Sunday, August 28, 2005

Oil Spot, or Partial Disengagement?

Citizen Cain has been hard on David Brooks before, but today Brooks has produced a very good column. Brooks bases today’s column on an article by Andrew Krepinevich in Foreign Affairs on "How to Win in Iraq." As Brooks describes, Krepinevich proposes an "oil spot" strategy for Iraq. Krepinevich’s article is well worth reading.

As opposed to the current strategy of using search and destroy missions to kill insurgents, such a strategy would focus on protecting civilians in key areas. Once a safe haven is established, reconstruction assistance would target the secure area, which would gradually expand, like an oil spot spreading across pavement. Insurgents would have increased freedom to operate outside of the secure areas, because search and destroy missions would be reduced, but within the secure areas, life should be considerably improved. By providing security and economic renewal in these areas, we would hope to gain increased support from the civilian population. In addition to improving security in the 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces that are already relatively secure, Krepinevich suggests commencing a focused effort on creating additional safe havens in Baghdad and in Mosul.

Krepinevich also has some interesting suggestions on what we should be measuring in order to determine whether we are being successful. Insurgent numbers are difficult to ascertain, and number of incidents is a poor measure of insurgent strength. Krepinevich recommends instead focusing on numbers of assassinations of government officials and religious leaders, percentage of contacts with the enemy initiated by coalition forces, percentage of intelligence tips received through the civilian population as opposed to military reconnaissance, and the size of the bounty insurgents need to pay to induce Iraqis to plant improvised explosive devices and to commit assassinations. These metrics would help us better gauge the strength of the insurgents and the success of our strategy in creating security and earning cooperation from the Iraqi population.

The oil spot approach is based successful counter-insurgency efforts by the British in Malaya and by the Filipinos against the Huk insurgents, while the search and destroy approach follows the Vietnam model. Krepinevich also argues that the oil spot strategy could be implemented with no more than the 140,000 troops currently in Iraq, and perhaps slightly fewer– he suggests 120,000. The smaller troop requirement arises from the curtailment of search and destroy missions, and from the expectation that steps such as increasing the number of U.S. advisors embedded within Iraqi units and retaining the most effective U.S. generals for extended tours in Iraq would multiply the effectiveness of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

If the strategy is successful, U.S. force levels could gradually be drawn down. However, Krepinevich admits that it will take a long time– "at least a decade"– and will not be easy.

There will of course be great difficulties in carrying out such a plan. First, creating a coalition for a grand bargain will prove challenging, given the long-standing animosities between segments of the Iraqi population, the Iraqis' suspicions of Americans, and the cultural ignorance of U.S. forces and policymakers. Second, the U.S. military must walk a fine line between risking the increased casualties that extended embedding of American soldiers in Iraqi units will produce and risking a collapse of recruitment and retention efforts that could result from a continued reliance on large U.S. troop deployments. Third, setting up effective Iraqi security forces will be a fitful, long-term process, and oil-spot operations could prove frustrating to a U.S. military that prefers to take the fight to the enemy through traditional offensive operations. Finally, coordinating and integrating security, intelligence, and reconstruction operations will require a level of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation and an integrated U.S. effort far beyond what the interagency process in Washington has produced -- including strong central coordination and leadership from the senior political official on the scene, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.

Even if successful, this strategy will require at least a decade of commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls. But this is the price that the United States must pay if it is to achieve its worthy goals in Iraq. Are the American people and American soldiers willing to pay that price? Only by presenting them with a clear strategy for victory and a full understanding of the sacrifices required can the administration find out. And if Americans are not up to the task, Washington should accept that it must settle for a much more modest goal: leveraging its waning influence to outmaneuver the Iranians and the Syrians in creating an ally out of Iraq's next despot.

If the Bush administration were to propose such a strategy, perhaps some of us who think that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake could reluctantly support it. Some of us believe that we owe the Iraqi people a better effort to help them establish a decent society, and that to allow a return of Baathism, an imposition of a Taliban-style regime, or a descent into full-on civil war would be a catastrophe.

The Bush administration’s refusal to accept that the current strategy isn’t working, and to insist that staying the course is an adequate strategy, has pushed many toward the position that the best course of action is immediate withdrawal. This is the dynamic that is now playing out in the press– Bush versus Cindy Sheehan. Stay the course versus bring them home.

I would propose that the more interesting debate would be between the engagement strategy that Krepinevich has suggested and some variation of Juan Cole’s proposal for a partial disengagement. Cole has proposed that U.S. ground troops be withdrawn as soon as possible from urban areas, leaving Iraqi forces to police their own population. U.S. ground forces would be drawn down, though some might stay to train Iraqis, and we would continue to provide air support in order to prevent the formation of large insurgent forces. Cole’s strategy seems
consistent with pursuit of Krepinevich’s "more modest goal" of utilizing our "waning influence to outmaneuver the Iranians and the Syrians in creating an ally out of Iraq’s next despot."

Given the current state of affairs, in which there are no good options, either Krepinevich or Cole’s suggestions strike me as responsible and worth debating. I would suggest that the press should be making more efforts to help us understand the pros and cons of these different options– reengagement with a oil spot strategy, or partial disengagement. Brooks has performed a service by making a larger public aware of the oil spot strategy. Perhaps he could devote a future column to a fair presentation of the partial disengagement option?