After months of work, access to the best experts in the world and weeks of anticipation from politicians and the American public, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report landed in our laps yesterday.
And that noise you heard was a resounding thud.
The reason: The report basically punts on the most important issue of the day — establishing security in Iraq. All of the pious exhortations to get Iraqis to sit down with one another, to engage Iran and Syria and to find political compromises are meaningless if we are unable to stem the tide of bloodshed that now engulfs much of Baghdad and Anbar province.
Yet the Baker Report devotes scant space (8 pages out of 56 in the proposals section) to the security problem, and its recommendations are unoriginal: Increase the number of American soldiers embedded in Iraqi units as trainers by stripping them out of the combat brigades now working to fight insurgents.
This is pretty much the same idea that Gen. John Abizaid offered the Senate last month. It is politically palatable because it promises to pull Americans out of combat, does not require any significant increase in the overall American troop presence and puts the burden for success on the Iraqis themselves.
But it will almost certainly lead us to disaster.
Here's why. It takes time to train military forces to be effective in counterinsurgency operations. It takes months to train American units — which, from the start, are stocked with experienced volunteer soldiers. In the violent situation in Iraq today, with the fledgling Iraqi forces, it takes more time. And right now, time is the one thing we don't have.
If we pull American units out of their combat missions and focus them on training, the security situation in Iraq in the short-term is very likely to deteriorate. There will be a gap between our abandonment of the security mission and the point at which the Iraqis can undertake it themselves. Will the Iraqi government survive such a collapse? Will the American people have still more patience?
The Baker report blithely accepts these dangers without even considering them.
The group also ignores another inconvenient fact. Some of the most important training Iraqi Army units get today comes from operating side by side with American combat units in clear-and-hold missions, searches and raids. It is one thing to have trainers tell you what to do and watch you do it. It is another to participate in well-planned and skillfully-executed operations.
Ironically, pulling American forces back from combat missions will actually remove one of the most important elements of training Iraqi forces.
A serious strategy to help the Iraqis establish security now would not only embed more American troops with Iraqi forces but increase the number of U.S. combat troops in Baghdad — and work with the Iraqis not just to clear insurgent areas, but to hold them once they've been cleared.
A plan that ignores this challenge is almost guaranteed to lead to failure.
By Frederick Kagan