What if were fighting the wrong kind of war? Some of Americas better military minds have been making a transition in Iraq, from waging traditional battles to clamping down on insurgents. A major part of this shift: training Iraq forces to take over from American troops. Stephen Biddle, with the Council on Foreign Relations, says theyre making a huge mistake.The problem is that Iraqization is a Vietnam-era solution. And the current struggle is not a Maoist 'people's war' of national liberation [like Vietnam]; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics, Biddle writes in an amazingly timely article for the new issue of Foreign Affairs. "Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse."
Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility for the country's security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power and authority to local forcesIn a people's war, handing the fighting off to local forces makes sense because it undermines the nationalist component of insurgent resistance, improves the quality of local intelligence, and boosts troop strength. But in a communal civil war, it throws gasoline on the fire. Iraq's Sunnis perceive the "national" army and police force as a Shiite-Kurdish militia on steroids to them, the defense forces look like agents of a hostile occupation. And the more threatened the Sunnis feel, the more likely they are to fight back even harder. The bigger, stronger, better trained, and better equipped the Iraqi forces become, the worse the communal tensions that underlie the whole conflict will get.The creation of powerful Shiite-Kurdish security forces will also reduce the chances of reaching the only serious long-term solution to the country's communal conflict: a compromise based on a constitutional deal with ironclad power-sharing arrangements protecting all parties. A national army that effectively excluded Sunnis would make any such constitutional deal irrelevant, because the Shiite-Kurdish alliance would hold the real power regardless of what the constitution said. Increasing evidence that Iraq's military and police have already committed atrocities against Sunnis only confirms the dangers of transferring responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces before an acceptable ethnic compromise has been brokered.On the other hand, the harder the United States works to integrate Sunnis into the security forces, the less effective those forces are likely to become. The inclusion of Sunnis will inevitably entail penetration by insurgents, and it will be difficult to establish trust between members of mixed units whose respective ethnic groups are at one another's throats. Segregating Sunnis in their own battalions is no solution either. Doing so would merely strengthen all sides simultaneously by providing each with direct U.S. assistance and could trigger an unstable, unofficial partition of the country into separate Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish enclaves, each defended by its own military forceWhat, then, is to be done?... First, Washington must slow down the expansion of the Iraqi national military and police. Iraq will eventually need capable indigenous security forces, but their buildup must follow a broad communal compromise, not the other way aroundSecond, the United States must bring more pressure to bear on the parties in the constitutional negotiations. And the strongest pressure available is military: the United States must threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds to coerce them to negotiate. Washington should use the prospect of a U.S.-trained and U.S.-supported Shiite-Kurdish force to compel the Sunnis to come to the negotiating table. At the same time, in order to get the Shiites and the Kurds to negotiate too, it should threaten either to withdraw prematurely, a move that would throw the country into disarray, or to back the SunnisThe only way to break the logjam is to change the parties' relative comfort with the status quo by drastically raising the costs of their failure to negotiate. The U.S. presence now caps the war's intensity, and U.S. aid could give any side an enormous military advantage. Thus Washington should threaten to use its influence to alter the balance of power depending on the parties' behavior. By doing so, it could make stubbornness look worse than cooperation and compel all sides to compromise.