For U.S., The Goal Is Now ‘Iraqi Solutions’
By Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 10, 2008
In the year since President Bush announced he was changing course in Iraq with a troop “surge” and a new strategy, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have begun their own quiet policy shift. After countless unsuccessful efforts to push Iraqis toward various political, economic and security goals, they have decided to let the Iraqis figure some things out themselves.
From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. “We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems,” said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.
In many cases — particularly on the political front — Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. “To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country’s economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis,” he pledged. “Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year . . . the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq’s constitution.”
Although some progress has been made and legislation in some cases has begun to slowly work its way through the parliament, none of these benchmarks has been achieved. Nor has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki taken over security responsibility for all 18 provinces, as Bush forecast it would. Last month’s transfer of Basra province by British forces brought to nine the number of provinces under Iraqi control.
In explaining the situation, U.S. officials have made a virtue of necessity and have praised Iraqi ingenuity for finding different routes toward the same goals. Iraqis have figured out a way to distribute oil revenue without laws to regulate it, Crocker has often noted, and former Baathists are getting jobs. Local and provincial governing bodies — some elected, some not — are up and running.
The Iraqis “are at the point where they are able to fashion their own approaches and desired outcomes,” Crocker said in an interview, “and we, I think, in part recognizing that and in part reflecting on where we have been over the last almost five years, are increasingly prepared to say it’s got to be done in Iraqi terms.”
The U.S. military has praised the Maliki government for acknowledging it is not ready to handle security in much of Iraq, and at the same time has dismissed the ongoing violence in Basra and much of the rest of the south as an Iraqi problem. “There are innumerable challenges in the security situation in Basra,” Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said late last year, “but there are Iraqi solutions emerging to some of these.”
For some observers, the approach indicates a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans drawn from U.S. templates have not worked in Iraq. But others charge that the phrase “Iraqi solutions” implies a cynical U.S. willingness to turn a blind eye to sectarianism, political violence and a wealth of papered-over problems — if that is the price of getting the United States out of Iraq.
“The new phrasing is both the dawning of reality, and the cynical use of language and common sense to camouflage past errors, hoping to avoid the audit of flawed logic that got us to this point,” said a retired British general familiar with the U.S. experience in Iraq, and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his current position.
U.S. officials at various levels are pushing the idea for different reasons, said Sarah Sewall, director of Harvard University‘s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Clinton-era Pentagon official. While Petraeus has embraced the notion out of “realism,” Sewall said, she thinks the Bush administration “has recently arrived at this formula out of desperation — due to the failure of its past efforts.”
The U.S. occupation authority initially envisioned a free-market paradise for Iraq, with flat taxes and a state-of-the-art stock exchange. Its successors lowered their expectations, seeking a Westernized, relatively corruption-free system, gently trying to wrest the economy away from state ownership. But with little progress, U.S. officials in Baghdad now are simply looking for something that works, frequently spotlighting the Iraqi government’s top economic milestone — passing a national budget and spending some of the appropriated funds.
On the military front, reliance on Iraqi solutions brought an unanticipated success. During the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. military neglected Anbar province, in western Iraq. Later, top commanders decided that a few raids would subdue the growing Sunni insurgency there. Only after Anbar became the center of operations for the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq did U.S. combat forces move to claim the province, engaging in heavy fighting in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Last year, as Sunni tribes began to turn against al-Qaeda, U.S. officials accepted their offer to sort out the province themselves. Taking a leap of faith, U.S. commanders opened talks with tribal leaders and agreed to let them fight their own battles. But when the U.S. military suggested that the Shiite-led Iraqi government incorporate the Sunni fighters — many of them veterans of anti-U.S. combat — into their own security forces, the Iraqis balked.
The Anbar situation has become an example of the reality Washington confronts, as Iraqis have made clear they do not need U.S. permission to do what they want. “We completely, absolutely reject” a permanent Sunni-based security force, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi told a news conference in late December. As soon as restive Sunni areas are calmed, he said, the local forces will be disbanded.
