by Kingston Reif
Published on Iraq Insider blog on June 25, 2008
On June 21, 2008, Multi-National Force-Iraq Commander General David Petraeus unveiled a crisp, three-page document containing counterinsurgency (COIN) guidance for U.S. troops in Iraq.
By now, the concepts contained in the document – secure and serve the population, live among the people, and hold areas that have been secured – are well-known and much-celebrated. Most experts agree that their implementation by General Petraeus as part of “The New Way Forward” or surge strategy, played a role in reducing violence and stabilizing the security situation in Iraq.
Yet despite its many virtues, Petraeus’s document offers little in the way of guidance on America’s key strategic quandary in Iraq famously articulated by Petraeus himself back in 2003: “Tell me how does this end?” While the implementation of effective COIN doctrine was a necessary condition for the creation of a viable Iraqi state, it is not sufficient in and of itself.
This dilemma is thrown into especially sharp relief by a report on Iraq released on June 23 by the Government Accountability Office. Though mindful of the many gains made in Iraq over the past 18 months, the report emphasizes the fragility of these gains and the many challenges that lie ahead, including:
- The number of Iraqi security force units deemed capable of performing operations without coalition assistance has remained at about 10%
- While the Iraqi government has enacted de-Ba’athification, amnesty, and provincial powers legislation, questions remain about how the laws will be implemented. In addition, the Iraqi government has yet to set the rules for Iraq’s provincial elections, define the control and management of Iraq’s oil and gas resources, and provide for disarmament and demobilization of Iraq’s armed groups
- Iraq ministries are failing to adequately execute their budgets
- Essential services, such as crude oil and electricity production, remain well behind schedule
Crucially, the GAO report concludes that “The New Way Forward” introduced by President Bush in January 2007 to stabilize the security situation and create breathing space for political reconciliation does “not specify the administration’s strategic goals and objectives in Iraq for the phase after July 2008 or how it intends to achieve them. Further, while they predict continued progress in the security, political, and economic areas, they do not address the remaining challenges to achieving either unmet U.S. goals and objectives or the desired U.S. end state for Iraq.”
In sum, while the implementation of COIN doctrine has changed the situation for the better in Iraq, the key question is to what end? Helping Iraq achieve important security, legislative, economic, and institutional goals requires, in so far as it is possible, a clear and definable conception of (1) what end state we are trying to achieve; (2) how long it might take to achieve such an end state; and (3) the costs we are willing to tolerate along the way.
Petraeus’s COIN guidance document contains many essential and useful tactical and operational prescriptions, but it does not offer the type of overarching strategic guidance necessary to address these issues. To be fair, civilian and political leaders, not generals, should be responsible for determining strategic objectives. That they have not is evidence that despite recent tactical successes, we still don’t have an answer to “Tell me how does this end?”