Monday, June 13, 2005

It's Gonna Take Space and Time - In Iraq

It's probably just as well that there is some good news from Iraq, as Arthur Chrenkoff reminds us monthly. Otherwise, it is likely that the American people would have lost all hope and all interest already because, despite the minor stories that remind us that there are still some good "hearts and minds" operations going on, the big picture is unreservedly bleak. - and America losing interest would be a disaster for the Iraqi people.

Rubbish, you say? Let me illustrate.

My friends on the Right say that we should listen to the military on the ground there in Iraq, that they know best how things are going. On Sunday, Knight Ridder in Washington reported that "growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to an insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis and more than 1,300 U.S. troops during the past two years."

"I think the more accurate way to approach this right now is to concede that ... this insurgency is not going to be settled, the terrorists and the terrorism in Iraq is not going to be settled, through military options or military operations," Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week, in a comment that echoes what other senior officers say. "It's going to be settled in the political process."

Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, expressed similar sentiments, calling the military's efforts "the Pillsbury Doughboy idea" - pressing the insurgency in one area only causes it to rise elsewhere.

"Like in Baghdad," Casey said during an interview with two newspaper reporters, including one from Knight Ridder, last week. "We push in Baghdad - they're down to about less than a car bomb a day in Baghdad over the last week - but in north-center (Iraq) ... they've gone up," he said. "The political process will be the decisive element."

These realistic words from the top commanders in theatre follow on one of the deadliest months since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May 2003, a month that saw six American troops killed by hostile fire. In May 2005, 67 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed by hostile fire, the fourth-highest tally since the war began, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an Internet site that uses official casualty reports to organize deaths by a variety of criteria.

Yet their words are exactly at odds with Dick Cheney's recent bizarrely wishful statement that he believed the insurgency to be in it's "last throws. and instead bear out the words of Lt. Col. Frederick P. Wellman, who works with the task force overseeing the training of Iraqi security troops:

We can't kill them all," Wellman said. "When I kill one I create three."

In a final twist, the realisation that a political process rather than military action holds the key to eventual peace in Iraq, the recognition that a military solution is not in the offing has led U.S. and Iraqi officials to signal they are willing to negotiate with insurgent groups, or their intermediaries.

"It has evolved in the course of normal business," said a senior U.S. diplomatic official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of U.S. policy to defer to the Iraqi government on Iraqi political matters. "We have now encountered people who at least claim to have some form of a relationship with the insurgency."

If the Left had suggested this even recently some would have accused them of treason. But is it still treason when it is the carefully considered of the military and diplomatic experts who are actually there? Can we at least start a dialogue about what any such negotiations should be like now?

Next, there is the ability of the Iraqis themselves to provide their own security if America lost interest - packed up and went home.

They simply are not ready yet. The New York Times reports credible estimates from Americans working with the Iraqis in the field who " believe that it could be several years, at least, before the new Iraqi forces will be ready to stand alone against the insurgents."

From a single American-trained Iraqi battalion a year ago, the American command says there are now 107 battalions of Iraqi troops and paramilitary police units, totaling 169,000 men. The total is set to rise to 270,000 by next summer, when 10 fully equipped 14,000-man Iraqi Army divisions are scheduled to be operational.

But figures alone tell only part of the story, since only three battalions are rated fully operational by the Americans, and many others are far behind in terms of manpower, training and equipment.

So no, the Iraqis alone are incapable of providing the physical security presence which will allow the political process enough time to work They need American (and British) help. However, as my colleague >Fester has proved in undeniable style, the US Army is being gutted by poor recruitment, degraded performance by stop-lossed units back on the front lines for their second or third times and casualties which are highest in the sharp-end infantry units that are needed most.

So what's the interim solution that will let there be enough grip by security forces so that the politicial process of negotiated reapproachment can take place? Joe Biden thinks it will be the Draft. It would be hugely unpopular a move in the US (how's that for gross understatement?) but it may be the only recourse if Iraq is not to sink into civil war before there is enough time and space to heal it's wounds.

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