Iraq's perilous election and the need for exit strategies

Just two weeks from Iraq's general elections that decide who will sit on the 275-member national assembly, Baghdad's course toward that end grows more perilous each day.

Attacks on U.S. forces have grown deadlier; ambushes of Iraq's budding security forces are increasingly successful; the marginal stability that presently exists is being further threatened by the lethal insurgent targeting of politicians and government figures; intelligence reports show that the insurgency is growing stronger with each passing day. The electoral quest has proven to be so messy that it is difficult to conclude that the elections will bring enough peace and stability to alter significantly the present dynamic in Iraq.

Attacks on U.S. Troops and Iraqi Security Forces

Since the beginning of the insurgency in 2003, attacks on U.S. forces have swelled, increasing in deadliness and effectiveness. Each day, attacks are initiated throughout the country, highlighting its instability. On January 3, a suicide car bomber drove his vehicle into a checkpoint near the Baghdad offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's political party, the Iraqi National Accord. Hours later, another explosion brought casualties at a checkpoint entrance to the Green Zone, the most heavily fortified area of Iraq containing the headquarters of the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy.

Just a few days later, on January 6, a suicide car bomber exploded his vehicle outside a police academy near Baghdad during its graduation ceremony, killing 20; that same day, a suicide attacker killed five policemen, and insurgents also assassinated a police colonel on his way to work. The following day, a roadside bomb took the lives of seven American soldiers. On January 10, Baghdad's deputy police chief, General Amer Ali Nayef, was gunned down outside of his home.

In the midst of these incidents, executed bodies of Iraqis have been turning up all around the country, with one recent discovery in Mosul where the bodies of 18 civilians were discovered, executed because they sought work at an American military base. That same day, three Jordanian truck drivers were found near Ramadi, executed and left with a note attached to their bodies, warning, "This is the fate of anyone who cooperates with the Americans."

Without a clear enemy to fight, U.S. forces have been thrust into a situation where they are targeted by unseen enemies who use explosives to strike at U.S. convoys covertly. When these enemies are seen, it is often during a suicide mission where an insurgent drives a car bomb into a U.S. checkpoint. These attacks are not meant to cast serious blows on the U.S. occupation, but are intended to erode slowly the resolve of the Americans.

Along with the targeting of American soldiers, the killings of Iraqi security forces continue to take a toll on those Iraqis fighting on the side of American troops. According to Iraq's Interior Ministry, more than 1300 policemen were killed during the last four months of 2004. These soldiers have become easy targets for Iraqi guerrilla groups that realize one of Washington's central aims in the country is to create viable, indigenous security forces; when compared with U.S. forces, these units are often easier to kill and to defeat due to their questionable dedication and substandard training.

Iraqi security forces have fallen prey to many different methods of attack, from suicide car bombings to mass executions by insurgent forces. Just recently, insurgents practiced a modified method of attack and packed a beheaded corpse with explosives, blowing apart the policeman who arrived to investigate the scene. Indeed, in November, insurgents attacked police and national guard units in Mosul, successfully taking control of certain parts of the city. Because of these gains, U.S. forces have now been assigned to every police station in Mosul in order to prevent another situation where Iraqi security forces desert when attacked by insurgents.

Insurgency Creates Heightened Level of Instability

The surging attacks by guerrillas in the last months are part of a strategy to create massive instability throughout Iraq in an effort to prevent or discredit the January 30 general elections. The other element of the insurgent strategy is the targeting and killing of politicians and government figures participating or working with U.S. forces. A series of assassinations and assassination attempts have made the prospect of participating in the U.S.-fostered political process extremely risky, a reality that grows more and more precarious with each passing day.

For instance, on January 4, the governor of Baghdad province -- Ali al-Haidari -- while traveling in a three-vehicle convoy in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah, was assassinated by insurgents. The murder of al-Haidari is significant since he is the most senior figure to be assassinated by insurgents since the killing of the former president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abdel-Zahraa Othman, in May 2004.

The assassination of al-Haidari accentuates the ability of insurgents to launch carefully planned, strategic attacks aimed at crippling the political process. Furthermore, the assassination of such a significant figure speaks to the ability of the insurgency to receive inside information provided by members of the Iraqi security forces. The head of the Baghdad division of the Iraqi National Guard, Major General Mudhir Abood, told reporters that members of his paramilitary police force have leaked classified information to insurgent groups.

This type of behavior is a trend that is often observed when outside powers attempt to build indigenous security forces in a country facing an insurgency. It was best witnessed during the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, when U.S.-trained members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (A.R.V.N.) supplied both classified information and military equipment to the insurgent forces that made up the Viet Cong.

