Saturday, July 02, 2005

Defining Victory

Timelines! Metrics! Head in the sand! Weak-kneed liberals! Vietnam-esque! The recent upsurge in insurgent attacks in Iraq have resurfaced doubts among politicians, pundits, and the American people about Iraq. How do we get out?

Withdrawal of troops from a hostile area can only be described in one of two ways: 1) successful accomplishment the mission (victory) 2) retreat (and acceptance of some degree of defeat). It is paramount that policymakers make sure we never send US forces in harms way without the full expectation of withdrawing under condition #1. Of course, if we do find ourselves in a position where we are losing and the prospects for loss (or costs of victory) are too high, then we should consider retreat.

Two bad ideas have been floating around the national security world since Bosnia and are being reapplied to Iraq: withdrawal timetable and exit strategy. Let's knock these out one at a time.

Here is the problem with declaring a timetable for retreat. White House: "Hey bad guys, we think things are going pretty badly for us so we're only going to stick it out another 6 months to see if things get better." Bad guys: "Hey, Zarqawi! The Americans just said on the radio that if we keep killing them for 6 more months, they will leave! Praise Allah!" Our troops: "Hey Joe, if we're pulling the plug in a 6 months, why should I keep getting shot at?" Bottom line: if you want to withdraw, then withdraw -- as quickly as possible.

As for exit strategy, the whole thing smells of a figleaf AND focuses you on the wrong things. There are really two outcomes: success or failure. As Shali said re: Bosnia 1996 (paraphrasing), I'm more interested in a success strategy than an exit strategy.

But when it comes to Iraq, what IS success? What is victory? Obviously we can imagine the rosy scenario: end of the insurgency, a new democratic ally in Iraq, and a force for moderation throughout the region. I'd like an Aston Martin Vanquish too. No, I think we have to focus on the MINIMUM criteria for victory/success, sufficient for withdrawal and future progress absent large military occupation. Anything more is gravy.

Just as I have argued that the only meaningful metric of progress is reduction in violence, the most meaningful criteria for minimum victory is a situation where the new Iraqi government can provide its own security. (hardly radical stuff -- I'm sure most see this the same way -- yet we tend to confuse ourselves with other political, economic and military metrics.) For more on HOW to minimize violence, look at the earlier post "Dirty Secrets of War."

Self-securing Iraq is not the sole minimum criteria, however. All of these must be considered additional criteria:
- denial of Iraq as a safe-haven for al queda, other anti-US terrorists, or global international criminals
- prevention of Iraqi government becoming a radical Shia regime, perhaps with close ties to Tehran
- sufficient government capability to avoid a post-withdrawal backsliding into civil war or anarchy
- some degree of continuing pragmatic cooperation with the US and with international law, institutions, and norms

Any other suggestions?


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