Weighing a Containment Strategy for Iraq If troop increases fail to control the insurgency, what is the next step for U.S. forces in Iraq? Military and political analysts outside the government are focusing on ways to keep the violence from spreading beyond Iraq's borders.
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Weighing a Containment Strategy for Iraq

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Weighing a Containment Strategy for Iraq

Weighing a Containment Strategy for Iraq

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While the regional meetings go on in Baghdad, the new U.S. war strategy of using additional troops to try to crack down on security continues. But what happens if this new strategy doesn't work? The new chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said that Plan B is to make Plan A work, according to some governors who met with him last week.

And although General David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, acknowledged that the military is considering what-ifs, he hasn't offered any details.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): Our focus, and this is not just rhetoric, but I mean our focus right here right now truly is - and remember I've been on the ground for a month - I mean it is to get these forces on the ground to develop the tactics, techniques and procedures and refine them and so forth among the commanders in Baghdad and then the commanders in the outlying districts and so forth. Because staying right there is a different approach certainly than employed in the past couple of years.

SIMON: Outside of government though, a number of people are trying to think more fully about Plan B. Many of them are focusing on something that loosely might be called containment.

To try to help us understand what some of this might mean, we turn to Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us from the studios of member station WYTF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Mr. Biddle, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Council on Foreign Relations): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And containment means different things to different people, doesn't it?

Mr. BIDDLE: Yes, it does, but I think the most common sense of the word is to prevent the war in Iraq from spreading elsewhere in the region, I mean to avoid the kind of region-wide conflagration lots of people consider the worst case here.

SIMON: Now would this entail a decision on where to put U.S. troops? In fact, one of the proposals we see is to have them - I think the phrase is over the horizon in Kuwait, or perhaps maybe in the Kurdish parts of the country.

Mr. BIDDLE: Yeah. And that brings us to the military side of things. And there are a variety of ideas out there for how military forces might assist in this program. One would have us leave Iraq altogether and simply remain elsewhere in the region, as you suggest, in Kuwait or offshore, either in the form of naval strike assets or Marine Corps units or Special Forces.

Others would have us simply withdraw from the urban areas in which most of the conflict is being fought right now within in Iraq and redeployed within Iraq's borders but to the borders that you're trying to protect, but remain in-country with some significant amount of military force.

So there are a variety of proposals out there. There's this very rich debate at this moment outside the government.

SIMON: And would the idea be to have - ideally, would be to have the presence of U.S. forces just enough to deter violence. Maybe particularly insurgent or sectarian violence, but without being so heavy or palpable that it seems to incite it.

Mr. BIDDLE: That's one of the ideas involved. But there are potentially others as well. There are many proposals, for instance, for ramping down our combat activity but accelerating or enhancing our training activities and our logistical support to the Iraqi national military.

There are other proposals for keeping troops in the country but orienting them towards hunting down al-Qaida operatives rather than engaging in sectarian warfare within Iraq. So there are a variety of different ideas about what the U.S. military could do in Iraq that would be less forceful than the surge the president has announced, but would not represent the simple abject withdrawal from the country.

SIMON: What are some of the risks that you have to contemplate when a containment strategy is proposed?

Mr. BIDDLE: The military options associated with containment have the difficulty that the borders are not equally defensible. It's much easier to do on the Syrian side than on the Iranian side. Syrian border is isolated; there are very few crossing points. It's easy to track what's happening in a relative sense.

The border with Iran is much more complex and much closer to major urban areas. There's a sizeable risk that if we were to, for example, redeploy out of the cities and to the borders, the result would be perceived by the Sunnis as a differential attempt to hurt them by cutting off their source of re-supply, but slyly assist the Shiites because we won't be able to prevent re-supply from their patron in Iran.

The larger problem with containment, whether diplomatic or military, is that as the conflict unfolds, the incentives for the neighbors to intervene grow in ways that make the diplomatic effort at preventing this harder and harder. We've already had in excess of a million refugees that have left Iraq and entered neighboring countries. That number is going to go up and up and up and up over time.

And these refugee populations, dispossessed, poorly housed, poorly fed, tend to be politically radicalized and tend to be destabilizing in the neighboring regimes. It typically takes civil wars of this kind five to ten to fifteen years to fight themselves out.

By the time we get anywhere near the end of that, the politics in the neighboring countries are likely to be much less stable than they are now. There will have been five to 10 years of military buildup in all of these countries as a hedge against events in Iraq.

I think the danger that if this trajectory continues, we end up with incentives to intervene that outstrip our diplomatic ability to discourage them is important.

SIMON: I think a lot of people listening will think you've made a very strong argument against containment.

Mr. BIDDLE: Well, I think I can make a very strong argument against more or less everything, unfortunately. The problem with Iraq policy right now is that all of the options are varieties of bad. So I mean there are no bon-bons on the menu. What we're engaged in is choosing which brand of castor oil we want to take. It's easy for people like me to point out nine million reasons why any one of these options looks painful, unpleasant or improbable as a success. But ultimately you have to choose.

SIMON: What about Iraqi lives? From your point of view, what strategy might save the maximum number of Iraqi lives?

Mr. BIDDLE: I think to the extent that we're concerned with humanitarian issues in Iraq, which we should be, both for policy reasons and for moral reasons, the surge is the best chance. The surge is much likelier to fail than it is to succeed, but of the range of options available to us for producing stability and an end to the bloodshed, it's the least long of the long shots that are on the table. So I think from that perspective, sending the largest American force we can send, changing its mission to population security, away from training of the Iraqis, and beginning to use it as a source of conditional sticks and carrots to drive unwilling Iraqi factions toward compromise - that entire program, which is more or less consistent with what the president has proposed, I think is the best bet for stopping the bloodshed in Iraq, even though it's not a very good bet even so.

SIMON: Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council of Foreign Relations, thanks very much.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thanks for having me.

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