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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | January 8, 2021
Stay and Win in Iraq
By Will Marshall

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Are Dennis Kucinich and Donald Rumsfeld secret allies? You'd think the Democrats' most vocal peacenik and the GOP warlord would have little in common, but both seem to be in a hurry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Even with Saddam Hussein in the bag and awaiting trial, that's a bad idea.

If Rummy is from Mars, Kucinich is from Pluto. The longshot presidential aspirant wants to withdraw all our troops now and dump the whole mess on the United Nations. Rumsfeld's exit strategy is Iraqification -- drawing down U.S. troops in this election year and handing off responsibility for security to hastily trained Iraqi forces.

If the U.S.-led coalition was merely mopping up Saddam's diehards, bringing some troops home would make sense. But the Pentagon announced its force reductions back in November, which turned out to be the bloodiest month of the conflict to date as 81 Americans were killed.

The escalating violence prompted facile and mostly misleading analogies between Iraq and Vietnam. But in one respect, the comparison is apt: The United States is once again waging a classic counterinsurgency campaign in a country whose culture seems worlds apart from ours. Like it or not, America is back in the business of winning hearts and minds.

How are we doing? On the plus side, Saddam's meek surrender to U.S. troops punctured his image as a latter-day Saladin, deprived the resistance of its most potent symbol, and slammed the door shut on a Baathist return to power. More prosaically, the coalition has restored electricity to much of the country, schools have reopened, and markets are bustling in Baghdad again. Coalition forces still face daily attacks but the body count tilts massively in their favor. And by agreeing to hand back sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government as early as June 2004, the coalition has eased Iraqi's fears of an unending American occupation.

There's plenty on the minus side, but the big issue is security. Instead of petering out, as the Bush administration predicted, the insurgency seems to have grown in scope and sophistication. "Since September, resistance elements have appeared to be better directed, better organized and more capable, employing new weapons and new tactics," reports Jeffrey White, a former U.S. intelligence analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

What the United States needs now is not an exit strategy but a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. The key elements of such a strategy are more supple military tactics, more money, and more allies.

With Saddam on ice, the coalition should carefully calibrate its use of force to avoid injuring innocent civilians as well as Iraqis' sense of wounded national pride. The coalition also needs to do a better job of protecting Iraqis, not just itself. Crime is rampant, but what Iraq analyst Ken Pollack calls the U.S. military's "obsession with force protection" keeps too many troops off the streets. More joint street patrols by U.S. troops and newly trained Iraqi police would go far toward boosting Iraqis' confidence that life really is better in liberated Iraq. But that requires more troops, not fewer, and it means deploying them in ways that could raise the risk of U.S. casualties.

In fact, the coalition needs more of everything in Iraq: more light infantry, more bureaucrats, more reconstruction workers, more civil affairs officers, more linguists, and more intelligence agents. The most plausible way to meet these needs is to internationalize Iraq's reconstruction, so that we can tap the resources of other countries that have more experience in nation-building than we do. Instead, the administration is counting on Iraqis -- just emerging from a quarter-century of totalitarian terror -- to quickly do the job themselves.

Finally, counterinsurgency also means spending money to win influential allies, especially tribal sheikhs in the Sunni heartland who enjoyed special favors from Saddam. United States commanders on the ground say pumping money into the local economy can undercut the insurgents' appeal and save U.S. lives.

The administration has rightly made the democratic transformation of the greater Middle East the grand American project of the 21st century. That job starts in Iraq. If we fail here, our hopes for liberalizing the region will be stillborn. To create a stable, representative government in Baghdad, we need to show total commitment to quelling a motley insurgency that includes remnants of Saddam's security and intelligence services, disgruntled Sunnis, and foreign jihadists. Yet the timing of the administration's troop cuts seems dictated by the campaign calendar, not strategy.

America has about six months to break the resistance and give the new Iraqi government a fighting chance to survive. It would help if our leaders stopped casting anxious glances toward the exits.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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