In the penultimate chapter of the debate, Colin Kahl responds to Brian Katulis. My summary and comments to follow later this weekend (or perhaps Tuesday... I've been really busy). Thanks to all involved for an exceptionally high quality debate:
Kahl Response to Katulis
I want to thank Brian Katulis for engaging in such a smart and spirited debate on these issues, and I want to thank Marc Lynch for giving us a forum.
Before providing some responses to Katulis’ post, I want to make a few things crystal clear.
I believe there are no good options for Iraq, just options that are bad in different ways. The trick is to find the least bad option for advancing core American interests and obligations in a vital part of the world. The goal here is not “victory” in the grandiose terms the Bush administration speaks of; that has not been possible for a long time if it ever was. Rather, the goal should be to craft a policy to mitigate and manage the horrendous consequences of the Bush administration’s failures and mismanagement of the war since the outset. Of course, even finding the “least bad” option is easier said than done. Recognition of that should impose humility on all sides.
A starting point for a “least bad” discussion is recognizing that we have to deal with “the Iraq we have, not the Iraq we want.” That Iraq is becoming increasingly clear. Katulis and I are in agreement that Iraq is becoming a highly decentralized political system where governance and security is increasingly devolving to localities. The only questions are how violent this decentralized system will be, and how (if at all) the U.S. should attempt to influence its trajectory. I do not think a grand national reconciliation is likely, whether we stay or go (although, ironically, Katulis and CAP often appear to hold out hope that such a national reconciliation will be motivated by a near-term U.S. withdrawal – more on this below). But I do think there is some prospect (albeit a slim one) of an accommodation (i.e., a “live and let live” attitude) and a relatively stable security equilibrium that is sustainable once we being to cut ourselves out of the population security loop, if our current actions and our future withdrawal from Iraq are handled properly. This outcome must be anchored in a political resolution on the oil issue and provincial powers and elections, coupled with political-military steps that establish a viable balance of power and an overall security architecture that creates incentives for defensive postures by all sides. Such an equilibrium will not be a democracy; it will not be violence free; and it will not be nice. At this point, the most we can probably hope for is a country that is not a safe haven for al-Qaeda, where the risks of humanitarian catastrophe on a genocidal scale are reduced, and the level of violent conflict stops short of a regional conflagration. In short, the best we can hope for is a mitigation of the self-inflicted wounds Bush’s war has caused to our national interests.
A key divide between Katulis and me is whether there is anything that the U.S. can do inside Iraq that can shape and shove the system into a stable decentralized equilibrium that is sustainable once we inevitably begin to leave. If one believes that there is zero or close to zero chance of achieving these objectives by keeping (any level of) U.S. forces in Iraq to influence events, and can demonstrate that the marginal costs of staying (at any level) outweigh the marginal benefits, then the Katulis/CAP “outside-in” position or a containment model makes a lot of sense. If, however, one believes the probability of managing the conflict from inside Iraq along the lines I suggested in my post are low but not approaching zero, then the magnitude of the interests involved suggest that we should try, using the Katulis/CAP position as the natural fall-back.
OK, enough preamble. Here is my detailed response to Katulis’ response.
Katulis portrays my post as merely “tactical” and mostly “military,” with insufficient attention to regional diplomacy. This is a bit unfair. First, my so-called tactical suggestions are informed by a strategic perspective that holds that the U.S. has a handful of important interests in Iraq – avoiding an al Qaeda safe haven, avoiding all-out genocide, and avoiding a regional war – and a belief that we should consider how certain steps might contribute to advancing these interests.
Second, my post begins by arguing that any viable decentralized outcome in Iraq hinges crucially on two political compromises at the center: an oil deal and provincial powers/elections. These agreements are essential to make localities and provinces economically and politically viable, while tying them sufficiently to the center so the country doesn’t fly apart. I then say: “In conjunction with bottom-up security mobilization and efforts to professionalize the Iraqi Army, this could potentially lead to a stable equilibrium.” In other words, the specific details I describe (mostly military) are meant to support the political strategy, not represent the whole approach.
Third, my relatively short post was an attempt to suggest some of the ways to make the most of the “bottom-up” changes now transforming the Iraqi political and security landscape (to make the most of the “Iraq we have”). It was never meant to be a comprehensive plan or strategy. Instead, I attempted to advance the debate by listing some (non-exhaustive) military and political elements of that plan. I also believe the steps I suggested should be complemented by, and integrated with, a broader political, economic, and diplomatic strategy for Iraq and the region as the U.S. begins to drawdown its forces. Outside Iraq, I completely agree that we need a “surge” of diplomacy aimed at reaching a regional compact on Iraq and other steps to resolve long simmering conflicts in the Middle East. This could serve an important facilitating role to both stabilize Iraq and facilitate a responsible and orderly withdrawal. Inside Iraq, such a fuller strategy should include more efforts to promote economic development and good governance at the local and national level (including strengthening the role of and support to embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and bolstering efforts to advise government ministries), and steps to enhance the role of Regional Embassy Offices to engage with local actors. I suspect that Katulis agrees with these “civilian” steps to stay engaged in Iraq too, but it would be impossible to pull-off without residual U.S. troops to provide force protection for these endeavors.