In addition to attacks on Iraqi politicians, insurgents have also attempted to exploit the sectarian rifts within Islam. Attacks against Shi'a power groups participating in the upcoming elections have been pervasive; the motives behind these attacks lie in the interests of the Sunni Arab minority who aim to prevent Iraqi Shi'a from using their majority status in the country to consolidate political power in the upcoming elections. Assassination attempts against Shi'a political leaders occur frequently, such as the December 27 Baghdad car bombing directed at the offices of Shi'a leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the most prominent Shi'a political parties. More recently, on January 12, gunmen killed Sheik Mahmoud Finjan, a representative of Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

All of these attacks by various insurgent groups are meant to create a heightened level of instability to prevent the January elections from occurring, or, if this is not possible, to create conditions where the turnout for the elections is so poor that their results cannot be considered representative of the population. While the elections are still scheduled to proceed, the insurgents have been fairly successful in their strategy. On January 6, Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the commander of American ground forces in Iraq, admitted that vital areas of four of Iraq's 18 provinces are not secure enough for citizens to vote; the provinces -- Al Anbar, Nineva, Salahadin and Baghdad -- are all Sunni-dominated areas and contain 50 percent of the country's population. Indeed, the continuing violence and Washington's recognition of its lack of control is leading many Iraqis to question whether the dangers inherent in voting are worth the end result.

Insurgency Steams Ahead

These developments speak to Washington's failure to quell an insurgency that is rapidly growing in depth and size. In November 2003, U.S. General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, estimated that the insurgency "does not exceed 5,000" fighters. Now, in January 2004, new estimates place the insurgency at more than 200,000 fighters and active supporters -- a major increase from Abizaid's previous claims of 5,000. General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, the director of Iraq's new intelligence services, said on January 3 that "the resistance is bigger than the U.S. military in Iraq. … I think the resistance is more than 200,000 people."

The growth within the insurgency's ranks was foreseeable in the months after the initial U.S. invasion ended, when U.S. forces failed to create levels of stability acceptable to the bulk of the Iraqi population. Partly due to inadequate troop levels, Washington failed to eliminate the lawlessness that arose immediately after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party. In addition, basic services such as electricity were not restored at a quick enough pace to inspire confidence in the occupying forces. As summarized by Shahwani, explaining the motivations behind many of the insurgents, "People are fed up after two years without improvement. People are fed up with no security, no electricity, people feel they have to do something."

Another factor that likely contributed to the growth of the insurgency was the Shi'a rebellion led by Moqtada al-Sadr in April 2004. Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army engaged U.S.-led forces and, while greatly outmatched by U.S. firepower, managed to expose the weakness of Iraq's security forces, which were largely unable to repel attacks from al-Sadr's militia. Al-Sadr's uprising, which did not even have the active support of a majority of Iraq's Shi'a, dramatically revealed the power that Iraqi Shi'a could choose to exercise should they feel that their interests are being violated. This ominous development, which emboldened the insurgents, accelerated Iraq's instability by raising doubts over Washington's level of control.

Finally, another important factor explaining Iraq's present instability is one that came into existence in March 2003, when the initial invasion was set in motion. By choosing to invade Iraq, the Bush administration decided to intervene in a country that suffers from broad sectarian rifts that have existed since its creation. Iraq's political questions have yet to be answered, for there is still no understanding on how the three main power groups within the country -- Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, and Shi'a Arabs -- will share power. In fact, the only factor that has kept Iraq from falling into some form of serious civil war during the past 84 years is the country's historical legacy of authoritarian governments that suppress all forms of dissent. With the elimination of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party, the failure to immediately construct a new government that was either accepted by the bulk of the population or acted authoritatively to quash dissent resulted in the sectarian violence surfacing today.

The preceding factors help to explain why insurgents were not immediately marginalized by the bulk of the Iraqi population and have been able to grow in strength and effectiveness. Some insurgents are supported out of Iraqi nationalism and anger over the actions of the U.S. government in invading and occupying Iraq, while others are supported because they are pursuing the interests of their particular religious/ethnic sect.

These conditions impose an almost impossible hurdle for the United States to jump. As stated by James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation and printed in the January edition of the influential publication Foreign Affairs, "The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people's confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back."

