« Kahl: response to Katulis | Main | Iraq: some quick hits »

November 13, 2007


Tom Scudder

Got a fairly light post on Aqoul here, in response. Mainly inspired by the fact I haven't seen anyone note how closely the current American approach hews to Syria's approach to civil-war-era Lebanon.

Eric Martin

Kahl advocates a version of Stephen Biddle's notion of manipulating the sectarian balance of power: “Sunnis must have enough capabilities to defend their local interests, but not enough to take-over the government.” But think about the degree of precision necessary here – in an environment where we hardly seem to know where the guns are going or who our allies are.

I thought of Biddle too when reading Kahl's latest. I had the same problem with Biddle when he put that proposal forward in Foreign Affairs.


peter hofmann

After you killed 1.000.000 iraqis, after you made 5.000.000 iraqis refugees, how can you discuss things like this? Are you human?

Colin Kahl


Great post. Three things I wonder about:

1. I actually wasn't arguing to stay the course on troop levels, but to make a credible down payment on withdrawal (say of 80K) and then negotiate the timing of the follow-on withdrawal with all relevant Iraqi parties (to include the Sadrists and the new Sunni insurgency front organization). Why is this better than unilateral timetables for a complete withdrawal? One word: leverage. The U.S. needs to thread the needle here. If we appear to have an open-ended commitment, your moral hazard argument is right (which is why I don't support an open ended commitment). Instead, we need to credibly signal to Maliki that our support is limited (hence a meaningful down payment on withdrawal) and signal to groups that oppose the occupation that we do not plan to stay forever. However, if we unilaterally set a timetable for COMPLETE withdrawal we have NOTHING to bargain with. We have no meaningful rewards to give to groups that want us to stay; and we have no carrots of completion of withdrawal to dangle in front of groups that want us to leave. Will simply unleash an "every man for himself" scramble for power that is much more likely to lead to a return to all-out civil war than it is to lead to any accommodation. Instead, lets to a partial withdrawal and then use our residual force to influence events and provide leverage for future negotiations to complete the withdrawal. Why would they provide leverage? Easy: a residual force capable of defending itself may be too small to "win" -- but, boy would it be sufficient to be effective spoilers and balancers. Even small numbers of our forces in a combat/strike role inside Iraq could tip the scales in favor of some ground combatants over others. This makes the size, geographic distribution, and disposition of our residual forces a VERY important bargaining chip. Why would we completely give up the only bit of leverage we have by committing to a complete withdrawal now?

2. All agree that consolidation of Sunni groups is a necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for accommodation. How does consolidation occur under your model? Don't we have to empower local groups and then have provincial elections to legitimize them with their constituents? How else can they make and enforce any agreements cut with the central government (or us)?

3. I didn't say this, but there is one important factor that sits in the background here that gives the U.S. leverage in terms of making a threat to withdraw credible: the 2008 Presidential Election. I think late summer 2008 is effectively a hard deadline for Maliki. If there has not been a political breakthrough by then, the U.S. is done. The Dems will win and we will pull the plug (justifiably so). This has to be what Crocker is telling Maliki. Doesn't this solve your moral hazard problem?

In the end, I think the probabilities of success are low for the model I advocate (although higher than the model you and Katulis advocate), but (1) the probabilities of eking out a minimally tolerable outcome associated with my proposals are higher today than they were 6 months ago; and (2) the stakes are sufficiently high that we should try, knowing that if it fails by the late summer of 2008 to produce a political breakthrough, we move to a complete withdrawal/over-the-horizon/containment model as a fall-back. I guess the relevant question for you (and Katulis) is whether you are so convinced that we have failed and/or are making things worse that you would pull the plug now as opposed to 9 months from now?


Kahl states several times the need to get Iraq to a "stable equilibrium." At the risk of more game theory neologisms, I must ask: what if Iraq is already at equilibrium, not stable, but turbulent?…meaning a state of affairs in which most major actors (i.e. the militias) profit from the current situation, despite the fact that collectively the outcome is disaster for most. That 2.2 million civilians (and counting) have departed only solidifies the turbulent equilibrium. Nir Rosen might be right that Iraq really no longer exists. Or maybe Iraq is still there, it just resembles Lebanon in the late 1970s.

Eric Martin

I guess the relevant question for you (and Katulis) is whether you are so convinced that we have failed and/or are making things worse that you would pull the plug now as opposed to 9 months from now?

But Colin, your plan calls for a reduction to 80,000 over 18 months - would you be accelerating that timetable should events not improve by Spring of 2008?

Under the plan you put forward, though, you would only keep withdrawing troops after the 18 month mark if we couldn't use the 80K as leverage. So, if policymakers see some value in using that leverage, the 80K could be in Iraq for several more years after that.

One of the problems is, policymakers will tend to find value in maintaining troops absent a compelling reason to forego such a tool. To withdraw is to admit defeat, and there are several reasons (from basic psychology to electoral concerns), that politicians are loathe to embrace such a position.

Do you have any projections as to the costs associated with such a prolonged commitment? Why couldn't the next theorist simply argue 18 months from now that it's still worth trying? What makes the next 18 months more important than the last? Or the subsequent?

Given the low probability of having a lasting, positive effect, isn't it time to liquidate this position? I'm reminded of a Kennan quote that Stephen Simon used recently:

“[T]here is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.”

I respect your admirable efforts, but I believe they can be classified in the latter half of that quote.


Colin - with regard to the last question, I guess I just don't see the choice in those terms (I'll try to answer the others later). Since Bush will be president for the next year, neither your plan nor Brian's will be implemented so it's only an academic discussion. That's why I focus more on trying to get a clear-eyed view of what's actually happening as a result of our strategy, so that we can be ready to pick up the pieces when a policy change is actually possible.

Colin Kahl

Actually, Eric, the question is when to begin this process. In my view, we should start the withdrawal down to 80K sooner rather than later (knowing that it will take as much as 18 months to complete) to signal our intent and kick-start negotiations. Those negotiations--over the timetables, conditions, and dispositions associated with the residual force--would also begin soon. If there is no political compromise on the two central national objectives (oil and provincial powers/elections) I emphasize by the late summer of 2008, then I suspect that the political environment will force the next administration to move toward a CAP-like position -- and this may indeed be the right position by Jan 09. It is simply not the right position now.

Moreover, let's also not pretend that your alternative has no costs. It has tremendous costs -- for Iraqis and for our interests. I think there are good reasons to fear that Sunnis, abandoned by us and terrified of the Shia/Iran, will face incentives to go back to AQI to make common cause against a common enemy. I think there are also good reasons to believe that a rapid unilateral withdrawal will invite more overt external intervention and/or create spill-over effects that destabilize the wider region. And let's not forget the very real and likely costs to average Iraqis. Iraqi civilian deaths are now running at about 1,000 per month. This is a horrible toll, but only one-third to one-fourth the height of the monthly toll in 2006 and the trajectories are currently in the right direction. Over the nine months I am asking for to see if a political settlement is possible, that is a difference of 18,000-27,000 people. And what if the violence got WORSE than in 2006 as a consequence of a rapid and total withdrawal (as the Iraq NIEs predict)? For those who think this is implausible, consider that fact that in Rwanda in 1994, 800,000 people were killed in 100 days -- by machetes! Iraq is a country of 25 million people where every household owns an automatic weapon. So we can be confident things can get worse. Is that not meaningful to you? Are you so convinced you are right that you are prepared to sacrifice those lives (or "liquidate" them to use your horrible phrase) to reduce the costs of the war to us?

Colin Kahl


Ultimately, I think you are right that there is an academic and hypothetical element to the part of the debate about where to go from here (as in "from right now") since the Bush administration is going to do whatever they are going to do and leave it to the next administration to clean up the mess. In that context, the more relevant portion of the discussion, as you note, is the degree to which various "bottom-up" and national reconciliation trends are likely to leave Iraq better or worse by this time next year.

All that said, I do think that the impending election gives this administration leverage based on a credible threat that the next administration with withdraw if there is no political breakthrough. Let's hope for all our sakes that the administration uses this leverage productively (although I'm not holding my breath) to put more pressure on Maliki.


It is probably clear from my earlier contributions to this discussion that had Gordon Kahl's question at 7:34 been asked of me it would have received an affirmative answer.

Startling as the idea that Arab lives are worth no more than the lives of black Africans may be to those grown used to focusing their attention on Arab politics to the exclusion of everything else in the world, they aren't. Operation Iraqi Freedom long ago transformed itself into Operation Keep Arabs From Killing Arabs -- complete with catchy acronym -- and has to end sometime. If the United States had unlimited resources or no other interests in the world or at home, it might make sense to continue pouring blood and treasure into Iraq until we were reasonably certain that Iraqis would not fall upon one another as soon as our army leaves. Iraq could be a kind of volatile super-Bosnia. In our present situation this is not an outcome we can afford. If we really think Iraqis must finally take responsibility for what happens in their country, entrusting them with the responsibility for not letting it slide into renewed sectarian bloodletting is as good a place to start as any.

