Beat the Insurgents by Talking to Them

Larry J. Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and former advisor to the American occupation in Iraq, is author of "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq."

In his speech last week, President Bush correctly said that the United States had a vital interest in remaining in Iraq until a viable, secure and hopefully democratic state emerged. He also appropriately noted evidence of democratic progress in Iraq -- an elected government in Baghdad and a more representative constitution drafting committee set to begin its work. But if the United States is to avoid defeat in Iraq, Bush must recognize what our military leaders have repeated for more than a year: There is no purely military solution to the insurgency. It will only be extinguished by a combination of military might, good intelligence, reliable policing and -- crucially -- effective politics.

A political strategy to defeat the insurgency, which the administration has been inching toward but has not fully articulated and embraced, requires six elements.

First, the U.S. must know who and what we are dealing with. Radical Islamists from other countries are the ones blowing themselves and civilians to bits and slaughtering cops and elected Iraqi leaders -- and there is no negotiating with these zealots.

Similarly, Saddam Hussein’s top loyalists, who finance and orchestrate much of the destruction from safe houses in Syria, have nowhere to go in the new order but jail (and probably the hangman’s noose). These two groups must be killed, captured or cut off from their bases of support and operation in Iraq.


A wider circle of Iraqis tolerates, uses and supports these groups in their violent resistance to the U.S.-led coalition and the new Iraqi government. These mostly Sunni Arab Iraqis believe that they have been shafted and humiliated by the emerging political order -- and they want in. They feel their country is under indefinite occupation -- and they want it back. The U.S. needs to separate the jihadists and Hussein’s cronies from the Iraqis who feel left out.

The administration deserves credit for drawing Sunnis into the political process, but it must do more to incorporate them politically into the new Iraq, the second element of a winning political strategy. It has done too little to address their nationalist anxiety.

That bring us to the third element. Many Iraqis (including essentially all those in the insurgency) believe that we are there to establish permanent military bases and gain control of their oil. This suspicion feeds the intense nationalism underlying the violent resistance. In fact, it is the only factor uniting its disparate elements.

To douse the nationalist fire, Bush must tell the Iraqi people, directly and unequivocally, that the United States does not seek long-term military bases in their country. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress as much recently, but unless the message comes from the president, it will not register in Iraq.

If Bush’s assurance is to be credible, it must be coupled to a fourth strategic element. Bush is right to reject a fixed timetable for withdrawal, which would only embolden the terrorists. But Iraqi insurgents must be able to envision a time when foreign troops will be gone.

To this end, the administration should set a time -- not a deadline, but a goal -- when it hopes to be militarily out of Iraq, provided insurgents opted for peaceful politics instead of violence. This would shift the burden to the Sunni-based insurgents to demonstrate their nationalist credentials by altering their strategies and methods so order can return to Iraq, the new Iraqi armed forces can gain strength and the United States can make good on its withdrawal pledge.

If these four elements are to defeat the insurgency, they have to be part of direct negotiations with political and tribal forces “associated with” the insurgency, the fifth essential of a successful strategy. For almost two years, some insurgents have been sending signals through international intermediaries that they want to talk directly to the United States.

Initially wary and defiant, the administration has become more pragmatic about the overtures and discussions have occurred. But the talks have involved only low-level operatives and have left some Iraqi insurgents feeling that the United States is more interested in gaining tactical intelligence than negotiating a political deal.

Any agreement with insurgents will have to include concessions on access to and release of some detainees, as well as what are America’s long-term intentions in Iraq. If these issues are on the table, higher-level insurgents appear ready to talk.

Finally, we need to talk directly to the insurgents, but we cannot do so alone. The Iraqi government must be involved because it will need to make concessions of its own. And if trust is to be created and hostilities tempered by a pragmatic search for common ground, mediation will be needed. There is no better institution to play this role than the United Nations, and no better individual than the negotiator who brokered the handover of power last year, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Critics lambasted Bush’s speech for its lack of new initiatives. But the indigenous core of the Iraqi insurgency may be ripe for resolution if the administration will craft and carry out a political strategy to defeat the insurgency.

This will not miraculously end the violence in Iraq. But it may enable us -- and the Iraqi people -- to turn the corner toward a peaceful and inclusive political order in which the zealots meet the fate they deserve.