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Denouement on Iraq: First Stop the Bleeding
BY LARRY C. JOHNSON, RAY McGOVERN, RAY CLOSE, DAVID C. MACMICHAEL, and COLLEEN ROWLEY (Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity [VIPS])
MEMORANDUM FOR: Speaker of the House | Senate Majority Leader
SUBJECT: Denouement on Iraq: First Stop the Bleeding
In the coming weeks a Congress that is willing to assert its prerogative as a co-equal branch of government has a unique opportunity to stop the needless deaths and maiming of U.S. troops in Iraq and bring them home in an orderly way this year. To do that, it must use its constitutionally mandated authority—the power of the purse. Although the president, vice president, and their most ardent supporters blindly insist that victory is a troop surge away, the current U.S. military commander on the ground, General David Petraeus, concedes that no military victory is possible. Victory will only be secured through a political solution. The question is not whether U.S. troops will remain permanently in Iraq. The vast majority of Americans agree that the U.S. presence in Iraq is temporary. The real question is how many more Americans will be killed and wounded in a civil war that pits Sunnis against Shias.
Background: A movement of retired intelligence officers established in January 2003 out of concern for the politicization of our profession, VIPS’ first analytic effort was a same-day critique of Colin Powell’s performance at the U.N. on February 5, 2003. (At the time, we seemed the only ones not at all impressed.) Since then we have issued eleven more briefing memoranda, most of them addressed to President George W. Bush. Our intent was to make available sane, unadulterated intelligence analysis to foster enlightened decision-making on the Middle East. We have not the slightest hint, though, that our memoranda actually reached the president. And when we released them to the media, our efforts received little ink or airtime.
This president and vice president have made a regular practice of standing the intelligence process on its head. For example, they decided on the “surge” (which is looking more and more like escalation) before the intelligence community issued its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead” in January. To their credit, the authors resisted pressure to support the notion that a “surge” would improve the U.S. position in Iraq; the analysts refused to budge and made it abundantly clear that, surge or not, the U.S. position would continue to erode.
The only trace of unacceptable policy influence on the preparation of that NIE appeared in the unclassified Key Judgments where the straw man of “rapid withdrawal” was introduced and knocked down forcefully again and again (yesterday by Cheney, and again this morning by the editors of the Washington Post in their lead editorial). Intelligence analysts have complained that they were forced to estimate what would result from “rapid withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Iraq, but not what would result from a gradual or phased withdrawal. Although the chairman of the estimate assured Senators at a hearing on February 27 that no political pressure had been applied to the drafters, he could not explain why the most extreme option, “rapid withdrawal,” was singled out for debunking.
To be sure, in the wake of frequent visits by Cheney and I. Louis Libby to CIA headquarters to help the analysts, and the ensuing debacle in intelligence on Iraq, U.S. intelligence was thoroughly discredited. Still, it makes no sense to make key foreign policy decisions in an intelligence vacuum. When we served in U.S. intelligence, the president (and sometimes the Congress) would ask us for our considered view on likely foreign reaction to this or that policy before final decisions were taken. Quickly prepared, time-sensitive estimates were called Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIEs). Before President Lyndon Johnson started bombing Vietnam, for example, he asked for a SNIE addressing the question as to whether bombing would make a significant difference in helping defeat the Vietnamese Communist “insurgency.” That was a no-brainer; we said No. He went ahead anyway, but the point is that he would not have thought of making such a decision without obtaining the unvarnished views of intelligence analysts first. Thanks to the separation of powers, and the outcome of the November election, the nation now has another foreign policy “decider”—you, the leaders of the new Congress. The bottom line is you now have the power to end the most unconscionable and catastrophic foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history. It will take a lot of courage, but such courage cannot be expected, absent an true understanding of just how foolish it is to throw more and more U.S. troops into the cauldron. They deserve better. It is with this acute sense of the stakes involved that we offer our professional view on what is likely to happen should there is unnecessary delay in withdrawing our troops from Iraq. Drawing on well over a hundred years of our collective experience in intelligence, we five members of the VIPS Steering Group offer below principal conclusions of what amounts to a mini-SNIE. We offer the following Key Judgments:
The vast majority of the violence in Iraq is sectarian in nature and involves a multifaceted civil war mostly pitting Sunnis against Shias. However, the violence also entails secular Sunnis fighting Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda and secular Shias battling Shia extremists. The civil war aspect includes (as the Jan. NIE put it) “the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements”—in other words, a rabid dog fight with our troops in between. The only thing the various factions share is unflinching opposition to U.S. occupation. But the notion that there is a monolithic group of “insurgents” or “enemy” falls far wide of the mark.
