By Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, is the author of “The Sling and the Stone: On Warfare in the 21st Century.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 01/06/06):
THE White House is right to insist that our postwar goal is a unified Iraq, as opposed to one divided along ethno-religious lines. So why is the administration taking so many actions that make holding the country together virtually impossible?
In January, President Bush diverted nearly half the money allocated to reconstruction in Iraq to other needs, including security. Given that our current strategy is nicknamed “Clear-Hold-Build,” where does that leave us? Clear-Hold-Hope? Mr. Bush’s decision sent a terrible signal to the Iraqis about our resolve. It is even less understandable since the expense of the critical reconstruction program is a small fraction of our annual cost in Iraq.
Next, the administration deeply cut financing for democratization efforts, many of them undertaken by nongovernmental groups. The proposed budget for fiscal 2007 asks for a paltry $63 million. This token sum — in a war that costs some $200 million a day — may simply reflect a belief that the security situation prevents such efforts from being effective. But democratization has always been one of the administration’s cherished goals, and cutting spending there sends the wrong message.
The latest administration budget also recommends cutting overall Army and Marine troop strength. If Mr. Bush and his advisers are really committed to sustained support for the “long war” in Iraq, how do they reconcile that with cutting the budgets for the most engaged forces?
President Bush and his aides have also repeatedly hinted at significant troop reductions in Iraq this year — perhaps to as low as 100,000 from the current 130,000. This is despite the growing violence in Baghdad and the fact that our military leaders in Iraq have consistently said that we can withdraw troops safely only if conditions improve. The administration may simply be talking fewer troops to reassure the electorate before midterms. Unfortunately, American voters are not the only audience. What do the Iraqis think?
The administration has long stated that the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams — groups of 100 or so political, economic, legal and civil-military relations specialists who help distribute aid and advise regional Iraqi officials, which have had success in Afghanistan — are critical to our strategy in Iraq. Yet The Washington Post reported in mid-April that only 4 of the proposed 16 teams had even been inaugurated.
In addition, the Army staffs and units in Iraq, even those training Iraqi security forces, continue to be undermanned. Meanwhile, former colleagues outside the war zone — in the Joint Forces Command, the European Command and the Pacific Command — tell me their commands remain at full strength. It seems the Pentagon does not consider the Iraq war important enough to shift from its peacetime manning models.
Last, the administration has repeatedly said efficient and law-abiding Iraqi security forces are central to our strategy, yet has failed to provide them with more than minimal equipment. Three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, most Iraq troops are still using open-backed trucks and unarmored S.U.V.’s.
Let’s face it: this laundry list of inaction on the part of the Bush administration leaves a prudent Iraqi with no practical choice but to prepare for a United States withdrawal long before the Iraqi central government and security forces are capable of running the nation. For most Iraqis — Arab or Kurd, Sunni or Shiite — this will mean looking to religious and ethnic militias, criminal gangs and Islamist insurgents for protection. This, in turn, greatly increases the chance of civil war.
The militias are already looking ahead: some are carving out safe areas they will use as bases in the coming war by driving Iraqis of other ethnic and religious groups out of mixed neighborhoods and villages. Iraqi government officials estimated that more than 100,000 families have already fled their homes. This falling back on militias and preparing for internecine conflict is not a new phenomenon. It is exactly what we saw in Afghanistan nearly two decades ago. Once the Afghans believed the Soviet troops were finally pulling out, the various insurgent groups stopped fighting the invaders and began positioning for a multisided civil war. That conflict, of course, lasted until the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
The Bush administration, despite all its missteps since the fall of the Baathists, has clung to one correct idea: that an intact Iraq is a better outcome than a splintered one. To keep it unified, however, the White House must commit to long timelines and to providing the money necessary for both the military and reconstruction efforts. The alternative is for Mr. Bush to change his mind and tell the American and Iraqi people that we must start planning for a peaceful division.
In any case, the uncertainty resulting from trying to have it both ways will result in the worst possible outcome: open civil war.