Skip to main content

 by Haviland Smith

A retired CIA station chief and head of the Agency’s counterterrorism staff examines the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and finds that it cannot be successful. He calls for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a “complete change” in U.S. goals and tactics in the Middle East, and rebuilding bridges to allies. — Ed.

America is fighting two distinctly different battles in Iraq that are mutually contradictory. We are fighting against an Iraqi insurgency which would like us out of Iraq and we are fighting against Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) which would like us to stay — only because they came there to kill our troops and foment chaos, which can only be accomplished if we are there. That alone is a pretty good reason for us to get out.

As justification for our invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration used a number of rationales. They cited Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi government ties to terrorism against the United States, and our desire to “spread democracy” in the region. Of course, there were no WMD and no Iraqi ties to terrorism prior to the invasion. “Spreading democracy” has proven to be very elusive.

The Bush White House as well as Senator McCain, the putative Republican presidential nominee, and other supporters of the Administration’s Iraq policy have identified our goal in Iraq as “victory.” “Victory” is defined by the White House as the defeat of terrorism and the insurgency; the creation of a peaceful, united, stable, democratic and secure state; the evolution of Iraq as a partner in U.S. foreign policy goals on terrorism, WMD, and weapons proliferation; and as an economic and political example to the region of all that is good about democracy.

“Victory” or Stability
Rather than seeking “victory” in Iraq, the United States might better seek stability for the region. Our military approach to both Iraqi terrorism and the insurgency will bring only further instability. Real stabilization will necessarily involve seeking a viable political solution for Iraq, requiring the participation of the neighborhood in the process. The neighborhood does not seek a regional conflict, yet as long as we are involved militarily there, we are so totally bereft of diplomatic power that none of those neighbors will participate with us in seeking and implementing the kind of solution that will be acceptable to all concerned. Our departure from Iraq is the only course that can provide an opportunity for such a solution, as well as the opportunity to seek solutions to other Middle East problems.

Such a change will require us to reconsider the overall effectiveness of our present military effort in Iraq. Anyone who accepts the likelihood that not even a militarily successful surge will bring voluntary resolution of Iraq’s internal sectarian and ethnic issues, will understand that the same civil conflicts that the surge is successfully suppressing today will simply wait until we have departed Iraq and then come to the forefront again. These animosities are so ancient, so ingrained, that they have not disappeared over the centuries and will not for centuries to come. Whether we leave now or in ten years, the same potential for conflict will be there.

The Bush administration has spoken often of the coming “long war” against terrorism. As long as we continue with their strategies and tactics which rely first and foremost on the Neocons’ beloved application of military power, it will indeed be a long war – a generational struggle. The invasion brought us chaos, and chaos has brought us the surge. The surge is a military response to terrorism and insurgency, and it ultimately will defeat our own goals for Iraq and the region.

America’s Tactical Goals
In response to the chaos which resulted from our virtually nonexistent post-invasion planning, we have undertaken the “surge.” Our tactical goal in Iraq is designed to successfully conclude that “surge,” which, in turn, is projected to facilitate political reconciliation between the different Iraqi factions. The problem here is that those Iraqi factions have little reason to reach such agreements, since doing so would force them to give up powers that are integral to their plans for the futures of their respective constituencies.

We know from statements from the Bush administration and the Pentagon that there is no potential for a military solution to the ongoing problem. Add to that the fact that in insurgent situations, successful military consolidation invariably depends on prior political reconciliation, and it would appear that we have approached this project not only backwards, but completely incorrectly!

Iraq Immutables
Our invasion and subsequent military presence in Iraq has let a number of genies out of their bottles. We are currently faced with a totally new set of realities which we ignore at our own peril.

It is really difficult to call Iraq a country. The British created Iraq strictly for their own convenience, and there really never has been sufficient common interest among the population of that ersatz state to maintain itself voluntarily and peacefully. As a result, it has been maintained since then by a succession of repressive regimes, the last of which was Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Since the American invasion, that role has been precariously undertaken by the U.S. military. We have become the Iraq’s latest and perhaps least efficient enforcers.

The “surge” currently underway, however militarily successful, is unlikely to lead to political stability and far more likely to cause further destabilization. As integral parts of our surge policy, we tacitly acknowledge and support a level of autonomy for the Kurds which will likely lead ultimately to conflict among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen in the north. Further, we are supporting all sides in the ongoing low-key civil war. We are arming Sunni tribal militias in the “Awakening” program, but neglect to employ them as promised, leaving a group of battle hardened fighters whom we have armed and who are not only angry at the Shia and the Kurds, but at us as well. Before the “surge” these Sunni militias were in the forefront of the insurgency against our troops. Meanwhile, we ignore southern Iraq, where Shia militia battle over oil and power and where competing Shia groups are so fractious that they can’t even carry out elections within their own sect! Paradoxically, our military approach is directly threatening to our goals and long term national interests through the effects it is having on Iraq, terrorism, and the region.

The Koran provides a complete blueprint for a life which is very different from a life led under democracy. Many if not most observant Muslims find no reason to seek changes in their way of life. Despite that, deeply embedded in the psyche of the American people is the notion that they have the objectively most perfect economic system and form of government on the face of this earth and that they need to share it with others. Even with all its faults and inequities, that may well be true — at least for us Americans. However, for people who have different traditions and virtually no experience with the basic requirements of democracy — the established existence of the rule of law and a free press — democracy can be a really tough sell. One has to wonder if it is productive to have this as anything other than a passive foreign policy goal.

Current Problems Caused by America’s Iraq Policy
Our pursuit of “victory”, as defined above, has brought us three new realities:

  • We cannot totally prevent the chaos and killing regardless of how successful the surge proves to be.
  • We have lost all of our diplomatic flexibility — we are essentially alone in this struggle and will remain so as long as we remain in Iraq.
  • The primary beneficiaries of our policy are, and will continue to be, Iran and Al Qaida.

Further negative consequences of the invasion lie in a number of areas. After 9/11, when Al Qaida was suffering from our operations against its leadership and from waning popularity within the Muslim world, our invasion breathed new life into that terrorist movement. The invasion has almost certainly facilitated Al Qaida recruitments, and we have provided them with a training ground for their jihadis which will significantly increase their ability to mount further attacks against their enemies. We have made Israel and any other regional government not favored by Al Qaida more vulnerable by enabling this Al Qaida battlefield training of additional cadres, some of which will head toward Palestine when Iraq is over. Others may look more closely at Saudi Arabia and Egypt or at the Muslim regions of the old USSR. Wherever they go, they represent a destabilizing factor.

In our struggle with Al Qaida, we are proceeding precisely as Bin Laden would have wished. He must daily thank Allah for the ongoing U.S. policy against him, because, without our help, his movement would almost certainly be on the wane. Historically, terrorist movements tend to last around a dozen years. The good news about them is that, unlike insurgencies, which seldom if ever lose, terrorism never seems to win. Terrorism is a short term, dramatically violent irritant. It has never deserved to have a war declared on it.

Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) will cease to exist after our departure from Iraq. Terrorist organizations cannot survive unless local populations support them. In Iraq, a recent focus of AQI has been to foment secular and ethnic chaos by purposefully killing Shia and pinning it on Sunnis or Kurds – or any permutation of that theme. The Iraqis are acutely aware of this. The only thing that keeps AQI personnel alive is the presence of American forces. As long as they are killing Americans it’s semi-OK with Iraqis. The minute we leave Iraq, the Iraqis, particularly the Shia, will turn on and eliminate AQI as the Sunnis have already done in Anbar province.

Quite apart from the effects that the invasion has had on Al Qaida and terrorism, we have done much to make the realization of our goals in the region far more difficult. The key to dealing with this new terrorism lies in maximizing our friends in the region and minimizing our enemies. The invasion and its chaotic aftermath have cost us much of our appeal to moderate Muslims on whose indifference to terrorism the terrorists rely for success.

We have changed the dynamic of the Arab/Persian rivalry for primacy in the Gulf in favor of Iran by removing the two most viable counterbalances to Iran, the Taliban and Iraq. We have taken the lid off the Sunni-Shia schism. All the old regional and national policemen are gone, and we have not been able to fill their shoes when it has come to suppressing the historic ethnic and secular conflicts in the area.

However, the worst consequence of this invasion has been that we have seriously strained our old international friendships and alliances, particularly and most importantly the Atlantic Alliance. Our former allies so strongly disapprove of our invasion of Iraq that they are unwilling to help us deal with our Middle East issues at a time when we simply cannot cope on our own. Colin Powell was right. We did break it and we do own it, simply because we have lost all our diplomatic flexibility through our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Finally, anti-Americanism is on the rise everywhere. We are viewed as hypocritical by most of Islam and much of the world. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, waterboarding, renditions, the CIA gulag, the abrogation of civil rights at home, and our rejection of the democratic election that brought Hamas to power at the expense of our Fatah friends in Palestine are but a few of the irritants. Furthermore, the anti-American pot will surely be kept boiling by press coverage of the coming military tribunals at Guantanamo.

