The discouraging situation in Iraq

Like practically everybody else I’m very discouraged by the situation in Iraq. The deaths of ordinary Iraqis is unacceptably high whether it’s the 49,000 estimated by Iraq Body Count or the 650,000 reported in a recent study (which Rick Moran sensibly notes does not seem to distinguish among al-Qaeda, insurgents, and truly civilian Iraqis).

Only two of Iraq’s provinces are currently under the control of the nominally sovereign Iraqi government and the progress is glacially, unacceptably, politically untenably slow. Those were the easy provinces.

The U. S. military is on the horns of a dilemma. If they go after the militias who are now responsible for a lot of the deaths vigorously, they take more casualties which are trumpeted in the press and which erodes domestic political support for our military presence in Iraq, already flagging. If they avoid the militias, Iraq comes ever closer to a full-blown civil war, more ordinary Iraqis are killed, and support among Iraqis for our presence, already wavering, fails more quickly.

As of this writing it looks very likely that Democrats will take control of at least the House and possibly the Senate as well. Given the rhetoric of the last year or so it seems very unlikely that they’ll sustain our military presence in Iraq or financial support of the Iraqi reconstruction. John Edwards and Russ Feingold, both presidential aspirants, have both come out in favor of withdrawing our military from Iraq by the end of 2006. Other have said six months or a year or a partial withdrawal. I’ve heard some Republicans arguing in favor of a partial withdrawal.

I think that the idea of a partial withdrawal is fantasizing. It reminds me of Kissinger’s “peanuts” memo from 30 years ago. I don’t see that any argument that supports withdrawing, say, 100,000 of our troops doesn’t work even better towards withdrawing all of them. The conceivable policies are retaining our forces there or removing them. I think that the idea of actually increasing our forces in Iraq is a politically impossible at this point.

Let me make my own position very clear. I opposed our invasion of Iraq. I thought that all of the Adminstration’s arguments in aggregrate did not support the conclusion that we should invade. I’m not a true believer like Dean nor do I believe, as President Bush apparently does, that liberal democracy is a universal human aspiration. I believed that, when Saddam’s government was removed, the overwhelming likelihood was that Iraq’s other institutions, specifically mosque and tribe, would re-assert themselves and, unless incentive structures were put in place that made it more valuable to cooperate than to contend, nothing that resembled what I would consider “victory in Iraq” (a liberal democratic government friendly to the U. S.) would emerge.

At this point I believe that, while invading Iraq was imprudent, abandoning Iraq would be imprudent, too.  Yes, it may be true that the presence of U. S. forces in Iraq is an irritant.  I continue to believe that the only force preventing the incipient civil war in Iraq from becoming a full-fledged civil war with pitched battles, hundreds of civilian deaths a day, and likely intervention by Iraq’s neighbors is the large U. S. force there.  We’ve mounted the tiger.

So, I have some challenge questions for partisans on both sides of the aisle.  For Republicans, how can political support for our continued presence i.e. “staying the course” be maintained?   “We just have to” isn’t a good enough answer.

For Democrats, why is our withdrawal from Iraq in the U. S.’s interest?  Why is our withdrawal from Iraq in the Iraqis’ interest?  The burden of proof is on the advocate.  “It’s worth a try” isn’t a good enough answer.  Nor is “what we’re doing now isn’t working”.

UPDATE:  I see that the Army is budgeting a U. S. presence in Iraq through 2010.

14 comments… add one
  • I would be shocked if the majority of the public were aware that even two provinces have been fully handed back to Iraqi control. Making the public aware that we’re only operating in 16 of the 18 provinces and are likely going to be reducing that down province by province as things get better would be a tremendous boost to support for the war. Ditto for the raising of 30k indiginous tribal troops in Anbar and the open support of 25 of 31 major Anbar tribes for the government.

    Getting much better progress metrics out there so that the general public can see and measure the progress being made is the key to support lasting long enough for the mission to succeed. It might also help to do some review of all the near revolts (Shay’s rebellion and the whiskey rebellion were but two) and other nonsense that the US itself suffered during its early days. Iraq is still on its first Constitution and that puts them one up on us. We’re consigning this project to failure way too quick.

  • I do so love deluded Americans and their whanking on about “metrics” and idiot boy citation of X of Y tribes…..

    There is such a thing as managing the down side, and given no policy resolution driven by Americans is going to end the current civil war, well you’re just fucked.

  • AMac Link

    I supported the invasion in 2003. I’ve learned that my reasoning and my understanding of the situation were wrong. I’m still not sure whether any of the other policy options available to the US at the time would have been less bad or more bad than the road taken. For Iraqis or for Americans.

    Bush and his supporters were projecting the then-current threat of Ba’athist Iraq forward. I think that Ken Pollack’s assessment in “The Threatening Storm” was about right, despite his subseqent disavowal.

    It was tempting to imagine that post-Ba’athist Iraq could resemble, say, post-Communist Poland or Czechoslovakia. That a civil society and economic progress could emerge from a tyrannical past without a great deal of anarchy, score-settling, and bloodshed. And that a society with an Islamic history and extended families would take a path similar to ones taken by those with a secular/Christian heritage and nuclear families.

    Some people foresaw factors like this. I’d say most, hawks and war opponents alike, did not. Us ‘gloomy hawks’ are belatedly recognizing them.

    The best model for Iraq for Americans to have contemplated in 2002 and 2003 was probably Algeria. There is no reasonable Black Hat/White Hat interpretation. The FIS won the 1991 election, and almost certainly had the will and the ability to impose a Qutbist Taliban-like vision on the country. In voiding the results, the FLN ‘destroyed democracy in order to save it.’ That set the stage for savage attacks by the GIA on the military, the FLN, and urban and Westernized elites. Followed by terrorization of neutral civilians throughout the country, and by brutal and indiscriminate reprisals by the army and death squads. I don’t know if reliable casualty figures are available, author Kirk Sowell estimated over 100,000 in about ten years of war.

    The Iraq Body Count estimate of 65,000 or so dead since 2003 is certainly low, and yesterday’s Lancet study sounds misleadingly high. With the real number somewhere in the middle, fighting among the Coalition, the Iraqi Government, al Qaeda in Iraq, the Ba’athists, and the Sadrists and other Shi’ia militias have already achieved this level of casualties.

    The Ba’athist record of the past 25 years or so is probably worse, but they had the good taste to do their murdering in places without video cameras or affronted Westerners. Being Muslims and not being Westerners themselves would also have helped their p.r. efforts immensely.

    At this remove, I doubt postwar Iraq could ever have been a success, certainly not by the fantastic standards beloved of the US/Republican loathing media and progressive community. Bush administration incompetence certainly played a role in making matters worse. The example I’d highlight was the formulation of the Iraqi cell phone network in 2003. Cell phones are the perfect tool for a distributed, cell-based guerrilla/terrorist movement. The US should have tightly controlled the network, making sure that each phone could be traced to its owner, and logging all connections and conversations for NSA-type analysis. Instead, an open architecture was adopted, and Egyptian, Turkish, and other companies rolled out the network. At both corporate and employee levels, these companies were anti-American and resistant to “collaboration.” I suspect that this fateful set of decisions was taken on the basis of misplaced idealism and American political concerns (“If we intensively monitor and data mine Iraqi networks, electronic privacy will become an even bigger domestic issue.”)

    So what to do now? I don’t know. Choices seem to be:
    * Withdraw in ~1 year, setting the stage for score-settling at the least, possibly hundreds of thousands additional dead in widespread ethnic cleasing and India/Pak style partition;
    * Partition Iraq, encouraging limited ethnic cleansing to create more manageable borders;
    * Stay the course, with no realistic expectation of troop drawdowns or lesser casualty rates (Coalition or Iraqi) before 2010 at the earliest.

    Eh, sorry Dave, I haven’t answered your question.

  • I don’t disagree that the alternatives you present, AMac, are the most likely but I don’t think any of them really advance (or even preserve) U. S. interests.

    * Withdraw in ~1 year, setting the stage for score-settling at the least, possibly hundreds of thousands additional dead in widespread ethnic cleasing and India/Pak style partition;

    Of course I don’t want to see the carnage in this scenario but IMO this is also most likely to result in Iraq becoming an al-Qaeda haven. Not in U. S. interests.

    * Partition Iraq, encouraging limited ethnic cleansing to create more manageable borders;

    This is, essentially, the Biden plan. I don’t see that this really changes the status quo. Why won’t the Sunnis keep setting bombs, etc. in the other areas? They’ll be left with a barren, Bedouin state. Why won’t the Shi’a who are closely aligned with Iran keep fighting it out with those who aren’t.

    Finally, I doubt that the neighboring countries would tolerate this turn of events.

    * Stay the course, with no realistic expectation of troop drawdowns or lesser casualty rates (Coalition or Iraqi) before 2010 at the earliest.

    This alternative brings me back to the question I asked in the post: how can political support for this alternative be maintained. I certainly don’t see this as politically likely right now and the trend appears to be in the opposite direction.

  • The issue is political. Either the factions in Iraq can reach an accommodation they can really get behind, or they can’t. If they can’t then nothing we can do will matter.

    Give them three months to work out a political deal. If there’s a real deal we stay and train their army. If there’s no deal we leave.

    It’s too late to impose democracy, we’re stuck hoping the Iraqis can pull it off. Either they can, in which case there’s a chance, or they can’t, in which case we are wasting our time. 90 days is enough to do a deal if a deal is possible. If not, the sooner we know, the better.

  • That doesn’t answer the question, MT, it assumes the answer without explaining it or supporting it.

    Is withdrawing from Iraq, regardless of the consequences, in the interests of either the U. S. or the Iraqis?

    While an “a plague on both your houses” position may be emotionally appealing, it’s not clear to me that it’s a practical policy.

    BTW I’m glad to see that you haven’t withdrawn completely from the blogosphere, MT.

  • It’s not a plague on both your houses. It’s pragmatism. Conditions exist or they don’t. It’s like arguing with gravity, we have to deal with what is.

    Do we have the capacity to increase forces dramatically in Iraq and impose a solution? No. As a practical matter of available force and political will, no. That ship has sailed. Bush could reboot with a whole new leadership, draft McCain or Wes Clark as SecDef, cut Cheney et al out of the loop, a sort of political Hail Mary, but he won’t do it.

    So we’re where we’ve been for some time: relying on the Iraqis. Either they have the political will or they don’t. If they don’t there’s not a damn thing we can do to salvage the situation. If they can’t fix the politics we lose no matter what. So let’s find out if they can reach a deal. If “yes” then we are still in the game. If “No” then we’re either going to lose now, or lose a year from now.

    (I’m not blogging. But still can’t keep my mouth shut.)

  • I don’t envision a solution. I envision a continuing presence in a sort of “Fort Apache” mode.

    I understand that we can’t impose a political solution on the Iraqis. My question is how is withdrawing from Iraq and allowing the inevitable escalation there that would follow that withdrawal in our interests?

  • I think you hang in if there’s hope. But if hope is lost you cut your losses.

  • I think that’s the critical question. Would we be cutting our losses or guaranteeing more? I’d be all for withdrawal if I believed we would actually be cutting our losses. I don’t think that’s what would happen.

  • I suppose my answer would be that if the Iraqis are determined to have a civil war we can’t stop them and can only get our people shot trying to stand in the way.

