My New America Foundation colleague Michael Lind and author of The American Way of Strategy has just penned a thoughtful op-ed that gets right at the nugget of what Senator Lugar was pushing in his opening statement at the Crocker/Petraeus Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings.
Lind writes in The Australian:
The long-awaited report by David Petraeus to the US Congress on the war in Iraq has provoked a debate about tactics rather than what is needed: a debate about strategy.
The tactics are those of the US troop surge (a weasel word for escalation). Observers agree that the surge has had some effect in reducing violence in parts of Iraq, temporarily if not permanently. But this success, if it is a success, ignores the larger question of US strategy.
The US did not invade Iraq to provide it with a police force. The goal is not reducing Iraqi violence as an end in itself.
The tactic of reducing violence by Shia and Sunni militias and jihadists, some Iraqi and some foreign, was supposed to serve two goals: reconciling the Iraqi population to the central government and giving Iraq’s three main ethnic groups – Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds – time to agree on a stable power-sharing arrangement in a national unity government.
Unfortunately, it appears that however successful the surge may be as a tactic, the two strategic goals are incompatible. The Iraqi nation cannot be reconciled to the Iraqi government if there is no Iraqi nation, only three ethnic nations, each of which prefers a government it controls to one in which it shares power with the others.
I’m not completely on board with Lind on the complete break-up of Iraq into three distinct nations, and I recognize many problems with the somewhat similar Biden-Gelb plan to create a tripartite federal structure — but still, working through the dimensions of that debate is what is important and what we should be spending most of our time wrestling with.
The beginning of wisdom is to realize that the US needs a new strategy in Iraq, not new tactics in the service of an unworkable strategy.
Recently the US has experienced successes in getting Sunni leaders to co-operate in suppressing jihadists in their territories. This success, however, exposes the falsehood on which the Bush administration has based its justification of the war since 2003: the claim that the US has been fighting a single group called “the terrorists”, consisting of Sunni and Shia militants as well as al-Qa’ida-linked jihadists.
The US should build on this success by reaching out to Shia militants as well as Sunni militants, on condition that they agree to capture or kill jihadists operating in their territory.
Iraq has degenerated into a Hobbesian anarchy in which power grows from the barrel of a gun, as well as from the minaret of a mosque. If mullahs and militias are the real authorities in Iraq, not powerless politicians in a paper parliament, then to avert the further unnecessary expenditure of Iraqi as well as American and British lives, the US should build its policy on this fact.
I also disagree with Lind that an effective US strategy to decrease the Hobbesian temperature would be to create temporary alliances with Shia leaders as we have with Anbar Sunnis to attack and kill resident jihadists.
In my view, the Sunnis in Anbar — now less one important Sheikh killed perhaps in part because of his high profile support of the US mission and his handshake with George W. Bush — are working with American troops so as to buy time to re-organize and rejuvenate before going after Shia interests later, particularly after US troop levels taper.
And frankly, if US troops don’t depart, our Sunni allies today may be attacking us tomorrow.
But again, Michael Lind is exactly on target that we need to engage in a discussion about our strategic objectives — not the micro-tactics discussion the administration has seduced Congress into.
— Steve Clemons