U.S. strategy in Iraq is based on the false assumptions that the “people” and the “insurgents” in Iraq are two distinct and opposing groups, and that U.S. and Iraqi forces will be able to “clear” the insurgents and “hold” the people. In fact, the resistance will be suppressed in one area, only to re-emerge somewhere else (the attempt to suppress is appropriately called “Operation Whack-a-Mole”). It goes against virtually all historical precedent to suppose that an unwelcome invader with 150,000 troops—and Iraqi security forces that the NIE judged to be “persistently weak”—can occupy and subdue a large country with a population of 26 million and long porous borders.
The United States does not have enough military forces on the ground in Iraq to provide effective control of the cities and key regions to prevent violence and destroy insurgent infrastructure. Moreover, the U.S. lacks sufficient soldiers and marines in its current globally deployed force to provide sustained reinforcements. And absent is the political will to bring back the draft to obtain the number of troops required to get better control of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Even with a draft, the United States would require two years at a minimum to train and organize the new units for any mission in Iraq. Given these facts, there is no military solution to the situation in Iraq.
A surge in U.S. troops in specific areas, specifically Baghdad, may bring more than a momentary lessening in the violence, but it will not end the fighting. In fact, this concentrated surge will enable insurgent forces in other areas of the country to expand their operations and control. A de facto partitioning of Iraq is under way. Since the surge started we have already seen an increase in violence in the Kurdish controlled north.
At current casualty rates, twelve more months will mean at least 1,000 additional U.S. troops killed and 18 more months will bring at least 1,500—not to mention Iraqis killed, and thousands upon thousands seriously wounded. The various Iraqi insurgent groups will probably fade into the woodwork for a while, but at a time and place of their choosing they will surely be back, in force. In the end, aside from the deaths, nothing lasting will have been achieved.
Senior U.S. civilian and military officials still don’t get it. “They can’t beat us in a stand-up fight,” bragged our vice president just two months ago, echoing recent words of a U.S. Army colonel in Iraq. This completely misses the point, and calls to mind the sad month of April 1975, when Col. Harry Summers was sent to negotiate with a North Vietnamese colonel the terms of American withdrawal from Vietnam. Summers reported the following exchange: “‘You know, you never beat us on the battlefield,’ I said to Colonel Tu, my North Vietnamese counterpart. ‘That may be so,’ he said, ‘but it is also irrelevant.’”
The critical parts of Iraq—Baghdad and southern Iraq—will be under the control of the Shia. Iran in turn will try to expand its aid and influence among both the Shia populace and the secular Sunnis.
The U.S. occupation continues to be a windfall for terrorist recruiters. An NIE of April 2006 on terrorism noted that the war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists whose numbers, it said, may be increasing faster than the U.S. can reduce the threat. There is wide consensus among experienced observers that the war in Iraq makes it immensely more difficult to deal with the real threat of international terrorism.
Violence in Iraq, at least for the mid-term, will continue regardless of the U.S. presence. Once a U.S. departure is under way there is an increased likelihood that the Sunnis and Shias will move toward a political accommodation of some sort since at that point neither can count on the United States to fight on their side. The only thing in doubt is the timing of the U.S. departure, and whether it can be accomplished without the massacres the British experienced trying to extricate themselves from earlier expeditions into Iraq. The lack of a substantial U.S. military presence in Iraq will have the counterintuitive effect of increasing the likelihood that neighboring countries will be more willing to take steps to help reduce the violence in Iraq.
No one asked either the authors of the recent NIE on Iraq, or us in VIPS, to assess the various proposals on the table for their effect on the situation in Iraq. Domestic politics appears the dominant factor guiding the Congress. Domestic politics is not part of our portfolio, but as American citizens, parents and grandparents, we will permit ourselves this observation. We note that the amendment offered by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, mandating that supplemental funding be used exclusively for the “safe and complete withdrawal “ of all U.S. troops and contractors from Iraq not later than December 31, 2007, offers the most realistic approach in terms of what the U.S. can accomplish on the ground in Iraq. The main difference boils down to the saving of thousands of American and Iraqi lives this year, with little-to-no chance for the administration to diddle Congress.
Your draft legislation makes the dubious assumption that the president believes the U.S. Constitution still applies to him—and that he should be taken at his word. Rather, his behavior has shown that he has little but contempt for Congress, which he has had little trouble manipulating—at least until now. Again, what remains indisputably in your quiver is the power of the purse. This is your chance to use it, and save an untold number of lives in the process. You may wish to let the chips, rather than our soldiers, fall where they may.
Ray Close, Princeton, NJ
Larry Johnson, Bethesda, MD
David C. MacMichael, Linden, VA
Ray McGovern, Arlington, VA
Coleen Rowley, Apple Valley, MN
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity