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Scrutinizing the most likely Plan Bs for Iraq

ASK THIS | March 07, 2007

The two most plausible fallbacks, when and if the 'surge' fails, are to take sides or get out. A political science professor raises questions the press should ask about both possibilities.

By Colin Kahl

In a recent article in Foreign Policy Online, Time for a National Debate on Plan B, I argue that two main contenders are emerging for "Plan B" in Iraq when and if the surge fails: take sides or get out. 

Taking sides would probably entail abandoning strenuous efforts at national reconciliation, drawing down U.S. troops to a sustainable level, and leaving those remaining to advise, train, and support the Shiite- and Kurd-dominated Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). A smaller number of dedicated U.S. Special Forces would focus on raids against high-value Sunni targets, especially elements of al Qaeda in Iraq. The United States would seek to balance support for the Shiites in Iraq with a confrontational stance toward Shiite Iran in the hopes of maintaining regional cooperation from moderate Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. 

Given what we know about the strategic review process culminating in the surge, this variant of Plan B is likely to have some strong supporters among neoconservatives and administration hawks.

Many Democrats will coalesce around a different Plan B: getting out. Fueled by rising public discontent over the war and a looming presidential election, they seem poised to embrace calls for an orderly withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces over the next 12 to 18 months, combined with other steps to manage the consequences of disengagement. Most Democrats believe that victory, at least in the president’s grandiose terms, is a pipe dream. Instead, according to this view, Washington should shift its objectives to managing and mitigating the worst humanitarian and geopolitical fallout from continued violence in Iraq.

Under this scheme, U.S. troops would redeploy out of the line of fire, leaving the civil war to largely burn itself out. At the same time, the United States would try to lessen civilian suffering through targeted economic aid, peacefully relocating civilian populations into defensible enclaves and protecting refugees (perhaps in support of a Bosnia-style de facto partition), and helping the thousands of Iraqis who “collaborated” with the U.S. occupation and seek to flee their country before the death squads come for them. By engaging all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, the United States would seek to prevent Iraq’s civil war from becoming a regional conflagration. 

Because of the huge geopolitical and humanitarian stakes, we should all hope that the surge--and, more specifically, the new strategy of providing local population security to open space for true national reconciliation--succeeds. But given the depths of the challenges in Iraq, we should not count on it. We should therefore begin to ask probing questions now about emerging alternatives for Plan B. Given my sense that "taking sides" and "getting out" are the two leading possibilities, here are some particularly important questions to ask:

Q. When officials and pundits speak of supporting the “legitimate elected government of Iraq” (which happens to be dominated by the Shia and Kurds) and then go on to define the enemy primarily as the Sunni insurgency and Al-Qaeda, are they, in actuality, articulating a vision of taking sides in the civil war?

Q. Assuming substantially reduced U.S. force levels (under either Plan B option), is it possible to train and advise the ISF without taking sides in the civil war? And, if the answer is no, will American troop presence alongside Shia and Kurdish forces substantially limit atrocities and conflict escalation or simply dirty our hands by involving us directly in sectarian cleansing?

 Q. When proponents of disengagement say they want to remove all “combat” troops, what mission do they envision for the remaining forces?

 Q. Are there viable options for reducing civilian suffering while U.S. troops are drawing down (under either Plan B), or are the proposed humanitarian measures simply ways to make us feel better while the killing fields grow?

Q. As combat troops leave Iraq (under either Plan B), where should they go? What pattern of redeployment will lessen the risks of regional spill-over effects from Iraq’s civil war while also addressing other pressing national security concerns?

Q. What is the best way to encourage Iraq’s neighbors to play a productive role or, at a minimum, limit their harmful interventions in Iraq’s civil war? Does a confrontational stance toward Iran and Syria help or hurt prospects for a regional compact?

There are undoubtedly other important questions that should be asked. The key point is that the discussion needs to start now not six or nine months from now. If it doesn’t, the likely result will either be another fait accompli by the Bush administration that puts in place their preferred Plan B if the surge fails, or a rushed withdrawal driven more by domestic politics in the United States than our geopolitical interests and humanitarian obligations in Iraq.

Posted by Jerome Dobbins - citizen
03/16/2007, 02:23 PM

I want to first off thank Dick Cheney and his minions for getting us into Iraqnam.

The Sheites are going to control most of Iraq in the end. The US can save a spot by building a strong base in the Kurdish North and in return protect them from being overwhelmed for the oil in their sector by their neighbors. Close the Iranian and Syrian borders with US troops and keep a fleet of drones with hellfire missiles in the skies along their borders 24/7. Continue the no fly zone to keep Iraq's neighbors from trying to move in.
I believe that the Iraqi's will run Al Q out after they put there own strongman/Ayatola in power.

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