Monday, April 03, 2006

Classic Peacekeeping

Via Stand-To! is this interesting article about Tal Afar. We will be pulling back after driving the enemy out of the town:

The date for handing off the city to Iraqi security forces has in fact been moved up, as the White House intends to draw down troop levels in Iraq to 100,000. If anything, however, Tall Afar shows the folly of doing so.

Having spent part of January there, I do not doubt that the town amounts to a genuine success story. Even from the parapets of Tall Afar's centuries-old Ottoman castle, a visitor gleans evidence of real progress. After assaulting the city and putting a halt to the gruesome depredations by insurgents, Washington poured millions of dollars into Tall Afar, and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment launched 150 infrastructure and cleanup projects.

It also locked the place down, establishing 29 patrol bases throughout Tall Afar, stationing Abrams tanks at intersections and rebuilding from scratch the local security forces. Most important, it planted itself directly at the heart of a once-hostile population center, establishing the Americans as an essential buffer between the town's feuding sects.

This article makes an excellent point. And I'm not a particular fan of Robert Kaplan. Even though in general it is wise to turn over turf to Iraqis, in areas where ethnic populations come in contact like this city, it may be wise to set down roots for a while as we and our allies have done in Bosnia to separate warring factions from each other.

Iraq is a big and varied country. One approach cannot work everywhere. Anbar is different from the Shia south which is different from the Kurdish north. In a big city like Tal Afar it may be better to assume a sizable presence for quite some time. We will need garrison forces in Iraq for a long time anyway, so why not put them where they do good instead of parked in some isolated desert base? Casualties should be minimal in such a role as they have been in Bosnia and even Kosovo.

This article calls into question some of the assumptions of calling for the Tal Afar option all over Iraq, but bolsters the approach in one key component.

First on the question:

What it is, though, like so many places in Iraq now, is a city increasingly divided along sectarian lines. The neighborhoods we patrolled were largely Shia; those our reporter found barricaded and dangerous were mostly Sunni. "I'd say that zero percent of Bush's talk about Tall Afar is true," said Ahmed Sami, 45, a Sunni laborer. "They turned Shiite neighborhoods into havens, and Sunni neighborhoods into hells." Even in the Shia neighborhoods, people were far from satisfied. "This is all just an outdoor prison for us," said school teacher Abu Muhammed. "We can't even go as far as the market street up there." He gestured to the top of his road, where the Ottoman fortress that dominates the town is located (and which we couldn't visit due to a security scare, even though it holds the mayor's office). "We know the American Army and the Iraqi Army are working and doing their best," said Bakr Muhammed Bakr, a dressmaker whose shop, like most others on the streets, was open for business. "But what are they going to do, put a soldier in front of each Sunni house?"

If Tal Afar is a success because we did not turn over security to the Iraqis as our overall plan calls for, the fact that Tal Afar is not quite the happy pacified city it is commonly referred to now by war supporters should be a caution about using the same tactics elsewhere. If the US presence has not pacified the city, the overall strategy of turning over security to Iraqis is not negated by the Tal Afar example.

I've not jumped on the band wagon of extolling Tal Afar in part because calling attention to success makes it an obvious target for the enemy to undermine our efforts. In addition, by mistakenly claiming a happy pacified city when our strategy merely calls for Iraqis to take over the fight is driving some war supporters to call for abandoning the hand-over of responsibility for security to Iraqis in favor of our keeping it in our hands as long as it takes. And if we need to keep troops in Iraq in large numbers so be it, they say.

But Tal Afar is a success without trying to prove complete pacification of the city's Sunnis and Shias. Let's not over-reach our claims of success or we risk having them blow up in our face. A setback after a decent success is no morale killer but a setback after portraying a moderate level of success as a major and revolutionary change is a morale killer. Success is coming--don't be over-eager to claim complete victory too soon.

On the other hand, the concentration of troops in Tal Afar is not as great as it is portrayed:

In fact, at all times at least 3,000 Iraqi Army, police and U.S. soldiers are on duty inside the city, stationed at a welter of police stations and camps and on checkpoints. Most are Iraqis. They patrol by foot and vehicle constantly. Thousands more are at bases outside the city. Tall Afar's population is only 150,000. (As many as 100,000 people, mostly Sunni, fled during last year's fighting and most have not returned.) That's at least one armed man for every 50 residents, more if reinforcements are used. "That's a pretty high ratio," acknowledged MacFarland, "which is why the enemy is having a hard time. It would be pretty hard to replicate that in a city like Baghdad or Mosul."

One troop for every 50 civilians? That's just restating the minimum from history for successful counter-insurgencies of 20 troops per thousand population--2%. Excluding the Kurds who have their own security forces, we have about 400,000 Iraqi police and soldiers, US troops, Coalition troops, and contract security for 20 million Shia and Sunni Iraqis--2%.

So with current troop levels this ratio should not be impossible to maintain in hot spot cities given that a lot of Shia areas will need far fewer than the 2% of the population for security. Perhaps 1% or less in some areas. Since not all areas need 2%, a reduction of US troops should be possible even if Iraqi security strength does not match our withdrawal on a 1:1 basis from this point forward.

Patrolling between factions is not beyond our capabilities. We may not need a full armored cavalry regiment in Tal Afar, and with good enough Iraqi units that we watch over and support, smaller number of US troops can prevent open civil strife from breaking out. As we defeat the Baathists and jihadis, internal divisions rise in relative importance and we must adapt to defeat this threat.

So consider the Tal Afar model for some areas. Iraq is a big country and one solution does not work everywhere. As the enemy seems to go after Baghdad targets, we may need to redeploy existing forces to use the Tal Afar model inside Baghdad or parts of it.

But by all means, do not abandon the overall strategy of pushing security on to the Iraqis. It is not our obligation to turn over a country as quiet as a Vermont hamlet--just to give Iraqis the tools to win. It is their country--help them fight for its future.