Monday, November 13, 2006

Thinking About Iraq

A year and a half ago, I had a plan for success in Iraq and in the wider struggle to tame extremist terrorism. I even warned about militias and their wholesale inclusion in Iraqi security forces at a time when Bush and his Pentagon bigwigs were telling the world that militias, post-Najaf, were no longer going to be a problem. Some of the elements of that plan were the same as parts of the plans of other, wiser, heads who sort-off got listened to. Some of those ideas were implemented but always way too little and way too late.

I still believe that my plan would have worked back then, but there has now been another three Friedmans worth of incompetence, of "stay the course", of corruption and of sectarian infighting. Because of that lapse, in the words of one private security contractor's recent report: "the various centrifugal elements will continue to pursue their own agenda . . . rendering unlikely the possibility of finding a single, national approach to the Iraq problem." That plan of mine wouldn't work now. Only now, though, are the majority of America's public ready to accept a new plan for success in Iraq and so everyone is calling for exactly that.

Here's the thing - I don't have a blessed clue what such a plan would look like now. Neither does anyone else. Everyone's groping around like a bunch of drunks in a forest at midnight. By "everyone", I mean everyone except the faith-based "stay the course" fanatics who delude themselves that the lack of plan which led to the current sorry mess is any kind of plan at all. Everyone else either has something they call a plan or wants someone else to have a plan and all of them are just walking into trees and ditches in the dark. It has reached that stage.

Part of the problem lies in that different definitions exist for "success" (even on the political right), from simply ensuring some part of Iraq doesn't become a new safe haven for Al Qaeda through to complete Western style liberal democracy in that nation. Along the way, definitions of success stop at stations which include hoping Iraq will still be a U.S. ally rather than an Iranian or Syrian one, trying to prevent or mitigate a sectarian civil war and - for the faith-based planners - trying to ensure their own version of faith triumphs in some "Clash of Civilisations" straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons game.

The other part of the problem is that the methods for getting to one or more of these successes are often mutually exclusive. They are based in large part upon wishful thinking about the facts and are utterly unwilling to consider other parties' wishes and long-term motives. Ultimately every single one is based upon an implicit assumption that the "winners" should be American politicians, America, Israel, the West, Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, Iraqi Sunnis, Iraq the nation and everyone else, pretty much in that order. A look at the news and op-eds over the last week illustrates the extent of the Gordian Knot which neocon fantasies and the Bush administration's mismangement has given the world.

  • Firstly, let us be clear, staying the course is a disaster. It's already far worse than most Americans realize. One of Baker's study group recently put it bluntly:
    Private assessments by government officials are much more grim than what is said in public, Panetta said, ``and we left some of those sessions shaking our heads over how bad it is in Iraq.''
    U.S. forces can't control sectarian violence and powerful militias. One of the most disturbing findings, Panetta said, is that many Shiite religious leaders who are a big part of the government have no interest in deals or compromises with Sunnis and other groups, and are ``playing for time because they say it's their show.''
    After years of Bush administration rhetoric about establishing democracy in Iraq, Panetta said the only achievable goal is a rough stability, ``which can't be done by the military. It requires political reconciliation.''
    One scaled-down goal, he added, is ``how do you maintain a low-level civil war so it doesn't blow up into a full-scale civil war?''
    The various groups looking at other options - from the Pentagon to Baker's group to liberal think-tanks - all agree that much of what they are considering is just as fraught with disaster as is "stay the course". They all also agree that the important thing is not to have a plan that will work, but rather a plan that will be palatable to a majority of American politicians and voters.

  • Bush, despite his talk of consensus and compromise, is still also talking about the faith-based definition of success in Iraq: "a government that can sustain, govern and defend itself and serve as an ally in this war on terror." This in a statement where he praised Baker's Iraq Study Group - he came to both praise and bury them, in other words.

  • Bush has now ruled out talking to Iran, saying it was time for worldwide isolation of that nation. He also ruled out talking to Syria while it still supports Hizboullah in the same statemet, which was delivered while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel's prime minister. So much for at least one of the Baker study's options and so much for Tony Blair having any influence.

  • Unless he's lying again, of course (and after Rummie's departure, no-one can argue Bush is always truthful) - but even then, relying on Iran and Syria to bail America's chestnuts out of the fire may well come with a price few are willing to pay - if Iran and Syria will even agree to do the bailing at all, that is.