A New American Policy for Iraq
The election cycle in the United States makes long term planning very difficult in foreign policy matters. As the gulf between the Republicans and Democrats has widened over the last few decades, the process has gotten more difficult. The answer to dealing with this current form of terrorism lies in a policy that, unlike our current policy, is built on a profound understanding of the phenomenon and of the geographic area in question, rather than on the political needs of the party in the White House. Those short-term needs have recently translated into the simplistic and counterproductive military response that got us into Iraq in the first place and that could involve us similarly elsewhere in the future.

America has no diplomatic flexibility in Iraq. The only way to gain the flexibility that will enable us to at least set new goals and pursue them is to withdraw from Iraq. Until we do withdraw, our only influence on the region will be limited by our military power or lack thereof. If we listen to our own military leadership, our ground war capabilities are being seriously threatened by the demands on our troops in Iraq.

If we decide to change our goal from “victory” in Iraq to regional stability, that decision will require us to reconsider the overall effectiveness of our present military effort in Iraq. Anyone who accepts the likelihood that not even a militarily successful surge will produce voluntary resolution of Iraq’s internal sectarian and ethnic issues, will understand that the same civil unrest that the surge is attempting to suppress today will simply wait until we have departed Iraq and then come to the forefront again. These animosities are so ancient, so ingrained, that they have not disappeared over the centuries and will not for centuries to come. If we leave now, there will be potential for conflict. If we leave in ten years, the same potential will be there.

The key element to recognize is that because the neighborhood really does not want a regional conflict, it will seek ways to avoid it. As soon as we are out of Iraq, America may well gain the potential to become a convening authority for a regional discussion. As long as we are in Iraq militarily and lacking any sort of diplomatic influence, we will not be allowed to play that role, and there probably is no other country in the world which could do it, either now or after our departure.

It is counterproductive for us to be shoving “democracy” down the throats of Muslims. “Spreading democracy” simply exacerbates Muslim concerns about a new crusade. America is yet another Western, Christian country which has attacked and is currently occupying an Arab/Muslim country. As such, most Muslims view this as the most recent edition of the Western crusades of the Middle Ages. If Muslims are ultimately to turn toward democracy, it will not be because it was forced on them, it will be because they see some real advantage in that form of government.

In the interim, we might do well to consider replacing the term “democratization” with “self-determination,” a term favorably mentioned in the United Nations Charter, but which has fallen into disuse under the Bush administration. Why indeed should people not have the right to choose their own form of government, whether “democratic” or not? A seemingly insignificant change like that can take much of the sting out of our Crusader reputation.

Shining City on the Hill
We will do far better to once again become a shining city on the hill. That will require that we give up all those activities instituted in response to 9/11 which have diminished us in the eyes of the world. We need to do this even if we risk another attack because we need to get away from the mentality of fear which has so assiduously been promoted by the Bush administration. The United States once more has to be a country worth emulating, and that includes restoring America to its pre-9/11 status and re-opening legitimate political and foreign policy discussions at home.

America is full of real experts on the Middle East whose views and ideas should not be marginalized with accusations of being “soft on terror” or “unpatriotic” simply because they disagree with policy decisions made for reasons having little to do with the objective facts in the Middle East. They can really help in this struggle.

Our public face needs revamping. It doesn’t matter what our leaders really think; what matters is what they say and how they say it. The “Axis of Evil,” our propensity to label our military operations with stirring, nationalistic names like “Operation Enduring Freedom” and all the other bits of cocky, macho braggadocio commonly used by the Bush administration, are truly counterproductive. They actually marshal otherwise neutral people around the world against us. In this context it would be wise to accept the premise that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not supporters of Al Qaida or radical terrorism. When we demonize Muslims, we create more enemies.

Maximizing Friends, Minimizing Enemies
America made it through the Cold War on the basis of containment of the Soviet Union through alliances with other governments that shared our values and goals. Our current disastrous experiment with preemptive unilateralism points the way toward a return to our old diplomatic strategies. The key element in this struggle with terrorism is maintaining and maximizing friends and minimizing enemies. We need to reestablish our old alliances around the world as well as strengthen those that have survived the Iraq adventure. That will permit us to enter into a new containment policy against terrorism with all those other nations that feel threatened.

We overcame our political divisions during the Cold War when we successfully contained the Soviet Union through five decades of both Republican and Democrat administrations. Any new policy for dealing with Iraq, the Middle East, Islam, or terrorism needs to start with U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a complete change in our goals and tactics in the Middle East, and the rebuilding of broken bridges to our old allies. Only then will we be able to begin to identify and achieve goals that are in our real national interest in the region.End.



Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. He was educated at Exeter and Dartmouth, served three years in the Army Security Agency, spent two years in Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations, recruiting and handling agents or managing that process. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

Comments are closed.