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Untangling Iraq


Americans are now, slowly, beginning to admit that they "might" have a problem in Iraq. Admitting the problem is a first step. Finding solutions is a different matter. The ones that are on offer either consist of hopeful but unconvincing tinkering or they are unworkable.

David Ignatius' article deserves mention just because its title is so bad that it is good - Sort the good Baath from the bad Baath before there's a bloodbath. Ignatius wants to separate the "bad" Sunnis from the "good" Sunnis and get the latter to participate in the elections. Assuming that there are "good" Sunnis (that is, Sunnis who support the general sort of solution that the US wants to see in Iraq), we still have to figure out how to 'sort them' as Ignatius wants to do and there is no guaranteeing that that will end the violence.

The "bad" Sunnis can continue to blow people up with abandon. What they and other terrorists demonstrate, which we all know anyhow, is that terror is undemocratic. Terrorist victories don't depend on the will of a majority, since terrorism in a lawless state can force the will of a tiny minority on everyone else. While many Iraqis may be disaffected with the US, it is difficult to imagine that more than a handful are willing to go around blowing up Iraqis or Americans. The problem therefore is not only to get the Sunni to participate in the Iraqi government, but to restore a functioning state. A functioning state requires a functioning Iraqi police and army. Mr Zarqawi would not dare to do in Jordan what he is doing in Iraq. That is not because Al-Qaeda is a great friend of the Hashemite dynasty. There is no doubt what would happen to him, and it would happen very quickly, and it would not require 150,000 soldiers and billions of dollars.

Ignatius also unwittingly reveals a great conceptual problem of the US military. He wrote:

Ask the generals and colonels who are running the war in Iraq what really worries them, and it's rarely a military problem. "We haven't lost a platoon in combat! We haven't lost a skirmish!" explodes one general when asked about a recent poll that reported a majority of Americans think we are losing the

I didn't lose any battles in Iraq either, because I didn't fight there. The US didn't lose any skirmishes because they chose the few battlefields where they are going to take a stand very carefully, and simply retreat into their barracks everywhere else. The Americans storm Fallujah, so the insurgents desert Falluja and take over some other towns. It is possible to lose a war simply by retreating continuously and never giving battle. Another memorable army of occupation, Hannibal's expeditionary force, tried to conserve its forces and avoid decisive battles, but was worn out by the Romans until it could be decisively defeated in a few of them.

Patrick Seale on the other hand, tells us that the Arab countries should take control of Iraq. As Seale notes, the Arab countries have been passive, and very wisely so. Iraq is a good mess to avoid. Like John F. Kerry's (remember him?) proposal to inveigle the Europeans in Iraq, Seale's idea suffers from the defect that there are no regional leaders dumb enough to take the bait. Additionally, on paper, this might be a wonderful idea. If only the Arab states had a working organization like NATO and armies that had the motivation and could be trusted to do the job in Iraq, without significant desertions to the other side, and if only the states could be trusted to work together rather than each trying to dismember Iraq in the way most advantageous to itself or fighting to ensure that another country doesn't gain too much influence in Iraq, and if only the leaders were smart enough to do what the Americans can't do, and dumb enough to do what the Europeans are too smart to do.

Seale avoids part of the difficulty because he doesn't propose to send Arab troops to Iraq. Rather, he fantasizes that the Arabs will somehow induce the United States to pull out, induce the Iraqi government to agree to the US pullout, and then they will broke a solution that will get the Kurds, secular Shia, devout Shia patriots, devout Shia fans of Iran, plus the Sunni factions as well, to all work together in shaping a federal solution for Iraq. Seale doesn't really explain how this will be brought about.

Additionally, Seale proposes a $30 billion reconstruction (translated locally as "slush") fund will be donated by the US, Gulf States and EU in equal shares. Apparently Seale thinks that just pouring more money into Iraq will make the Sunni and Shia and Kurds of different political persuasions all sit down with each other. Presumably, the billions that the US has already spent there are not enough. With enough money, Mr Zarqawi will stop blowing up Shia and the Imam Sadr and his Mehdi Army will be content to live in peace and harmony with the Sunnis and Kurds and secular Shia, enjoying the benefits of democracy. However, if pouring money into Iraq could make it better, the war would've been over a long time ago. Given the closeness of Seale to the Assad family, it is interesting that this plan would be very convenient for Damascus, because it would get the troublesome US army away from the borders of Syria. That's the other problem with each plan that is proposed. We have to consider who is proposing it, and whom it would benefit.

Before one can propose a solution, one has to recognize what is wrong. Leaving aside strategic cosniderations, even at the tactical level, nobody is asking why the Iraqi army, trained for so long, is still ineffective, or why the same mistakes keep repeat themselves over and over: allowing large crowds of police recruit candidates to gather conveniently so they can be blown up; attacking towns, causing enormous damage to civilians and property and allowing most of the insurgents to escape unscathed; allowing reconstruction money to go to waste; leaving troops in their barracks to avoid casualties...

In a larger context, Ignatius notes that he still believes that an American victory in Iraq can open the way for democratic change in the Middle East. That may be so, but what happens if the Americans lose? If you succeed in flying off the top of the Empire State building in a cape it will certainly bring you fame, but before you start out it is wise to consider what will happen if you don't succeed.

Time Magazine asks "Is it too late to win the war?" It is the wrong question. If you are travelling in the wrong direction, continuing in that direction will never get there.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 9 comments

It would appear that whatever planning for post-Saddam Iraq was prepared by the State Department(and a lot of thought and effort was indeed poured into that)-most of it was simply ignored by the Pentagon which knew how to put on a great fireworks display in knocking out Saddam's army but hadn't a clue what to do the next day.

A Republican President has yet to admit that in similar circumstances (the Yugoslav civil war) a Democratic President (Clinton) came up with a workable solution(the Dayton Agreements)that subdivided Yugoslavia into various independent countries, some with autonomous enclaves. It may be a bit untidy and there are several matters yet unresolved, as in any post-surgical situation, but the killing has stopped in the Balkans and tourists are coming back to Dubrovnik and Slovenia. So why not go back and see if some lessons may be learned and applied in Iraq? It was impossible to preserve Yugoslav unity and the same may be true of Iraq. The US should show a little more imagination.

Posted by David Zohar @ 10/06/2005 11:27 AM CST

Today, in a press conference with four american flags in the backgroud, the invict leader of the free world, George W. Bush, has finally unveiled why Irak is "central" in the fight against Al-Qaeda. It happens to be that Irak is in the middle of an in-the-making Muslim Empire that is planned to span from Indonesia to Spain. So it is "central" because "it is in the middle". With such strategic finesse, it is expected that the current president of the USA will join the hall of the fame of the all-time greatestes warriors with Arsubanipal, Giddeon, Nabucodonosor, Cyrus, Alexander, Annibal, Julius Caesar, the Duke of Malborough, Charles of Sweden, Wellington and Napoleon amongst others.

Posted by Aleph @ 10/07/2005 01:49 PM CST

It is a pity that George W. Bush hadn't read 'The Fist of God' by Forsyth. He had got it absolutely right in a book published after the 'First Gulf War'. It would be worth posting if copyright permission could be obtained.

Posted by Eric @ 10/11/2005 03:05 AM CST

Dear David Zohar,
Indeed, the State Department has the advantage that their plans were never tried, so they can say "if you had only listened to me." We will never know if their plan was better, though you could argue with some justice that it could hardly be worse :-(

In any case, the problem is not to find whom to blame (at least not until it is all over) but rather to figure out if there is a way out of the swamp, and find the way if there is one, or else recognize that the US is in a swamp and sinking. I would not compare it to US in Vietnam. I would compare it to Israel in Lebanon (or Gaza).

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 10/12/2005 01:28 AM CST

two wrongs dont make a right. doing the right thing to brgin with would not have caused the chaos thatere is now.
chaos reigns.
terrorism get stronger and more frequentas US stays on in iraq ad it increases like a rash

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