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The Iraq Study Group Report - A Foundation Based On Assumptions

On December 6, 2006, the independent Iraq Study Group released its long-anticipated report to a great deal of media and public fanfare.(1) The letter from the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group states in its opening paragraph that “Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric…” The resulting fire storm of debate was, in fact, immediate, ranging from the positive to the negative, depending on the political persuasion of the analysts and commentators. Political conservatives denigrated the report as defeatist, while liberals used the report as evidence of the failure of the Bush Administration to effectively prosecute the war in Iraq. Depending on which think tank analysis of the report is believed, it (the report) either goes too far, or it doesn’t go far enough in its recommendation for a new approach to the war. One analysis characterizes the report as “a triumph of hope over experience.”(2) Common phrases that have been bandied about in the media analysis of the report run the gamut from “cut and run” or “stay the course” to the Pentagon’s announced alternatives of “go big,” “go long,” or “go home.” Regardless of political persuasion one theme runs consistently throughout the debate – that of near-unanimous rejection of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

Perhaps one of the more poignant comments on the war in Iraq comes from Martin Kaplan of the University of Southern California Annenberg School. Writing in the Los Angeles Times Kaplan says, “Maybe we don't need a national debate. Maybe what we really need are leaders with more character, followers with more discrimination, deciders who hear as well as listen and media that know the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in.”(3) Kaplan may be right; after more than three-and- a-half years of war the nation has had more than enough time to debate its actions. However, the stakes are high. The immediate dilemma is Iraq, but the larger stakes are the stability of the Middle East, America’s role in the world, and the future state of global political, security, economic, and social stability.(4) If the war in Iraq is one element of the larger global war on terror, then the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group bear serious scrutiny because their implications carry over to the war on terror.

Regardless of the terms, and of the level of debate, one critical point has thus far been overlooked: The Iraq Study Group Report is founded on assumptions. The validity of the assumptions drives the feasibility of the recommendations within the report. A process exists that can be used to illustrate the point.

Military planners use a mission analysis process that requires as one of its steps the identification of critical assumptions.(5) From a planning perspective assumptions are suppositions about the current or future situation that are assumed to be true in the absence of true facts. They take the place of necessary, but unavailable, facts and fill the gaps in what is known about a situation. Assumptions must meet two criteria to be included in the planning process: First, they must be valid – meaning they are likely to be true. Second, they must be necessary – meaning they are essential for planning. Assumptions that do not meet these two criteria must either be discarded, or if they are accepted they call into question the validity of the plan. Using these criteria the following assumptions must be applied to the Iraq Study Group Report if its recommendations are to truly be considered as a way ahead:

Letter from the Co-Chairs
• Assumption 1: The United States has the national will to see the war in Iraq to completion.
• Assumption 2: American public support for the war in Iraq can be restored.
• Assumption 3: The Executive and the Legislative branches of the United States government will cooperate to find a way forward in Iraq.

External Approach
• Assumption 4: The United States can implement effective diplomatic and political initiatives to achieve international consensus for stability in Iraq and the Middle East.
• Assumption 5: The United States will engage all the elements of American power in Iraq; in addition to the Defense Department, the Departments of State, Treasury, Justice, and the Director of National Intelligence in particular.
• Assumption 6: The United States will not be confronted by global crises requiring the precipitate diversion of its military forces from Iraq.
• Assumption 7: The United States can broker comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace to resolve regional instability.
• Assumption 8: Iraq’s neighbors want a stable and prosperous Iraq.
• Assumption 9: Other nations, and Iraq’s neighbors, do not want to see the United States tied down in Iraq.
• Assumption 10: Iran and Syria are open to constructive political engagement concerning Iraq.

Internal Approach
• Assumption 11: The Iraqi government will be accepted as legitimate by the majority of Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds.
• Assumption 12: The Iraqi government will achieve the ability to govern, sustain, and defend itself without the support of the United States.
• Assumption 13: The Iraqi government has the national will and wants political and social reconciliation between the warring elements in Iraq.
• Assumption 14: The Iraqi government will accept responsibility for the security environment necessary to internal reconciliation.
• Assumption 15: The Iraqi government can provide its people with basic governance and services, particularly utilities, health care, legal, education, and employment.
• Assumption 16: The Iraqi military and police security forces will be capable of maintaining stability within the country.
• Assumption 17: The United States Congress will appropriate the necessary funds to the long-term reconstruction of Iraq.
• Assumption 18: The Iraqi government will maintain and operate reconstruction projects launched by the United States.
• Assumption 19: The oil sector of the Iraqi economy will be restored to profitability.
• Assumption 20: The Iraqi government believes the United States will carry out its plans even if the Iraqi government does not accept or implement planned changes.

These assumptions meet the second criterion for planning assumptions – they are necessary to the successful implementation of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group Report. It remains uncertain that they meet the first criterion for planning assumptions – that they are valid. If proven to not be true they place any implementation of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group Report in jeopardy.

In the latter case, the potential 2nd and 3rd order magnitude effects will carry over to the larger war on terror and the global standing of the United States. An Iraq in chaos offers a haven for terrorism to grow regionally and globally. Terrorist attacks could increase both domestically and worldwide. Externally, the attention of the United States could be diverted at a time when it faces demanding issues in Afghanistan, Korea, Iran, and long-term in the Pacific theater. Internally, even at a time when it confronts homeland security challenges the November, 2006, elections were largely viewed as a referendum on United States progress in Iraq. Failure to maintain public support will weaken not only United States foreign policy, but domestic homeland security efforts.

In short, success in Iraq is vital to United States interests. There has been enough time for debate. It’s time now for effective action to be taken by converting the assumptions above into facts.


(1) The Iraq Study Group Report, First Edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2006). http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps76748/iraq_study_group_report.pdf (Access 12/20/06)

(2) Anthony Cordesman, “The Baker-Hamilton Study Group Report: The Elephant Gives Birth to a Mouse,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 6, 2006. http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/061206_cordesman_commentary.pdf (Accessed 12/20/06)

(3) Martin Kaplan, “Does Iraq Need More Debate?,” Los Angeles Times (December 19, 2006).

(4) Zbigniew Brzezinski, “There is much more at stake for America than Iraq,” The Financial Times (December 19, 2006).

(5) Staff Organization And Operations, Headquarters, Department of The Army, 1997, 5-7.

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