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Déjà Vu

At some point someone has to ask whether a failing strategy is, in fact, retrievable.
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A tsunami of déjà vu washed over me recently as administration officials and advocates argued that good things are happening in Iraq while they pressed for more time for success to play out. Haven't we heard since the Iraq War turned badly in late 2003 that the seeds of success were just beginning to sprout, that the military was now moving to the right counterinsurgency strategy, that Iraqi security forces were finally taking the lead, and that a political solution was within sight? And in the last go-round, weren't we promised that another increment of force would solve Iraq's woes and lead to political reconciliation? I feel like we have turned so many corners that we are back where we started.

I served as a Marine rifle company commander in Vietnam, and today's Iraq debate takes me back there. It sadly reminds me of the "light at the end of the tunnel" syndrome that affected policy makers and senior military seeking to defend their policies and argue for more troops and time. Bright, well-intentioned people can believe that they can rescue a failing strategy with a policy shift here and a tactical redirection there, but at some point someone has to ask whether the strategy is, in fact, retrievable. Someone has to be prepared to say "enough."

If we are battling an "insurgency" in order to help Iraqis achieve a political solution, then we do not have enough security forces by any standard. In classic fashion, the "insurgents" disappear where we are strong and attack where we are weak, and U.S. forces are insufficient in number to deny the enemy mobility. Success in Anbar leads to conflict in Diyala. Pacifying a few Baghdad neighborhoods means ignoring Basra's growing chaos. A political settlement is unattainable while the enemy believes military success is possible. And against an external opponent like the U.S., stalemate equals success.

If, on the other hand as President Bush argues, we are involved in an existential "struggle for civilization" and Iraq is the "central front" in the Global War on Terrorism, then we are even more woefully undermanned. Why hand the enemy any advantage? Where is the overwhelming force? Why half-measures?

In either case, if one believes military force begets success in Iraq, the Bush Administration has been unprepared to commit the forces needed to carry out the strategy it has articulated. An additional 100,000 troops might have made the surge successful. Mobilization of the Guard and Reserve and a draft might have prevented the chaos we are now facing. But evaporating popular support has made the domestic political consequences of a serious troop increase unacceptable.

If we cannot muster the necessary manpower and resources for this war, we are short-changing our troops. If we cannot retain the support of the American public, we are separating our soldiers from our citizens. If we have Iraqi partners unprepared to make the tough political decisions needed and Iraqi security forces with little commitment to the Iraqi nation, we cannot ask our soldiers and Marines to be more willing to defend Iraq's future than Iraqis themselves.

For some time ahead, Iraqi society will remain entangled in multiple sectarian and factional conflicts. The Iraqi military and police will remain similarly fractured. And the national government, a reflection of broader society, will likely remain dysfunctional. Competing patronage systems and differing agendas will make reconciliation distant. Externally imposed stability efforts will run counter to the calculations of the internal actors.

Unable in this environment to foresee what the United States and the international community will do next, Iraqis are choosing the proximate security of their faction over any broader vision. Unable to depend on the central government, the United States now aligns itself with local militias in hopes of achieving local success, but, in reality, merely reinforcing factionalism and undermining the national government we profess to defend.

As a young lieutenant, I was taught that a failing strategy demanded alternatives. Committing one's forces to costly frontal assaults in the Iraqi quagmire is better replaced by a strategy allowing flexibility and economy of force. The time for more time has passed. It's time for Iraq's neighbors to join the political reconciliation process in Iraq or, at minimum, to contain the violence to Iraq. It's time for serious U.S. involvement in the Middle East Peace Process. And it's time to focus on the real Al Qaeda along the Pak-Afghan border. But only beginning the U.S. disengagement from Iraq will allow such alternatives to prosper.

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