  • Could installing a new strongman help? Well, that option has been a favorite of the neocons all along - they didn't want a democratic Iraq anyway, just a compliant one. Still, if he's a Shiite he will likely follow Iran's lead (caveat below), if he's a Kurd then he will lead his own folks to independence and invasion by Iran, Turkey or both. If he's a Sunni he's highly unlikely to give Al Qaeda any joy nowadays, but then what was the point in deposing Saddam?

  • (Caveat to the above point) Not that the Shia are united. Down in the South they are killing each other with gusto as Sadr's militia and the Badr Brigade fracture into dozens of splinters. It's just about impossible to back any politician in Iraq now without looking like you are backing his favored militia group against all the others, thus generating even more sectarian reprisals and violence against your own troops. That's a huge new problem over the last year and it is one that no-body has a clue as to how to solve, it seems.

  • That same fracturing is obvious within the Iraqi security forces too. There is simply no chance of them standing up so that we can stand down unless by that you mean each soldier or policeman standing up for his own militia in a slugfest with all the others. Training and arming them now will simply make the civil war a bit bloodier, not aid security as some have suggested.

  • That fracturing of security forces and militias will come even more into play if any kind of option for a federal Iraq or partitioning is followed. A Kurdish state will be invaded by Turkey or Iraq and a Shiite state is just asking to become a part of Iran, while a Sunni state will begin to look like Afghanistan in short order. It will all spill over into the region and worldwide for decades to come.The only sure thing is that Al Qaeda will be destroyed in Iraq as soon as the occupying troops leave and the Sunnis figure out that the enemy of their enemy is no longer their friend. They will hunt Al Qaeda down as a rest from warring with Shiite forces. That won't faze Al Qaeda one bit - they already have their new/old save haven in Pakistan and the Afghan border there, where it has always been. This from the prestigeous Jane's Intelligence Digest:
    Afghans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the performance of Hamed Karzai's government and as the country slides into ever more instability, Pakistan's ultimate game plan in Afghanistan has begun to unfold.

    Shifting its policy of half-heartedly cracking down on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, implemented in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Islamabad appears to have made a sombre decision to create the necessary conditions for regaining its strategic depth in Afghanistan by resuming its political and military support for the Taliban.
    You can see why I'm not upbeat. This perfect storm has been created by Bush/neocon mismangement and, I feel, is now so hopelessly tangled that the best we can hope for is to reduce the severity of the forthcoming hot version of the Iraqi civil war while getting Western troops - already effectively just another, well equppped, militai - out of the firing line by a phased redeployment. Then, diplomacy alone must try to ameliorate the interregnum until something - and no-one can tell what but it will be what Iraqis rather than America wants - re-emerges. Then, full reparations commensurate with the scale of Bush's fubar and a massive mea culpa would probably be in order.

    However, I fully expect it to take a few Friedmans worth of trying, again, before the American people are ready to accept the facts. In part, that is because it would be political suicide for anyone on either side of the fence to tell it like it is right now. Therefore, the people will continue to be treated to fairy-tales of what might work given six months, a year or more when in actuality it is already too late for any of it to have more than a minor positive effect.
    Although the United States seemed to have forgotten the centrality of a state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force when it summarily disbanded Iraqi security forces, it subsequently relearned this lesson. The United States and its Iraqi partners are desperately trying to rebuild Iraq's security forces in order to have more effective policing. The problem is that it is already too late for "Iraqi" security forces to reestablish stability. The Iraqi government's forces are increasingly identified as "Shiite" forces. As it stands, schisms will continue to grow, neighbor will attack neighbor, quasi-states with their own militias will solidify and the challenges of stabilizing an Iraqi state will escalate by an order of magnitude.
    What does all this mean for Iraq's end state? First, it means the end of the state of Iraq as we have known it. Iraq is rapidly disintegrating, and there is no longer anything that can stop the disintegration, save perhaps an invasion by Israel, Iran or Syria. Second, having missed a number of critical opportunities from the beginning of its campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and establish democratic government in Iraq (the latter proposition dubious at best), the United States is now faced with an awful choice: leave and allow events to run their course or lend its dwindling support to one or more of the emerging states.
    ...It is high time the United States and its allies began national discussions about the relative merits of leaving or staying and, if they stay, about the merits of supporting the Sunnis, Shiites or Kurds. Either way, what we now think of as Iraq is almost certainly as gone as what we once thought of as Yugoslavia, and for the same reasons.
    All this is gloomy in the extreme and I don't expect anyone to agree with me. But it is what I really think.
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