I just got back from a panel discussion on Iraq hosted by the Heritage Foundation and featuring AEI's Frederick Kagan (the intellectual architect of the surge plan), Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic Studies. While there were varying opinions on the U.S. policy in Iraq in general and the surge in particular, all the panelists agreed that regardless of what happens, the situation in Iraq will not be resolved in the near term (i.e. by 2008).
Kagan began his discussion by arguing that the history of American warfare is that we win wars only after first messing them up. And while the administration has made mistakes over the past four years in Iraq, it's taking the right approach now. Responding to critics of the surge who argue that instead of attempting to quell sectarian violence we should be focusing on terrorists in Afghanistan and Anbar, Kagan argued that it's the terrorists (previously led by Zarqawi) who have been behind the sectarian violence. He made the "flypaper" argument, drawing an analogy to Afghanistan. In the 1980s, extremists were busy fighting the Soviets, but once they defeated the Soviets, they were freed up to export terror. If we leave Iraq prematurely, it will become a safe haven for terrorists who will be able to carry out attacks outside of Iraq. While there are some positive trends so far as a result of the surge (more cooperation from Maliki, Sadr fleeing and ordering the Mahdi army not to fight the U.S., etc.) it's too early to judge success or failure. At the moment, only two out of the five additional brigades have been deployed to Baghdad. I chatted with Kagan afterward, and he said that the size of each brigade was around 3,500–not the larger brigades of 5,000 that he had earlier estimated. Another brigade will be deployed each month until the full Baghdad surge of roughly 17,500 troops is in effect in early June. This does not include the Marine regiment of 4,000 expected for Anbar province, which has not yet begun. Kagan told me that we won't be able to assess whether the surge is working until the end of the year. He said his fear was that any sign of success will be taken as an excuse by American politicians to declare victory and withdraw prematurely.
Pollack was more skeptical about the potential outcome of the surge, but said he supports the policy because it is the only option that, if it works, means a positive result in Iraq. If we withdraw, he said we'd basically be rolling the dice on what spillover effects a full blown civil war could have. And based on his work on the subject, he thinks the possibilities could mean civil wars breaking out in neighboring countries, or even a regional war. Though he hopes for a successful outcome from the surge, he said he has major concerns. Even if the operation is militarily successful, he isn't confident on the civilian side in terms of infrastructure and economic development, and without proper follow through, any successes will be short-lived, as they have been in the past. If the surge fails, he said that the winner of the 2008 presidential election will have to confront the reality of Iraq in a full-blown civil war.
Cordesman was even more pessimistic, and took issue with the surge plan itself. For instance, the plan is focused on Baghdad, even though violence is happening throughout Iraq. He doesn't think the U.S. is succeeding in pushing Maliki into cooperating, there's no progress on revising the Iraqi constitution, and there's rampant corruption among government officials. Also, even if the surge succeeds, what does that mean? A victory would likely be a win for Shiites, and Sunnis throughout the region will view the U.S. as having put Shiites in power. Cordesman took the long view of the situation and said even if the U.S. were to withdraw, we'd still have to have some commitment to Iraq. This won't be resolved in 2007 or 2008, but more likely not until 2015.