As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Asking The Wrong Questions

Any loss of life in service of a failed occupation is a tragedy, and while American casualties have gone down in Iraq, Iraqi deaths continue on a daily basis. But this constant back and forth on who's dying and at what amounts seems to me to be completely irrelevant almost five years into the conflict.

The facts are that losses of American lives are being dropped through a massive increase in air attacks, which is antithetical to a counterinsurgency strategy, and which only serves to inflame tensions rather than dissolve them. The population grows restless from continued bombing and oppression, factions blame other factions, and no reconciliation is reached (outsourcing military jobs to private contractors with no accountability has the same effect, and the State Department has admitted as such). This can be seen in the recent events we've seen between Sunnis and Shiites, forgetting for a moment the fact that we could see an invading Turkish army in northern Iraq any moment.

The new goal of US forces is to make the Iraqi police less sectarian, yet in this effort they face resistance from the Iraqis themselves.

The American military’s push to organize Sunni Arabs into local neighborhood watch groups has been one of the United States’ most important initiatives in Iraq — so much so that President Bush flew to Anbar Province in September to highlight growing alliances with Sunni tribal leaders.

But now that the Americans are trying to institutionalize the arrangement by training the Sunnis to become police officers, the effort has been hampered by halfhearted support and occasionally outright resistance from a Shiite-dominated national government that is still inclined to see the Sunnis as a once and future threat.

If the Sunnis and Shiites still view one another with skepticism, there's simply no reason to be there militarily. A terrorist state, as we've seen in Anbar, is unlikely. We cannot force a reconciliation through force; all we're doing is forestalling the inevitable. And we see this in another recent incident which was reported completely differently by the press: Amar al-Hakim's visit to Anbar Province, seen as some kind of triumph.

What these reports for some odd reason neglect to add is that the mission was an utter failure. As al-Hayat reports today, the Anbar Salvation Council absolutely and completely rejected the idea of federalism, both in general and in all of its details. Al-Hayat quotes SIIC leaders saying that they will take this as a "maybe."

The assembled leaders of the Anbar Salvation Council, it's worth stressing, are the most compliant group of Sunni leaders which could possibly be assembled. Given their current relationship with the United States, they would be expected to be far more forthcoming to such proposals than would any group of, say, insurgency leaders. They weren't, speaking volumes about the current state of Sunni-Shia relations.

It's going to take more than just one Shi'a leader waltzing into Anbar under heavy US military protection and being repudiated for there to be any avowal of "progress" here. And indeed, some of the sheikhs most inclined to fighting Al Qaeda (but as we can see, not inclined to work with Shiites) were kidnapped today.

There is nothing happening in Iraq to suggest that some great compromise between ethnic factions is right around the corner. Indeed, when efforts to increase flows of electricity and basic services to Iraqis is being run by known snake Ahmad Chalabi, there should be no confidence in anything the Iraqis are doing.

The problem here is that we as a nation have stopped asking the key questions about Iraq because we're stuck in an almost Vietnam-like argument over body counts, if we are talking about Iraq at all.

We need to stop falling into the trap of arguing about the momentary success or failure of tactics. 3 fewer US soldiers died last week than in a similar period last year - we've won! Iraqi insurgents launched 157 attacks last week compared to 163 in a similar period last year - they've lost! Even worse, it seems like the US is committing the cardinal sin of once again falling victim to our own propaganda, believing our own spin, and substituing domestic public opinion management for hard thought about where we're heading. The relatively uncritical approach to the good news narratives now coming out of Iraq is eerily reminiscent of so many earlier periods of "good news from Iraq". Forget Iran - even in the coverage of Iraq it's as if we've learned nothing from the last four years.

Body counts are only one small part of a much larger puzzle. What I want to know is not the day to day casualty trends, or good news stories from some carefully selected hamlet, or the latest assassination of an Awakening shaykh. I want to know: does the devolution to the local level make strategic sense, even if it reaps short-term tactical sense? Towards what endpoint are the tactics leading? Do we want to see a unified Iraq with a sustainable political accord - the official goal of American policy, as Undersecretary of State Nick Burns reminded the DACOR audience yesterday? If so, are American political and military tactics encouraging or discouraging such an outcome? Those are questions that we could be discussing in this moment of relative American political respite, but there's really not much of it (a moment of self-criticism here: I suppose I should give credit to the Biden partition/federalism resolution effort, even though I strongly disagreed with it, for at least trying to raise such issues.)

I think Marc Lynch nails this later in his piece. There is no chance at a winning strategy anymore in Iraq, merely a face-saving one. Arguing about body counts is just a distraction tactic; it lets Republicans off the hook, it lets Bush off the hook, and most crucially it lets the Iraqis off the hook, as their urgency to strike an accord dissipates when they know the US military will delay the inevitable for a few more months. And so Iraq then is becoming a country without a functioning local government, but a segregated collection of local gangs and warlords with powerless figureheads at the top. This is not a model where terrorist elements can rule, but one where they can thrive, at least through hiding in the cracks. And it's not a model that would presage a reconciliation; quite the opposite.

As Jim Fearon, one of the leading political scientists working on civil wars, recently put it, "a power-sharing deal tends to hold only when every side is relatively cohesive. How can one party expect that another will live up to its obligations if it has no effective control over its own members?" It also deeply complicates any neat ideas about partition, of course, since there are no unified blocs to which one could easily devolve power.

Tactics working against strategy - that's been the concern I've been expressing for many months now. I haven't been reassured. Instead of getting sucked into debates over body counts, or clutching at whatever good or bad news crosses the headlines each morning, the national debate should be looking at the big picture. It isn't about how we are doing day to day - what are we trying to achieve?

Ultimately a warlord state may not threaten American interests directly, but I don't see how it would stop a slide to civil war, as each competing interest fights over the very tangible instruments of power, particularly oil control. And it means that the displacement crisis would grow ever more, as areas continue to become ethnically cleansed. That doesn't seem like a stable situation in the heart of a fractious Middle East. And if that's all we have to show for trillions of dollars and thousands of lives, how can anyone say it was worth it?

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