    Our strategic interest (if we give up on the fostering democracy thing) is to keep Iraq from becoming an Al Qaeda sanctuary, and keep any civil war confined to Iraq. I’d add that we need to hold onto the one tangible gain we’ve made: free Kurdistan.

    Failing a political solution we can work from outside Iraq to limit Iranian, Saudi, Syrian etcetera involvement in the civil war. In addition to diplomacy we can fly surveillance, threaten to act against meddling outside forces, interdict arms shipments and so on. 140,000 soldiers tied down in Baghdad street fighting doesn’t help any of that. I’d rather have them in Kurdistan and Kuwait, not vulnerable to attack but able to bomb arms convoys crossing from Syria, let’s say.

    If, during a period of civil war, Sunni factions allow Al Qaeda to operate in their territory we can tilt toward the Shiite side. Let the Sunnis know we’ll stay out only so long as Al Qaeda stays out, but if the Sunni want to play host to AQ then the Shiites will have US Air Force help. We reverse the leverage in order to convince the Shia to limit Iranian involvement on their side.

    Beyond Iraq our interest is in limiting Iranian power. That’s the real game. There’s nothing especially useful about having 140k Americans vulnerable to Iranian terrorist actions inside Iraq. We’d have a freer hand with Iran flying out of Qatar and Kuwait, or even running an insurgency out of Kurdistan.

    If the Iraqis can reach a deal, great. If they can’t reach a deal they’re going to end up fighting a civil war and we need to get out of the middle of that and use diplomacy and air power to limit the damage.

  • AMac Link

    M. Takhallus makes a series of suggestions about limited, reasonable goals. But for each one, it’s easy to think of “objections” along the lines of, “how is it to be accomplished, exactly?” For example, “I’d rather have [the US military] in Kurdistan and Kuwait, not vulnerable to attack but able to bomb arms convoys crossing from Syria.” Without “boots on the ground” intelligence, how many wedding parties, cigarette smugglers, and Facilities Protection patrols would be mistakenly targeted? A lot, I suspect.

    Bush’s strategy was to go for the whole enchilada, start a viral wave of liberation, reform, and democracy in the Middle East by liberating Iraq. It hasn’t worked. Measures that would flow from overall success become difficult or impossible in its absence. In this regard, it doesn’t matter if failure is a result of ideological blindness, poor planning, naive ignorance, incompetent execution, competing bureaucratic agendas, an obstructionist intelligence community, allowing oneself to be deluded by Iraqi expats, domestic US political constraints, or because the task was Herculean in difficulty. (All of the above, I suspect.)

    Roman Empire-type solutions are always going to be available to a hyperpower like the US. We don’t seem particularly comfortable with them, though. The scale of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib was perhaps 1% of what that prison experienced under Saddam, and 10% of the level under the new Iraqi government. That context doesn’t matter to Arabs, and it doesn’t matter to the US. Unless there’s a consensus in the US that this sort of abuse deserves terms like “regrettable,” it’s hard to see how the US military can stay reasonably engaged in Iraq in the shadow of Bush’s overall failure. And, of course, a decision to tacitly condone Abu Ghraib type behavior carries its own heavy moral and practical hazards.

  • And, ultimately, MT’s solution doesn’t address the critical problem (one that commenter Lounsbury frequently notes: we can’t achieve our objectives in the region without economic development there.

    I may be speaking out of turn for him but my impression is that Lounsbury envisions a sort of Chinese model in which economic liberalization comes before political liberalization.

  • do remember Link

    Iraqi Body Count is a very useful measure, but remember it provides a minimum of deaths, those that are reported in English language publications.

    Dispute exists about how many deaths are not reported, the IBC believes it gets from 1/4 to 1/2 the total.

    Quite simply we do not know. There is almost no reporting of the at times extensive criminal activity and militia death squad activity in the south. And the Suni goons still come at night in the west. Given the current situation many families have an interest in hiding their victims.

    Large parts of the country live in terror.

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