraq does not deserve further support. Moreover, some in the new Iraqi elite have become fence-sitters. Worried that the US may run away, they have sought insurance from Tehran or, in the case of Sunni Arabs, the jihadis.

So, what should Mr Bush do? The last thing to do is to seek a bipartisan policy. Too many Democrats have invested too much in the hope that Iraq fails for them to agree to help Mr Bush to ensure success.

What is needed, therefore, is a nonpartisan policy. This means a policy that safeguards what has already been achieved in Iraq, without further provoking Democrats. In such a policy, there is room for all three options in the Pentagon paper. It is possible to chew gum and walk at the same time.

The “go big” option is useful if the US commits specialised forces with a clear mission, the success of which could be assessed within weeks. The “go long” option could be exercised by raising the percentage of US training personnel with Iraqi units from 5, as it is now, to 20. There is also room for the “go home” option, needed to give Democrats something to chew upon. Most GIs in Iraq are now in self-defence mode or engaged in routine tasks that could be assumed by Iraqis. The US and Britain could repatriate many of their troops within the next two years.

Mr Bush still has a monopoly on making policy on Iraq because the Democrats, apart from a general anti-war sentiment, have nothing to offer and are unlikely to develop an alternative vision soon. So, to the three Pentagon options, one could add a fourth: go deep! Here are some of the things that the President might consider:

  • Whatever you announce, make sure that your Administration and military commanders believe in it. Journalists covering Iraq know that there are three Iraq wars: one inside Iraq, another in the US political theatre and a third within the Administration.
  • Focus on the home front. Many Americans do not realise that Iraq is one theatre in a global war from Indonesia to Algeria, passing by Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Mr Bush must become explainer-in-chief and mobilise support for defeating jihadism and reshaping the Middle East with the help of moderate, reformist forces.
  • Remind the Iraqis that the US and allies have fulfilled their promise to take power away from Saddamites and return it to the people. Force was used to remove impediments to democratisation. But, force cannot be used to build democracy. That requires the effort of the Iraqis. Some Iraqis, including many in the new elite, have developed a “room-service” mentality, expecting the US to do everything. The President must disabuse them of that notion.
  • Go after the jihadis. Surprisingly, the US has lacked a strategy to defeat the insurgency. The assumption has been that the Iraqi security forces would meet the challenge when they are ready. In 2006, for example, US forces conducted only 11 offensive operations against jihadis; the British did 3. In some cases, operations have been aborted because of political intervention. In the new strategy, the US and its allies should go on the offensive, modelled on operations that pacified other places once bedevilled by terror, notably Fallujah. More than 80 per cent of the insurgency is in Anbar province, five neighbourhoods in Baghdad and the town of Baqubah. These must be secured and cleared out.
  • Serve notice on Iran and Syria to stop the flow of arms and fighters to Iraq through their territory. If they refuse, hit the safe havens and logistical routes used for the purpose. This is a regional struggle in which both have been involved since the 2003 at little cost to themselves.
  • Go after Shia militias. Some Sunnis see the insurgents as protectors against Shia death squads. What we have in Iraq is not a sectarian war but a war of sectarians who must be crushed on both sides.
  • Instead of asking your enemies for help, invite your regional friends to give a hand or, at least, end their boycott of new Iraq.
  • Ask the Iraqi Government to postpone devolution until after elections in 2009. This will reassure Sunnis and win support from secular Shia who fear a division of Iraq.
  • Re-emphasise your commitment to democratisation by urging the Iraqi Government to hold the postponed municipal elections. The elections would reveal the true strength of all parties while creating local administrations whose absence is felt in many provinces.
  • Finally, always remember that, in military terms, you have already won the war in Iraq. The task now is to translate that into a lasting geopolitical victory.