Talk of Iraqi solutions “is largely a red herring,” said Wayne White, who led the State Department‘s Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005. “This is a catchy phrase aimed at touting — and exaggerating — success in Sunni Arab areas,” such as Anbar, “while diverting focus away from potential downsides related to same,” including the creation of local forces allied with the United States but opposed to the Iraqi government.
Much of the “Iraqi solutions” strategy is taking place on the neighborhood level, where the U.S. military has expressed little interest in reversing the sectarian cleansing that contributed to the recent decline in violence. Joint U.S. civilian-military teams seem steeped in new levels of patience and flexibility. They report ground-level accommodations on such issues as adjusting U.S.-sponsored “micro-loans” to reflect Islamic rejection of interest payments and direct dealings with representatives of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“Politically, realistically, representatives of . . . Sadr are important,” said Paul Folmsbee, a Foreign Service officer who heads the U.S. civilian-military reconstruction team in Baghdad’s Sadr City. “There’s an office called the Office of the Moqtada al-Sadr, and they also provide many services to the population, and so we work with them.” That includes working with Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, elements of which are fighting U.S. forces elsewhere, Folmsbee told reporters last month.
To Crocker, the meaning of “Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems” is “blindingly obvious. Iraq has got a government. It’s got a system. It’s got provincial governments. It’s got a military and a police. And it has leaders of all of these things who increasingly take themselves seriously as leaders.”
Crocker, who co-wrote a 2002 paper predicting a “perfect storm” of things likely to go wrong after an ill-conceived U.S. invasion, was one of a number of U.S. diplomats who urged early caution. Since his arrival in Baghdad in March, he has insisted that the U.S. role is to “steer, push, prod and pound the table” to help Iraqis move forward without trying to do everything for them.
A major challenge for the Iraqi government this year, he said, will be dealing with rampant corruption. “Will it be through a U.S.-style approach to rule of law, under which officials file financial disclosure payments and can’t take more than a cup of non-Starbucks coffee?” Probably not, he said.
“We can make some suggestions. We have. We are,” Crocker said. “What we need them to do now is say, ‘Thanks very much, but we’ve got a way of our own down which we want to move with this.’ ”
The approach also seems designed to bypass thorny issues. Direct dealings with Sadr’s forces in the Baghdad neighborhoods they control both reverses earlier policy and sidesteps initial U.S. hopes for elected local government. In southern Iraq, U.S. military and civilian officials have refused to become involved in the violence between warring Shiite groups, with Petraeus describing that conflict as something Iraqis must deal with on their own.
The new openness to “Iraqi solutions” also reflects the U.S. military’s painfully learned lessons about how to operate in an alien land. Army Col. Robert Roth, who trained Iraqi army commanders in 2005, said it means that the only way to win in a counterinsurgency campaign is “by, with and through the people within that country where the insurgency exists — they must decide how they want to live and then take action to make it so.” The most successful example of that process in Iraq, Roth added, was the turnaround in Anbar.
To the U.S. civilian officials with whom the military has frequently been at odds in Iraq, it is a welcome change. “I have a lot of admiration for my military colleagues,” said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. “A lot of them are really getting this, understanding issues . . . family, culture, values, religion. You don’t identify an objective in those areas, like a hill, and say, ‘Let’s come up with a plan, and we’ll take that piece of territory.’ ”
The traditional military belief, he said, was that “if you just bring enough resources to a problem and get the right approach, the outcome is guaranteed. But it’s very, very frustrating for them, as it is for all Americans, for members of Congress, because we are expending so much on this exercise, and we want to know that we’re going to achieve something good.
“But we are learning,” the diplomat said. “We are a pragmatic people at the end of the day . . . [and] you don’t get anybody ever to do something they don’t want to do.”
Several officers pointed out that the emphasis on local answers simply follows the instructions of the Army’s new manual on counterinsurgency. Conrad Crane, an Army historian who co-wrote the manual, noted that it quotes Lawrence of Arabia‘s famous admonition, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly.”
Crane said he has seen among U.S. brigade and battalion commanders in Iraq “a growing realization on the ground that Iraqi solutions will best fit Iraqi problems. We have learned some of this the hard way.”