A Democratic Strategy For Victory

I’ve been deeply critical of retired General Wesley Clark in the past, but at least he’s willing to offer an intelligent and considered strategy for victory for Iraq. Clark’s proposal doesn’t involve cutting and running, but crafting the conditions necessary to keep Iraq moving in the right direction and keep the region from being destabilized by terrorism.

Clark argues that the Iranians are winning out in the post-Saddam Iraq. I don’t think he’s right for several reasons – the largest of which is that Iraqi Shi’ites and Iranian Shi’ites are not the same. The Iraqis are Arab, the Iranians Persian – linguistically and ethnically they are quite different. The Iraqis hate the Iranians, and some of the bloodiest fighting in the Iran-Iraq War happened in the al-Faw peninsula which has a high concentration of Shi’ites. Secondly, the Iranians appear to be backing Moqtada al-Sadr, who is not well liked among most Iraqi Shi’ites and has faced deep and sometime violent opposition from others. Finally, Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is deeply suspicious of the Iranians despite being Persian himself and speaking with a pronounced Persian accent. The Shi’ites of Iraq trust and revere al-Sistani, and Sistani is hardly a puppet of Tehran.

However, Clark is quite right that the Iranian have and will continue to try and influence events in Iraq. Clark makes the following proposal:

On the military side, American and Iraqi forces must take greater control of the country’s borders, not only on the Syrian side but also in the east, on the Iranian side. The current strategy of clearing areas near Syria of insurgents and then posting Iraqi troops, backed up by mobile American units, has had success. But it needs to be expanded, especially in the heavily Shiite regions in the southeast, where there has been continuing cross-border traffic from Iran and where the loyalties of the Iraqi troops will be especially tested.

We need to deploy three or four American brigades, some 20,000 troops, with adequate aerial reconnaissance, to provide training, supervision and backup along Iraq’s several thousand miles of vulnerable border. And even then, the borders won’t be “sealed”; they’ll just be more challenging to penetrate.

If putting more troops in the field in the short term reduces the need for a large American presence over the long term, then we should add more troops. We’re currently working on sealing the Euphrates corridor that sees arms, money, and terrorists smuggled into Iraq from Syria – but the Iranians are most certainly also funding the the terrorist insurgency in Iraq, and it is necessary to patrol Iraq’s eastern borders as well to prevent the Iranians from inflaming terrorism in Iraq.

We must also continue military efforts against insurgent strongholds and bases in the Sunni areas, in conjunction with Iraqi forces. Over the next year or so, this will probably require four to six brigade combat teams, plus an operational reserve, maybe 30,000 troops.

But these efforts must go hand-in-glove with intensified outreach to Iraqi insurgents, to seek their reassimilation into society and their assistance in wiping out residual foreign jihadists. Iraqi and American officials have had sporadic communications with insurgent leaders, but these must lead to deeper discussions on issues like amnesty for insurgents who lay down their arms and opportunities for their further participation in public and private life.

Iraq, for its part, must begin to enforce the ban on armed militias that was enshrined in the new Constitution, especially in the south. Ideally, this should be achieved voluntarily, through political means. But American muscle will have to be made available as a last resort. The Iraqi government should request that for the next two years, six to eight American brigades serve as a backup, available as a last resort if there is trouble in cities with large militia factions like Baghdad, Basra and Najaf. And it is vital that the Pentagon provide our forces with better crowd-control training and many more translators than they have now.

Here’s where Clark provides some truly valuable suggestions. The native Iraqi resistance can be neutralized through the political process – if Iraqi Sunnis know that the best way towards a free and peaceful Iraq is through politics and not violence, the numerically largest segment of the “insurgency” can be pacified – and that will give us more leverage in dealing with the more deadly foreign fighters associated with al-Qaeda. We’ve done some of that, but Clark is right – we need to give the Iraqis as much support as we can, and help Iraq either disband or assimilate militant groups. The army must be a unifying force in Iraq that represents the interests of all Iraqis and safeguards and defends the democratic process – just as the Turkish military has sometimes stepped in to prevent radicals from ending Turkey’s largely successful democratic experiment.

Also, a broad initiative to reduce sectarian influence within government institutions is long overdue. The elections, in which Sunnis will participate, will help; but the government must do more to ensure that all ethnic and religious groups are represented within ministries, police forces, the army, the judiciary and other overarching federal institutions.

And we must start using America’s diplomatic strength with Syria and Iran. The political weakness of Bashar al-Assad opens the door for significant Syrian concessions on controlling the border and cutting support for the jihadists. We also have to stop ignoring Tehran’s meddling and begin a public dialogue on respecting Iraqi independence, which will make it far easier to get international support against the Iranians if (and when) they break their word.

Clark is exactly right. We need to make sure that Damascus and Tehran know that interference in Iraq affairs are not acceptable. Iraq will be a free and independent state, and any foreign attempts to dictate the future of Iraq will not be tolerated by Washington or Baghdad. Both Iran and Syria are significant impediments to stability in Iraq, and we must bring all available diplomatic pressure to bear to make sure that they accept and respect Iraqi independence.

I’ve long criticized the Democrats for not having a plan on Iraq – and here’s a Democrat who’s offering one that is realistic, considered, and sees victory rather than retreat as a goal. Both Democrats and Republicans can stand by and support Clark’s plan, and if it takes a former Democratic Presidential candidate who received the endorsement of Michael Moore to offer a coherent and considered plan for victory in Iraq, then so be it. Our sole goal should be victory in Iraq, not jockeying for partisan political advantage. President Bush should ask Clark to formally present this plan to the Joint Chiefs and the brass at CENTCOM and be willing to work with the former General to sell Congressional Democrats on the plan. If Wesley Clark is the one who can get the Democratic Party on the side of victory in Iraq, then President Bush would be wise to give him the opportunity to do so.

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