Janine Davidson

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In Iraq, What Exactly Was the Alternative?

by Emerson Brooking
June 24, 2014

iraq-policy U.S. soldiers stand near the Swords of Qadisiyah monument in Baghdad March 13, 2008. Picture taken March 13, 2008. (Ceerwan Aziz/Courtesy Reuters)


By Emerson Brooking

This commentary comes courtesy of Emerson Brooking, research associate for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Brooking argues that out of many recent criticisms of the United States’ 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, very few have put forward a viable alternative. He observes that critics’ commonly held position—that U.S. forces should have stayed “until the job was done”—neglects the actual role played by the U.S. military in theater. Absent political pressure and a fundamental shift in Iraqi governance, lasting strategic success in Iraq could not have been won by soldiers alone, no matter the duration of their stay.

We Never Should Have Left Iraq.” “Who Lost Iraq?” “Bush warned this would happen in Iraq.” “Obama’s Iraq disaster.” “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine.” “Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.”

Amid news of terrible losses inflicted upon the Iraqi government by advancing Sunni militants, accusations have flown as to who should bear responsibility for ceding the hard-fought gains of the Iraq War. A number of recent commentaries—many by planners and supporters of the initial 2003 invasion—have placed blame squarely on President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011.

If only the United States had remained in Iraq longer, they argue, the Iraqi state under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki might have stabilized itself. Paul Wolfowitz, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, goes a step further, asserting that Iraq required an open-ended security commitment akin to the United States’ sixty-year defense of South Korea following the 1953 armistice. It is a parallel he has made before.

Taken as a whole, however, these critics offer little in the way of actionable alternatives. Their most commonly articulated position—that U.S. troops should have simply stayed “until the job was done”—does not represent a viable strategy. In fact, it represents the opposite of strategy.

Let’s begin with the remarkable (and untenable) equivalencies drawn between post-war Korea and post-war Iraq. In wake of the Korean War, American troops garrisoned the peninsula to provide a bulwark against renewed aggression by North Korean forces. Their primary mission was outward-facing deterrence, not national reconstruction. Because North and South Korea remain at odds, there has been a continued need for American presence in the region.

By comparison, the U.S. forces stationed in Iraq after 2003 were tasked with reconstituting a shattered state. There were no overt, existential threats to deter. Instead, the threat came from a spectrum of sectarian groups, each of which was set on committing terrible acts against the others. Because American soldiers stood between these groups, they bore attacks from all sides. The U.S. mission, therefore was to quell the violence enough to give Iraqis the chance to reconcile and build a functioning state. Americans could create the conditions for victory, but only Maliki and Iraq’s political leadership could achieve lasting strategic success.

After years of bitter setback, the U.S. military began to achieve its operational objective in 2007. This followed a surge in overall troop numbers—to a peak strength of 168,000, more than the initial invasion force—as well as a shift to counterinsurgency doctrine,  a policy of rapprochement with moderate Sunnis, and Sunni and Shiites’ own growing neighborhood segregation. The result was an 80 percent decrease in roadside bombings and a virtual standstill in sectarian violence.


With a shift in U.S. operational strategy, civilian casualties fell from a 2006 wartime peak of 34,500 to 6,400 in 2008 and a steady diminishment thereafter. (Iraq Index/The Brookings Institution)

However, as Fred Kaplan writes in The Insurgents, this success came with caveats:

[I]n the broader scheme, this shift, however dramatic, had only tactical consequences. The surge and the [counterinsurgency] campaign that went with it were—explicitly—mere means to an end…By the summer of 2007, it was clear that the American troops were fulfilling their part of the bargain.

The question was whether the Iraqi factions would take advantage of the breathing space. Would they strike an agreement on sharing oil wealth? Would the Kurds and Sunni Arabs settle their property disputes in Kirkuk? Perhaps most important for the country’s future, would Maliki incorporate the [moderate Sunnis] into the national Iraqi army? And if these things didn’t happen, would the surge and the new strategy turn out to have only prolonged the fighting and compounded the war’s tragic waste?

