Iraq: New Strategies

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By George Friedman

Last week, STRATFOR published an analysis, "The Edge of the Razor," that sketched out the problems facing the United States in Iraq. In an avalanche of responses, one important theme stood out: Readers wanted to know what we would do, if we were in a position to do anything. Put differently, it is easy to catalogue problems, more difficult to provide solutions.

The point is not only absolutely true, but lies at the heart of intelligence. Intelligence organizations should not give policy suggestions. First, the craft of intelligence and state-craft are very different things. Second, and far more important, intelligence professionals should always resist the temptation to become policy advocates because, being mostly human, intelligence analysts want to be right — and when they are advocates of a strategy, they will be tempted to find evidence that proves that policy to be correct and ignore evidence that might prove the policy in error. Advocating policies impairs the critical faculties. Besides, in a world in which opinions are commonplace, there is a rare value in withholding opinions. Finally, intelligence, as a profession, should be neutral. Now, we are far from personally neutral in any issue affecting our country, but in our professional — as opposed to our personal — lives, our task is to look at the world through the eyes of all of the players. Suggesting a strategy for defeating one side makes that obviously difficult.

That said, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We normally try to figure out what is going to happen, what other people are going to do — whether they know it or not — and explain the actions of others. At times, people confuse STRATFOR's analysis for our political position. This time — this once — we will write for ourselves — or more precisely, for myself, since at STRATFOR our views on the war range even wider than those among the general public.

The Mission

The United States' invasion of Iraq was not a great idea. Its only virtue was that it was the best available idea among a series of even worse ideas. In the spring of 2003, the United States had no way to engage or defeat al Qaeda. The only way to achieve that was to force Saudi Arabia — and lesser enabling countries such as Iran and Syria — to change their policies on al Qaeda and crack down on its financial and logistical systems. In order to do that, the United States needed two things. First, it had to demonstrate its will and competence in waging war — something seriously doubted by many in the Islamic world and elsewhere. Second, it had to be in a position to threaten follow-on actions in the region.

There were many drawbacks to the invasion, ranging from the need to occupy a large and complex country to the difficulty of gathering intelligence. Unlike many, we expected extended resistance in Iraq, although we did not expect the complexity of the guerrilla war that emerged. Moreover, we understood that the invasion would generate hostility toward the United States within the Islamic world, but we felt this would be compensated by dramatic shifts in the behavior of governments in the region. All of this has happened.

The essential point is that the invasion of Iraq was not and never should have been thought of as an end in itself. Iraq's only importance was its geographic location: It is the most strategically located country between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush. The United States needed it as a base of operations and a lever against the Saudis and others, but it had no interest — or should have had no interest — in the internal governance of Iraq.

This is the critical point on which the mission became complex, and the worst conceivable thing in a military operation took place: mission creep. Rather than focus on the follow-on operations that had to be undertaken against al Qaeda, the Bush administration created a new goal: the occupation and administration of Iraq by the United States, with most of the burden falling on the U.S. military. More important, the United States also dismantled the Iraqi government bureaucracy and military under the principle that de-Baathification had to be accomplished. Over time, this evolved to a new mission: the creation of democracy in Iraq.

Under the best of circumstances, this was not something the United States had the resources to achieve. Iraq is a complex and multi-layered society with many competing interests. The idea that the United States would be able to effectively preside over this society, shepherding it to democracy, was difficult to conceive even in the best of circumstances. Under the circumstances that began to emerge only days after the fall of Baghdad, it was an unachievable goal and an impossible mission. The creation of a viable democracy in the midst of a civil war, even if Iraqi society were amenable to copying American institutions, was an impossibility. The one thing that should have been learned in Vietnam was that the evolution of political institutions in the midst of a sustained guerrilla war is impossible.

The administration pursued this goal for a single reason: From the beginning, it consistently underestimated the Iraqis' capability to resist the United States. It underestimated the tenacity, courage and cleverness of the Sunni guerrillas. It underestimated the political sophistication of the Shiite leadership. It underestimated the forms of military and political resistance that would limit what the United States could achieve. In my view, the underestimation of the enemy in Iraq is the greatest failure of this administration, and the one for which the media rarely hold it accountable.

This miscalculation drew the U.S. Army into the two types of warfare for which it is least suited.

First, it drew the Army into the cities, where the work of reconstruction — physical and political — had to be carried out. Having dismantled Iraqi military and police institutions, the Army found itself in the role of policing the cities. This would have been difficult enough had there not been a guerrilla war. With a guerrilla war — much of it concentrated in heavily urbanized areas and the roads connecting cities — the Army found itself trapped in low-intensity urban warfare in which its technical advantages dissolved and the political consequences of successful counterattacks outweighed the value of defeating the guerrillas. Destroying three blocks of Baghdad to take out a guerrilla squad made military sense, but no political sense. The Army could neither act effectively nor withdraw.

Second, the Army was lured into counterinsurgency warfare. No subject has been studied more extensively by the U.S. Army, and no subject remains as opaque. The guerrilla seeks to embed himself among the general population. Distinguishing him is virtually impossible, particularly for a 20-year-old soldier or Marine who speaks not a word of the language nor understands the social cues that might guide him. In this circumstance, the soldier is simply a target, a casualty waiting to happen.

The usual solution is to raise an indigenous force to fight the guerrillas. The problem is that the most eager recruits for this force are the guerrillas themselves: They not only get great intelligence, but weapons, ammunition and three square meals a day. Sometimes, pre-existing militias are used, via a political arrangement. But these militias have very different agendas than those of the occupying force, and frequently maneuver the occupier into doing their job for them.


