Saturday, March 15, 2008

Enlisting Opinions

By Cernig

Back in August 2007, seven enlisted men wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled "The War as We Saw It" which was highly critical of conduct of the Iraqi occupation up until that point and of the prospects for the "Surge" to initiate real reconciliation and reconstruction in Iraq. At the time, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard wrote that, as simple enlisted men and not generals, their "perspective is too limited for their opinions to have any value regarding the progress of the war." It was a view widely agreed to by the pro-occupation and pro-Surge right.

Yet today we have another op-ed, in the Washington Post by a sergeant - and this time conservatives want to listen because they say it is proof that the Surge is working, that "we have turned the corner and will succeed in this mission if we don’t quit on it first."

Double standard? I think so.

On the other hand, I linked to the op-ed by Sergeants Omar Mora, Yancy Gray and others by way of agreeing that their comments should be taken as a valuable part of the debate about Iraq and argued that their information had meaning. I can do no less for Sergeant Anthony Diaz today. He arrived in Iraq at about the time the first op-ed was being written, and so unlike those authors cannot compare current levels of violence to those of 2004-05, when similar levels were enough to cause the breakdown of Iraqi civil society. He writes that he is struck by "financial commitment we have made to reconstruction" without noting that the actual reconstruction return on those invested billions has been comparatively paltry. And he cites his own eyewitness account to show what he feels are "the inklings of representative government; and the small yet significant progress in communal relations between the mostly Shiite Iraqi army and the predominantly Sunni residents of this area.
Late last year, I witnessed something inspirational in a rather unlikely setting: an ordinary neighborhood advisory council meeting. Attendance was the highest I had yet seen, with about 40 prominent locals present. The coalition was represented by our squadron commander, a few colonels from the embedded provincial reconstruction team and a political officer from the U.S. Embassy. Discussions ranged from the persistent lack of electricity to sewage problems to economic development. What struck me were the comments of some Sunni workers from the district's power station, who came to complain that the (mostly Shiite) Iraqi army had mistreated them and accused them of distorting the distribution of electric power, something over which these workers have little control. The men said they would strike until they received better treatment and pleaded with the council chairman, a Sunni, for help. That was an unlikely outcome, given the entrenched animosity between Shiites and Sunnis and the lack of substantive political reconciliation even at the highest levels of government here. But these men did something many Americans would take for granted: They voiced grievances and sought assistance. These are the seeds of representative government, citizens coming forth and demanding change from their representatives. Much work remains to be done, but we have clearly made a start. [Emphasis mine - C]
I would argue that this anecdote shows precisely the opposite of Diaz' interpretation. The local Sunni council is undoubtedly controlled by local Sunni tribal leaders - this is no seed of representative government, just the workings as usual of tribal politics and the Sunni/Shiite divide which has become the governing factor of all Iraqi affairs.

Back in August last year, those seven other enlisted men wrote:
Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.
They also wrote that "the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably" and specifically mentioned electricity services. I see nothing in Sgt Diaz' account to contradict them.

But let us turn to a general, as Goldfarb suggested back in August. General Petraeus told the Washington Post just the other day that:
"no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," or in the provision of basic public services.
And, while admitting that ceasefires by Sunnis of the Awakening and Shiites of Sadr's Mahdi Army are greatly responsible for reduced violence (more than the US troop surge, I wonder?) he also admitted that:
some elements of both the Awakening movement and the Mahdi Army may be standing down in order to prepare for the day when the U.S. presence is diminished. "Some of them may be keeping their powder dry," Petraeus said of Mahdi Army members. "Obviously you would expect some of that to happen.
Which again accord with the opinions of those seven enlisted men from August last year. So no, not a "last corner" after all.

But as Petraeus says it, despite saying those enlisted men last August knew nothing beyond their own noses, conservative pundits who have heavily invested in both the Surge and its guiding general must offer up a startling about face. My colleague Eric Martin explains:
Now that Petraeus is saying it, those that were previously bashing war critics for making this exact point...will now act as if this was the case all along, that it was obvious, and only those naive war critics - who just don't "understand war" - have ignored this reality. Better still, this dynamic will be cited as the reason that we must continue the occupation for 100-Years-to-Infinity as John McCain promises repeatedly.

The tar baby conundrum goes something like this: If things in Iraq are chaotic and violent, well, we just can't leave can we - I mean, what about the oil (which was so totally not a reason for this invasion at all, in any way, whatsoever, I mean, who even knew Iraq had the second largest reserve oil supply in the world)? On the other hand, if things in Iraq are quieting down, we can't leave lest we disturb the peace. Especially because once we leave, the various factions will have at it. Even Petraeus said so.
Which is how they play their heads we win, tails you lose game to justify perpetual occupation.

I stick by my assessment that the US Surge is preordained to fail - that internal Iraqi dynamics dictate that as soon as the various factions have cause to fight instead of hold fire, they will do so and that none are invested in finding cause not to fight while the U.S. acts as buffer and protector to all. Which means that, eventually, there will be a fight in which the US can either take sides, be shot at by all sides or withdraw. Better to withdraw first.

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