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A Cost Benefit Analysis of Iraq

By Gregory Scoblete

The success of the U.S. troop surge has changed the fundamental nature of the Iraq debate. Thanks to General Petraeus' successful counter-insurgency strategy, we now see the contours of what it will take to produce a stable, self-sustaining Iraq. The question is no longer "can we" but "should we?"

It's useful to look at Iraq as an investment whose ostensible return is an improvement in American security. The question before the house is whether the costs in blood and treasure are worth the benefits.

Take the costs first. Despite the surge's success, counter-insurgency experts note that it takes on average a decade to defeat an insurgency. That keeps U.S. forces in Iraq until at least 2017. But there's an important caveat. The standard counter-insurgency model (such as the "Malayan Emergency") involves one rebellion against a central government. Iraq's insurgency is more complex. As Georgetown University's Colin Kahl noted, "Coalition forces in Iraq are not only attempting to defeat a Sunni insurgency but also trying to police a fierce sectarian civil war, limit the spread of the intra-Shiite gangland violence in the south, prevent Kurdish separatist ambitions from creating an ethnic conflict in Kirkuk or prompting Turkish intervention, and contain the regional spillover from all these conflicts." In light of that, a decade-long deployment seems optimistic.

Indeed, we also know, from General Petraeus and his counter-insurgency whiz kids (such as former advisor Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations) that nation building/counter-insurgency is a manpower intensive exercise. Biddle has estimated that at least 100,000 U.S. troops will likely be needed in Iraq "for a generation." That estimate is based on what the U.S. can sustain (at great cost) not what is optimal. Indeed, studies on nation building by James Quinlivan at the RAND Corporation put the ideal number of military and police forces necessary to secure a country the size of Iraq at a minimum of 500,000.

Maintaining troops in Iraq for the duration of a counter-insurgency effort won't be cheap. Estimates range from between $1 to $3 trillion, including reconstruction costs. That's steep, but the U.S. economy remains the world's largest, and could absorb it, especially if there were tangible security benefits for the U.S. So what are they? The national security rationale that precipitated the invasion - Saddam Hussein's reputed WMD stockpile - has been successfully addressed and there is no chance the Baath party will again tyrannize the country.

Iraq's evolution into a democracy, should such an evolution occur (and few of Petraeus' counter-insurgency advisors have pegged democracy as the likely end-state), would be welcome, but would not meaningfully contribute to the security of the U.S. Transnational terrorism in Pakistan and Europe and elsewhere would continue irrespective of the political institutions governing Iraq. Oil prices would not suddenly collapse. The House of Saud would not discover the virtues of pluralism and open elections.

It should also be noted that even if the United States commits to seeing the counter-insurgency strategy through for a decade or longer, success is not guaranteed. Current, positive trend lines in Iraq may continue. But they may not. America is not the only actor capable of influencing events in Iraq. For the U.S. to achieve a stable Iraq, we need a number of factors, many outside of our control, to all cut our way - and stay that way for years until the peace among Iraq's competing factions becomes self-reinforcing. That's not impossible. Insurgencies have been defeated in the past. But the British could not successfully pacify Iraq in the 1920s, and they had far more experience in colonial policing.

Yet supporters of a prolonged stay in Iraq argue that the costs of leaving off-set the costs of staying. In this reading, the threats posed by leaving Iraq justify the costs of seeing the nation building effort through. Many analysts, including the Brookings Institute's Michael O'Hanlon, predict that were America to withdraw before Iraq is stable and self-sustaining, sectarian fighting would resume on a large scale.

From an American security perspective, an Iraqi civil war is not a threat per-se, but it does create an environment where two distinct dangers would arise. The first is a "spillover" of that civil war to other countries in the Middle East that endangers the regular flow of oil from the region. The second is a reconstituted al Qaeda in Iraq capable of striking at targets in the West.

While impossible to state categorically that a civil war would not slip the bounds of Iraq's borders, history suggests it is unlikely. The Middle East suffered a civil war in Lebanon that did not drag the entire region into a massive war. Nor did the major conventional war between Iran and Iraq precipitate wider fighting, though it did lead to a sharp spike in oil prices. If a regional crisis did develop, sending oil prices ever higher, the short term economic pain would be real. But over the long term, the market would catalyze a search for more reliable alternatives. Besides, oil prices are at record highs even with a sizeable contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Then there is al Qaeda in Iraq. Though down, recent bombings prove that the jihadi group is not yet out. It's easy to see how an American withdrawal could lead to a rejuvenation of the terror group. A resumption of sectarian fighting could drive Iraqi Sunnis back into the arms of al Qaeda as they suffer at the hands of the numerically superior Shiites. Flush with native support and the steady trickle of foreign jihadists, al Qaeda could turn western Iraq into Afghanistan 2.0 - a safe haven from which to plot attacks beyond Iraq's borders.

This scenario is a distinct possibility. But several caveats are in order. First, we can't be sure that Iraqi Sunnis will re-forge their alliance with al Qaeda. The "Awakening" of Iraq's Sunni tribes occurred in the summer of 2006, after the Samarra Mosque bombing and at the height of sectarian fighting - at a moment, in other words, when Sunnis would have ostensibly been seeking allies. Second, it misreads the history of how the al Qaeda safe haven developed in Afghanistan. When bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, his Taliban patrons had already captured Kabul, the country's capital, and had essentially forced their Northern Alliance opponents into a corner. That is not the case in Iraq, where it is al Qaeda and its Sunni sponsors that are cornered and overwhelmingly out-numbered.

Still, a rejuvenated al Qaeda in Iraq with some capacity to strike at Western targets would be a direct cost of an expedited withdrawal. Yet arguing that we must bear the costs of remaining in Iraq for a decade simply to prevent this unwelcome likelihood is not a wise use of American resources in our wider struggle against jihadism. There are al Qaeda enclaves in multiple parts of the globe, including in Pakistan and Europe, with a much greater capacity to kill American civilians. Pouring billions of dollars and tens of thousands of combat troops into Iraq to battle a far smaller, less potent branch is disproportionate to the threat they pose.

In fact, it plays right into al Qaeda's hand. As a small, decentralized network, al Qaeda cannot deliver one death blow, but it can drain the U.S. At little cost to itself, al Qaeda can funnel suicide bombers into Iraq (just as the Pakistanis funneled Stinger Missiles into Afghanistan during that country's war with the Soviet Union) while still retaining the capacity to strike targets in Pakistan, London and elsewhere. Some analysts have argued that is precisely why America must stay in Iraq, to reverse the perception that American policy can be altered by killing Americans. But staying in Iraq reinforces another, equally potent, al Qaeda narrative of America the Occupier.

There is no easy, cost-free Iraq policy. The astute American strategist George Kennan once argued that we should apply "business accounting" when weighing America's response to security threats. The surge has helpfully clarified the costs of seeing a counter-insurgency strategy through to fruition. We must now debate if the gains are really worth it.

CORRECTION: In a previous column, the author incorrectly credited Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with drafting President George H. W. Bush's "Chicken Kiev" speech. Secretary Rice had already left the Bush 41 administration when that speech was delivered.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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