Containing Disaster

If Congress is to derail President Bush's wayward plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, it must offer more than non-binding resolutions and bluster on the Senate floor. It must come up with a responsible and compelling alternative. As Bush challenged his critics last month, "My only call to Congress is that if you've got a better way to succeed, step up and explain it. Congress can, and should, do so."

Bush is right that the United States cannot merely walk away from the war; if Iraq becomes a lost cause, the likely results include the regional spread of sectarian violence, the intervention of Iraq's neighbors, and the expansion of terrorist sanctuaries. But Bush is wrong to insist that the United States faces a stark choice between sending more U.S. troops to Iraq and giving up. By altering its war aims before it is too late, the United States still has a fighting chance of averting Iraq's collapse and the regional spread of the conflict. In contrast, dispatching another 17,500 soldiers to confront militias in Baghdad simply puts additional resources behind failed policies, risking a steady slide toward all-out civil war.

Rather than focusing on mission impossible in Baghdad, the U.S. military should shift its sights to two realistic and achievable goals: 1) containing the arena of violence to current conflict zones within Iraq; and 2) averting the spread of instability from Iraq to the broader region. The fruitless engagement of U.S. soldiers in the civil conflict should end, enabling roughly half of the U.S. contingent in Iraq to return home. Military planners should develop a strategy that focuses on containment, substantially reducing the burdens and risks facing the U.S. forces that remain in Iraq while at the same time safeguarding America's vital interest in averting a wider war.

Should the U.S. withdraw from Baghdad and other areas overcome by sectarian conflict, conditions in those areas may well get worse before they get better. But the parties to the conflict are unlikely to reach a political settlement until they first arrive at a military equilibrium. As the recent conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan have demonstrated, military contests often need to run their course before political compromises can be reached. America's growing presence in Baghdad may well be delaying, not facilitating, the endgame.

Redeployment from zones of sectarian fighting would enable the United States to reduce its footprint in Iraq, yet still retain a residual force big enough to prevent the spread of the conflict and to avert a power vacuum that could tempt Iraq's neighbors. Meanwhile, the United States would not abandon Baghdad, but instead continue to train Iraqi forces, support their efforts to pacify the city, and assist with reconstruction and humanitarian relief.

As it disengages from direct involvement in the sectarian conflict in Baghdad and other urban areas, the United States should take the following steps to contain the fighting to current zones and prevent regional spillover:

  • Quarantine sectarian warfare. Substantial portions of Iraq remain relatively peaceful. The United States can forestall the spread of sectarian warfare by redeploying its troops to more secure provinces -- such as Diyala, Arbil, and Ninawa -- and working with local elites to ensure their continued stability.
  • Facilitate safe passage of civilians from conflict zones. Some two million Iraqis have already fled to neighboring countries, while another two million refugees are still in Iraq. The United States has a moral obligation to help Iraqi civilians escape the violence. It should safeguard corridors from war zones to more peaceful parts of Iraq, and work with international agencies to provide for the needs of displaced persons and enable their safe return home when possible.
  • Root out al-Qaeda and related terror networks from al-Anbar province. Bush's plan to send additional Marines to fight terror cells in Iraq's west makes far more sense than the surge into Baghdad. Redeployment from Baghdad will free up the U.S. personnel needed to take on insurgents in al-Anbar.
  • Beef up border security and seek diplomatic commitments to non-intervention. Iraq's long and porous borders pose a formidable barrier to the containment of the conflict. More U.S. forces should engage in border control. The United States should also propose and press for a UN resolution committing Iraq's neighbors to a non-intervention pact that would include measures to stanch the flow of militants and weapons into Iraq.
  • Engage Iran and Syria. Syria and Iran are both poised either to exacerbate the Iraq crisis or to advance the search for stability. Washington should pursue an official dialogue with Tehran and Damascus, without preconditions, to explore the potential for cooperation in pacifying Iraq, much as Washington and Tehran worked together to steady Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban. Washington has little to lose if such talks fail -- and much to gain if they facilitate strategic cooperation or open the door to a thawing of relations.

    The bloodshed in Baghdad admittedly makes it difficult to look beyond the troubled capital. But America's efforts in Baghdad have not paid off, and there are no positive signs to suggest that Bush's planned surge will stem the violence or repair the gaping sectarian divide. A strategy of containment offers the best hope of focusing U.S. efforts on remaining goals that are not only vital, but also still attainable.

    Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Suzanne Nossel is a fellow at the Security and Peace Initiative and writes for the Democracy Arsenal weblog.

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