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July 07, 2005

An Alternative Strategy for Iraq: let the forces of Iraqi Democracy combat the insurgency

Posted by Brendan Simms

While the coalition is winning the political battle in Iraq, the military situation is now no better than it was a year ago. US combat fatalities now exceed 1300 and if nothing changes the total figure, in all likelihood, will reach 2000 by the end of the year. Dr Brendan Simms - fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge - argues that it is time for an alternative military strategy for Iraq. Coalition forces should remain in the Kurdish areas, in the British-run south and in secure bases around Baghdad and on the Syrian border, but the insurgency should predominantly be combated by the forces of Iraqi democracy.

Whether or not Iraq is another Vietnam is hotly debated in the United States and worldwide. Perhaps, however, another "V-word" is more appropriate: Verdun. For it was at the First World War battle of Verdun in 1916, that the Germans hoped to "bleed the French white" in an epic battle of attrition. They nearly did so, and it was only the leadership of General Petain, and his rallying cry of "they shall not pass", that averted defeat.

In some ways, Iraq is becoming a Verdun: coalition strategy aims to "atrit" the insurgents and vows not to let the enemies of democracy pass. There is no doubt that the United States has the means and the stamina to "stay the course", until the Iraqi security forces are ready to meet the challenge, at least until the elections of 2008. But one wonders whether we are not making heavier weather of the insurgency than we need to, and stunting the very Iraqi capacity we are trying to build. After all, the Germans eventually gave up the strategy of attrition for more sophisticated "infiltration tactics" in 1917-1918 which nearly won them the war.

The brutal truth is that the military situation in Iraq is no better today than it was a year ago. US combat fatalities now exceed 1300. This is the highest figure since 1972, after which the United States began to wind down its commitment in Vietnam. There is every likelihood that the total figure will reach two-thousand by the end of the year, with no end in sight. In narrowly military terms, therefore, the coalition is facing a stalemate.

But in political terms whatever the grumblings on the US domestic front the coalition is winning. Because, as every counter-insurgency specialist knows, the centre of gravity in a guerrilla war is the population, not enemy forces. January's election showed, to almost universal surprise, just how much Iraq's Shias and Kurds, who together make up some 80 percent of the population, had embraced the process of democratisation, albeit in many cases for particular reasons. The insurgency has no viable future to offer them, save Baathist tyranny and Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. It is therefore unlikely that the supertanker of Shia democracy disciplined, resilient and moderate will turn. We have seen the military fruits of this in last few months, as Iraqi citizens, most of them Kurds and Shiite, have flocked into the police and armed forces, despite the dangers. It cannot be more than a few months before they are ready to take the fight to the insurgents, with coalition support. The date may be sooner than the US military or Iraqi politicians who risk being sucked into a security dependency culture - believe. Until that point is reached, Sunni rejectionists will press for a US withdrawal because they fancy their subsequent chances against the government of Iraq.

A possible alternative strategy would look something like this. The Iraqi security forces should be given complete responsibility for law and order across the country by the end of the summer. Coalition forces should be concentrated in four areas: in secure bases on the Syrian border in order to demonstrate to Damascus the coalition's continued commitment to its mission; in secure bases around Baghdad; in the friendly Kurdish areas in the north; and in the British-run south. All active patrolling and routine counter-insurgency work should cease; coalition troops and heavy weapons would be deployed only against larger concentrations of insurgents. This would massively reduce the US "footprint" and thus exposure to the enemy; but it would also give Iraqi democrats the benefit of overwhelming coalition firepower.

All this is extremely risky. It is possible that Iraqi forces will fare as badly as their ill-trained predecessors did in 2003-2004. It is possible that a full-scale Sunni revolt will lead to the complete loss of the western regions. Had US troops withdrawn a year ago, that is exactly what would have happened. But the strategy proposed rests not on any military insight but on the political assumption that about eighty percent of Iraqi citizens are now committed to Iraqi democracy rather than the insurgency; before January 2005, they had no such stake. Moreover, the stronger the Shia and the Kurds are militarily, the more ambiguous the Sunni rejectionists may be about the prospect of a total American withdrawal. In any case, there are more and more signs that the Sunni mainstream is trying to find its way back into the political process, another indication that the coalition is winning the underlying political battle, whatever the surface military turbulence. Contrary to what one sometimes reads, separatism is simply not a long time option for the resource-poor Sunnis, whose elites have traditionally depended on oil revenues and governmental posts from the centre. They will have to accommodate themselves to a democratic system in which they do not predominate, or else wither on the vine.

So we should take a deep breath and have confidence in our project. This will indeed be an act of faith, not unlike that undertaken by the protagonists of the 1960s movie The Flight of the Phoenix. This deals with the predicament of a group of westerners who have been stranded in the desert after their plane crashed. After all else fails, one of their number an aeronautical designer - finally repairs the aircraft. Just as they are about to take off, however, he admits that he is in fact a designer of toy aeroplanes; the "underlying principles", he insists, are the same. Needless to say, there was a happy end. No such outcome is guaranteed in Iraq; history may judge the removal of Saddam Hussein as a reckless experiment. Nevertheless, if the underlying principles of the project to democratise the Middle East are correct, Iraqi democrats should eventually prevail. One way or the other, if we do not let the Iraqi Phoenix soar soon, it may never do so.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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