Katulis wonders how my suggestions would motivate Sunni-Shia accommodation. To understand how it might, we should start with the recognition that many in the Maliki government (and major Shia parties) do not seek accommodation; rather, they seek to run the government solely on their terms. In the face of a weakened Sunni community, they have few incentives to compromise because the costs of ignoring the Sunnis are low. Sunni tribal engagement and other bottom-up efforts address this issue. At the same time, the events of 2006-2007 have probably convinced Sunnis that they cannot win the civil war. This is good because it motivates them to strike some accommodation, but only if they feel that such an accommodation will not leave them completely defenseless against either al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) or the potential for an onslaught by Shia militias or the Shia-dominated Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Thus, in my post, I argued that Sunnis must have enough capabilities to defend their local interests, but not enough to take-over the government. In contrast, it is difficult to see how Katulis’ recommendations for near-term unilateral withdrawal motivates parties to do anything other than look out for themselves. This might produce accommodation eventually, but only after a vicious civil war leaves one side victorious, or tens of thousands of additional deaths leaves both sides exhausted. Let’s try my way first.
Katulis then questions whether bottom-up efforts are creating consolidated forces, which he takes to be a precondition for the success of my approach. He is right: from a bargaining perspective, consolidation is important because it creates actors that can credibly negotiate and enforce agreements on behalf of their constituents. In the absence of such Sunni consolidation, sustainable accommodation is unlikely to be reached or last. So far, Sunni consolidation appears to be most advanced in Anbar (despite the sniping Katulis alludes to); the “concerned local citizens” movement is still taking shape elsewhere and it is too early to tell where it is going. But here Katulis falls into a trap of his own making. The longer we stay engaged in—and encourage the Iraqi government to support—the bottom-up process, the more consolidation will occur, and thus the more likely we are to establish the necessary (albeit not the sufficient) conditions for accommodation. In contrast, withdrawing in the near-term and cutting off support to Sunni tribes and auxiliary forces, as Katulis recommends, would ensure that there is no consolidation and thus make any accommodation impossible to achieve (or enforce).
Katulis then states: “Kahl overstates the role that the surge of U.S. forces had in leading to the turn of Sunni forces against Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Strange. I never stated this at all. Indeed, in a recent article in Foreign Policy (online) Shawn Brimley and I argued: “It is fast becoming conventional wisdom . . . that the surge is helping bring large numbers of Sunni sheikhs and former insurgents into the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq. But this grassroots progress is not the result of extra troops. Instead, it is the result of Sunni outrage over atrocities committed by al Qaeda in tribal areas—grievances that predate the surge. Sunni groups also want to reverse their current marginalization and position themselves vis-à-vis their Shiite counterparts, and Iran, in the event of a U.S. withdrawal. It is enemy-of-my-enemy logic, not a change of heart or U.S. troop increases, that is driving Sunni cooperation.” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3968).
However, Katulis is correct that I fear that his favored approach, a near-term total U.S. withdrawal and abandonment of support for Sunni groups, could create fresh incentives for these groups to make common cause with AQI. Why? Because of the same self-interests driving current Sunni behavior. In the absence of our willingness to protect them or an inability to protect themselves, Sunni tribes will face pressures to turn back to AQI for self-defense against a common enemy: the Shia and their presumed Iranian patrons. I agree with Katulis that the U.S. staying too long could also trigger some increase in support for AQI down the road, which is why I don’t support permanent bases and I think significant withdrawals should happen as soon as possible from homogenous areas where local forces are capable of providing their own security. But the bigger risk at the moment is not our presence—it is the fear among Sunnis that we may leave them in the lurch.
Katulis argues that I ignore the southern and northern parts of the country in my post. Guilty as charged. I think there is little the U.S. can do to influence events in the south—that ship sailed long ago. It appears that the U.S. is backing the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and its Badr organization in the contest for supremacy against Sadr and elements of Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), while hoping the ISF can keep a lid on the worst outbursts of violence, but, ultimately, we are marginal players here. I focused on the parts of the country where we may be able to make a difference—the parts where the Sunni insurgency and Sunni-Shia communal violence are the biggest challenges—and where the vital interests identified above (notwithstanding the flow of oil from the south) are most acute. That said, it is hard to see how the approach Katulis recommends provides more influence over the south. As far as Iraqi Kurdistan is concerned, I think a residual presence in the north is probably a good idea to maintain influence over the Kurds and dissuade Turkish intervention.