I acknowledge that they may well fail to meet this responsibility. And I wonder whether some of our Arab scholars are really helping, given their tendency to see the country through the prism of Sunni Arab grievances and ambitions. It may be that this only reflects the greater use of the Internet accessible outside Iraq by Sunni than by Shiite Arabs, or the greater resonance Iraqi Sunni Arabs' plight may have among Sunni-dominated Arab media outside the country. However, it may also represent a failure of imagination ironic among commentators who have often addressed the same charge to American military officers now struggling to manage the Iraqi problem without the benefit of having studied the language or culture of the country for more than a few months.

Fundamentally, the chief obstacle to reconciliation of any kind in Iraq is the deep-seated sense of Shiite grievance, and the steadfast refusal of the Sunni Arabs that prospered under Saddam to acknowledge it. So far from acknowledging it, the Sunni Arab-dominated insurgency has exacerbated it -- and it is remarkable how often Marc Lynch, for example, makes the perfectly true observation that Sunni Arab insurgent groups have gained a feeling of legitimacy from their "resistance" to the Americans without seeming to realize that this resistance has often been indistinguishable from the murder of large numbers of Shiites, murder carried out by the same groups and for the same purposes.

The extent to which Sunni Arabs as a whole are blamed by Iraq's Shiites for the fruits of the insurgency's "resistance" as well as for Saddam has been sadly manifest in the indiscriminate, barbarous attacks by Shiite death squads on Sunni Arab civilians. If so many Shiites don't even make a distinction between insurgents that have planted bombs in markets packed with Shiites and helpless civilians taken out and shot because they were unfortuate enough to bear a name like "Omar," it stands to reason they won't distinguish between the former Sunni Arab insurgents the American army is trying to conciliate and the al Qaeda (or whatever) types opposing them.

Maliki's mulishly unhelpful attitude toward American efforts to integrate anti-al Qaeda fighters into the Iraqi security services is, I fear, rooted in this sense of unaddressed grievance. No doubt it has other causes as well, given the tense state on intra-Shiite factional relations that well might make someone like Maliki think he has enemies enough without helping the Americans organize new ones. The point here is only that Maliki is not just being personally difficult. He is, in a very real sense, expressing as one would expect a democratically elected leader to express the deepest feelings of his primary constituency.

How does the American army, and the American ambassador, deal with this sense of unaddressed Shiite grievance? They can't. It's that simple. Hypothetically, had enough Sunni Arabs seen the need, they could have addressed it -- the earlier after Saddam fell, the easier it would have been. But they didn't see the need, and from all appearances most of them still don't. They dreaded Saddam but didn't resent his oppression of Shiites; they came to dislike al Qaeda in Iraq not because it murdered Shiites but instead because it imposed on them. They don't think either one is anything to do with them, and of course large numbers of Shiite Arabs think it does, and hate them for it, and will continue to hate them for a very long time.

Of course the above generalization must have many exceptions (the same generalization, and similar exceptions, can be made of the Kurds, enabled by geography to separate themselves from the rest of Iraq). No more than in any other country can one say of a group in Iraq, "they all feel this way." But this, fundamentally, is what the Americans in Iraq are trying to maneuver around. Some time ago here I likened the situation to what South Africa might have been like had the apartheid government's army gone underground and started planting bombs in Xhosa markets after 1990. If anyone had tried then to effect "reconciliation" without any recognition of where the dominant grievance lay they would have gotten no further than Gen. Petraeus is likely to.

Having said all this, I'd add only that we may at this time have run into a small piece of luck. Simple exhaustion may have coincided with Gen. Petraeus' counterinsurgency tactics and the Anbar awakening to inhibit many Iraqis from acting further against their enemies. Exhaustion is a factor in winding down many civil wars; here it may represent the opportunity the United States needs to begin liquidating its military commitment in Iraq, with the risk that sectarian violence may explode once again still present but at least somewhat reduced. It's the best opportunity we are likely to get, and I fear that if we wait until months after the next administration is sworn in to begin liquidating the Iraqi commitment the situation there will have worsened once again. We cannot count on exhaustion lasting forever.

Nur al-Cubicle

Dear AA,

Thanks for the synthesis through the lens of reality. Another aspect is the 60,000 prisoners now under their coalition wardens. I thought 17,000 was low-balling, and indeed a new Red Cross report seems to confirm this. The fate of these prisoners is neglected in the conversation.


Nur - funny, I was just about to post something about that when I got distracted by a phone call.


