Bush resists ISG’s attempt to offer him a face-saving exit from Iraq

Fate seems to have thought that US president George W Bush needed more dismal assessments of his handling of Iraq after the debacle that befell the Republican party in the recent congressional elections. The report released by the Iraq Study Group on December 6 gives a catastrophic balance sheet of America’s adventurous military invasion and occupation of Iraq. It not only describes the situation in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating” but warns of a further “slide toward chaos [that] could trigger the collapse of Iraq’s government and a humanitarian catastrophe.” Coming amid a groundswell of domestic discontent with the Iraq war, one might have expected the release of the report to bring about an unmistakable pause, an episode of self-examination, for Bush and his colleagues.

But there is still not even a hint of humility, regret or awareness of having blundered in the public pronouncements issuing from Bush and his officials. Although since the release of the report the US president has been reviewing his approach to the war, and despite admitting publicly that the situation in Iraq is “bad” and requires a “new approach”, and that the task ahead is “daunting”, Bush has continued to utter fanciful platitudes such as “victory in Iraq is achievable” and the like.

Appointed by Congress on March 15, the ISG is a ten-person bipartisan panel charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and making policy recommendations. It is co-chaired by James Baker III, a Republican stalwart and former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic member of Congress from Indiana. Funded by congressional appropriations to the tune of $1.3 million, the ISG met scores of government officials, academics, experts and others, both inside and outside the US, including Bush, members of his national security team and British prime minister Tony Blair.

The study group’s 79 recommendations are intended to provide a face-saving exit-strategy for the US forces from Iraq. On the military level, it recommends a phased withdrawal of US forces and suggests quadrupling the size of the training and advisory effort for Iraq’s own forces. The panel also recommends a broad-based “New Diplomatic Offensive” that includes efforts to engage Syria and Iran, to resuscitate the moribund Arab-Israel peace process, and to establish an Iraq International Support Group consisting of Iraq and all the states contiguous with it, as well as other key international and regional states. On the economic level, it calls for a large programme to create jobs and revitalise Iraq’s economy. To this end it recommends the increase of US economic assistance “to a level of $5 billion per year.” Other recommendations are to reintegrate the Ba’athists, instituting a far-reaching amnesty, delaying the Kirkuk referendum, engaging all parties in Iraq, including insurgents, and negotiating the withdrawal of US forces.

Bush has so far been noncommittal on the ISG’s key recommendations. While saying that he will take the report “very seriously,” he has been exploring other options as well. His exploration of the available options has involved a series of carefully choreographed meetings with US foreign policy, national security and military officials as well as outside Iraq experts. He has also held talks with Iraq’s Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, the leader of the largest Shi’a bloc in the Iraqi parliament, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, and British prime minister Tony Blair. Also among the resources available to him is a study prepared by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute titled “Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq.” The AEI plan calls for a change in the focus of the US military intervention in Iraq “from training Iraqi soldiers to securing the Iraqi population and containing the rising violence.” This would certainly require sending more American combat forces to Iraq. The AEI study argues that such a surge “is necessary, possible, and will be sufficient.” Bush may well settle for some combination of the welter of options being offered by the ISG, the AEI, the Pentagon and others. Bush intends to unveil his “new way forward” (his version of the ISG’s “The Way Forward –” A New Approach”) for Iraq sometime this month.

While Bush mulls over his fast-disappearing options, it has become clear that he is getting contradictory messages from various quarters. Some urge a sharp, temporary surge in American troop strength in Iraq, whereas others argue that the Iraqi forces should take the lead in handling security, regardless of their readiness. In addition to the military proposals, political options are being discussed as part of the new American policy for Iraq. These mainly focus on various ways to reconfigure Iraq’s increasingly dysfunctional government and ensure that it will be prepared to move against the resistance militias and open a serious dialogue on national reconciliation.

The real difficulty for Bush is not the fact that he finds himself under pressure to review his Iraq strategy; it is the fact that none of the options under consideration is an easy option that promises to deliver any concrete positive results on the ground. It is far too late now for a temporary surge in US troop-strength to alter the situation radically on the ground. From the very beginning of the US intervention in Iraq, critics have doubted former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s insistence that a relatively lean force was sufficient for the initial assault and the subsequent occupation. Now that escalating resistance and civil strife have made the US’s efforts to secure Iraq futile, a temporary, small surge in US troop-strength in Iraq has little chance of reversing the deterioration in the situation.

