The problem in Iraq is sectarian/ethnic conflict. The latest edition of the Defense Department report "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" (covering August through November, 2006) states that "at the present time, sustained ethno-sectarian violence is the greatest threat to security and stability in Iraq." (p. 23) The report also states that "the group that is currently having the greatest negative affect[sic] on the security situation in Iraq is Jaysh al Mahdi (JAM) . . . [M]ost, but not all, elements of the organization take direction from Muqtada al-Sadr," (p. 19) who controls 30 seats in the Parliament and 6 ministries and is a supporter of the current Prime Minister.
Senator McCain wants to send more troops. So does Frederick Kagan. A lot more troops and heavy repressive measures might stop or decrease the violence (it has increased 22% in the past 3 months (p. 3)) but it will not stop the conflict. Kagan says that once we repress the violence, "reconstruction aid will help to reestablish normal life and, working through Iraqi officials, will strengthen Iraqi local government." But if we allow Iraqi officials to get involved in reconstruction, sectarian disputes will recur over who controls the money and projects. Unless we keep the repression in place indefinitely, sectarian violence will return to what it was.
More training of Iraqis will not work because the Iraqi Army and the police are sectarian organizations. Improving their capabilities will only increase the conflict, as it gives the Shia more tools to kill Sunnis and each other and the Sunnis more incentive to arm and fight back in order to protect themselves. There is little evidence that military training, especially in the short term, can instill in trainees the restraints that militaries in democratic countries practice. In the long term, if the Iraqi government is sectarian and ineffective, it will not be able to provide the logistical and administrative support that troops require to be effective.
Everything depends on ending the sectarian violence. The reality appears to be that a sufficient number in each sectarian/ethnic group wants to dominate. This requires continued fighting. Thus, peace and democracy have been more important to us than to Iraqis. This may now be changing. News reports indicate that an alliance among Shia, Sunni and Kurds may form to exclude the extremists, among them al-Sadr. Ayatollah Sistani, the leader of the Shia, has given his blessing apparently.
This new coalition is unlikely to put an end to the fighting, especially in the short term. Al-Sadr fought to get into the ruling coalition and is likely to fight on when he is out of it. Also, the Badr organization, which is part of the government of Iraq, and the JAM attack one another (competing for leadership of the Shia) and both attack Sunni. Both JAM and Badr receive support from external sources. Finally, "high levels of sectarian violence are driving some Sunni neighborhood watch organizations in Baghdad to transform themselves into militias with limited offensive capabilities." (p. 20)
However, in the long run, if the new coalition forms and if it manages to stay together, if the Iraqi government begins to function and in a non-sectarian way, if this reassures Sunni neighborhood watch/militias, if foreign support for Iraqi extremists declines, if the government can get control of corruption and criminal activity, which supports, profits from and adds to the violence . . ., then the presence of additional US troops might help.
But it is important to keep two things in mind. First, based on the study of historical cases of "stabilization and reconstruction," an analysis by RAND found that
International troop levels should be at least 1,000 soldiers per 100,000 inhabitants and international police levels should be at least 150 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants, especially when there is the potential for severe instability. These numbers are important for policing streets, defeating and deterring insurgents, patrolling borders, securing roads, and combating organized crime.
For Baghdads population of 5 million or so, that implies 50,000 troops, a higher number than the upper estimate of the total that would be there following an increase. This would not take care of Anbar province, next to Baghdad that insurgents control, let alone other areas of the country.
Second, General Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East "argues that foreign troops are a toxin bound to be rejected by Iraqis, and that expanding the number of American troops merely puts off the day when Iraqis are forced to take responsibility for their own security."
One point General Abizaid is making is that the more unlimited our commitment to stability in Iraq appears to be, the less reason Iraqis have to commit to or remain committed to stability.