COMMENTARY
 
Changing the Course of War in Iraq
Weekly Pulse
December 15-21, 2006
The Bush Administration has not yet announced any change in its Iraq policy, as recommended by the 10-member Iraq Study Group (ISG) in its 160-page report released on December 6. However, it is becoming increasingly clear from President George Bush’s recent meetings with Iraqi leaders and US experts that Washington may not stay the same course in Iraq as it has in the last three years.

At this stage, it is premature to comment whether the Bush Administration will implement all of the 79 solutions to the Iraqi problem, recommended by the ISG, or only parts of them. However, what is clear that 2007 may see the beginning of a new US policy on Iraq. In fact, President Bush has already started reaching out to pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian sectarian leaders in Iraq.

During his recent visit to Jordan, for instance, he met the leader of the largest Shia party in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. On Tuesday, he hosted the key Sunni Iraqi leader, Tariq al Hashemi. The exchange of diplomatic missions between Syria and Iraq as well as the interaction between Iraqi and Iranian leadership are steps that may have been taken with tacit US encouragement.

ISG Recommendations

The bipartisan ISG, which included top Democratic and Republican leaders and was co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former head of the House Armed Services Committee, Lee Hamilton, had, in principle, recommended a new US political strategy for Iraq as a “way forward,” while acknowledging the failure of the present US military strategy in the country.

The new policy is aimed at reconciling political differences among the various warring sectarian Iraqi groups. ISG report’s recommendations cover four areas; namely, Iraqi government responsibility, US troops commitment, regional involvement, and Palestinian solution. First, US support to the Nauri al-Maliki government will be conditional upon its ability to fight sectarianism, improve security, governance and unity in Iraq. For the purpose, it has to include the Baathist officials who were rendered jobless after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.

Second, by the start of 2008, most of the US troops will be withdrawn from Iraq and the remaining ones will stop playing the combat role. The primary troops’ mission from the day the new policy gets under way will be to train Iraqi forces. Currently, the United States has only 4,000 military trainers in Iraq. Their number will be increased up to 20,000.

Third, the United States will initiate a broad, intense and vigorous regional dialogue, especially reaching out to Syria and Iran. The emphasis of the new US diplomacy will be on “negotiating with the enemies” rather than isolating them further—a strategy that is perceived to have hugely backfired.

Finally, the problem in Iraq cannot be solved in isolation; rather, it is linked closely with the non-resolution of the Palestinian conflict. In order words, the ISG has recommended that peace and reforms in the Middle East is linked with Palestinian settlement rather than with the so-called victory in Iraq.

Bush’s Likely Response

As far as the first ISG recommendation is concerned, for quite some time, officials of the Bush administration have been pressing upon the Iraqi leaders to rein in on sectarianism. This is because of the consistent losses that the US Army has suffered in Iraq, with the number of US troops killed there currently standing at nearly 3,000. Moreover, the level of Iraqi deaths resulting from the growing sectarian wave has also grown overtime—creating a civil war situation in the country. Thus, as far as the first ISG recommendation is concerned, there is no reason the Bush administration will co-opt it in its new strategy.

As for the second ISG recommendation—that of the new troops mission and their gradual withdrawal in the next 15 months—the Pentagon under former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have resisted it. However, with Pentagon under the new leadership of former CIA chief Robert Gates—who himself has acknowledged the failure of US’s Iraq policy in his Congressional confirmation hearings—there is no reason why the Bush administration should refuse to implement the second ISG recommendation. In fact, President Bush has already hailed the ISG for not recommending precipitous troops withdrawal from Iraq, as it could have, in his words, proved “dangerous,” by causing “more sectarianism, power vacuum,” as well as regional and economic implications

It is on the third and forth recommendations of the ISG that a conflict of interest may arise between the ISG and the Bush Administration. The latter’s perception is that Syria and Iran are themselves a problem; and that such problem can only be solved by further isolating the regimes in Iraq and Iran even to the extent of changing them. That is why when British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the White House last week, President Bush stresses during his joint press conference with Prime Minister Blair that talks with Syria and Iran were only possible if they first stop sponsoring terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon or, in Iran’s case, renounce the quest for nuclear weapons.

Finally, in the case of Palestinian settlement, the Bush Administration still seems to be stuck with the notion that what is happening in Iraq has nothing to do with Palestine. This is exactly the Israeli standpoint—made clear by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the day the ISG released its report. For its part, the ISG—especially based upon the intense diplomatic experience that former Secretary of State Baker acquired during the back channel Middle East diplomacy that led to the Oslo Peace accords in 1993—sees no resolution of the broader Middle Easter crisis of which Iraq is a crucial part without Palestinian settlement.

How far the Bush Administration is willing to go in accommodating the last two principal ISG recommendations will be clear when President Bush makes his speech on the new Iraq policy before Christmas. For now, he seems to be quite evasive on the matter. His standpoint is that as an Executive authority, he will make the final decision only after he receives other reports from his administration. This past week, President Bush has got briefings at the State Department and the Pentagon and met with various experts from security think tanks.

The report from his National Security team will also reach him shortly. It is on the basis of all of these reports and briefings and not necessarily only on the basis of ISG recommendations that President Bush will announce the new policy on Iraq war. However, if the new Bush policy includes the options of the ISG recommended ‘regional dialogue’ and Palestinian settlement, this will have crucial implications for the Middle East and even South Asia.

Implications of Policy Change

The Iraqi leadership is already feeling insecure from the likely change in US policy on Iraq with regards to greater responsibility on the part of Iraqi government, with the US playing only a supportive role. President Jalal Talabani has already come out with a severe criticism of the ISG report, terming its main recommendations such as the above as “unjust and unfair.” He has called the recommended inclusion of the Baathists as potentially dangerous for Iraqi sovereignty, and ridiculed the recommended provisions for US training Iraqi security as a “waste of time.”

Whatever President Talabani may say, the Bush Administration would like to wash its hands from Iraq. It has to implement the ISG recommendation on linking US support to the Iraqi government acquiring greater responsibility for the country’s security and governance. It has to shift US troops mission from combat role to that of training Iraqi forces—and all this if its wishes the Republican Party to win the 2008 elections.

The heart of the problem for the Bush Administration in Iraq has been that the very forces it has helped install in Iraqi governance have lacked the will and the ability to manage security and governance. With Congress in the hands of Democrats and growing public pressure against the US role in Iraq war, the Bush Administration cannot afford to bankroll the puppets it helped put in power in Iraq. It cannot compromise US security for the security of parasitic entities such as the Kurds of northern Iraq who thrived under the US-British manned northern No-Fly Zone even under Saddam’s regime post-1991 Gulf War.

Realistically speaking, both Syria and Iran are not that much of a problem for US policy in the Middle East. It is in Iran’s interest to have democracy in Iraq, as this will put Shiites firmly in power in Iraq. This is a goal where Iranian and American interests are compatible. For that matter, Iran also played a crucial role in realizing the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

James Dobbins, the Director of International Security and Defense at Rand Corporation and one of Bush Administration’s top officials involved in the post-Taliban regime establishment in Afghanistan, has argued in a recent Christian Science Monitor report that Iran had even offered the United States to train the Afghan National Army. It was the Bush Administration’s refusal top deal with Tehran, which, according to him, produced the radical Iranian leadership in the person of President Ahmedinejad.

While arguing for a US dialogue with Iran and Syria, the ISG has recommended “de-coupling” Iran’s nuclear issue from the Iraq war. The Group has also recommended the start of a broader Middle Eastern diplomacy paving the way for the return of Golan Heights to Syria, which remain under Israeli occupation. For their part, there is no reason why both Tehran and Damascus will not be willing to negotiate with the United States.

In fact, for the past few years, Syria has had fruitful ties with Turkey, one of US’s foremost allies in the region, which itself is concerned about the potential fallout of any Iraqi breakup on its south-eastern strife-torn Kurdish regions. And the reason Iran and Syria have backed Hezbollah in south Lebanon is also linked to Israeli militarism in the region. Finally, Iran’s attempted nuclearization may be a direct outcome of Israeli nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.

To cut a long story short, while there should be no two opinions about the start of a new US policy in Iraq in a couple of weeks from now, we may wish that sanity may prevail upon the Bush Administration with regard to the two core issues of regional dialogue over Iraq and Palestinian peace settlement. However, one must say, that sanity can only prevail upon the American leadership, only if it realizes that Syria and Iran may be a problem, but a bigger problem in the Middle East—one that is posing the greatest difficulty in realizing an over all Middle Eastern peace settlement—is no one but its foremost Middle Eastern ally, Israel.

An Iraqi Model for Afghanistan!

If the Bush administration announced its willingness to have direct talks with Syria and Iran and if the warring Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq are given greater share in Iraq’s governance with its approval, then such crucial US decisions to change the course in Iraq will have direct implications for Afghanistan.

This may particularly increase the significance of what Pakistani leadership has been proposing for Afghanistan. Islamabad concluded a deal with the pro-Taliban tribal lords in Waziristan in September, and it wishes to conclude similar deals with other tribal jirgas in Pashtun regions bordering Afghanistan, which, as alleged by Afghan and Western officials and media, are acting as staging posts for Taliban infiltration across the Duran Line.

The Pakistani leadership has also argued that the growing militant opposition to the Afghan government and NATO forces in Afghanistan has populist, indigenous basis, and that it is only by co-opting it politically in Afghan governance that the security problem in the war-torn state can be solved credibly. Unlike Syria and Iran, which are America’s foes, Pakistan is US’s foremost ally in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

So, if Washington started to negotiate with foes like Syria and Iran for stabilizing Iraq, why would it not pay attention to the Afghan-specific proposals being floated by its foremost ally in South-West Asia, Pakistan?