Historical comparisons indicate that the numbers being floated for a troop surge, 15,000 to 30,000 additional troops, could barely be enough. At the height of the conflict in northern Ireland, for instance, the ratio of British police and army personnel to civilians was 20 to 1,000; a comparable US presence in Iraq would require 500,000 troops for the country’s population of 25 million. This arithmetic does not take into consideration the vast differences between Irish and Iraqi armed groups in terms of manpower, arms, fighting skills and experience, let alone the larger size of the areas that need to be secured in Iraq. Chances of finding, let alone deploying, such a large US force in Iraq at this stage are nil. Even if the requisite additional numbers could be recruited, providing them with proper training and equipment would be expensive and time-consuming. Moreover, the deployment of additional troops would provide more targets for insurgents and inevitably result in more US casualties –” a price that the American public seems increasingly reluctant to pay.

Rather than containing the chaos, the temporary surge of tens of thousands of US forces into Iraq might slide seamlessly into the permanent escalation of the conflict. A short-term surge in troop-strength is not a well-defined military mission. Without such a mission, events might force American commanders to turn the temporary deployment into a more permanent one. Even the announcement of a schedule and a mission could play into the hands of resistance groups and militias willing to wait out the new US strategy. In the end, it is doubtful that the US will be able to withdraw a substantial number of combat troops from Iraq by early 2008, as the ISG report recommends.

Repeated US vows to secure the Iraqi capital, billed as the “Baghdad first” option, have so far come to nothing. All attempts to regain control of the tough neighbourhoods of the Iraqi capital have ended in failure. In every one of a series of shows of American force, the insurgents and death squads have either slipped away to other places to continue their activities or melted away into the local population and lain low. As soon as the US military juggernaut moves on to “pacify” other areas, the gunmen re-emerge and reassert their control of the streets. In the latest such effort, last August, the US sent a Stryker Brigade Combat Team and several army battalions to Baghdad as part of a joint US-Iraqi effort to improve security there. Yet the latest Pentagon status report confirms an escalating death-toll, an ever-widening sectarian division and almost total anarchy on the streets of Baghdad. If anything, all this proves that pouring more American troops into Iraq is not the answer to increased lawlessness in Iraq’s capital.

Then there is the proposal to increase the level of training of the Iraqi army and police forces to enable them to take the lead in handling security. Experience has shown the Iraqi security forces to be totally unreliable for the responsibility of maintaining security. In the latest joint US-Iraqi effort to secure Baghdad, the Iraqi army supplied only two of the six battalions that the American military planners requested. Moreover, increasing the level of training of Iraqi forces might have been a reasonable proposition had these forces not been contributors to the spiralling violence. With the various Iraqi security and military branches infiltrated by armed militias or criminal enterprises, it is difficult to imagine how strengthening the Iraqi security forces might improve stability. What the strengthening of the Iraqi government by military means might amount to is the strengthening of one party to the growing internal conflict.

Worse still, providing military support to the Iraqi government could turn into strengthening various warring militias, should the current ruling coalition break up into feuding sub-groups. The rise of the militias has become enmeshed with the progressive deterioration of the security situation on the ground. The failure of the state to provide Iraqis with security in the face of escalating sectarian violence has led many Iraqis to seek protection from the militias. The division of the Iraqi security apparatuses, as well as other government agencies, into partisan fiefdoms has rendered the state utterly dysfunctional. Under such circumstances, it is increasingly doubtful that the newly established Iraqi security forces would be able to assume effective primary responsibility for security in Baghdad, let alone elsewhere .

The failure of the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to rein in the militias has led some in Washington to propose changing the composition of the ruling coalition to sideline the increasing influence of Shi’a ‘alim Muqtada al-Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) militia. But efforts to sideline Muqtada al-Sadr could result in the exact opposite of what Washington wants. It could deepen inter-Shi’a rivalry, possibly leading to the descent of the predominantly-Shi’a Arab areas in south-central and southern Iraq into total chaos. Any direct involvement of US forces in anti-Sadr operations would be counter-productive because it would turn wider segments of the Shi’a population against the US.

In a nutshell, all the options available to Bush are fraught with unwanted side-effects and uncertainty. Shortly after assuming his new post as secretary of defence, Robert Gates warned that an American failure in Iraq would be a “calamity” that would haunt the US for decades. But an outright victory for the US in Iraq is becoming more and more unlikely, if not impossible. The “new way forward” will not be a blueprint for victory. Its best possible outcome is postponing the inevitable day of reckoning. Like Vietnam, Iraq has turned into a lose-lose situation for the US. The question is whether the neo-conservatives in Washington, who are confusing stubbornness with steadfastness, will be able to extricate themselves from their delusions and see the world as it really is.