Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, warnings about an insurgency developing in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s regime fell were ignored by the Bush administration. Lacking training in counterinsurgency operations, U.S. armed forces initially used aggressive offensive tactics employing heavy firepower and ignored the two fundamental principles of counterinsurgency operations: create a secure environment for the civilian population and isolate the insurgents.
This initial lack of planning and strategy, along with an insufficient number of U.S. troops, stoked the insurgency. Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties resulted, which in turn produced an irreversible backlash of enmity and revenge toward U.S. troops from the families, friends, and other tribal members of the Iraqi dead and wounded.
As outlined in the 2006 Iraq Study Group report, political stability and reduced violence in Iraq cannot be achieved by military force alone. A strong diplomatic surge is needed. There will be flare-ups of violence no matter how many U.S. troops remain in Iraq. Policymakers need to accept that fact. They also need to accept that diplomatic and economic initiatives can increase the chances for stability and for reducing outbreaks of violence. It is in the interests of all Middle Eastern countries that Iraq not return to violence and civil war. What is needed is a security arrangement acceptable to all Iraq’s neighbors. That means balancing Saudi and other Arab interests with Iranian interests and finding a balance that protects U.S. interests as well.
Given these realities, the United States needs to undertake an all-fronts diplomatic initiative to engage the nations of the region to help stabilize Iraq. This includes addressing the internal tensions between and among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds, especially at flash points such as Kirkuk. Funding must be found to resettle the five million or more internal and external Iraqi refugees. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States need to help the Iraqi Sunni population with economic development so the Sunnis can play a strong role in Iraqi politics.
There will never be a Victory in Iraq or “V-I” Day. Americans were not greeted as “liberators” at the war’s beginning, and will not be treated to parades at the war’s end. Division and sectarian conflict hopefully should continue to diminish over time despite periodic flare-ups. A more authoritarian regime may emerge or perhaps one less secular than the United States would prefer.