The Iraqi Security Plan
I participated for the first time at a roundtable telephone conference with Maj Gen William Caldwell, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Effects of MNF-I, attended by approximately half a dozen bloggers. The major message was that the security plan in Iraq is working, but needed time -- months at least -- to fully achieve its goals, a fact the nation needed to understand if it were to have the patience to allow the plan to succeed. Patience needs a reason and there are now only indicators the security plan is working. They are encouraging indicators and I felt (and this is subjective opinion) that Caldwell did not want to make too much of them in order to avoid prematurely raising expectations. One blogger participating detected even in recent press coverage a note of guarded optimism (except in publications like the NYT) in the recent coverage that was surprising, to say the least. Whether this is just the bloom on the rose or whether the media are picking up collateral confirmation of real progress remains to be seen.
Certainly the enemy will do everything possible to defeat the new security plan, probably through the use of large explosive devices directed against large civilian targets. This counterstrategy, which has been to project a feeling of intimidation and helplessness; their "insecurity plan" so to speak, has already shown its bloody hand in recent attacks on Shi'ite pilgrims. However -- and this goes to the heart of the "indicators" which are present largely atmospheric and not yet statistical -- the real story has been how the Iraqis have handled it. Just as Sherlock Holmes' dog didn't bark in the night when it was supposed to, the expected explosive backlash does not seem to be forthcoming. The discussion focused on two changes, one on the American side and the other on the Iraqi. Changes on the American side are marked by a shift in emphasis from large and heavily fortified bases to positions in the community itself. The traditional fear that this dispersal of forces may make them more vulnerable is in part offset by the fact that the forces do not have to deploy and return each day along known routes. "More exposure does not necessarily lead to more risk." The changes on the Iraqi side really amount to the fact that they are actually lifting up their end and taking increasing responsibility and although that may be tactically less important than the numbers, rotations, etc of the American forces it may in the end be more strategically significant. But that this mere fact should be so encouraging is also an indicator of how far the Iraqis have to go.
One item that skimmed past in the discussion but which deserved more attention was how early in the game this really was. Although the Iraqi government is legally four years old, in actuality it has only been in existence for several months. There have been four major changes in the Iraqi government leadership since its re-establishment and we are in its latest incarnation and this underscores not only the volatility of the political situation but the deep interaction between the military effort and politics in the campaign in Iraq. Although no one mentioned it in discussion, the thought went through my head (and it's my personal opinion) that the current security plan cannot be fully understood without calculating its intended effect on Iraqi politics. Though no one of course would put it that way. In other words, the current security effort will have an effect not only on the military balance on the ground, but equally importantly, on the political composition of the Iraqi government and on US public opinion.
Nor can it be separated from the diplomatic game that is now being played out in the region. The factors that MNF-I can influence are conditions on the ground. But it is really a cog inside a larger mechanism, and that mechanism is driven partly by forces both external to the theater and external to combat. And I guess that's why the message is 'the plan is working but we need time'. The military can only do so much. The rest is up to us.