Thursday, July 30, 2009

When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It [Updated]

A classic Yogi Berra quote. Well, the US is facing some difficult choices in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement [SOFA] with Iraq, negotiated by the Bush Administration and pushed by Presidential Candidate Obama, has led to the Iraqi security forces taking the lead, and the US troops (alone, since the Iraqis did not manage to pass a SOFA with the Brits) now find themselves having to ask permission of the Iraqis to act. The SOFA also ends in 2011, which would suggest that the US troops would have to leave by then as well.

Well, how is the turnover to the Iraqis going thus far? Not well, according to at least one report. Indeed, the Colonel in this memo argues that there is really not much that the US mentoring can do in two years (until 2011) to change the ingrained Soviet/Ba'athist culture within the Iraqi security forces, so there is little point in hanging around. As the kids say, OMG! The report indicates that the various Iraqi security forces are corrupt, poorly managed and significantly influenced by Shiite political parties, but can fight the various insurgents on their own.

So, classic glass half-full/half-empty situation. Enough training has happened so that the Iraqi security folks can fight their own wars. But they are going to do it their way. And classic COIN theory argues that it is better for the locals to do the half semi-adequately than to have the foreigners do it very well. BUT there are heaps of politics here, including the refusal of the Prime Minister of Iraq to work with the Sunnis who were insurgents but then sided with the US against the Al Qaeda of Iraq folks--aka Sons of Iraq or Sunni Awakening. Would be better for the US to stick around and try to encourage Maliki not to become too authoritarian or get out so that the US will not have to bear as much direct responsibility for a Shiite version of a Ba'athist Iraq?

And, of course, getting a new SOFA through in 2011 to allow the Americans to stay is perhaps quite unlikely. I am seeing Vietnamization all over again in some ways--declare victory, have a decent interval to pull out, and then stay out when things degenerate.

Again, this is why one does not invade countries like Iraq, as Cheney notably argued in 1991--the endgame is incredibly difficult and few choices are appealing.

The debate now really is about how fast to pull out the US troops--for the sake of saving the future of the US armed forces, given the increasingly marginal impact they will be making in Iraq.

Whether the glass is half-empty or half-full, I am glad that I don't have to drink it. But Obama, Gates, and his national security team are going to have to do something with it.

UPDATE: See Ricks for his take on this memo.

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