In Iraq, It Is All Over But The Killing
In Iraq, It Is All Over But The Killing
Notwithstanding the claims by President Bush in his State of the Union address, the outcome in Iraq has been decided. His recently appointed commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General David Pretreus, has come closer to the truth, saying that the situation is dire but that the hard task of pacifying Iraq does not mean that it is impossible. For both men military defeat is not an option even if the possibility of victory is more remote than ever. The new Democratic majority in the US Congress agrees that all is not well, but has wavered in offering a counter-strategy to the surge, seize, and hold contingency plan offered by the White House early in the New Year (which involves a 21 thousand increase in troops deployed to Iraq that was not supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff). It seems that in Washington a reality check is needed.
The reality is as follows: In Iraq the occupiers have been politically defeated and are looking to withdraw because the local population have shown their thanks for the removal of the Baath dictatorship by the mettle of their resistance. The military situation is a standoff in an irregular, low intensity conflict along multiple fluid fronts involving a loose coalition of autonomous sectarian guerrilla units engaging in a protracted struggle against the conventional forces of the rapidly diminishing Coalition of the Willing. As asymmetric warfare specialists know, military standoffs favour the weaker actor, especially when it is fighting on its home soil with popular support against a stronger opponent whose civilian support base is unenthused about its foreign military adventurism.
To be sure, the various Iraqi factions will eventually have to deal exclusively with each other once the common enemy is gone, so the bloodshed that follows will be the blame of domestic rather foreign actors. The Bush administration refuses to admit it, but with over 35,000 civilian deaths in 2006, Iraq is at civil war. The US claims that if it withdraws Iraq will descend into chaos and Iran will extend its influence to the point of using Iraq as a launching pad for Shiia extremism as well as a buffer against US and Sunni Muslim attempts to secularise and democratize the country. The latter might be true, but the situation is already chaotic. Moreover, both assumptions display an arrogance that belies the realities at hand. Why should the US think that only it could bring security and stability to Iraq? Why should it feel that it has to take the lead against perceived Shiia/Persian extremism? What happened to concern with Sunni Whahabbist terrorism, of which al-Qaeda is an integral part and in which Iran and Shiia Muslims play little if any role? What makes the US think that it is part of the solution rather than the source of the problem (at least with regards to the radicalization of both Islamic schools of thought)? Other than rhetorical bluster, border skirmishes around its territorial sea and the seizing of the US embassy and staff during the 1979 revolution, when has Iran attacked the US or its neighbors?
Given these questions, why does the US feel the need to prolong its presence in a war of attrition that it has already lost politically at home and abroad, much less ratchet up the saber-rattling against an emerging regional power that will be much harder to defeat than Saddam’s Iraq? Expanding the conflict into Iran, whatever the pretense, is a recipe for disaster in what some are already calling the US’s worst foreign policy misadventure in history.
The Bush administration may be chastened by the reversals of the past year, but it remains confused. The US cannot impose its will in Iraq. Emulating a post-Tet surge in ground troops will, as Vietnam shows, only delay the inevitable (note to younger readers: The 1968 Tet offensive by the Viet Cong was a tactical defeat but a strategic victory for the Vietnamese communist-nationalist forces. Although the US immediately responded by increasing the number of troops deployed on the ground, it also began the policy shift towards disengagement, culminating in the 1975 Paris peace agreements and the ensuing Communist takeover of South Vietnam). If history is any guide, the foreign occupation in Iraq has been defeated and it is for Iraqis and their neighbours to determine the future. True, there will be months if not years of instability and death before moderation and compromise prevail, but that responds to the traditional Iraqi way of doing politics. Had the US declared victory and left after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, less American and Iraqi lives would have been lost because it would have forced the main protagonists to resolve their differences sooner rather than later without the excuse of an occupying force in their midst.
It is therefore a matter of when not if the US will leave Iraq. Once American troops have exited the country it will be for Iraq’s restored national security forces to bring order to chaos. Until they do Shiia and Sunni militants will continue to use violence to demonstrate their resolve. Their styles of fighting reflect their respective strengths: the minority Sunnis engage in wanton attacks and bombings of civilians and security personnel, while the majority Sunnis use militia death squads to round up and kill Sunni men. Both sides will turn their skills at sniping and utilizing remotely detonated explosives, honed against the occupation, on each other. Yet for all the horrors visited between them, it is implausible that the civil war between Iraqi factions will turn into a regional conflagration. Contrary to US claims, Sunnis and Shiia will not receive massive external support from the Sunni Arab world and Iran for no other reason than their neighbours being poorly disposed to engage in direct confrontations with each other when backing their ethno-religious kin. Support will be given, but only in a measure that continues, not escalates the low-intensity irregular warfare now ongoing. For all of Iraq’s neighbours, Iraq’s strategic importance lies in its becoming a buffer between Sunni Arabs and Persians more than a base for proxy conflicts, much less the origin of a major regional war.
As for the internal balance of power, Sunnis may have been dominant under Saddam and their fighting style suggests they are fiercer or more desperate than the Iraqi Shiia, but they know they cannot prevail against the majority without the backing of the Kurds (which militarily they will not get). Similarly, the Shiia may be a majority but they eventually will realize that they will not be able to subjugate the Sunni population in the manner that Saddam did to them. In spite of their fractious nature, the Kurds can serve as political power brokers, balancing the otherwise diametrically opposed ambitions of Shiia and Suni militants. Without the excuse of occupation forces to focus on, hard bargaining will occur and a power-sharing settlement will be reached in Iraq once US occupation forces withdraw.
It is delusional for the Bush administration to insist that only the US can “fix” Iraq. The fixing of Iraq has to be done by Iraqis with the encouragement but non-interference of the international community, and for that to happen the occupation must end. This will not result in the imposed US-style democracy envisioned by the neoconservative architects of the invasion, but it will result in a sovereign Iraqi government comprised of the major political and social actors in that land. Since the common interest of Arabs and Persians is a neutral Iraq, this will be the political solution that they support as the mutual second-best option. Before that happens the American military must leave because they are not fighting for the ethereal notion of “freedom” bandied about by Bush administration acolytes, but the pride and political legacy of one Republican administration. That serves neither Iraqi nor US national interests, much less the cause of regional peace in the Middle East.
Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.