With hindsight, the answer to these questions is clearly “no.” As Dexter Filkins demonstrated in his revealing profile of Maliki, the Prime Minister used the four years of “breathing space” bought by American troops to consolidate authority, dismember the constitutional checks on his ministerial power, and shape Iraq’s armed forces (American-trained and funded) into a virtually Shiite-exclusive enterprise. Indeed, it was Maliki who ultimately jettisoned U.S. soldiers in 2011 in order to court influence with Iran and Shiite hardliners. His “compromise” offer of a small U.S. contingent garrison, bereft of immunity from Iraqi law, was an obvious poison pill.

If there is criticism to be leveled against the United States’ post-2007 Iraq policy, it should be of the failure to apply political pressure to Maliki commensurate with the military gains. Partly, this was a consequence of poor or absent civil planning that pre-dated the 2003 invasion. The creation of Iraq’s post-war government was due less to a grand strategic road map than a series of disjointed, ad hoc initiatives. It was not possible to take bold political action if there was little sense what a proper civil end-state might look like.

Compounding this challenge, in their efforts to avoid showing any hint of occupation, U.S. administrators guided Maliki with a lighter hand than they should have. Such behavior ran counter to effective counterinsurgency practice, which, as Dr. Walter Ladwig argues, requires concerted political pressure on the host government in order to “lock in” the counterinsurgent’s military gains. This ultimately represented a significant failing, although it is not the failing identified by many of today’s most vocal critics.


Kuwaiti and U.S. soldiers close the border gate after the last vehicle crossed into Kuwait during the US miltary’s withdrawal from Iraq December 18, 2011. (Caren Firouz/Courtesy Reuters)

Given the circumstances under which the United States operated, it is difficult to see, if Maliki had been afforded three further years of direct military support—troops with targets painted on their backs—how the Iraqi state could have fared better so long as the current Prime Minister remained at the helm. Keeping a U.S. garrison beyond 2011 might have maintained security, but it would have brought Iraq little closer to sustainable democracy. Keeping that garrison over the objection of Iraq’s elected government would surely have made things worse. Either way, more American lives might have been lost.

At the hands of another leader, strategic victory might have come easier in Iraq—but this is a counterfactual. Maliki’s candidacy was vetted and backed by the CIA in 2006; in time,  he had become the subject of path dependency. By 2011, the ouster of Maliki, twice-elected, might well have undermined the entire credibility Iraqi democratization. If Maliki is removed now, as many are advocating, it may address an immediate problem, but it will still be a process of many years to reach an enduring political conciliation.  And such a transition in leadership must be driven by the Iraqi people.

Ultimately, those insisting that the United States military should have remained in Iraq indefinitely—akin to the open-ended American commitment in Korea—do not champion a practical alternative so much as a hope that things could have eventually gotten better. While a powerful emotional appeal, this is not a strategy.

Given the realistic options with which it was faced, the United States was right to end combat operations in 2011. It should not have stayed longer, and it should not redeploy in large numbers now.

Emerson Brooking is a research associate for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by df

    To quote Dexter Filkins in another New Yorker article he recently wrote on events in Iraq “Time and again, American commanders have told me, they stepped in front of Maliki to stop him from acting brutally and arbitrarily toward Iraq’s Sunni minority”, which stands in contrast to the author’s statement “it should be of the failure to apply political pressure to Maliki commensurate with the military gains. ” Those who make the argument that the Surge failed to realize political objectives are not aware of the fact that the Iraqi government passed very important legislation befitting a new state in 2008 onward. These laws included provincial governance, oil wealth distribution, electoral laws, pensions for civil servants, and their own version of de-Baathification.

