Here is an excellent and provocative piece by former Under Secretary of Defense for Comptroller Dov Zakheim, in today’s Miami Herald, elaborating on a short column that appeared a few weeks ago in the L.A. Times. He makes a series of recommendations to incoming Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, among the most eye-catching of which are these:
- Focus on preserving stability in the region rather than on more elusive (and illusionary) goals relating to governance in Iraq.
- Recognize that Iraq is in the midst of a bloody civil war that the United States cannot bring to an end.
- Propose that instead of pouring more American blood and treasure into embattled Baghdad and Anbar provinces, we reposition our forces to Kurdistan to prevent a conflagration between Turks and Kurds; to the Shiite south and the Iranian border to limit Tehran’s influence; and to the West to limit Syrian meddling and help protect the Jordanian border.
As former senior Defense officials go, Zakheim can be placed with former Policy chief Douglas Feith as closest in thinking to Rumsfeld himself. For him to suggest that we should seek regional stability in lieu of local security suggests that a significant change in course is already underway within the national security establishment. It also dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about lately, which should have occurred to me long ago. People across the political spectrum presume an inverse correlation between the presence of security forces and the level of violence. And there are many examples of violence decreasing where security forces have swept in and stayed on. But I don’t think the correlation holds as firmly as is commonly presumed. The security situation in Algeria deteriorated rapidly after the cancellation of Islamist electoral gains in the early 1990s. Algeria’s enormous army was not able to prevent the violence spreading, and was unable to bring it under control before it petered. And it petered out on its own, starved of political oxygen. The number of security forces had no bearing whatsoever on the undulating casualty rates of the Algerian Civil War, which was usually just as violent as the conflict in Iraq is now. What happened in essence is that parts of the country were overrun by terrorists who were usually indistinguishable from the rest of the population. And that sort of violence is exceedingly difficult to control once it is widespread. In Iraq, it is speculation to think that having had twice as many troops on the ground — or even a huge army like Algeria’s — would have prevented Saddamist-Islamist violence from spreading. And those who now propose we send more troops have more reasons to hope it will help than they have reasons to believe it will. That our strategy in Iraq needs to continue evolving, and may from time to time have to shift radically and rapidly, I do not dispute. But our strategic thinking here needs to be more long-term and nuanced than to presume that troop levels now will determine the issue.