Iraq is not lost, but US strategy is

By Anthony Cordesman

Financial Times

Published: September 19 2004

Virtually without fanfare, the Bush administration has reprogrammed about $3.5bn in aid funds to Iraq in ways that mark a fundamental shift in strategy - and a recognition that much of the US effort in the first year of occupation was a failure.

The administration sent a proposal to Congress last week to reprogramme $3.46bn of spending on Iraqi water, power and other reconstruction projects. Some $1.8bn of that will go toward accelerating the training and equipping of Iraqi police and security forces. In an equally crisis-driven fashion, the rest will be spent on securing and boosting oil exports, creating jobs and providing immediate aid benefits of the kind that could support the elections scheduled for January. Only about $1.2bn of the $18.4bn of US aid funds programmed for the 2004 fiscal year has been spent, and less than $600m has been spent in Iraq. Much of that has been wasted because of sabotage, attacks and bad planning; or has been spent outside the country; or has gone to foreign security forces.

The reprog ramming request does far more than shift money. It is a recognition that Paul Bremer, the former US administrator in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the US military got the first year of the Iraq occupation fundamentally wrong. It is also a de facto recognition that the neo-conservative goals set for restructuring Iraq can never be achieved.

The new effort to rush money into Iraqi military and security forces recognises that the US failed to make a serious effort to train these forces properly in the year following Saddam Hussein's fall. It is an acknowledgment that the US administration, the CPA and the military were wrong in assuming the insurgency would be defeated by the time the new Iraqi forces emerged. As a result, the US made relatively limited efforts to create a large pool of manpower, relying on inadequate training and equipment. The goal was slow improvements in border defence, a token regular force and security forces that would not threaten the democracy the US expecte d to emerge in late 2004.

The current reprogramming is intended to fund a totally different security effort that began gathering momentum in April, when there was a surge of attacks and the US realised it could not defeat the insurgents without strong Iraqi forces. As a result, the Bush administration is rushing in funds for what amounts to the "Vietnamisation" of military operations in Iraq. US tactics have shifted largely to holding actions and surgical strikes, while Iraqi forces are being trained to take over most missions from the US and British forces, and eventually replace them.

Similarly, much of the remaining funds are going to urgent short-term aid projects aimed at winning Iraqi support. This reprogramming is a recognition that efforts by the US and CPA to plan the long-term structure of Iraq's economic development have foundered in the face of Iraqi opposition to outside aid efforts, attacks, theft and an inability to structure effective contract operations. The latest priorities ar e only beginning the task of letting Iraqis manage their own economic future. Much is in limbo and no one can say how the funds that are not being redirected can and should be spent. It is clear that outside contract efforts are under constant threat, and that a large part of the money goes to US and non-Iraqi firms and never reaches Iraq. It is equally clear that many, if not most, projects lack the planning to be cost-effective or have lasting impact. The end result is a confused mess with only partial reform of the aid programme leaving longer term uncertainty.

More generally, the new US approach defers most key actions and military risks until after the US elections, while it raises compelling issues about the timing of its longer-term goals. It avoids any decisive US military action unless essential. Everything will consist of limited operations and strikes until the new Iraqi forces are "ready". The problem is, no one can agree on when they will be ready and what exactly they should be ready for. The US hopes Iraqi forces can eventually take back hostile cities and areas. The White House and National Security Council officials have implied they will be ready to do this by the planned January election in Iraq. Iyad Allawi, Iraq's prime minister, also believes the election will stay on schedule but acknowledges it may have to proceed without the participation of substantial areas deemed too violent. Some US officials and officers in Iraq are privately considerably more cautious than the White House. They feel the Iraqi forces will not be strong enough to take over US and British operations in early 2005, and that the election will have to be delayed by some months.

The White House is still "spinning" the Iraq story. For now, the Iraqi elections remain uncertain but loom as a key target for insurgents; and the US still lacks a meaningful strategy for the overall reprogramming of existing aid funds and for dealing with longer term Iraqi requirements in the order of some $50-$100bn.

None of this implies that the US has "lost" Iraq, or that the revised US strategy cannot work. It seems clear, however, that the reprogramming effort acknowledges that everything now depends on the ability of the Iraqi government to establish true legitimacy, and on Iraqi forces to take over much, if not most, of the fighting. The good news is the beginning of a quiet shift to pragmatism. The bad news is that this shift in strategy may be coming too late and in too uncertain a fashion.

The writer is chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC