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

Friday, November 16, 2007

"It's The Iraqis' Fault" Meme Making The Rounds Again

I almost burned myself with coffee reading this headline:

Iraqis Wasting An Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say

Riiiight. It's the Iraqis' fault now. We're doing all the dirty work and they're not "stepping up." That's the poll-tested narrative that the military, the White House, and even top Democrats can use to absolve themselves of responsibility in Iraq. It's just the stupid Iraqis' fault.

Fortunately, Thomas Ricks actually knows something about the war, and the headline belies the intent of the article.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

This is the story that the military is going with. The surge worked; the Iraqis just failed to capitalize on it. Here's the problem with that; the surge actually created conditions that make it impossible for any kind of reconciliation.

The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? "If that doesn't happen," Odierno said, "we're going to have to review our strategy."

It's not that the Iraqis aren't meeting obligations, though, it's that they have no opportunity to do so. The military was lookng for any way to maintain stability, not because it would improve the prospects of the Iraqi government, but for DOMESTIC political reasons - to stop the chorus for withdrawal at home. They settled on this "bottom-up reconciliation" idea, that they could stabilize the Sunni regions by empowering tribal leaders, and then bring them into the government structure. This, along with other factors (the Mahdi Army laying low, no more ethnic diversity in the major towns), has led to a measurable decrease in violence. So has demonstrable border policing from Iran, who I guess is such a scary bad actor in Iraq that they're deliberately stopping smuggling of weaponry at their border just to confuse everybody.

But this emboldening of the Sunni tribes pushed the country farther away from a political settlement, not closer. Shiite leaders feared a competition for power; Shiite citizens feared a US-backed return to oppression like that under Saddam. When the Americans tried to integrate the Iraqi security forces, the Shiite ruling party squashed it. Because the Sunnis are now cooperating and the Shiites are not, in the opinion of the military, there is, believe it or not, sympathy for the insurgents. However, it could easily spiral completely out of control.

Indeed, some U.S. Army officers now talk more sympathetically about former insurgents than they do about their ostensible allies in the Shiite-led central government. "It is painful, very painful," dealing with the obstructionism of Iraqi officials, said Army Lt. Col. Mark Fetter. As for the Sunni fighters who for years bombed and shot U.S. soldiers and now want to join the police, Fetter shrugged. "They have got to eat," he said over lunch in the 1st Cavalry Division's mess hall here. "There are so many we've detained and interrogated, they did what they did for money."

The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad.

We have to understand that this strategy of allowing for ethnically homogenous, locally powerful zones of influence has put Iraq on a backwards path FAR away from a political settlement. The only thing holding the country together is the expanded US military force; civil society, democratic structures, none of them are apparent. Robert Farley's analysis of the situation is the best I've seen.

We are now farther away from having a capable, centralized Iraqi state than we have ever been. Even in 2003 and 2004, there was potential that a state might have been constructed that could govern Iraq. Now, in a process that US military authorities have more or less acknowledged, the central national government has become essentially irrelevant. The tribal strategy has cut violence, but it has also, by privileging substate actors, substantially eliminated the prospect of a democratic, unified Iraq. The Iraq we see today is utterly prostrate, completely incapable of defending itself from any outside actor with anything other than a guerilla strategy. It has no air force, no significant armored formations, no navy to speak of, and no unified military command capable of developing long range defense plans. The central government does not control its own territory, in the sense that it utterly lacks a monopoly on legitimate (not to mention illegitimate) violence. It's also worth mentioning that the actors we're currently enabling represent the most reactionary, anti-democratic elements in Iraqi life. Indeed, it's unclear which of the Sunni militias or the Shia government has less of an interest in Western conceptions of democracy.

We should acknowledge that what the US has accomplished in the last year may have been the best we could hope for. It's possible that the centralized Iraqi state was doomed from the start (or at least by the start of 2007), and that no alternative strategy could have saved it. I'm not convinced by that; a credible threat of withdrawal prior to the gutting of the centralized state might have produced some national reconciliation. It also might not have, but we'll never know.

This failure is not a failure of the Iraqis but a failure of the strategy itself. It delegitimized the national government and essentially ceded territory from it. It has created two warring factions so powerful that only the interference of the American military keeps it from breaking apart. There will never be a workable political scenario under this utter dependence. All you will get, as Marc Lynch notes, is:

partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

(great to see the author of Abu Aardvark quoted in these important pieces in the Washington Post, by the way)

It would have been hard to imagine, at the beginning of the year, a situation that would have made Iraq substantially worse than it was. The current scenario, rosy though it may be seen by some, is just that. There were never any good options; now there are even less. And this is NOT the Iraqis' fault, it's the fault of their occupiers.

There are only two alternatives now; stay forever and keep the uneasy balance whereby only 500 Iraqis are killed every month instead of 1,500, or withdraw with some pledge of external security, eliminate training and arming of militias, and surge diplomatically. Because the occupation is being driven by political concerns rather than concerns for the Iraqi state, the former will be seen in official Washington as the best alternative, one where the pony can still be found.

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