Monday, November 26, 2007

Tactical Success, Strategic Failure

We need to remember that the original intermediate strategic aim of the surge was to provide breathing space for the Maliki government to take politically difficult steps in order to further the long term strategic objective of seeing a reasonably peaceful, a reasonably stable, single coherent national government that enjoyed a reasonably degree of legitimacy from 95% of Iraqis. And this is with rather large values of 'reasonably'. And it has failed. Short term tactical successes in reducing the violence levels by buying out Sunni militias and seeing the Sadrists stand down so that they can more effectively apply political pressure has produced this lull right now, but the tactical and operational success is a strategic failure. Robert Farley at LGM has the overview, and I'll follow up with a couple of examples.

The central government is one among many armed, collective actors in Iraq. In most modern nation-states (and in Iraq prior to 2003) the central government is the most powerful armed actor.....the idea that the state should be the predominant armed actor in a given territorial space is pretty critical to how a modern-nation state functions. Indeed, it's one of things that sets a modern-nation state apart from a feudal situation,....

The problem with the strategy in Iraq (and it's not the Surge; the tribal strategy precedes the Surge by about six months) is that we are both arming and legitimating non-state actors; in these conditions, it is very difficult for the central government to assert authority, and thus to do any of the things (organize for collective defense, collect taxes, provide services, etc.) that a modern nation-state does. Also, the tribes we're enabling are among the most conservative, anti-democratic elements of Iraqi society.

One of the major non-state actors that the US has been funding and empowering is local Sunni militias. And this is creating serious problems both at the neighborhood level and the national level. First at the neighborhood level, the nominal allies are allies because the US recognizes their de facto ethnic cleansing campaigns which probably have been coming to a natural conclusion anyways as there are far fewer mixed neighborhoods anymore. The London Times reports on the following concerned national brigade:

T WAS 9.30am when three men entered Haidar Musa’s sweet-shop and shot him repeatedly in the head as his eight-year-old daughter Zainab crouched in terror behind the counter.

By midday his stricken wife Kahiriya had packed Zainab and four other children into a car with a few possessions and fled their home town of Abu Ghraib for a life of penury in Baghdad, 20 miles to the east.... Asked when she intended to leave this squalor and return to the comfortable family home, Kahiriya Musa, 30, is emphatic. “Never,” she declares. “They will kill me if I return.”...

While one of her husband’s killers has been arrested, she says, the other two have joined the Baghdad Brigade, a Sunni militia funded by the American forces which now holds sway in her old neighbourhood.

Members of the Baghdad Brigade receive $300 a man each month from the Americans, who also provide vehicles, uniforms and flak jackets. In return the brigade keeps out Al-Qaeda, dismantles roadside bombs and patrols the area, a task performed with considerable swagger by many of its 4,000 recruits....

Later in the article is the observation that many residents are identifying these newly concerned citizens as former members of Al-Queada in Iraq and its allies, as well as the expected nationlists/Baathist groups such as the 1920 Brigade. It is amazing the transformative power of stinking badges. The badges legitimize the local authority of what we would have called last year a death squad operation.

Officials in the Shi’ite-led government also fear the burgeoning of fresh forces beyond its control. The question being asked in government circles is: have the Americans achieved a short-term gain in security at a cost of long-term pain that may be inflicted by the Sunni militias, which are already threatening to go to war against their Shi’ite counterparts?...

US-backed Sunni militias have spread eastwards from Anbar across Baghdad. They already number 77,000, known collectively as “concerned local citizens”. This is more than the Shi’ite Mahdi Army and nearly half the number in the Iraqi army.

Exotically named groups such as the Knights of Ameriya and the Guardians of Ghazaliya strut the streets in camouflage uniforms, brandishing new AK47s that the Americans say they have not supplied....

According to Haji, the death threat came from men who used to be Al-Qaeda members but now form part of the awakening. Even the militia commanders confirm that they have the Shi’ites in their long-range sights after a turbulent few months.

First they tired of Al-Qaeda’s beheadings, bombings and strange demands, such as a ban on salads containing (male) cucumbers and (female) tomatoes, and on ice cubes because the Prophet Muhammad never had them.

Then the militias threw in their lot with the Americans to get rid of Al-Qaeda, but without losing their animosity for the occupying forces that many of them had been fighting.

And as Cernig noted earlier this week, the Shi'ite government is justifiably scared of the American sponsored Sunni resurgence as it is a viable threat to their power. The Sunni's have a field force that has fought the US Army and Marines to a strategic standstill, is loyal, is well paid, and well equipped while the Shi'ite government has to rely on Kurdish peshmerga which has its own agenda and problems with Turkey, and the unreliable and thoroughly infilitrated Iraqi Army which has divided loyalties between SIIC/Badr and the Sadrists.

The Shi'ite government is reluctant to allow significant deBaathication as noted by Cernig because they remember how the Sunni's came to power the last couple of times --- coups backed by organized, well disciplined and reasonably successful military units. Including significantly ambitious and well respected Sunni leaders and interest groups in the Iraqi government is a direct threat to the Sistani goal of Shi'ite domination via the ballot box.

So empowering, funding, and looking the other way as Sunni Arab tribal groups get their blood feud on with another set of arrogant, smelly foreigners has produced a significant tactical success, but at the continued cost of strategic failure as the other veto players in Iraqi politics are deathly afraid of a coherent and resurgenct Sunni Arab bloc.

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