The United States must begin by recognizing that it cannot possibly pacify Iraq with the force available or, for that matter, with a larger military force. It can continue to patrol, it can continue to question people, it can continue to take casualties. However, it can never permanently defeat the guerrilla forces in the Sunni triangle using this strategy. It certainly cannot displace the power and authority of the Shiite leadership in the south. Urban warfare and counterinsurgency in the Iraqi environment cannot be successful.

This means the goal of reshaping Iraqi society is beyond the reach of the United States. Iraq is what it is. The United States, having performed the service of removing Saddam Hussein from power, cannot reshape a society that has millennia of layers. The attempt to do so will generate resistance — while that resistance can be endured, it cannot be suppressed.

The United States must recall its original mission, which was to occupy Iraq in order to prosecute the war against al Qaeda. If that mission is remembered, and the mission creep of reshaping Iraq forgotten, some obvious strategic solutions re-emerge. The first, and most important, is that the United States has no national interest in the nature of Iraqi government or society. Except for not supporting al Qaeda, Iraq's government does not matter. Since the Iraqi Shia have an inherent aversion to Wahabbi al Qaeda, the political path on that is fairly clear.

The United States now cannot withdraw from Iraq. We can wonder about the wisdom of the invasion, but a withdrawal under pressure would be used by al Qaeda and radical Islamists as demonstration of their core point: that the United States is inherently weak and, like the Soviet Union, ripe for defeat. Having gone in, withdrawal in the near term is not an option.

That does not mean U.S. forces must be positioned in and near urban areas. There is a major repositioning under way to reduce the size of the U.S. presence in the cities, but there is, nevertheless, a more fundamental shift to be made. The United States undertook responsibility for security in Iraq after its invasion. It cannot carry out this mission. Therefore, it has to abandon the mission. Some might argue this would leave a vacuum. We would argue there already is a vacuum, filled only with American and coalition targets. It is not a question of creating anarchy; anarchy already exists. It is a question of whether the United States wishes to lose soldiers in an anarchic situation.

The geography of Iraq provides a solution.

The bulk of Iraq's population lives in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. To the south and west of the Euphrates River, there is a vast and relatively uninhabited region of Iraq — not very hospitable, but with less shooting than on the other side. The western half of Iraq borders Saudi Arabia and Syria, two of the countries about which the United States harbors the most concern. A withdrawal from the river basins would allow the United States to carry out its primary mission — maintaining regional pressure — without engaging in an impossible war. Moreover, in the Kurdish regions of the northeast, where U.S. Special Forces have operated for a very long time, U.S. forces could be based — and supplied — in order to maintain a presence on the Iranian border.

Iraq should then be encouraged to develop a Shiite-dominated government, the best guarantor against al Qaeda and the greatest incentive for the Iranians not to destabilize the situation. The fate of the Sunnis will rest in the deal they can negotiate with the Shia and Kurds — and, as they say, that is their problem.

The United States could supply the forces in western and southern Iraq from Kuwait, without the fear that convoy routes would be cut in urban areas. In the relatively uninhabited regions, distinguishing guerrillas from rocks would be somewhat easier than distinguishing them from innocent bystanders. The force could, if it chose, execute a broad crescent around Iraq, touching all the borders but not the populations.

The Iraqi government might demand at some point that the United States withdraw, but they would have no way to impose their demand, as they would if U.S. forces could continue to be picked off with improvised explosive devices and sniper fire. The geographical move would help to insulate U.S. forces from even this demand, assuming political arrangements could not be made. Certainly the land is inhospitable, and serious engineering and logistical efforts would be required to accommodate basing for large numbers of troops. However, large numbers of troops might not be necessary — and the engineering and logistical problems certainly will not make headlines around the world.

Cutting Losses

Certainly, as a psychological matter, there is a retreat. The United States would be cutting losses. But it has no choice. It will not be able to defeat the insurgencies it faces without heavy casualties and creating chaos in Iraqi society. Moreover, a victory in this war would not provide the United States with anything that is in its national interest. Unless you are an ideologue — which I am not — who believes bringing American-style democracy to the world is a holy mission, it follows that the nature of the Iraqi government — or chaos — does not affect me.

What does affect me is al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is trying to kill me. Countries such as Saudi Arabia permitted al Qaeda to flourish. The presence of a couple of U.S. armored divisions along the kingdom's northern border has been a very sobering thought. That pressure cannot be removed. Whatever chaos there is in Saudi Arabia, that is the key to breaking al Qaeda — not Baghdad.

The key to al Qaeda is in Riyadh and in Islamabad. The invasion of Iraq was a stepping-stone toward policy change in Riyadh, and it worked. The pressure must be maintained and now extended to Islamabad. However, the war was never about Baghdad, and certainly never about Al Fallujah and An Najaf. Muqtada al-Sadr's relationship to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the makeup of the elders in Al Fallujah are matters of utter and absolute indifference to the United States. Getting drawn into those fights is in fact the quagmire — a word we use carefully and deliberately.

But in the desert west and south of the Euphrates, the United States can carry out the real mission for which it came. And if the arc of responsibility extends along the Turkish frontier to Kurdistan, that is a manageable mission creep. The United States should not get out of Iraq. It must get out of Baghdad, Al Fallujah, An Najaf and the other sinkholes into which the administration's policies have thrown U.S. soldiers.

Again, this differs from our normal analysis in offering policy prescriptions. This is, of course, a very high-level sketch of a solution to an extraordinarily complex situation. Nevertheless, sometimes the solution to complex situations is to simplify them.

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