Most of the good thinking on the war in Iraq is moving towards "containment of a chaotic civil war" (actually its worse than a civil war, see my December 2006 brief) instead of counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency to prop up a democratic government can't work in an environment where there isn't a center (the middle class has already departed the country in a massive 2 million refugee rush for the border) and everyone remaining is a member of a radicalized faction. Anyone still thinking about counter-insurgency today is a year or more behind the power curve of the war.
How we got to this pointThis transformation of the war wasn't an accident. It was accomplished by a global guerrilla attack on a social systempunkt that made possible a cascade of failure in Iraqi social systems (see my brief on al Qaeda's Black Swans written in February of last year):
The first attack, a successful one, on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, caused so much friction in Iraq's social systems, the country will likely end up in civil war. This would put the entire US venture in the country at immediate risk as the situation deteriorates.That psychological tipping point shattered the Shiite bloc, which was already full of fault lines due to the reliance on loyalist paramilitary forces to build the Iraqi military. Since then, it has been a race to primary loyalties well below the level of state, religion, or ethnicity. It has even manufactured militant messianic cults, as the recent fighting around Najaf proved.
How to contain it
How do we contain this chaos (?) has become the question upon which the entire global economy rides. The spread of this war would eliminate Iraqi oil production entirely and put at risk the production available from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran. It would also set-up the US, which should be the main force for global cooperation, for an extremely hard landing both domestically and internationally, which may take a decade or more to recover from.The first and foremost approach to doing this is to lessen the potential of state vs. state warfare. A war between the US/Israel and Iran would quickly destabilize every state in the Middle East and allow them to fall prey to open source war like Iraq. The best method for lessening the chance of this war is to open connections with both Iran and Syria (with Syria as the prime target) to reduce their connectivity to non-state groups. This not only reduces internal dynamics (that breathing your own exhaust creates) it can also help to make it more difficult for global guerrillas to generate an attack (another black swan -- I'm thinking of attacks that could do this, are you?) that serves as a pretext for regional war. Other ideas can be found in a report by Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack at the Saban Center (Brookings) called "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from and Iraqi Civil War.". This report is just the start, much more thinking needs to be done.