The Washington Post examined a plan for obtaining stability in Iraq sponsored by the US Institute of Peace. (The full report can be found here.) The plan would see a 50% reduction in US troop levels within the next 3 years, followed by a transition to full Iraqi control within 5 years.
This plan seems fairly reasonable to me. There’s no doubt that we cannot maintain a significant force in Iraq indefinitely without stretching our resources too thin. Our military needs to be larger to deal with the threats of the post-Cold War world, but even that takes time. We can and should maintain the current force levels until the spring when we can cement the progress made, but after that it is inevitable that we will begin a phased drawdown of troops to at least pre-surge levels.
However, in the meantime, I would add a few basic principles to the USIP report. I’ve studied democratization theory for several years, and there are some fundamental precepts to democratic development that are common throughout history that if applied to Iraq will hopefully foster democratic development there.
Some of these things are already being done at a local level. However, these are priorities that deserve emphasis. The current top-down model of development does not work and needs to be replaced by a grassroots emphasis that can provide a stable foundation for lasting peace in Iraq.
Build Institutions From The Bottom Up
The al-Maliki government has failed to produce lasting political compromise. The nature of the Iraqi government is deeply sectarian, and while the Iraqi Parliament is trying to do its best, the approach of trying to instill democracy from top-down institutions is not a productive means of achieving the end of a stable and pluralistic Iraq. What we are doing in Iraq is creating a cargo cult democracy. We’re building democratic institutions in the shape of a democratic society, but without the fundamental element of civil society.
Instead of focusing our efforts on the Iraqi government, we need to be working at the lowest levels of Iraqi society — neighborhoods, tribes, and villages. The biggest successes we’ve had are in low-level elections. Democracy starts not at the national level, but at the level of neighborhoods and villages. Elected representatives at that level have to live directly with their decisions. They are not isolated in the Green Zone, and they are directly responsible to their constituents. The basis of democracy is found in civil institutions, and civil institutions must be built from the bottom up.
The US should be working directly with these small-scale democracies, which they have been, but that should be the focus of our efforts. The al-Maliki government is unlikely to produce real change in Iraq, mainly because there isn’t enough buy-in from the Iraqi people. Once the Iraqi people have achieved a measure of control over their lives, the security situation will improve. The key to reducing terrorism is to have a system in which each Iraq citizen has a measure of control over their lives — autocracy breeds radicalism, and democracy fosters involvement and community. The more we can get the Iraqi people in control, the less incentive is their for Iraqis to try to tear down the system.
Push Electoral Reform In Iraq
The nature of the Iraqi government invites sectarianism. Voting for party lists means that the largest ethnic group gets control. The way beyond this is to decouple sectarianism from party politics. This will be a long-term goal, but the way to achieve that is to change the way Iraqi elections are won. Right now, the parliamentary system has Iraqis voting for slates of candidates rather than directly electing local officials who are beholden to their communities rather than their parties. Parliamentary democracies are rarely stable — witness Italy and Israel as examples. There are some advantages to such a system, but if our goal is to get the individual Iraqi people involved politically and feeling in control, they need to have an elected representative that is more accountable to them than to a party list.
Again, the first principle at play here is maximizing individual influence in government. The more political control the Iraqi people feel, the less fuel there will be for terrorism.
Build Iraq’s Economy From The Ground Up
Iraq doesn’t need a new Marshall Plan — again, the more money we put into large institutions, the more money will end up as graft and fuel for terrorism. Instead, we need to continue to push for local control. That means we need to institute a system of micro-loans backed by the US government that go directly to the Iraqi people. These loans should be similar to the Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) in which local unit commanders had authority to give money to worthy reconstruction projects.
The goals for this program are twofold: first, to get Iraqis working and reduce the unemployment that fields terrorism. Secondly, to improve relations between the US and the Iraqi people. If the Iraqis know that the US will provide for them, it creates additional incentives to cooperate with US forces. Neighborhoods that reject terrorism end up secure and prosperous. Those that embrace radicalism do not. Those who give up radicalism and help eradicate both AQI and Shi’ite death squads get the benefits. It becomes a matter of self-interest for individual neighborhoods to reject terrorism and embrace democratic rule.
Disband The Interior Ministry
The Interior Ministry is hopelessly corrupt and sectarian. Iraqi police are often thoroughly infiltrated by Shi’ite militias. The Iraqi police who are bravely fighting for their country are constantly betrayed by those who exist for nothing more than getting a paycheck and using their arms to intimidate other Iraqis. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army was the right call. The Ba’athist-era military was another instrument of Saddam’s oppression, and had it not disbanded itself would have ended up being as corrupt and as ineffective as the Interior Ministry troops are now.
The same process of training and development that has produced a much better Iraqi military needs to happen with Iraqi police. It is another multi-year commitment that will not pay off immediately. It still needs to be done. Too many Iraqis see the police as nothing more than agents of the death squads — and far too often that few is entirely correct. The only way to fix that is to root out corruption and sectarianism at every level. That means starting virtually from scratch, taking the good Iraqi police officers and using them as the basis for a police force that draws upon local experience and is beholden to their communities rather than to a militia.
Rather than signaling a quick retreat from Iraq, we need to let the Iraqi people know that we are not going to abandon them. Already, many US troops are picking up Arabic, adapting themselves to local customs, and becoming institutions in their local communities. This is exactly what we should be doing.
Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency require boots and ears on the ground. We cannot fight a war against a group like al-Qaeda conventionally. The key is to know who is a friend and who is a terrorist. The only way to do that is to have US forces on the ground, in each community, and listen to the natives. They know who is who, and its their expertise and intelligence that is crucial towards stopping al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. We need to continue to rely on them and work with them. Our troops are already doing a fantastic job of doing this, and fortunately the feedback loop within the military is amplifying the right lessons in this area.
Iraq can be won, but it requires fighting a 21st Century war rather than a 20th Century one. General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine works. It’s based on the right lessons, such as de-emphasizing force protection and emphasizing better relations with indigenous groups. Most of my suggestions are already being quietly implemented by troops in Iraq to great effect.
Iraq is the model for what future conflicts will look like. If we don’t get it right now, we will suffer more casualties and waste more time in the next conflict — and that conflict may have much higher stakes than what we are experiencing now. The last four years have been a long and difficult learning process — but learn we must. War often teaches up difficult lessons, and we must be willing to rise to meet them. Our military has adapted itself to difficult circumstances before, and they can do it again. The real weakness is our brittle and self-interested political institutions — and in many ways, Washington is in need of as much reform as is Baghdad.