    “requires concerted political pressure on the host government in order to “lock in” the counterinsurgent’s military gains” This is an important point to make, however the delicate balance between respecting sovereignty but playing a leading role in nation building and rehabilitating a failed state is a prime challenge for this crucial aspect of the strategy. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, both heads of state cried out against America infringing upon sovereignty when the actions being taken aimed to build a more inclusive government, which undercuts the hedging strategy of ethnic patronage groups that has characterized the politics of those countries, although Iraq far more so than Afghanistan. Perhaps something that will favor Afghanistan is a democratic and peaceful transition in power from the individual who was the first of head to the next while foreign governments are still planning to keep troops and maintain foreign aid.

  • Posted by jack

    Mr Maliki lost his country by ignorance and will soon lose his life likewise , so we should not cry too loud or long for him, the Iraqis who trusted him, a little more worthy of sympathy, and Iraqis who trusted us, well Arabs et al will not make that mistake again any time soon

    In the disintegrated Yugoslavia, Mr Clinton used American military air power to bludgeon the parties into a deal, and we have not heard from them since. We did not have boots on the ground nor any obvious dog in that fight.

    So use that model.

    Our Big Dog in Iraq, is that some factions are more adverse to us than others, and our interests are to defeat Islamic theocracy, preferably by supporting Islamic secularism, these are relative terms, and neither is western pluralistic democracy and both are butchers, but one is our butcher,

    Our interest is perpetual green on green warfare, with containment of those who fight there, quarantined when they come back, maybe to gitmo, for as long as shia and sunni make war, maybe another 1300 years, or until the heat death of the sun, which will happen sooner

  • Posted by Michael

    Emerson, you really don’t know much about what happened in Iraq from 2003 – 2009 (2009 really marking the end of most combat ops). A train and assist mission that stayed in place after 2011 would have gone a long ways to avoiding the conditions that have led to the current impending disaster. Here are a few points to consider: 1) US forces would have been able to collect, analyze, and share intel on ISIS to prevent it from becoming an existential threat to the GOI; 2) We would have had the means to recognize and apply far more pressure on Maliki to maintain the quality and mix of the IAF officer corps; 3) We would have been able to assist the GOI in maintaining and improving the quality of their military forces by ensuring they received the right training and equipment and helping them establish the culture within their military to sustain their successes from 2007-2011. The bottom line is that there is so much more that could have been done and we would not find ourselves in this situation if we hadn’t pulled out completely in 2011. Your article is based on a revisionist and superficial understanding of the situation in Iraq up to our withdrawal. You should also consider the historical successes of nation-building missions (e.g Marshall Plan) and how long those efforts took.

  • Posted by Michael

    Also, you got this wrong: “U.S. military began to achieve its operational objective in 2007.” This is incorrect. We began to achieve our operational objectives in fall 2005 when the first Sunni tribal militia (the “Desert Protectors) was formed in Al Qaim. That’s when the tide really began to turn.

  • Posted by Peter Polack

    The ISIS Rampage

    The ISIS caliphate rampage success should come as no surprise despite the endless pundit theories on underlying strategy.

    Despite no air support, little heavy weaponry and a 30 to 1 numerical disadvantage ISIS have swept across large swathes of IRAQ and Syria.

    The initial flying column strategy was limited to a track through main access routes and lightly defended checkpoints while isolating strategic cities causing general panic.

    The French had originally perfected this operational method under Marshal Bugeaud in Algeria around 1840. Brigade size task forces of infantry, artillery, cavalry and engineers chased guerrillas throughout the deserts and mountains of Algeria. Accompanying supply trains transitioned from wagons to mules and camels to improve mobility. The successful South African force in Angola during 1987-88 was a modern version of the colonial war era flying column used by English troops in the Boer Wars of the early 20th century and subsequently adapted by the Irish IRA in their war for independence.

    An excellent analysis on this method of warfare can be found by Colonel Michael F. Morris, USMC Commanding Officer, Expeditionary Warfare Training Group, Atlantic in his 1998 monograph “Flying Columns in Small Wars: An OMFTS Model”.

    The ISIS strategy like their predecessors in history will founder on overextended supply lines, strategic air strikes and large well equipped offensive columns forcing them into the difficult and unfamiliar territory of static defense.

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