Exit Strategies

The present conditions in Iraq are turning more and more undesirable for U.S. interests. Troop losses are turning American public opinion away from the conflict, with 50 percent of Americans now saying it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into Iraq; the economic costs involved are skyrocketing, with the war costing thus far $130 billion, well above the Bush administration's initial estimates of $50-$60 billion; and the military is overextended and has therefore inadvertently decreased the potential threat of U.S. military action elsewhere in the world, which works potentially to weaken U.S. power. As a result of deteriorating conditions, the Pentagon announced on January 6 that it would be dispatching retired four-star Army General Gary E. Luck to Iraq in order to carry out a review of the military's entire Iraq strategy. In light of all these developments, Washington needs to concentrate on both short-term and long-term exit strategies that will scale back its level of present involvement.

Washington will find difficulty in discovering exit strategies that do not damage U.S. interests. One potential exit strategy is a mass influx of U.S. troops into the country. This strategy has been pushed by members of Congress, in addition to former presidential candidate John Kerry. Much of the instability that reigns today is a result of the initial Bush administration decision to use as few troops as safely possible to occupy post-Saddam Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assured in February 2003, before the invasion, that "The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far from the mark." However, in that same month, General Eric K. Shinseki, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, advised that "Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers, are probably, you know, a figure that would be required. We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems."

But the decision to use as few troops as possible for the occupation created conditions where insurgents were better able to plan and execute scattered attacks on U.S. forces, testing to find weak points in the American military's defenses. Insurgents were also able to execute attacks on politically significant targets, such as oil pipelines and crowded market squares; these attacks weaken confidence in the occupying troops and create heightened levels of instability.

Nevertheless, while in 2003 more troops on the ground may have prevented the rapid growth of the insurgency -- by giving it less freedom to organize and plan attacks -- it is doubtful that it would have the same effect now. The insurgency has grown so large that an influx of troops could merely mean more targets for the insurgents to attack. Furthermore, present troop levels in Iraq are already straining the U.S. military to a degree where any increase in deployment could damage U.S. interests and defenses elsewhere.

U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers already make up 40 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq, soon to be increased to 50 percent. Both of these military divisions have seen a shortfall in recruiting targets during the past few months, as many Americans are hesitant about making a decision that could cause them to be mobilized for two straight years. The exhaustive use of the military led Lieutenant General James Helmly, head of the U.S. Army Reserve, to announce that that the reserve was "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force." Retired four-star Army General Barry McCaffrey agreed, saying in early January, "The Army's wheels are going to come off in the next 24 months. The data are now beginning to come in to support that."

The Pentagon has already pulled some of its troops from South Korea to redeploy them to Iraq, and military officials are now mulling over whether to increase permanently the active duty Army force from 482,000 to 512,000 -- an increase that will cost an additional $3 billion a year; on top of these proposed changes, the Pentagon is also debating whether to change its National Guard and Reserve mobilization policy to allow reserve soldiers to be mobilized for more than two years of active service.

Yet, as stated earlier, even with these changes and an influx of troops to Iraq, the U.S. will have difficulty overcoming the insurgency. Dr. Max Manwaring, a research professor of military strategy at the U.S. Army War College, recently told the Power and Interest News Report that, barring a significant change of events, the insurgents will eventually "take control of the state." Manwaring argues that his studies of post World War II insurgencies show that "the more intense and voluminous the military actions of the intervening Western power, the more likely the incumbent government was to lose to the insurgents," and that "the more the intervening power escalated the numbers of its forces in response to a deteriorating situation, the worse [the situation] got."

Another exit strategy -- one that is presently being employed by the Bush administration -- is to create viable Iraqi security forces to replace U.S. forces quickly in establishing stability. This policy, already coined "Iraqification," is similar to the failed "Vietnamization" policy of the 1960s and 1970s employed during the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. This strategy is a must in order for the United States -- at some point in the future -- to begin to shift its forces out of Iraq; even if Washington is still set on a long-term commitment in Iraq, it must generate for itself the option of pulling troops out of the country to deploy them elsewhere.

Furthermore, the cold reception that U.S. troops received by the bulk of the Iraqi population means that a high-profile American presence should be avoided for risk of fueling the insurgency. As explained by Dr. Steven Metz, chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department of the U.S. Army War College, to the Power and Interest News Report, this "argument is based on the assumption that it is the American presence itself that fuels support for the insurgency, so the less that presence, the less support for the insurgency."

It appears that Washington is coming to terms with this necessity. General George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is now considering expanding a program where U.S. military personnel act as advisers to Iraqi security forces. As was the case during U.S. involvement in Vietnam, when U.S. advisers are present during engagements between Iraqi security forces and insurgents, the security forces are more effective. The drawback to this expansion, however, is that it takes American troops away from units that could be used to launch offensives on insurgents.

