A man walks past protesters of the 'Stop the War Coalition' who demonstrate at the Department of Defence in Sydney on March 20, 2008.
ANOEK DE GROOT  /  AFP/Getty Images
A man walks past protesters of the 'Stop the War Coalition' who demonstrate at the Department of Defence in Sydney on March 20, 2008.
Image: Montgomery Meigs
By Military analyst
updated 3/21/2008 1:19:16 PM ET 2008-03-21T17:19:16

In his speech on Wednesday , the president reiterated his rationale for the Iraq war. After praising the conventional campaign in which our forces took Baghdad in a little over 16 days, he obliquely admitted the counterinsurgency campaign had not gone well until recently and that it had cost more than anticipated.

He underlined the “undeniable” gains of the “surge,” now that over 90,000 Iraqis had jointed the Awakening helping to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.  Throughout his speech, he praised the sacrifices and contributions of the troops. But we heard again the soaring and now bankrupt rhetoric about liberty as a transformative force in the Middle East, rhetoric that the majority of the public does not buy.

Web sites of our current presidential candidates reveal other dysfunctional errors in their own statements. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., promises that within 60 days in office, she will approve a plan to remove one to two brigades a month from Iraq. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., states that on taking office he will begin immediately start to remove one to two brigades a month completing the withdrawal of all combat brigades in 16 months.  Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., argues for winning in Iraq and has numerous speeches and releases to document that position. But he gives scant details how he plans to proceed.

None of this politically-inspired rhetoric realistically represents the forces that will affect eventual decision.

The so-called surge has created an opportunity. But we must remember the painstaking and lethal work that preceded it. This effort included training and upgrading Iraqi forces, forcing Moqtada Sadr to order his militias into a less aggressive stance, compelling Sunni rejectionists to back away from confronting our forces, and seriously damaging al-Qaida in Iraq.  After very hard efforts by the units in the years that preceded it, the surge has yielded a temporary strategic opening we must exploit.

But the arrangement that establishes the conditions for political accommodation between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites will not depend on the Neo Con idea of, “freedom yielding peace.”  It will stem from a shared self-interest of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites as they realize that a new normalcy depends fundamentally on a deal that invests control of some of their interests in national institutions. Those institutions include at a minimum the Armed Forces and National Police, a set of laws and an Oil Ministry that ensure equitable distribution of oil wealth, acceptance of an idea that Iraqi sovereignty can assure protection of communal interests, and robust participation by all factions in provincial and national government.

Iraq, not U.S., will make changes
The deals that will make these compromises possible will take place in an Iraqi way, out of sight of U.S. Westerners, based on tribal and sectional interests that may well seem very strange to U.S. We must remember that Iraqi deals made by customary Iraqi rules have a much better likelihood of lasting than accommodation we try to force on them that looks democratic to U.S. We can only assist by creating safe political environments in which Iraqi’s can meet, bargain, and commit and by keeping the pressure on them, to continue to progress.

The political environment needed to foster those deals depends fundamentally on a safe and secure environment in Iraqi communities.  Here’s the rub. Iraq still needs our help in maintaining and improving that security as well as fostering the economic enabler of jobs. Iraqis are not prepared now to do that alone.  Plus, even the moderate members of the three factions need pressure from U.S. to keep moving forward. It is often helpful for leaders to be able to argue to their followers that there is an economic incentive in a certain accommodation as well as a need to compromise to avoid some more unpalatable solution forced by the international community.

Continuously improving security and then generating the pressure to impel Iraqis to make deals in their own interest requires boots on the ground.  That means enough units in country to continue to grind down al Qaida in Iraq, to counter the activity of Iranian al Quds operators, foreign fighters and militias, and to continue to train, develop, and professionalize Iraqi security forces. 

Hurting, not helping
No one with any sense of the critical strategic challenge of the Taliban and al Qaida insurgency in Afghanistan and its ability to destabilize Pakistan will argue for maintaining a constant force of 130,000 in Iraq.  Nor will anyone sensitive to the negative impact of our presence in Iraq on sentiment across the Muslim crescent argue for staying any longer than absolutely necessary.  In addition the need to recapitalize and rejuvenate our units demands a reduced operational tempo across the force. 

But promises to withdraw in 16 months or to take out one to two brigades a month on a fixed schedule undermines our forces in the field in several ways.  These limits inhibit an open, internal strategic dialogue at home that integrates both political and military factors in strategic decision.  They also create a disincentive for Iraqi’s to make the often personally risky effort to compromise.

Before a decision on force levels, we must allow our commanders on the ground to make the argument for the best mix of forces to achieve success.  Granted, generals are often sent away from these discussions to execute campaigns with capabilities that accept more risk than they would like.  But in the language of the two democratic candidates, we see fixed numbers that in the first 100 days of an administration would preempt a realistic assessment of the military capability needed to support the process of Iraqi political accommodation that offers a political solution in Iraq that gives the best grounds for bringing the troops home.

Fixed dates for withdrawal complicate the problem. I recall a similar situation we encountered serving in Bosnia.  Then-President Bill Clinton had announced the end point for U.S. presence in Iraq.  In 1996 as we put pressure on Bosnian Serb generals to moderate their positions and draw down their forces, they reminded U.S. that the president had set a date certain for our departure.  They would just wait the U.S. out.  Faced with a similar situation, why would not the Iraqi factions simply follow the same plan?

Some lessons from Vietnam
Granted, our experience in Vietnam indicates that when the Vietnamese leaders saw that we were truly drawing down, they worked harder on their own capabilities to deal with the insurgency.  But while we need our Iraqi partners to understand that they must find their own way to security and soon, fixed dates undermine the ability of our commanders and the ambassador to compel them to act in their own best interest.  We must maintain the balance between the strategic and political impulses that compel reduction of forces as well as the practical realities on the ground that demand force presence.

The political will of the Americans to persist in this difficult campaign demands straight talk about these issues.  It would be much better for an understanding by voters of the relevant issues in Iraq and Afghanistan and the larger Middle East if candidates and their interlocutors addressed the conditions of success in this campaign and avoided catchy statements about force levels and tactics that will certainly come back to haunt a new President once in office. Leave fixed timelines and force levels out of the debate.  Give the U.S. a staged plan for achieving conditions of success, not simple formulas that appeal to some voters but do not present the difficult strategic realities. 

How can we best achieve a good peace as an end to a war of choice that went badly for too long?

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