The New Way Out

Only a few months ago, the road from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone was a symbol of American futility in Iraq. When talking heads in Washington wanted to argue that the war was hopeless, they would simply point to "Ambush Alley."

How is it possible, the critics would say, that two long years after U.S. troops took Baghdad, soldiers, contractors and diplomats still had to make a "Mad Max" dash through this five-mile corridor just to get to the heart of the capital? If the U.S. Army couldn't secure such a vital chokepoint, it would never be able to pacify the rest of the country. But since August, without much public notice, the Baghdad highway has been largely secured. In April 2005, when control of the route was primarily American, there were 37 casualties. By October 2005--when Iraqi Special Police checkpoints were in the forefront--there was only one person wounded. The number of attacks plummeted, too, from 27 to eight. November has also been fairly quiet, says Lt. Col. Barry Johnson of the Multinational Forces in Iraq.

What changed? A key difference is the 70 or so Iraqi Special Police who have operated those 24/7 checkpoints along the road since June, Johnson says. The Iraqis play a key role that Americans couldn't, and they're backed by two Iraqi Army platoons that conduct operations along with units of the U.S. Third Infantry Division. There are no more U.S. checkpoints. "It simply would have produced more targets," says Johnson. In a TV interview last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited the highway as a place where, along with parts of the north and south, Iraqis are "stepping up" and their American mentors are "actually seeing them hold territory."

Piece by painful piece, this is the new American plan for succeeding in Iraq--and, just as important, for getting out of Iraq. Move in, clear the area of insurgents, and then hold it with an increasing proportion of better-quality Iraqi troops. That will allow the benefits of peace and reconstruction to flow in. Military commanders say their old "whack-a-mole" approach--hitting towns to scatter insurgents, then moving on--will continue through the all-important Dec. 15 election for the first permanent Iraqi government. But a dramatic shift will take place in the new year, with U.S. forces trying to give more responsibility to their Iraqi counterparts.

Granted, the Baghdad airport road is one tiny piece of a country still beset by more than 500 attacks, on average, each week--a steady rate of horror and chaos that's been unaffected by elections and other "breakthroughs" U.S. officials have pointed to with hope. Yet it is ironic that just as the debate over what to do about Iraq has reached a shrill climax on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration has, at long last, quietly developed a coordinated, coherent strategy on the ground.

Actually, Washington's main contribution has been to get out of the way. The new approach is the result of long negotiations between Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Gen. George Casey, commander of the Multinational Forces. Their overall strategy: on the military side, "clear, hold and build" while training up Iraqi forces; on the political side, wean Sunni leaders from their support of the insurgency, buying them off with incentives tribe by tribe and village by village; and on the U.S. domestic front, appease rising outcries for withdrawal by reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq to under 100,000 troops--hopefully by midterm Election Day 2006. "There is an idea that there is no plan, and we believe we do have a plan," Khalilzad told NEWSWEEK. "We've worked very hard in the last four months to come up with a plan, and we're talking about how to communicate that more effectively to the Congress."

They'll need to start doing that--and fast. Success or failure in Iraq depends on many factors. But it could well turn into a race between U.S. public opinion, which is increasingly impatient to see the bloody adventure over with, and a grand strategy that's just getting ponderously off the ground. Is the political will going to be there to see the strategy through, especially when it is likely to cost many more U.S. casualties than the 2,108 dead and 15,804 wounded so far? There has been no shortage of Vietnam analogies in recent months. But some U.S. military officers have a new favorite. They now compare this moment to the late stages of the Vietnam War: after years of fumbling by U.S. generals, the military finally adopted a counterinsurgency approach that reduced the Viet Cong to a minor threat--only to watch a fed-up Congress discontinue funds and troops.

Yet it's not only public pressure that's forcing Bush to accept a shorter window for success. Most experts now agree that the U.S. occupation is itself a key generator for the Iraqi insurgency. Staying at current troop levels means condemning Iraq to a permanent "resistance" that is broadly seen as "legitimate," as the leading Iraqi political parties said in a recent statement at an Arab League meeting in Cairo. Another time constraint is the fear that the U.S. Army will start to "break" if current troop levels are maintained.

