Time has a fascinating cover feature this week on the missteps made by the United States in the early months of the war in Iraq. The story has endured countless retellings by now, but this one adds a few new crucial details, especially on how the CPA failed to negotiate an agreement with the major Sunni tribes early during the occupation. But the last two paragraphs in particular—a classic “What is to be done?” moment—merit discussion:
Another hot debate in the intelligence community is whether to make a major change in the counterinsurgency strategy–to stop the aggressive sweeps through insurgent-riddled areas, like the recent offensive in Tall ‘Afar, and try to concentrate troops and resources with the aim of improving security and living conditions in population centers like Baghdad. “We’ve taken Samarra four times, and we’ve lost it four times,” says an intelligence officer. “We need a new strategy.”
But the Pentagon leadership is unlikely to support a strategy that concedes broad swaths of territory to the enemy. In fact, none of the intelligence officers who spoke with TIME or their ranking superiors could provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq. It is quite possible that the occupation of Iraq was an unwise proposition from the start, as many U.S. allies in the region warned before the invasion. Yet, despite their gloom, every one of the officers favors continuing–indeed, augmenting–the war effort. If the U.S. leaves, they say, the chaos in central Iraq could threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. And al-Qaeda operatives like al-Zarqawi could have a relatively safe base of operations in the Sunni triangle. “We have never taken this operation seriously enough,” says a retired senior military official with experience in Iraq. “We have never provided enough troops. We have never provided enough equipment, or the right kind of equipment. We have never worked the intelligence part of the war in a serious, sustained fashion. We have failed the Iraqi people, and we have failed our troops.”
So to recap: none of the intelligence officers here, or their ranking superiors, can “provide a plausible road map toward stability in Iraq.” Nevertheless, everyone “favors continuing—indeed augmenting—the war effort.” That’s just perverse. So perverse, one wonders what’s going on here. Unlike politicians, or prominent liberal hawks trying to schedule TV appearances, these intelligence officers presumably don’t need to save face by declaring that we must stay the course. If they truly thought that Iraq was doomed—i.e., that chaos in central Iraq would threaten the stability of the Middle East and al-Qaeda was destined to seize a safe base of operations—regardless of whether the United States stayed or left, they could presumably just say so. But they didn’t. That means they either genuinely think muddling along under the current course is better than leaving because that’s a sound assessment, or else they’re simply unable to contemplate bad things happening. If the latter, they better start contemplating.
In the past, people like Anthony Cordesman have argued rather convincingly—to me, at least—that the military could more or less muddle through the current course, training Iraqi security forces and the like, and come through with at least a stable Iraq in tow. But the fact that not a single intelligence officer can “provide a plausible road map toward stability” changes that picture in a big way. These folks have screwed up before, but they seem to know more than most. Meanwhile, Elaine Grossman of Inside the Pentagon reports that behind the scenes, officers are cautioning that “even under the best circumstances the emerging Iraqi army does not appear ready to fill the security vacuum left by departing U.S. troops.” Peter Galbraith says the security forces are segregated into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, and a cohesive, national Iraqi Army is nowhere to be found: “There is exactly one mixed battalion.” Potentially, announcing a U.S. withdrawal will make this situation much, much worse and fracture the army even more, as various militias gird themselves for what they see as an inevitable expansion of the current civil war after the U.S. leaves, which girding only makes that war inevitable. But it’s not clear that things will get any better if we stay around. Where’s the “plausible road map”? Nowhere.