"The promotion of alternative elites is always a risky business, one which sets up all kinds of problems down the road - think back to various Israeli efforts over the years to promote local leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (or Mohammed Dahlan for that matter,"

Marc, need to take issue with you here. The Anbar awakening movement and the associated sheikhs have in the space of a few months driven Al Qaeda out of Anbar and brought the associated insurgency to a halt in that province. In other words they, the Sunni sheikhs with the support of the people, have driven the Sunni insurgence out of Anbar which was the heart of the resistance since 2003.

How can that situation possibly be compared to the local leadership in the West Bank, Gaza and Mohammed Dahlan? Had the local leadership there just driven out the PLO? Hardly!

"or South African efforts to promote alternatives to the ANC back in the Apartheid era."

Correct me if am wrong, but didn't the ANC represent the 80% of the population of South Africa, while the South African whites were about 20% - about the same demographic the Sunni Arabs are/were in Iraq? How does this analogy hold up?

Are not elections in the Sunni provinces desperately needed as the Sunnis boycotted the last one? As a result they are in the minority in those positions instead of the majority they should be, and in no position to represent their people's interests to the central government.

Of course if your implication is that the insurgents would reject the results of elections and try to overturn them by violence, then perhaps that might be an argument for putting them off. But that goes against the thesis that there are few differences between the Anbar awakening and the non alQ resistence?

In any case, why should the people in those provinces be disenfranchised and why should the US support such a disenfranchisement?

Eric Martin

So we can be confident things can get worse. Is that not meaningful to you? Are you so convinced you are right that you are prepared to sacrifice those lives (or "liquidate" them to use your horrible phrase) to reduce the costs of the war to us?

That's a bit of a cheap shot, no? The words were actually George Kennan's not mine, but that's not the worst company to be in I suppose. And the word "liquidate" was in reference to our position, not the lives of others - which was how I intended it and how any fair reading would render it.

The fear of more violence upon our withdrawal is real, and it is very meaningful to me. It is gut wrenchingly tragic. Actually, concern for the loss of human life led me to oppose the invasion itself before it occurred. You see, I didn't see much value in incinerating people (or liquidating them if you prefer) in order to liberate them. That's how meaningful Iraqi lives were to me before the shock, awe and wonderment. Fancy that.

The problem is that at this juncture, we cannot will the Iraqi people to forego violence. Nor can we, within reasonable means, remain as a bulwark indefinitely. Even you claim that you oppose a permanent presence, so then lets agree that we will be leaving eventually no matter who decides the pace.

So what happens when we eventually leave? I believe that we are we just delaying the inevitable, and providing a period of respite and consolidation before the eventual storm. Do you really believe that Iraqis will be spared from whatever conflict looms on the horizon under your plan as opposed to the CAP plan? Why couldn't Colin Kahl ask Eric Martin in 18 months, even if the political situation hasn't significantly improved: "Are you so convinced you are right..."

My argument is that we have unleashed forces in Iraq that have perpetuated a state of conflict that we cannot unravel ourselves - nor hold at bay indefinitely. Civilians in Iraq have been dying at a steady and horrific rate even with us in the middle - with twice as many troops as you recommend leaving behind! (Not to mention the fact that we, ourselves, have actually killed thousands of those very same Iraqi civilians that we are there to protect).

The bottom line is that I believe that a more intense civil war will occur, or not, regardless of the position you stake out.

As for suggesting that I favor a "rapid unilateral withdrawal" that would depend on how you define "rapid" and "unilateral." I tend toward the CAP proposal, but do not consider that to be necessarily unilateral or rapid, unless I am missing something.

That is to say: we need to manage the process of withdrawal carefully, and seek to engage the region and use the leverage of withdrawal to secure what we can (as well as other steps outlined by CAP, and by myself at various times).

But we must withdraw.


Just one thing to note on the oil revenue sharing -- it is becoming less and less likely by the day.

You can read it all here. Ben Lando of UPI follows this very closely:

A brief summary:
-The Kurds are signing deal after deal with Western oil companies and therefore have no incentive to share. The Shiites are essentially already doing the same through the national government.

the KRG has signed 12 (!) oil deals in two weeks:

16 firms looking to make deals for Kirkuk oil:

-Iraq's oil minister says they are months away from a revenue-sharing deal (http://www.guardian.co.uk/feedarticle?id=7080307)

judith weingarten

Colin Kahl writes "I likened the situation to what South Africa might have been like had the apartheid government's army gone underground and started planting bombs in Xhosa markets after 1990."

What it would have been like is Algeria 1957. While the Lebanon parallel seems attractive, Algeria is perhaps a better lesson of where Iraq is likely to end and at what cost.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Blog powered by Typepad