Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Iraq Study Group's wishful thinking

Michael Gordon doesn't pull any punches in his analysis of the military aspects of the Iraq Study Group's report.

The military recommendations issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisers.

Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has struggled in vain to tamp down the violence in Iraq and to build up the capacity of Iraq's security forces. Now the study group is positing that the United States can accomplish in little more than one year what it has failed to carry out in three.

In essence, the study group is projecting that a rapid infusion of American military trainers will so improve the Iraqi security forces that virtually all of the American combat brigades may be withdrawn by the early part of 2008.

"By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq," the study group says.

Jack Keane, the retired acting Army chief of staff who served on the group's panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. "Based on where we are now we can't get there," General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report's conclusions say more about "the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq."

The Iraq Study Group had a "Military Senior Advisor Panel" composed of retired military officers, but, "the group's final military recommendations were not discussed with [the members of the panel], several of those officers said."

The prospects for training an effective Iraqi military look dim:

Even if the number of American advisers is increased, it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi forces would be capable of assuming the entire responsibility for security throughout the country in little more than a year. It took four years, from 1969 to 1973, for the Nixon administration to make South Vietnamese forces strong enough to hold their own and withdraw American combat forces from Vietnam. Even so, when Congress withheld authority for American airstrikes in support of those forces in 1975, the North Vietnamese quickly defeated the South and reunified the country under Communist rule.

The rapid withdrawal of American combat forces would also deprive the Iraqi military of the opportunity to work as partners with the Americans in combined operations. "There is no meaningful plan for creating a mix of effective Iraqi military forces, police forces, governance and criminal justice system at any point in the near future, much less by 2008," noted Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the group's study.

Barry R. McCaffrey, a retired four-star general, said in an interview that the overall concept of withdrawing American forces as the Iraqis built up their military capability was sound. But he argued that the specific recommendations by the panel raised a second problem: if American combat brigades were withdrawn from Iraq, the thousands of American advisers who remained might find themselves dangerously exposed, particularly if the fighting in Iraq grew into a full-scale civil war. The advisers could be killed or taken hostage.

"They came up with a political thought but then got to tinkering with tactical ideas that in my view don't make any sense," General McCaffrey said. "This is a recipe for national humiliation."

The Iraq Study Group couldn't really be expected to find a good solution to the situation in Iraq, but it might have faced up to the reality in Iraq. Instead, it appears to have refused to acknowledge how intractable the situation is.

I applaud the Iraq Study Group for being willing to acknowledge more of the reality in Iraq than the Bush Administration has been. Should the report convince Bush to persue a slightly less disasterous approach in Iraq, that will be a worthy accomplishment. But, as far as I can tell, the Iraq Study Group did not really attempt to figure out the best course of action for the United State to take in dealing with Iraq.


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