Nonetheless, enhancing the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces is of utmost necessity for the United States. Speaking to the New York Times, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Brigadier General Carter Ham, explained that "The development of Iraqi security forces is, in my view, necessarily the main effort." Ham commented on the proposed adviser expansion program, arguing that "It's time to apply it on a larger scale. It seems to me that this is something we want to start doing in the immediate post-election period."

But, while the "Iraqification" strategy is imperative, there is no guarantee that it will be any more successful than it was during the Vietnam intervention. The success of this policy hinges on whether the United States can marginalize Iraqi guerrilla forces and prevent them from gaining further support among the civilian population.

Once again, this strategy had a better chance for success early into the intervention, before the rapid growth of the insurgency. Now, the situation somewhat resembles failed U.S. attempts in Vietnam, where U.S.-trained indigenous forces were less resolute and poorly trained when compared to their enemy counterparts; for instance, in Iraq's most violent provinces, desertion rates among U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces is growing. In a December 19 interview with the American television program "Meet the Press," Senator John W. Warner, the Republican head of the Armed Services Committee, warned that the "raw material is lacking in the willpower and commitment after [Iraqi security forces] receive this training to really shoulder the heavy responsibilities." Indeed, the Bush administration's quarterly update to Congress on Iraq stated "While Iraq's security forces have shown considerable progress during this last quarter, the overall performance of these forces has been mixed when put to the test."

The one major difference between the situation in Vietnam and Iraq -- which is a positive sign for American efforts -- is that in Iraq the only fighters threatening Iraqi security forces are that of guerrilla forces, with limited organizational cooperation between the different militias; unlike Vietnam, there is no organized state military that presently threatens Iraqi security forces comparable to what A.R.V.N. faced from the North Vietnamese Army. Without an organized army to face, the situation in Iraq appears to be less challenging than in Vietnam; Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military can concentrate solely on preventing an internal revolution.

The final exit strategy is the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq's cities, allowing the different Iraqi factions to work out a power-sharing arrangement themselves. As part of this strategy, a greatly reduced number of American troops would still occupy a small number of fortified bases in order to protect Iraq from attacks by outside states, along with preserving the ability to launch quick strikes against critical targets. Pressure for this strategy is building; Secretary of State Colin Powell is now arguing that American troops will begin leaving Iraq this year, provided that Iraq's security forces are able to take on a larger security role.

Upon a withdrawal, a number of outcomes could occur. One such outcome could result in the division of Iraq into three separate autonomous regions, with the Sunni Kurds inhabiting northern Iraq, Sunni Arabs controlling central Iraq, and Shi'a Arabs ruling over southern Iraq. This outcome would cause a series of problems: Turkey, and other neighboring states, would be agitated over Kurdish autonomy; central Iraq would crave the rich oil fields to its north and south, and the Shi'a of southern Iraq may gravitate politically toward Iran. Such an outcome could result in tumultuous civil warfare throughout Iraq for years to come.

Upon an American withdrawal, there is also the possibility that a dominant power group within Iraq would be able to consolidate control over the entire country. While the Kurds have little capability for this, the Sunni and Shi'a Arabs do. A return to Sunni Arab-based rule would result in a major uprising by the Shi'a in light of the country's current power vacuum. And control by the Shi'a, which would be violently resisted by Iraq's Sunnis, would likely seek assistance from Iran.


The United States is facing an increasingly complicated intervention in Iraq. Washington is presently focused on creating as much stability as possible before the upcoming general elections on January 30. Nonetheless, a heightened level of violence is occurring and there are still doubts over whether the elections will be able to proceed as scheduled. For instance, on January 3, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Shalan advised that the elections could still be delayed, provided that such a delay would result in a higher participation rate from Iraq's Sunni Arab population. Until this is decided, or until the elections occur, little will change in regards to the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

After the elections, however, the administration will have to examine its viable exit strategies critically. While the best case scenario is the creation of a popular democratic government, the odds of this occurring are now highly unlikely. While it would be disadvantageous to U.S. interests for Washington to completely withdraw from Iraq, it may be even more disadvantageous to remain. In the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "We will have to decide to what extent we want to be involved in what may become a civil war [after the elections]."

While one potential exit strategy is increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq to foster conditions of stability, the overarching present strategy is to create viable Iraqi security forces. The failure to create viable Iraqi security forces will mean the failure of the intervention. If Washington's best exit strategies are unsuccessful, then, for the sake of its interests in the Middle East, the United States must withdraw the bulk of its forces and reluctantly offer support to whichever Iraqi powerbroker has the best ability to stabilize Iraq, even if that stabilization takes place violently.

Erich Marquardt

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov