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Iraquagmire - Putting an end to the Iraqi nightmare


Three years after the Iraq war that pro missed to bring democracy to the Middle East, there seems to be little hope for redemption of the Iraqi people, and no honorable way for the US and other countries to exit from the quicksand swamp of sectarianism, Islamist fanaticism and plain old corruption. Just about the only good thing that has happened recently was the rescue of three Christian Peace Team members who had been kidnapped. A fourth, Tom Fox, had been brutally and senselessly murdered. The fate of Tom Fox, who came to Iraq to help their people, with the most altruistic motives, is symbolic of Iraq in a way. It reminds us what road is paved with good intentions, and for some, it may show that Western notions of what is fitting and moral and correct may have the most disastrous consequences when applied indiscriminately in the Middle East. The Bush administration might be accused of spreading imperialism under the guise of spreading democracy in the Middle East, but surely Tom Fox had no such motives.

Juan Cole has listed ten catastrophes of the third year of the Iraq war. These include sectarian violence on all sides, US brutality, encirclement of Baghdad, a bad constitution that may be impossible to implement and that was rejected by significant sectors of the population, and a sabotaged oil industry. Cole left out some of the worst and most ominous catastrophes of the last year:

* Farcical trial of Saddam and company
* Paralyzed non-government
* Chimera of the Iraqi army

The Trial - The trial is a fairly minor but symbolic catastrophe. There is no doubt that the trial of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen is turning into a poorly orchestrated farce, due to incompetence of the authorities. This trial should have been a showcase for exposing the brutality of a regime that embarked on a senseless war in Iran, killed hundreds of thousands of its own people, and repressed the religious rights of a majority of its citizens. Instead it is tragicomedy in installments. It could be expected that these criminals would try to turn the trial into a propaganda event for Saddamism by courtroom antics, but it is unforgivable that these antics succeed due to incompetent judges. Saddam performs - he goes on strike, walks out of the courtroom and speechifies, and nobody stops him. Attention is drawn away from the crimes of the defendants and focused on their antics. Worse, instead of focusing on mass genocide and use of forbidden weapons in Iran, the trials seem to get bogged down in examining obscure incidents where the crimes can be justified in some ways by the defendants. Abdul Rahman Al Rashad for example, does well to remind us of the nature of unsavory characters like Barzan al-Tikriti, but this should be evident from the trial itself, and should not require Op-Eds to reveal itself. The handling of the trial is symbolic and symptomatic of the larger malaise of Iraq.

Non-Government - Iraqi politicians, unbelievably, have failed to form a government. This is hardly noticed and hardly discussed. Considering that Iraq experiences almost daily terrorism and is close to civil war if not actually in it, failure to form at least an emergency government is inexcusable. As Ahmed Al-Rabei notes, Iraqi politicians owe it to the electorate who risked their lives for Iraqi democracy to at least form a temporary government of technocrats. Instead, selfishness and sectarianism have left the country headless in the midst of a life and death struggle. The conclusion has to be that the elected leadership of Iraq care more about their careers and private interests then they care about the fate of the Iraqi people. Rarely in history has their been such a spectacle, with the possible exceptions of Lebanon in the 1980s and South Vietnam. If they continue in this short-sighted way, there will not be an Iraq to govern.

Chimera of the Iraqi Army - As the hopes for vanquishing terror in Iraq and restoring order by coalition forces rapidly faded, a different goal was substituted: the coalition would train an Iraqi army. The army would restore order and the coalition could leave Iraq. This army has been in the making for nearly three years, and in all this time we have heard repeatedly that there are 50 or 100 battalions of Iraqis almost ready to take over from the coalition forces. This sounds good, but on examination it is really an empty and hopeless claim. 100 battalions are about 30,000- 50,000 troops. As there are currently over 130,000 coalition soldiers in Iraq, the Iraqi battalions are not going to be anywhere near adequate. It is even worse when we consider that only 50 battalions are considered "really almost ready" and another 50 are just "almost ready." They have in any case been almost ready for quite a long while now, at least since before the US elections, but in reality no progress seems to be made. Moreover, they are not ready to operate totally independently and they never will be. For truly independent operation, with no coalition assistance, they would have to have their own aircraft and helicopters to provide air support, as well as a host of other sophisticated military equipment. They don't have it, they aren't getting it, and they aren't getting the organization or training in maintenance and logistics that would be needed to maintain that equipment.

The US effort in Iraq is clearly not going anywhere. Moreover, any analytic skills that might be put to work to retrieve the disaster seem to be absent among officials, analysts and the public. The US and British government and their supporters are circling the wagons. As in the VietNam debacle, anyone who criticizes is considered a traitor in some quarters - they just don't want to hear bad news. It is not possible to make any rational policy decisions in that atmosphere. On the other side, a coalition of well-meaning peace yuppies, warmed-over Nasserites, Saddamites and Al-Qaeda fanatics put out an unrelenting barrage of disinformation equal and opposite to that manufactured by the governments. Though they may have the best intentions, those who dignify the people who murder innocent civilians as "resistance to US occupation" are doing a service to the forces of darkness and evil.

Disaster is looming, and both officials and critics seem to be paralyzed, like deer caught in the headlamps of an oncoming automobile. It seems we are offered only two solutions, and both of them are unacceptable. President Bush's solution is "keep going no matter what." Critics don't offer a way to win the war, only an insistence on setting a timetable for withdrawal.

President Bush's attempts to defend the Iraq mess only make it worse. He has now tacitly announced that he intends to stay in Iraq at least for the duration of his presidency:

"Mr. Bush once again refused to set any timetable for the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, saying any such decision will fall to "future presidents and future governments of Iraq." This seemed to suggest that American forces would be in the country until 2009."

It seems that in the mind of the New York Times as well, there are only two alternatives - stay in Iraq forever or resign yourself to defeat and get out.

Persistence is commendable, but it has to be coupled with understanding and planning. Just staying put is not going to be enough to retrieve the situation. If you keep doing what you always did, you will keep getting what you always got. What the coalition is doing is getting noplace. Ulysses S. Grant could say at Spotsylvania "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." Even Grant, however, who was generally unmovable, understood soon enough that the situation required a change in tactics. Bush's announcement was unfortunate in other ways. The US has said repeatedly that it would stay in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government asked it to stay. What, however, would Bush do now if an Iraqi government asked him to leave? Isn't his declaration a sort of juvenile dare, inviting especially the Al-Qaeda terrorists to make every effort to dislodge the coalition from Iraq, and thereby declare a great victory over the "infidel crusaders?"

Bush also may have shown, unwittingly that he still doesn't understand the Middle East, or else he is thinking only about domestic US consequences of the Iraq War, without regard to the Middle East. He said, reportedly, "Nobody likes beheadings..." In the USA and Britain, most people do not like beheadings. Obviously however, someone in the Middle East must like them, since they do them, and they show videos of these beheadings that are quite popular. By that statement, Bush also fell into the trap of having enemy actions blamed on the USA. If he had said, "Nobody likes to see torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanmo," it would have shown a firmer grasp of the problem.

On the other hand, Wayne White offers the alternative of withdrawal. White is a thoroughgoing professional and his opinions should command our respect and attention, but in this case, we should also remember the value of critical thought and the duty to disagree with what is obviously incorrect. In an interview published by the Council on Foreign Relations, White says:

People who want to stay for the duration tend not to have much of a plan [to] use that time wisely, and that’s why I don’t think staying indefinitely is a good way to go. And the other thing is, I think, putting a date two years out there is so far out that if the insurgents are waiting for opportunities, they’ll wait so long that large numbers of Iraqi forces will become deployable during that period. And so I’m not as frightened about setting a date certain. And then finally, it lights a fire under people in Baghdad. The Americans are not going to be here in order to muck you up, and so you have to take a lot more seriously getting your own act in order.

White is a realist who remembers that politics is the art of the possible. He doesn't want to propose what is impossible, but his solution is no solution. White says the people who want to stay don't have a plan, but he doesn't propose a plan either. What is wrong with the analysis? Firstly, no Iraqi troops have become independently deployable in three previous years, so there are no grounds for believing that any more troops will be deployable in two more years. Passage of time doesn't ensure progress if the rate of change is nil. An automobile travelling at 0 miles per hour will not go anywhere at all. Certainly no "large numbers" would be deployable. In the very best case, the 30-50,000 that have been almost deployable or almost ready since before the US elections, would become really ready and deployable, but they could not even make up the numbers of the missing coalition troops. This is White's own analysis:

And frankly, all the ones [battalions] that are fairly well along, fifty some, are only in a second category anyway, not being able to operate alone, which at this late date is not very encouraging to start with, but even among them, I would say, as they become operational they could become operational in a very dangerous fashion. If left to themselves, they could engage in human rights violations, what-have-you. They’re training in the context of their ethnic or sectarian affiliation.

The bottom line is that what we have is at most 25,000 unreliable Iraqi troops. Withdrawal would thus inevitably lead to chaos or dictatorship: civil war or a repressive regime.

Secondly, the massive bombings, sabotage, chaos and general mayhem have not even lit a match under anyone in Iraq, let alone a fire. Again, in White's own words:

... what you see is a political system that has failed to mature. It is very frightening to me and a number of other people inside and outside of government, three years after being in Iraq, after all these political benchmarks have been passed—elections, referendums, etc.—that now, finally, what is supposed to be a permanent sovereign government for four years, is a political field dominated by the same exile parties, the same parties affiliated with Iran and other outside powers or exclusively with certain ethnic and sectarian groups dominating the situation. And all of us, even the most pessimistic analysts and observers, thought that by this time we would have seen a large surge of people who had been indigenous to the country, who weren’t exiled, and represented people with much different ties to their communities.

Much worse than that, elected leaders continue to squabble indefinitely about divvying up the power while Iraq is bled white. In the face of near disaster, officials apparently stole billions of dollars that were meant for Iraqi re-armament and development. They just don't care. Therefore, there no reason to assume that an announcement that the coalition is leaving will light the right sort of fire under anyone. The only effect it can possibly have in such a situation, is that everyone who befriended the coalition or had anything to do with the Iraqi government will scramble for cover and dissociate themselves from any such ties, so they do not become the equivalent of Vietnamese boat-people. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine that any coalition troops could be kept in Iraq once there was an announcement of impending withdrawal. Would you risk your life knowing that defeat had been announced in advance? Would you allow the government to risk the life of your son?

Implicitly, White puts his finger on one of the possible problems and a possible solution, but the solution is perhaps politically unfeasible:

There weren’t enough troops there and what I found out anecdotally myself is that particularly absent in this extremely lean force were what we would call CivAd, civil administrative military units, MPs, things like that. And that was a very, very bad mistake.

If there were not enough troops at the beginning of the occupation. the situation may not be retrieved until and unless there are enough troops. That decision however, depends on the importance of Iraq to US strategy and on political realities in the US and Britain. The governments have not succeeded in explaining the consequences of losing the Iraq war, not only for the Iraqi people, but for the people of the US and Britain. Sending more soldiers is therefore politically unfeasible, and it might not retrieve the situation either.

Intelligent deployment of resources and intelligent alliances could conceivably make up for missing soldiers. Guerrilla warfare always requires a disproportionate number of troops on the part of regular armies. However, as there are probably about 200,000 coalition troops, Iraqi troops of some description and Iraqi police fighting about 15,000 insurgents, the disproportion in Iraq is glaring. It indicates gross incompetence, poor use of intelligence, poor morale and unwillingness to risk lives of US soldiers. You cannot fight a war very well, certainly not a guerrilla war, if your soldiers remained confined to their bases for the most part and cannot speak the language. The fact that the same sort of targets are hit over and over again tells us that nobody is drawing lessons from past engagements - there is no learning curve.

Failure of coalition policy in Iraq would be an unmitigated disaster not only for the United States and Great Britain, but for every country and all the peoples in the Middle East. Every scenario we can think of for implosion of Iraq is horrendous, and it is hard to know which is the worst one. There is only the slimmest likelihood that the current government could stay in power if the US leaves, and even that would not be a great bargain. The worst possibility would be an Iraq controlled by Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda would then have control of a country that it could use as a base for attacks on neighboring countries, attempts to gain control of the Gulf oil supplies, and 9-11 type attacks on the US and Europe. A state has infinitely greater possibilities for mayhem. A Shi'a controlled Islamic Republic that is a puppet of Iran is another unappetizing possibility. Iraq divided into Iranian and Syrian spheres of influence is another, with the possible addition of a conflict between Turkey and a Kurdish republic trying to come into being.

Every one of these possibilities should be alarming to all the responsible regimes of the region. Unfortunately, the coalition effort has been cleverly maneuvered, in part through its own rhetoric, into a position where it is politically impossible for Arab and Muslim regimes and media to do anything other than decry the US "occupation" and carefully avoid antagonizing the "resistance." It is all they can do to recognize the Iraqi government. Arab countries cooperating in the war effort could offer intelligence personnel who speak the language, local knowledge and legitimacy. What should it tell us about US and British allies in the Middle East that little help of this nature has been forthcoming?

It should be clear that neither announcements of "no retreat" in the manner of Hitler at Stalingrad, nor announcements of defeat and withdrawal in advance are going to serve any purpose. What is missing is a sense that there is a private and implicit timetable or timeline, a plan such as any manager would institute in any modern project, with milestones that are evaluated and checked off, and reviews that alter policy when the milestones are not met.

The US and its allies have three basic choices. If the situation is truly irretrievable then the best course is to get out now. Every life of any coalition soldier that is lost in a hopeless battle is an inexcusable waste, and every dollar spent in Iraq is a waste as well. However, those who make this decision should have a realistic understanding of the grim consequences, and should make sure that their public understands them. If the coalition leaves now, there is a good chance that the same countries will be fighting a much more vicious war against a much more entrenched and dangerous enemy a few years hence.

The second choice is to shift the defense of Iraq to the countries who stand the most to lose from disaster there - the Arab League and Gulf state countries, with the US and its allies playing a much more passive role.

The third choice is to effect a profound shakeup in the coalition military establishment and the US government, followed by an equally profound change in the Iraqi government and military, if such it can be called. We must face the fact that without such a change, the Iraq war effort, and with it the Middle East, are probably headed for unmitigated disaster.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000441.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Moderator @ 04:19 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 3 comments


I doubt that your second option is viable due to the combined factors of sectarianism, tribalism, ethnically-based xenophobia (Kurds to be specific), and (feeble though it may be) a sense of nationalistic pride.

Let us not forget also that there are elements within the region that are fundamentally opposed to the development of a western-style democracy. The evolution of the nation-state has been largely subsumed by oligarchies and despots.

Such a solution, I suspect, would only add more kindling and a strong easterly wind to an already smoldering situation.

Posted by Mike Edwards @ 03/24/2006 01:10 AM CST

I'm not sure the greatest danger in Iraq is that it will become a tyranny (again) or that Iran will gain more influence. I suspect that what wil happen is a continuation of the anarchy and then the kind of democracy in which each group has its own militia.

The greater danger is that what happened in Afganistan will happen in Iraq -- many unemployed Islamic radical will spread aroundthe world, and encouraged by their success will try it again elsewhere. This is mostly a danger to the neighboring Arab countries and Israel, although they may also get to Europe and the US and Canada.

Posted by Micha @ 03/25/2006 06:02 PM CST

Iraq was invented by Britain and France in the aftermath of the First World War as a solution to the problem of Mesopotamia after the dissolution of the Turkish Empire. It never was a proper country and never will be.

A viable solution is the dissolution of Iraq and the formation of Kurdistan. Iran could swap their Kurd areas for the Shia areas in Iraq. The Sunni area of Iraq could join Syria.

The stumbling block would be Turkey, although quite why it would want to hold onto their Kurd areas after the creation of Kurdistan next door defies logic.

However the EU could make it a condition of entry that Turkey should release their Kurds.

An enlarged Syria could form a beneficial counterbalance to Iran, although it is probable the two countries would find cause to go to war. To prevent this, Baghdad could be made a neutral state under UN control.

Posted by David Croft @ 04/02/2006 02:03 PM CST

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