OK, back to the Sunni-Shia reconciliation debate. Katulis frets that bottom-up engagements with Sunni tribes and former insurgents will derail any prospects for national reconciliation by increasing Shia anxieties. Recent statements and behavior by the Maliki government demonstrate that this is a genuine concern, and Brimley and I said as much in the Foreign Policy article cited above. But let’s not push the argument too far. Katulis argues: “The evidence demonstrates that these decentralized security efforts could actually make the chances of national accommodation and a sustainable security arrangement LESS likely, rather than more likely.” I would ask, less likely than what? It is not as if the Maliki government was keen on reconciliation before the bottom-up movement began. Moreover, the solution to the danger of magnifying Shia parnoia is not to give up on the bottom-up process, but rather to take steps to address Shia anxieties. How? By calibrating Sunni defensive capabilities in the way I suggest; by working hard to vet the huge influx of Sunni volunteers; by using the biometric information collected on volunteers to keep them in line; by integrating them at least loosely into the ISF so that the Shia-government is aware of their activities; and by making Sunni groups financially dependent on the central government (as opposed to U.S. payments) so that they are deterred from turning against the Shia government and the government, in turn, has confidence that they have some leverage over these groups.
What about the risk of blowback? Aren’t bottom-up efforts just allowing the Sunnis to build up their strength for a bigger civil war down the road. Maybe. But as I noted in my post: “many [of these individuals] were already organized (e.g., former insurgents that have now joined "concerned local citizens" groups), those that weren't could organize without us (and likely would if they were left to fend for themselves in the face of a possible Shia onslaught), and these groups could probably get money and weapons elsewhere (e.g., from Saudi Arabia, through criminal activities, etc.).” Moreover, the consensus of American intelligence agencies concludes that a near-term withdrawal and abandonment of support for the ISF is the most likely scenario for a renewed escalation of the civil war.
Katulis then moves on to critique my recommendations for an extended training and advising mission, linking them to the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report of “Phased Transition.” He cites numerous military analysts who question the logistical plausibility of this model. (As an aside: This is somewhat ironic since the CNAS paper was actually crafted in consultation with military planners whereas no military planner I know of thinks the pace of the U.S. withdrawal advocated by Katulis/CAP is logistically possible).
The size and composition of the residual training and advising force would depend on the conditions on the ground: the more dangerous, the larger the total force needed for force protection. I would not be in favor of a sizeable training and advising mission under conditions where they would be incredibly vulnerable or where it would require such large forces that it would preclude a gradual withdrawal. However, assuming somewhat more permissive conditions facilitated by the bottom-up dynamics unfolding in Iraq at the moment, movement toward a residual force of 60,000-80,000 (including advisors, support, SOF, and quick reaction forces) in the timeframe sketched by CNAS (about 18 months) seems like a realistic halfway house to ensure our national interests on the path to a total withdrawal. Moreover, the significant drawdown this entails (100,000 from current levels) should signal to Iraqis that we do not intend to stay forever (capturing many of the benefits of Katulis’ approach) while minimizing the biggest downside risks from the fear of total abandonment that a rapid and total withdrawal might produce. Moreover, if handled deftly as part of a broader diplomatic strategy, this sizeable but not complete redeployment could kick-start negotiations to establish the conditions for the follow-on phases of withdrawal.
Katulis quips that it is hard to imagine accomplishing more with fewer forces, but this belies a fundamental confusion with what I’m advocating. I’m not saying it is possible to achieve the (unachievable) Bush administration objectives with less; rather, I’m saying it is possible to achieve less (i.e., minimal but still vital national interests) with less. This means maintaining residual forces (including advisors linked to local and national Iraqi security forces) for several years that are capable of: (1) gleaning essential intelligence for counterterrorism operations (intelligence that cannot be gleaned from a purely “over the horizon” posture—especially if the goal is to avoid bombing a lot of innocent civilians); (2) providing critical support capabilities to the ISF (and building their capacity for self-sustainment, which the Jones report suggested would take 18 months); (3) monitoring behavior to detect sectarian tendencies among the Iraqi Army and other national security forces policing the fault lines between communities or providing security in mixed communities (and providing early warning necessary to deter genocidal actions) as we pull back; and (4) providing a presence to dissuade and deter large-scale intervention by neighboring states.
The options I have presented are not ideal and they may not work. Indeed the probabilities of advancing any of our core national interests in Iraq remain low. But the probability of advancing them by not trying is zero.