Why not just leave, as so many Americans want? Khalilzad, in an interview, spoke in the most specific terms yet heard from a senior U.S. official about what a panicky pullout could bring. "People need to be clear what the stakes are here," says Khalilzad. "If we were to do a premature withdrawal, there could be a Shia-Sunni war here that could spread beyond Iraq. And you could have Iran backing the Shias and Sunni Arab states backing the Sunnis. You could have a regional war that could go on for a very long time, and affect the security of oil supplies. Terrorists could take over part of this country and expand from here. And given the resources of Iraq, given the technical expertise of its people, it will make Afghanistan look like child's play." An Army War College study published last month put matters more succinctly: "The long-term dilemma of the U.S. position in Iraq can perhaps best be summarized as, 'We can't stay, we can't leave, and we can't fail'."

In the end, officials say, the only way forward may be a compromise course: cut troops back by almost half without withdrawing completely, move them to rear bases to take the edge off the resistance and reduce the American presence largely to one of Special Ops teams, officer-advisers and reconstruction specialists grafted onto Iraqi units. Khalilzad, who was also the U.S. envoy to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, is basing the "build" piece of the strategy on his Afghan experience. He intends to use "provincial reconstruction teams"--or PRTs--made up of mixed civilian and military personnel, 70 to 100 strong.

Under the Pentagon's plans, U.S. numbers are to be reduced back to about 138,000 by the new year (troop totals are now edging up to 160,000 leading into the December election). Then, under what the Pentagon calls a "moderately optimistic" scenario--but the one it considers most likely-- 20,000 to 30,000 more troops would come out by mid-2006, with a further goal of phasing down the U.S. presence to 80,000 to 100,000 by "late next year." As additional evidence of its intentions, the Defense Department quietly announced on Nov. 7 the major units scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the next big rotation, starting in late summer next year. Those units add up to 92,000 U.S. troops in 2007.

To secure the country with so few troops, Khalilzad and Casey have had to swallow their pride. They are making compromises with Sunni supporters of the insurgency that would have been unthinkable a year ago. President Bush is also doing what he has been loath to do: asking neighboring countries for help, even the rabid anti-American Islamists in Tehran. Khalilzad revealed to NEWSWEEK that he has received explicit permission from Bush to begin a diplomatic dialogue with Iran, which has meddled politically in Iraq. "I've been authorized by the president to engage the Iranians as I engaged them in Afghanistan directly," says Khalilzad. "There will be meetings, and that's also a departure and an adjustment. "

The new U.S. strategy could still fail in many ways. One, the Iraqi units taking over from U.S. troops are almost wholly dependent upon American logistical and other support functions. So while the training and equipping of the Iraqi frontline units should be completed by January 2007, building a support capability behind them is going to take a lot longer, says Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander in charge of training. That means U.S. convoys won't stop rolling along the highways of Iraq--and they could be even more vulnerable to roadside IEDs because they'll be protected by Iraqis, not American combat troops.

Another major hurdle for the Bush administration is that old Vietnam-era bugaboo, credibility. Why, after two years of positive assessments that turned out wrong, should the American public stick with the president now? For too long Pentagon officials have also recklessly inflated figures on Iraqi readiness. Finally, the insurgents have shown an uncanny ability to read shifts in U.S. tactics--and adapt. One illustration of the insurgent strategy--win by bogging down the Americans--is the nation's electricity problem. Prewar electricity generation was 4,300 megawatts. After the war, it sank to 2,500 megawatts. Since May 2003, America has spent $3.2 billion on electricity projects throughout the country, all to get today's electricity-generation levels up to a meager 4,400 megawatts. Why so little progress? Insurgent attacks are responsible for two thirds of the power cutbacks, U.S. officials say. If U.S. money dries up, or if Iraqi security forces aren't able to secure those electric grids, U.S. officials fear the insurgency will make quick work of the country's power infrastructure. "The terrorists have an agenda and a plan," says a senior U.S. official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. "In the past they were just trying to disrupt. Now they believe they can change the political dynamic here."

Khalilzad says his biggest worry, though, is the antiwar ferment back home. "A Pandora's box has been opened," he says. "The future of the world is at stake here because this region, Iraq, is the defining challenge of our time... We need to close this in a way that does not produce huge problems down the road, that ultimately produces isolationism at home and a world with far more security problems than at present." Good point. Now convince the American people.