Accused of being “in a state of denial,” US President George Bush rejected calls for a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and instead has come up with a plan that will give it one “last big push” recognizing “the conditions on the ground.”
Bush met with the Iraq Study Group (ISG) led by former Secretary of State James Baker and Congressman Lee Hamilton commissioned by Congress to take an independent look at the Iraq policy and advocate future course of action but refused to divulge details. He counseled “people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon conditions on the ground.” Rejecting any timetable or a phased withdrawal plan demanded by some Democrats, Bush seemed to be endorsing a four point “victory strategy” by the ISG, heavily influenced by the Pentagon, which advocated a further troop induction.
While the American public and Congressmen are tired of war and want “the boys home,” Bush knows that the Americans will also not settle for a defeatist withdrawal nor will they abandon the army in the middle of major encounters. A defeatist withdrawal will weaken America ’s infantry reputation as a fighting force and may encourage other nations to challenge Washington. In the last 50 years, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia are excellent examples where infantry casualties proved too much for the public. While the American supremacy in airpower and missiles is widely accepted, the US also recognizes that it cannot win a war by firing million-dollar missiles from ships or planes. Referring to former President Bill Clinton’s policy of firing missiles into Taliban training camps in Afghanistan, one defense analyst put it as an ineffective use of “million dollar missiles at 50 dollar tents.”
While missiles and bombs may obliterate large installations and saturate large areas, diplomatic pressure, international opinion, and cost-to-benefit ratios on collateral damage to civilian lives and property makes extensive use of this option untenable in a counter-terrorism context. In Iraq War I and Serbia , the Americans were able to exercise this option to take out columns of troops and vital installations thereby crippling the enemy. In Vietnam , while such power was used in running battles, it was ineffective most of the time because the enemy was unknown. In Somalia, a peacekeeping force was dragged into a counter-terrorism operation and further deployment of specialist troops and use of sophisticated equipment and technology did not work. In Lebanon, the US Marines abandoned operation with a single terrorist strike. Therefore, there is no option but to have infantry on the ground, chase terrorists till they have no place to hide, cut off their finance, arms, and weapons supply routes, and disciplined cordon and search operations in affected areas to flush them out. India has done this in Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, and other states. Unfortunately, this option also means that one has to be ready to take casualties but inflict more casualties on the enemy.
As learnt by India, even the best-formed military solution will be useless unless there is also a parallel rehabilitation and negotiation process. While India had to deal with Indian issues, the US has to deal with a foreign culture fractured by decades of internal division and supported by outside forces. While Bush rightly complains that Iran and Syria are interfering in rehabilitation of Iraq , his country must also accept blame for Cold War inspired meddling in the region.
Obviously, the Pentagon has learnt from their engagements and that is why they are recommending and additional 20,000 soldiers, regional rehabilitation for the rehabilitation of Iraq, incite national reconciliation between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, and increased funding for training and equipment of the new Iraq army and police. Some analysts say that Bush has about 6-12 months to prove that his plan works and if not political compulsions will force withdrawals next year.
However, the core of the debate seems to be involving Iraq’s neighbors in discussion over its rehabilitation. While the ISG had recommended involving Sunni nations Saudi Arabia and Kuwait , there is not much discussion on Shia nations such as Iran and Syria or Kurd interests in Turkey. Baker has been publicly advocating direct negotiations with Iran and Syria, but Bush seems reluctant to explore that avenue citing Iran ’s nuclear program and Syria’s support to Hezbollah as reasons. Bush’s own ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair, although politically marginalized, has made several statements about talking to Iran and Syria and creating a “new partnership” with those nations if they renounced violence and nuclear weapons programs. He had also sent a senior diplomat to Damascus last month to initiate dialogue. The ISG will be talking to Blair about his thoughts on Iraq before recommending a plan of action.
Ultimately, the US has to ask itself how many lives or money it is willing to expend for what objective. The publicly declared objective is that the US wants democracy in Iraq , put a stop to the killing of thousands of civilians, curb its terrorism related activities, and destroy its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The sad fact is that dictators far worse than Saddam Hussein have been and continue to be financed by the US and have killed even more people, encourage terrorism with impunity, and toy with WMDs. We should accept these facts, what makes Iraq so special that requires such large sacrifices?
This is the question that the US must introspect to find an answer. The rest will follow from there