Shahid Kamal Khan, Air Commodore (Retd)
Karachi, 11 September, 2009



Around the neck of America hangs the albatross of Iraq.  The two unfortunate countries are now inextricably bound together in a deadly union. American casualties creep upwards inexorably while those of the hapless Iraqis skyrocket. Many innocents have died as a result of this misadventure; many more have been maimed, even more have had innocence wrested brutally from them. A compliant American electorate has run out of patience; it has given its verdict on the failure of the GOP in no uncertain terms. For the first time since 1994, the Democrats have been voted into the majority in both houses of Congress. A wartime Presidency teeters on the brink of failure, haunted by 2008 at which time a repeat of the midterm election failure appears to be an inescapable eventuality.


A ten-member bipartisan study group, the Baker Hamilton Commission that had been working for most of the year to determine the best course of action for the United States to extricate itself from this mess submitted its report as 2006 drew to a close. Unable to provide a ‘magic bullet’, the group recommended a plan that was at best a thinly veiled process of “cutting and running”. It also proposed a startling U turn in American policy; that the United States of America sit at a table with Syria and Iran and develop a solution to the Iraqi crisis. Politics makes strange bedfellows; military disasters, even stranger. It enables dialog with countries that have historically been labeled as evil or branded as leading supporters of international terrorism.

In parallel, the Pentagon conducted a secret Joint Staff review that apparently came up with three options: “go big”, “go long”, “go home”.

  • “Go Big” entails an increase of troops by several hundred thousand to conduct Counter Insurgency operations. This is simply not possible even if the draft is to be reinstituted; an action favored by Senator Charles Wrangel.
  • The “go long” option envisages a continued presence of US troops, but having them shift to a training and empowerment role as opposed to military operations. This option is planned to last for decades and is based upon the American desire to ensure a continued military presence in Iraq. This can best be termed wishful thinking. It is patently obvious that a truly free and independent Iraq would promptly ask for the United States to leave its soil.
  • The third option is the “go home” option; a classic cut and run act which, in the US perception, would plunge Iraq into a full blown civil war. Iraq would fracture; the region would go up in flames. Equally importantly, America would lose face and terrorists across the globe would be emboldened by this obvious defeat of the only Superpower.


The sad part is that even as these meticulous analyses were being penned, America was lagging hopelessly behind events. Iraq established full diplomatic ties with Syria after a break of almost a quarter of a century. A Baghdad –Tehran relationship took root and started blossoming almost immediately. Ahmedinejad teamed up with Talibani and Assad in a three party summit that was hosted in Tehran. As these new realities emerged, many capitals across the globe agonized over the eventual outcome of these liaisons and wondered why America was dithering in its approach to the Iraqi crisis. Comparing Iraq to Vietnam, once anathema to the US mind, has now become an acceptable exercise; openly discussed, readily acknowledged. Blair admits failure; Bush admits inadequate planning. Both agree upon a revised policy.

When the much publicized revision comes, it shocks almost all. President George Bush appears to have cherry picked both the Baker Hamilton Report and the secret Pentagon study and has put forth a plan that requires the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops into Iraq. This ‘surge’ is expected to quell the upsurge in violence in Baghdad and its environs. It appears that the futility of such temporary increases in troop levels demonstrated during the Falluja and Ramadi operations has not been understood by the President and his advisors.

Two third of the American nation rejects the plan; its citizens do not want to send in more troops into Iraq. More pertinently, they do not want more troops to return in body bags. The plan also generates visible cracks in the Republican party. The Democrats threaten to block funds for the proposed troop increase. A frustrated President is now asking the Democrats to provide an alternative solution. None is forthcoming.

Friends and advisors are jumping off the American ship of state as it sails into troubled waters. Effervescent neocons of the past are now glibly blaming the White House and distancing themselves from the Presidency even as they continue to cling to the mistaken belief that the situation in Iraq is due to foreign fighters. The sectarian problem, the hostile Saddamists and the radical Shia followers of Muqtadar al Sadr are labeled a minority. Confrontations with Maliki and the members of his government are increasing both in frequency and venom as the days’ pass. Smiles and embraces are becoming increasingly contrived and increasingly awkward.


The situation in Iraq can best be summed up in the following grimly comedic manner:

  • If the Iraqi government is able to control the country, the Coalition Forces (read “American”) shall leave Iraq.
  • If the Iraqi government is unable to control the situation, the Coalition Forces (read “American”) shall leave Iraq.

An exit from Iraq is an inescapable fact. What needs to be accepted is that the US departure shall most likely be for the latter reason; a failed government in Iraq. It is the disaster that shall then unfold that haunts the minds of those that care. An emboldened Iran shall then exercise influence over a swath of the Middle East extending from Pakistan in the East to the Mediterranean Sea on the West. The Shia elements within the Sheikhdoms of the Gulf shall become more active; a Shia crescent shall form to the north of the Sunni center, Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda shall become reinvigorated; it shall view the American departure as a victory and would be emboldened to pursue further evil. The Taliban shall likewise be heartened; Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir shall see an upsurge in militant Islam. This is more likely than not to spill over into India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines and elsewhere. An already troubled world shall become more distressed.

The United States and its only meaningful ally in the coalition, United Kingdom are both desperate to find a graceful way out of Iraq. However, there does not appear to be a solution to the present mess which is truly disastrous.

The Solution

According to Clausewitz there are two kinds of courage; bravery in the face of mortal danger and, pertinent to this discourse, a willingness to make and be responsible for command decisions. If the fighting men are expected to display courage of the former kind, the planners must necessarily display courage of the latter sort. The prewar dream of an Iraq friendly to the United States may still be realized. The civil war that is raging in Iraq may yet be brought to an end. An open ended counter insurgency operation may still be successfully concluded.

All conventional solutions have failed in Iraq and there appears to be no visible way out of the quagmire. The recent surge is perhaps just something that has to be done to show that something is being done. It just delays the inevitable at the expense of more dead Americans and Iraqis. No one truly believes that an additional twenty thousand odd troops are going to fix the problem of Iraq.

This stated, every problem has a solution; one just has to look for it in the right place in the right manner. When an unprecedented situation emerges and no precedents exist, one must seek novel solutions. One must then think laterally and search for answers in the most unlikely of places. This is easier said than done. Fixated minds, blinkered vision, stereotype thought processes need to be replaced with approaches that are obscure, original and, inevitably, revolutionary.

There is a solution to the mess that is Iraq; there has to be. The problem is that the solutions are being sought within those very organizations and mindsets that have are in fact the very cause of the problem. This intellectual inbreeding can at best beget a ‘mongoloid’ solution; distorted, crippled and ineffective. It is absolutely necessary that America starts thinking outside the box and seeking solutions from sources other than the accepted ones. Only then would it be possible to arrive at a novel solution for a novel problem.

Tasked formally, I am confident that we could develop such a novel solution. A solution that is dignified, safe and creditable and one that can reverse the hardening of positions that is taking place across the globe. Needless to state, it would then require an American willingness to pursue any recommended options.

I have always advocated that there needs to be an alternate thought process that must tackle the problem that faces each one of us. We need to recognize that this is not just an American problem. It is as much a Muslim problem, as it is that of America. Indeed, it is a problem for mankind. There are minds far more brilliant than mine that have tackled this issue thus far. The somewhat lackluster results of their weighty deliberations are quite evident. It is absolutely necessary that we explore alternate options.

It is perhaps time for the child to step up and tell the truck driver to let the air out of the tires to get the truck unstuck from under the bridge.