To Help Iraq, Let It Fend for Itself

By Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/02/07):

THE sooner President Bush can get his extra troops for a “surge” in Iraq, the sooner he will be able to announce that all American troops are coming home because of the inevitable failure of the Iraqi government to “live up to its side of the bargain.” In fact, in the run-up to the surge proposal, it is unlikely that there was any real two-sided bargaining before Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was induced to issue promises — particularly in terms of government troops taking on Shiite militias — that he cannot possibly fulfill. Mr. Maliki, it seems, simply agreed to whatever was asked of him, to humor the White House and retain American support for a little while longer.

For the Iraqi Army and police to disarm the Shiite militias, the prime minister would have to be a veritable Stalin or at least a Saddam Hussein, able to terrorize Iraqi soldiers and policemen into obedience. Mr. Maliki, of course, has no such authority over Iraqi soldiers or police officers; indeed he has little authority over his own 39-person cabinet, whose members mostly represent sectarian parties with militias of their own.

Actually the situation is even worse than that, because only the Kurdish militias unfailingly obey their political leaders — one is the president of Iraq no less, Jalal Talabani — while for the rest, it may be more true to say that Iraqi militias have political leaders to represent their wishes. The largest and most murderous of the Shiite militias, the Mahdi Army, which is invariably described as belonging to the truculent cleric Moktada al-Sadr, is actually divided under a bevy of local commanders, some of whom obey Mr. Sadr some of the time.

In sum, the most that Prime Minister Maliki can do is not to interfere when American troops arrest suspects and fight militias, as he has done in the past.

Nor can the Iraqi leader fulfill his other major promise: leading a new effort to reconcile the warring sects of Iraq. He is not another Gandhi, but a leader of the fiercely sectarian Dawa Party. It is very much as a militant Shiite that he speaks out; lately he has been threatening Sunni members of Parliament and accusing them of grave crimes. (It was not a coincidence that Saddam Hussein was tried, convicted and executed not for his greatest crimes, but for his 1982 reprisal killings for a failed attempt by Dawa members to assassinate him.) It would be remarkable if Mr. Maliki could even reconcile with his Shiite rivals, let alone the Sunni insurgents.

Fortunately, there is a promising, long-term policy ready and waiting for President Bush whenever he decides to call off the good old college try of his surge: disengagement. By this, I don’t mean a phased withdrawal, let alone the leap in the dark of total abandonment. Rather, it would start with a tactical change: American soldiers would no longer patrol towns and villages, conduct cordon-and-search operations, or man outposts and checkpoints. An end to these tasks would allow the greatest part of the troops in Iraq to head home, starting with overburdened reservists and National Guard units.

The remaining American forces, including ground units, would hole up within safe and mostly remote bases in Iraq — to support the elected government, deter foreign invasion, dissuade visible foreign intrusions, and strike at any large concentration of jihadis should it emerge. This would mean, contrary to most plans being considered now, that United States military personnel could not remain embedded in large numbers within the Iraqi Army and police forces. At most, the Americans would operate training programs within safe bases.

What would be the result of disengagement along these lines? First, it would not be likely to increase the violence afflicting Iraqi civilians. The total number of American troops in Iraq — even including any surge — is so small, and their linguistic skills so limited, that they have little effect on day-to-day security. Nor have they really protected Iraqis from one another. At most, the presence of American soldiers in any one place merely diverts attacks elsewhere (unless they themselves are attacked, which is a sad way indeed of reducing Iraqi casualties).

Intelligence is to counterinsurgency what firepower is to conventional warfare, and we just do not have it or the capacity to gather information on our own. Thus the sacrifices of our troops on the ground are mostly futile.

Politically, on the other hand, disengagement should actually reduce the violence. American power has been interposed between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites. That has relieved the Shiite majority of responsibility to such an extent that many, notably the leaders of the Mahdi Army, feel free to attack the American and British troops who are busy protecting their co-religionist civilians from Sunni insurgents. For many Arab Sunnis, on the other hand, the United States must be the enemy simply because it upholds the majority of the heretical Shiites.

Were the United States to disengage, both Arab Sunnis and Shiites would have to take responsibility for their own security (as the Kurds have doing been all along). Where these three groups are not naturally separated by geography, they would be forced to find ways to stabilize relations with each other. That would most likely involve violence as well as talks, and some forcing of civilians from their homes. But all this is happening already, and there is no saying which ethno-religious group would be most favored by a reduction of the United States footprint.

One reason for optimism on that score is that the violence itself has been separating previously mixed populations, reducing motives and opportunities for further attacks. That is how civil wars can burn themselves out.

In any case, it is time for the Iraqis to make their own history.