Friday, February 08, 2008

Leave the Hammer in the Tool Shed

The International Crisis Group is sounding warnings similar to those that I have been making regarding the US military posture vis-a-vis the Sadrist current (most recently, here and here):

Among Sadrist rank and file, impatience with the ceasefire is high and growing. They equate it with a loss of power and resources, believe the U.S. and ISCI are conspiring to weaken the movement and eagerly await Muqtada’s permission to resume the fight. The Sadrist leadership has resisted the pressure, but this may not last. Critics accuse Muqtada of passivity or worse, and he soon may conclude that the costs of his current strategy outweigh its benefits. In early February 2008, senior Sadrist officials called upon their leader not to prolong the ceasefire, due to expire later in the month.

The U.S. response – to continue attacking and arresting Sadrist militants, including some who are not militia members; arm a Shiite tribal counterforce in the south to roll back Sadrist territorial gains; and throw its lot in with Muqtada’s nemesis, ISCI – is understandable but short-sighted. The Sadrist movement, its present difficulties aside, remains a deeply entrenched, popular mass movement of young, poor and disenfranchised Shiites. It still controls key areas of the capital, as well as several southern cities; even now, its principal strongholds are virtually unassailable. Despite intensified U.S. military operations and stepped up Iraqi involvement, it is fanciful to expect the Mahdi Army’s defeat. Instead, heightened pressure is likely to trigger both fierce Sadrist resistance in Baghdad and an escalating intra-Shiite civil war in the south.

Muqtada’s motivations aside, his decision [to implement a cease-fire] opens the possibility of a more genuine and lasting transformation of the Sadrist movement. In the months following his announcement, he sought to rid it of its most unruly members, rebuild a more disciplined and focused militia and restore his own respectability, while promoting core demands – notably, protecting the nation’s sovereignty by opposing the occupation – through legitimate parliamentary means. The challenge is to seize the current opportunity, seek to transform Muqtada’s tactical adjustment into a longer-term strategic shift and encourage the Sadrists’ evolution toward a strictly non-violent political actor. [emphasis added]

Short-sighted indeed. Whither the virtuosos of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine? Does the US military really think it can wipe out a movement consisting of millions of Iraqis? Even if it could, would it want to extract such a toll in blood? This is not winning hearts and minds.

Tactics such as these make me wonder if the US military is congenitally incapable of prosecuting successful COIN doctrine: every time things appear to be moving in the right direction, the temptation to use brute - though counterproductive - force just gets the better of our military/political leaders. The lessons from the siege of Fallujah are forgotten while that city still smolders.

It's good to see Petraeus and his subordinates making pleasant sounding entreaties to Sadr, but the honorificis will mean little if the accompanying military strategy backs Sadr into a corner and forces his hand with respect to maintaining the cease fire. Further, the strategy of arming new Shiite militias in order to use them as proxies to attack the Sadrist current is not a means to de-escalate violence in Iraq. That is sowing the seeds for larger numbers of civil conflicts, fought with greater lethality. The ICG has the right idea:


To the U.S. and the Iraqi Government:

2. Narrowly circumscribe operations against the Mahdi Army and Sadrist movement by:

(a) focusing on legitimate military targets, including armed groups involved in attacks against civilians or U.S. or Iraqi forces, weapon stockpiles and hideouts, or arms smuggling networks;

(b) taking action against Sadrist-manned patrols or checkpoints; and

(c) tolerating Sadrist activities that are strictly non-military, including those involving education, media, health services and religious affairs.

3. Freeze recruitment into the Shiite sahwa (awakening), the U.S.-backed tribe- and citizen-based militia set up to fight the Mahdi Army, and instead concentrate on building a professional, non-partisan security force, integrating vetted Mahdi Army fighters.

If I were working on the McCain campaign, I'd be pleading with Bush to move in this direction. McCain's decision to hang his electoral hat on the "success" of the Surge leaves him particularly vulnerable if the levels of violence increase. Provoking Sadr into unleashing his militia - or stoking even more intra-Shiite conflict - would most certainly do that.

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