Pollack on Iraq

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

So does anyone have any bright ideas on what to do about Iraq? Ask Ken Pollack, he’s got a few:

[M]ost of our operations against insurgents have done little but further antagonize the Sunni tribes of western Iraq. We should instead be building safe zones in cities and rural areas, and guarding communications and transportation sites, to allow Iraq’s political and economic life to revive. We need to shift the bulk of our troops from trying to pacify insurgent hotspots that may never support reconstruction and toward keeping the peace in areas dominated by Shiites and urban Sunnis, who for the most part want nothing to do with the insurgency but long to live normal lives.

This is a variation on a proposal first made by Frederick Barton and Bathsheba Crocker of CSIS. I don’t want to criticize too harshly, but there seem to be a couple of problems with this idea. For one, we don’t appear to have the troops to switch to policing, even if US forces did pull out of al-Anbar province, vacate Fallujah, all that. My understanding, from what I’ve been told, is that our soldiers don’t do much policing right now because of concerns about force protection. If they were to spread themselves thin, patrolling on foot, mingling with the locals, cultivating intelligence ties, then a lot more of our soldiers would be coming home in flag-covered coffins, at least in the short term. So instead, US forces understandably prefer to go zooming down the streets in armored columns, guns pointed at anything that moves, and there’s rarely a lasting US presence in any one civilian region. They don’t do this because they’re dicks; they do it because getting blown up isn’t their idea of a good time.

Now the way around this problem, obviously, is to send more troops to Iraq. How many? To maintain North Ireland-esque ratios of 20 security force personnel for every 1,000 citizens—and Pollack cites North Ireland as his ideal—in the non-Sunni areas, however, would require at least 250,000 troops all told. That’s a pipe dream, as Fred Kaplan explained yesterday. Plus, we’ll need our troops to do the sort of police-work they aren’t normally trained to do. Can this be done? I honestly don’t know. And even if that all happened, we’d still be dealing with, in all likelihood, a big uptick in American casualties in the short-term, since insurgents would have many more targets, and less-protected targets at that. The stream of body bags might be a bit thorny when trying to maintain support back on the home front, especially with midterm elections coming up.

Meanwhile, I assume that the US would have to use air and ground raids to prevent any of the now-vacated Sunni areas from becoming major, Afghanistan-style terrorist sanctuaries. But that’s not nearly enough. The Sunni insurgents would still be able to establish themselves in many areas, find new strongholds like Fallujah, and in the end grow much, much stronger from their newfound safe havens. Meanwhile, presumably a focus on policing would make patrolling the borders all the more difficult, no? Now one possible solution to this problem, as Pollack says, is that we could try bribing many of the Sunni tribal leaders to keep the peace. That doesn’t make for a very stable situation in the long term, I would think, but it could work. Given that they’d be allowed to police the region on their own, free from an immediate US presence—although we’d still, of course, be bombing many of their houses—perhaps many of these Sunni tribal sheikhs would actual bite. Though we also saw what happened when we let the Sunnis govern Fallujah themselves, didn’t we?

Anyway, my rough guess is that Pollack’s strategy would be no less likely to achieve our ostensible “goals”—a stable Iraq with a central government that has a monopoly on violence—than the current course would, but it would take a long time. And it also all depends on whether we can get those extra soldiers or not. That seems pretty unlikely, no? On another note, Jim Henley outlines a possible “cut-and-run” scenario that seems realistic. Ultimately, the idea is to entice the Sunnis into the central government by dangling the carrot of US withdrawal. It works if the Sunnis we’re negotiating with are large enough and influential enough to make a difference. If not, then it’s a bust and Iraq implodes. But as I’ve been saying for awhile now—and this is something Pollack doesn’t acknowledge—we might have to start coming to terms with the fact that failure really is an option here.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend