Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Negotiations Underway

This Sunday (3/26) a joint Iraqi-US Special Forces team conducted an assault in which 16 people were killed, 3 were wounded, and one man being held hostage was freed. According to US commanders the 16 people were insurgents, the structure in which they were held up was a secular building. According to Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr the building in question was a mosque, those killed were worshippers. One need not question the sincerity of US commanders to know that this situation does not bode well for the Coalition mission in Iraq. The whole truth of the incident may never be knowable, yet the very fact that the Coalition and the Iraqi government disagree as to whether or not casualties of the conflict were "insurgents" poses a serious conundrum that compels analysis.

There are basically three possibilities, each of which bears serious negative implications for the Coalition mission in Iraq (though to varying degrees):

1)The situation was basically as Minister Jabr and others have described it, and the joint US-Iraqi patrol accidentally targeted innocent civilians. If so the incident need not necessarily be held up as an indictment of the US military mission, it could simply be a tragic mistake induced by the fog of war. What is most troubling in this particular case, however, is that as grave a situation as such a mistake would create, this is by far the most optimistic of the three possible scenarios. If those killed on Sunday were innocent worshippers one need not dig deeply to find the source of Shi'ite anger over this incident. If any part of what US commanders currently say is true, however, then the possible motives of Shi'ite politicians like Mr. Jabr become quite complex, and none of those possibilities bode well for the US.

2)Those killed in the raid were armed members of a Shi'ite militia group (most likely Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army). If so then the other aspects of the US report were likely true- the militiamen used deadly force against the joint team and were holding an innocent (presumably Sunni Arab) detainee. The use of the term "insurgents" to describe such combatants by the US military is understandable- whatever those militiamen had done before Sunday the moment they turned their guns on US and (especially) Iraqi soldiers they became insurgents. But the strident denials and accusations of the Shi’ite political leadership underscore a troubling fact. If those “insurgents” were, in fact, Shi’ite militiamen they belonged to a constituency that in ordinary circumstances supports the nascent government and is represented within its leadership. If those constituents become “insurgents” in any significant numbers then the entire complexion of the Iraq conflict will have been completely transformed and the task of state-building will become exponentially more difficult.

3)Though scenario #2 is bad, there is one possibility which is even worse (in the sense of portending even greater difficulties for the Coalition)- that the 16 people killed in the raid were in fact Sunni Arab insurgents, and that for ulterior motives the Shi’ite political leadership is seizing upon the ambiguities of this incident to fabricate a crisis.

Of these three possibilities #2 may be judged most likely by appeal to Occam’s Razor; many dark purposes and coincidental mishaps would have to be afoot for #1 or #3 to be the “absolute truth.” Deciding which of these three scenarios is “real,” however, is not essential toward analyzing the implications of the current crisis except as a matter of degree. If the Shi’ite political leadership in Iraq felt that their political and strategic interests were completely aligned with those of the Coalition their reaction would not be this extreme even if scenario #1 were the case, and scenario #3 would be totally unimaginable. Even President Talabani’s eminently reasonable step of convening a joint Iraqi-American investigative committee would not have been necessary even in the case of scenario #1- Shi’ite leaders would have found a much less complicated way of letting the US military off the hook for a clearly regrettable mistake.

Whatever actually happened on Sunday, what is going on right now in Baghdad is very clear. A negotiation is transpiring, one between the Shi’ite political leadership and the Coalition command over control of the political and military machinery of the emergent Iraqi state. The Coalition (and behind them the governments and citizenry of the US and its allies) want to see an Iraqi government that possesses a monopoly on the use of force, that fully integrates secular and Kurdish Iraqis, and that will foster a political process that may draw Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency. The current crisis indicates that the Shi’ite political leadership are opposed to some or all of these objectives- they would preserve the independence of the Shi’ite militias from the Iraqi regular army, insist upon a cabinet and prime minister of their choosing and their constituency, and would defend their followers’ prerogative to pursue a bloody campaign of anti-Sunni sectarian violence. Determining how many of and to what degree these goals are cherished by Shi’ite leaders requires discovering how far removed their claims about Sunday’s incident diverge from actual events. Even if everything Shi’ite leaders claim about the incident is true, their strident denunciations and unequivocal political response (the Shi’ite parliamentarians’ break-off of negotiations for a new government, the Baghdad governor’s unilateral termination of US-Iraqi security coordination) send a clear message that their priorities diverge from those of the Coalition and will be acted on nonetheless.

A negotiation is in process, and it is hard to see how the Coalition can possibly come out the winner. Shi’ite leaders are playing a very strong hand- if pushed too hard they could quit the government and throw their militias into the insurgency. This would not spell absolute defeat for the Coalition, but it would exponentially complicate the political and military task at hand. The US army has defeated Shi’ite militias in the field before and would most likely do so again, but if the militias were driven underground the loss of the security shield they have been providing would leave sensitive targets like the Golden Mosque more vulnerable to attack by the Sunni insurgency, setting in motion a potentially endless vicious cycle of accelerating sectarian violence and making the strategic climate increasingly more dangerous not only for Iraqis but for Coalition forces as well.

Such a situation would obviously pose risks for the Shi’ite leadership, but they may well feel that another armed conflict with the US military will do much less to erode their position of leadership than joining the kind of government the Coalition desires would do to improve it. They may also feel that the Coalition has much more to lose from an open break with the Shi’ite leadership than vice-versa, and in this perception they would seem to be very correct. US commanders are effectively caught between Scylla and Charybdis- if they “blink” and concede Shi’ite leaders the degree of control and autonomy they demand the resulting sectarian violence will greatly deter efforts toward a political resolution of the insurgency. If they force the issue and drive the Shi’ite parties into an openly hostile posture toward the emergent government they may face the same spike in sectarian violence coupled with the lethal opposition of the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades. Looking ahead it seems certain that this negotiation instigated by Sunday’s incident can only end one way- with US officials further alienated from political control of the state-building process and military control of the counterinsurgency.

All of this raises the question of what the US should do next. One option is to call the Shi’ite leadership’s bluff and push the long-standing political agenda of the Coalition. This option is all too likely to result in the worst-case scenario described above, however. Another possibility is to back away from demands for a unity government and an end to sectarian violence on the part of the militias and continue the Coalition mission at current levels. This option is much safer in the short-term but carries with it very serious long-term risks. If the Shi’ite political leadership come to feel that they may depend on the security shield of the US army in the absence of any checks upon their political program their aggression may not ultimately be exclusively directed at their Sunni compatriots. Their confidence might lead them into policies that violently alienate the Kurdish and secular Arab constituents of the nascent government, at which point the Coalition would be faced with an irreparable political process and irredeemable strategic chaos.

Faced with these possibilities, a staged withdrawal becomes the increasingly imperative option left to the Coalition. In the short term a gradual withdrawal would likely produce a spike in insurgent violence. But in the long term a withdrawal will have two crucial effects:

1)It will drive a wedge between the most extreme elements of the Sunni insurgency led by Al Qaeda and secular Sunni Arabs with whom they are currently allied. In the face of the threat posed by the US ideological and nationalist tensions have already somewhat undermined the operational unity of the Sunni Arab insurgency, in the absence of that threat those tensions would likely cause the insurgent “coalition” to crack and hemorrhage personnel into the political process.

2)US withdrawal would undermine the secure complacency of the Shi’ite political leadership. Left to defeat the insurgency on their own they would most likely avoid alienating their secular and Kurdish governmental co-participants and rein in the bloody sectarian violence being perpetrated by the militias.

It would be alarmist to suggest that the crisis set in motion by Sunday’s incident (whatever actually occurred) spells imminent doom for the Coalition mission. Even so, it is hard to see how coming days and weeks will fail to end with the range of strategic options open to the Coalition significantly narrowed. Future historians looking back on current events may well mark this week as a crucial turning point that set the Iraq conflict moving in a fundamentally new direction.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The "Civil War" Red Herring

Discussion of late in media and government circles about whether or not Iraq is "on the brink" of civil war or will ultimately experience a "genuine civil war" has become quite surreal. All of this pondering and ruminating demonstrates the fundamental myopia of American observers of Iraq, an incapacity to see past any model in which all Iraqi actions must be understood as a response to the US occupation. If a wake-up call on this score was needed the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra should have sufficed. Right now virtually every action undertaken by political players in Iraq is directed at other Iraqis, not the US. Even attacks on US soldiers are part of larger maneuvering to acquire purchase as the Iraqi political field realigns itself. Call it anything you like- "civil war," "internal conflict," "the Grand Waltz"- by any name the fundamental contest right now is between the Iraqis themselves, the US is largely an interested bystander.

If the Golden Mosque attack was not enough, Saddam Hussein's cynical comments at trial yesterday should be a clear indication of just how little the US factors into the current political calculations of Iraqi combatants. Hussein's call upon Iraqis to stop fighting one-another and turn their guns on the US is not only farcical but disingenuous. A report just published by the US army shows that up to the last hours of his regime Hussein remained far more fearful of his fellow Iraqis than he was of the US. Hussein's top commanders operated under the assumption that they would have access to secret stockpiles of chemical weapons. They were shocked to find out that no such stockpiles existed, and that Hussein had refused to admit as much only out of fear of uprisings in the Shi'ite south. Hussein's bluster at trial is as empty as the stockpiles of WMD's for which he was overthrown, he knows from personal experience that Iraqi factions' fear and enmity of one-another will ultimately trump their concern about the US.

The only salient questions about the current Iraqi-on-Iraqi conflict are a)how intense and destructive it will become; b)how it will ultimately be resolved. Outside groups like the US, Iran, and foreign jihadis can exert some limited influence with regard to the former question, but have virtually no control over the latter. Right now the battle lines are basically drawn between those who oppose the emergent government in Baghdad and those who accept it. Anti-government forces remain "underground," irregular, and technologically unsophisticated. There are as yet no standing "anti-government militias," nor are there likely to be as long as US forces remain in Iraq. It is uncertain, however, whether such militias might not spring into existence as soon as the US troop presence falls below a critical level. Even if such an event did not occur, having no standing militias has not prevented the anti-government insurgency from waging a horrifically violent and destabilizing campaign of terror.

In other words, the best case scenario is that the conflict in Iraq remains basically bipolar along current lines and at current levels of violence. Pronouncing that this situation is "not a civil war" is both cold comfort to those who are living through it and little help toward planning for future policy. Moreover, as "tolerable" as the current situation may be, it is very difficult to predict with any assurance that it will not get much worse. Groups that are currently participating in the political process may decide to break away and take a violently independent stand. Any number of scenarios are possible: the Mahdi Army vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents; SCIRI vs. the Mahdi Army vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents; SCIRI vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents vs. the Kurdish pesh murga etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. The conflict could quickly degenerate into a fluid multipolar bloodbath akin to what Lebanon experienced in the 1980's. The key fact in contemplating all these variables is that none of these developments hinge upon how Iraqis feel about the US, all will be determined by how much (or how little) Iraqis trust and are willing to cooperate with one-another.

Being that the US has virtually no control over this latter condition, US policymakers should give up asking purely semantic questions such as "is this/will this become a civil war?" and begin focussing on what are the likeliest long-term outcomes in Iraq given the intrinsic conditions of Iraqi society and politics. In other words, no matter how violent the conflict becomes or how long it persists, what forces are likely to emerge intact once the situation stabilizes? Answering this question requires relinquishing the illusion that the US may control the long-term evolution of the Iraqi political field. Perfect predictions are impossible, but the clearest guide of what will emerge as Iraq moves forward is the state of Iraqi society and politics prior to the US invasion.

The career of Saddam Hussein provides one model of a stable homeastasis toward which Iraqi politics has gravitated in the past- an authoritarian oligarchy centered on the kinship and clan ties of a single family. That formation is not likely to recur, as the conditions which helped it gestate (the rise of the Ba'ath Party, the Cold War) are gone. The breakup of Iraq or the absorption of parts of Iraq into Iran are also unlikely, otherwise they might have occured earlier during the Iran-Iraq war.

One key figure to watch at present is Moqtada al-Sadr, as more than anyone else he excercises an authority which germinated in the social and political conditions of pre-invasion Iraq. The only person that might surpass al-Sadr in that claim is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but his authority is rooted in ancient tradition where Moqtada's represents a very current response to events and circumstances in present-day Iraq. The Sadrist movement is an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of the Arab Sh'ia community. Oppression and economic hardship combined with the charismatic leadership (and violent demise) of Moqtada's father and uncle have caused a volatile millenarian movement to coalesce among his followers. Moqtada himself does not bear any of the standard credentials of a regular Shi'ite cleric, his leadership rests entirely on the charismatic legacy of his family and the millenarian fervor of his adherents. Though novel, the deep-rootedness of al-Sadr's authority is demonstrated by his remarkable durability- he remains a key player in Iraqi politics despite having led two rebellions against the US occupation.

A close examination of al-Sadr's post-occupation career reveals the precariousness of religious leaders withn the Iraqi political field and provide a potential barometer of the fortunes of the emergent government. In the wake of the humiliation of Ba'athism Islamic religion enjoys the broadest political prestige in the wider Iraqi community, greater even than that of the emergent government and the democratic processes of which it partakes. Neither the orthodox Shi'ite clergy or Sadr's maverick community, however, stand a real chance of emerging victorious from a total contest of "all against all." Sectarian distinctions make religion as potentially divisive as it is motivational in Iraqi society, thus strategically handicapping any leader who would appeal to religion as a key to mass-mobilization.

Of all the leaders appealing to religious rhetoric and authority al-Sadr enjoyed the potential to ride his religious message the furthest, if anyone ever stood a chance of forging an Iraqi "theocracy" he did. I confess to a degree of speculation, but in much of al-Sadr's rhetoric I perceive the possibility that he was flirting with a politically instrumental act of apostasy. He seems to have envisioned a break with orthodox Shi'a and the formation of a "third way" predicated on the charismatic legacy of his own family, a new Islamic community which could integrate both Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs and disaggregate (this is key) itself from the non-Arab clerical community of Iran. Such a community would have been a very powerful force, one that could potentially have emerged victorious if a political collapse in Iraq had become severe enough.

That possibility (admittedly remote) seems to have been precluded by the Samarra mosque bombing. The bombing incited a spontaneous and brutally violent wave of anti-Sunni retribution from al-Sadr's followers. Al-Sadr himself would have been powerless to rein in his followers in the wake of the Samarra atrocity, and the resulting rift of bad blood is not likely to be bridgeable by any act of apostasy. That attack and much of the gratuitous anti-Shi'ite violence seems, in part, to have aimed at just this result- to prevent either Moqtada al-Sadr or anyone else from formulating a religious message that can bring disparate forces together across the sectarian divide.

All this is to say that the strategic valence of the Iraqi conflict is conditioned by forces that the US cannot control and to which the US is largely irrelevant. Al-Sadr's decision to remain within the political process indicates that, for the moment, the emergent Iraqi government enjoys the greatest chances of rallying the critical mass of support necessary to survive and impose a resolution in the current conflict. Al-Sadr may yet break from the government, but that decision is more likely to arise from a prior weakening of the government (through corruption or in-fighting) than to be its cause. Though this gives some cause for optimism, the very fact that the continued legitimacy and stability of the government hinges on al-Sadr's participation (and others much like him) indicates that in its final form it may be far from the model of liberal democracy hoped for by the Bush regime.

What should be clear is that the complexity of the situation in Iraq is such that the US presence cannot induce a particular or predictable outcome. The degree of violence in Iraq may rise steeply in the wake of a US withdrawal, but the resulting outcome of that violence is not likely to be very different than it would be had the US stayed longer. The ultimate fate of Iraq lies in the hands of Iraqis, the best policy the US can hope for is to help the Iraqis get wherever they are going with as little bloodshed as possible.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fueling the Insurgency, Supporting the Troops, and the Case for Withdrawal

Josh Narins' pointed comments about my last entry on "Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq" (and its "Update") persuade me that I must clarify why, though I do not feel that the US is currently causing the insurgency, I yet advocate a speedy withdrawal of US forces. Josh cites General Casey's September 2005 admission that the US occupation is "fueling the insurgency." This view is difficult to contest, a fact which forces upon me the question: how does "fueling the insurgency" differ from "causing the insurgency" or "aggravating a bad situation?" If I insist (as I do) that the latter two positions are inacurate while the former has merit, is this then a study in contradiction or a pointless semantic game? I would argue not, for the following reasons:

1)One must be clear about what is meant by "fueling the insurgency." I would insist that the U.S. is fueling the insurgency principally by motivating a larger number of rank-and-file troops to join the insurgent cause. The leadership of the insurgency, both "foreign jihadists" and Iraqis have, for the most part, taken up arms for reasons independent of the U.S. occupation. The spectrum of political agents that compose the insurgency have deeply intrinsic social, economic, and ideological reasons to oppose the political order currently emergent in Baghdad, and those reasons cannot be reduced to the notion that it is a "US puppet regime."

2)Though a larger number of rank-and-file troops have swelled the ranks of the insurgency because of the US presence, the removal of that stimulus is not likely to decrease the absolute numbers of insurgents at the moment of withdrawal or anytime soon thereafter. Anyone who assumes that once the US leaves those who joined the insurgency out of anti-US anger will simply lay down their arms and go home is working with a woefully unrealistic and ahistorical model of how political and military movements evolve. Though many of the soldiers in the insurgency may not have joined for the political or ideological motivations of the insurgency's leadership, it would not take much for those leaders to persuade their followers, having secured their commitment to armed conflict, that all of them share the same intrinsic interests and that "the cause" must press forward even after the US withdraws. Even those insurgents who are not persuaded of the larger political goals of their leaders are not likely to break ranks- a sense of comradery, fear of reprisal, or sheer inertia are likely to be enough to maintain force coherence, especially if sectarian and regional animosities continue to trend upward as they have.

3)Though the presence of US troops is "fueling the insurgency," the steady application of lethal US military power is at the same time eroding the insurgency and limiting its operational freedom. At current troop levels the US will never strategically defeat the insurgency, but tactically it can hem it in and cut back its growth in one area even as it accelerates in another. Thus the assertion that the US is "fueling the insurgency" and that the US is "causing the insurgency to grow" are two different propositions. The growth of the insurgency in recent months is difficult to gauge, it is hard to develop a significant metric that would definitively indicate a trend. I have seen no evidence, however, to prove that the insurgency is growing faster than the US military's capacity to retard it or that it is growing faster than it would were the US not there at all. The clearest analysis is that of stalemate- the insurgency is growing about as fast as the US military's ability to cut it back.

Advocates of the "causing the insurgency" and the "aggravating a bad situation" positions would argue that a US withdrawal will cause the insurgency to slow or shrink, but this assertion has little empirical basis. In the immediate aftermath of a US withdrawal the insurgency will almost certainly not decrease in intensity for all of the reasons I outlined in #2, above. Moreover, movement in any number of variables over which the US has no control (the quality of leadership among insurgents, the smoothness of the political process in Baghdad) could cause the insurgency initially to grow.

All of this analysis forces the question, is there anything the US could do to proactively turn the tide in Iraq? I argued in my last post and in previous posts that yes, theoretically the US might adopt a new strategic posture that could reverse the trend of the insurgency. Such a posture would resemble what Andrew Krepenevich called an "oil spot" strategy, one which I would assert (contra Krepenevich himself) could be pursued effectively if the US force in Iraq were doubled.

Josh Nagins points out that any suggestion that an increase in troop strength would aid the situation must be looked upon skeptically, and his caveat is well taken. He points to the fact that 49% of Iraqis express no opposition to attacks upon US soldiers. One must understand, however, that "not opposing attacks against US soldiers" and "supporting the insurgency" are two different things. The various insurgent factions are pursuing a complex of programmatic goals, many of them mutually contradictory. The fact that all of them are committed to violent opposition to the Coalition creates an illusion of consensus, both among the insurgents themselves and between the insurgents and the larger Iraqi public. But the clearest contradiction of that illusion is the attack upon the Golden Mosque. Would Josh or anyone else claim that 49% of Iraqis approved of that action? This would of course be ridiculous.

All this speaks to the fact that where the insurgency is in step with general Iraqi opinion in certain realms, it is far out of step with it in others. Josh noted that 80% of the South Vietnamese population stood opposed to the US occupation of that country. The difference between 49% in the Iraqi case and 80% in the Vietnamese case may not be dismissed as incidental. Support for attacks on US soldiers falls short of an absolute majority in Iraq because the US mission complies with Iraqi aspirations in a way that it ran counter to those of the Vietnamese. In Vietnam the US was fighting to keep the Vietnamese nation partitioned, a goal that was deeply anathema to the Vietnamese people and that therefore could not have been effected through the application of any amount of US power. In Iraq, however, the US is fighting to maintain Iraqi unity, an ideal that virtually all Iraqi Arabs cherish, as demonstrated by their willingness to fight in its defense during the long Iran-Iraq War. The 49% of those who when polled voice support for attacks upon Americans is probably lower than the true number of those who are furiously angry about the US occupation. The 49% number is not higher only because some Iraqis place Iraqi unity ahead of their anger over foreign occupation. This is not to suggest that all or most Iraqis believe that the insurgency is fighting to fragment Iraq, but many do feel, with good cause, that this is a potential consequence of long-term insurgent success.

One must keep in mind about the insurgency itself that it is energized entirely by "entropic" forces to the virtual exclusion of cohesive or constructive forces. The diverse and mutually antagonistic groups that make up the insurgency thrive on sectarian animosities between Sunnis and Shi'ites, ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and ideological conflicts between secularists and Islamists. These same tensions, however, make it well-nigh impossible for the insurgency itself to develop a coherent program of its own. In other words, the insurgency cannot really "win" a civil war, its best hope is to cause virtually any cohesive governing body to chronically "lose." It can do this by exploiting the fissures in Iraqi society from which it draws power through provocations like the Golden Mosque bombing.

Herein lies the reasons why the US might theoretically contribute proactively to the defeat of the insurgency. As little hope as the insurgency has of actually taking over Iraq, it is devilishly hard to defeat. Virtually the only thing any force (the US or otherwise) could do to effectively contest the insurgency's anarchic onslaught is to throw up and fortify security cordons around key regions and sites of weighty symbolic significance like the Golden Mosque. If the insurgency can be prevented from launching provocative attacks it is likely to start hemmorhaging political capital and in time it will begin losing grass-roots supporters to the political process. This is in essence what Krepenevich calls the "oil spot" strategy; so-named because orderly government spreads out from the areas within the security cordons to the rest of the country like an "oil spot" expanding through a piece of cloth. I agree with Krepenevich that that strategy might be effectively pursued in defeat of the insurgency, though I would conceed that there is no telling how many months or years it would take to succeed. Moreover, I would (unlike Krepenevich) further admit that such a strategy would require twice the troops we have in Iraq right now, as the task of maintaining security cordons places a lower premium on mobility and firepower and requires a greater number of eyes and ears on the ground.

This last fact is the block upon which any plan to maintain the US troop presence in Iraq falters. If effectively prosecuting the counterinsurgency demands twice the number of troops we have now for an indeterminable period of time, we are forced to ask can we/will we make that commitment? The practical answer to either of these questions is an unequivocal no. From the very beginning the Bush administration has underestimated the difficulty of both the military challenge of controlling Iraq and the political challenge of managing public opinion about the conflict at home in the US. It is highly unlikely that the US public would ever have been willing to suffer twice the number of casualties we have suffered thus far, and any hope that they might support such a sacrifice was squandered by early Bush regime rhetoric about easy victory, WMD's, connections to Al Qaeda, and "mission accomplished." Most of the US public has lost faith in the Bush administration's competence to conduct the occupation of Iraq at current troop levels, any move to increase, much less double troop strength would cause a complete political meltdown here at home, thus precipitating precisely the immediate withdrawal so decried by supporters of the war.

Once one accepts that the US could only contribute to the defeat of the insurgency by doubling its troop presence and that that is a political impossibility the case for withdrawal becomes irrefutable. In the final analysis the struggles over when or how the Coalition withdraws or over whether the insurgency contracts or expands are both preliminaries to the real contest in Iraq. The real contest is over the final shape of the Iraqi state and over the distribution of powers and resources within the Iraqi nation. That contest is deferred until either a)the US commits the troops and resources necessary to genuinely participate in it (an impossibility) or b)the US withdraws from Iraq. The occupation of Iraq at current troop levels is a potentially endless stalemate, real change in Iraq awaits the break in that stalemate by one means or another.

The level of destructiveness of the Iraq conflict is likely to escalate in the immediate aftermath of a US withdrawal, but that fact is not in and of itself an argument against such a move. Indefinite stalemate is no more politically sustainable in the US than a doubling of troop strength, thus withdrawal is inevitable. The spike in violence after a US withdrawal is a "hard medicine (I am sensible of the distastefulness of referring to real human tragedy in such glib terms, but I can think of no better expression to convey my meaning)" that Iraq will have to take sooner or later, the best way the US can minimize the suffering of the Iraqi people is to break the stalemate sooner rather than later and in an orderly fashion (as opposed to the panicked rush to the exits that would follow a true political meltdown at home).

Opponents of the withdrawal might object that it could potentially lead to an insurgent victory, but there is no merit to this case. Once both the "fuel" provided to and the deterrence imposed upon the insurgency by the US occupation are removed, the insurgents will be left to sink or swim for themselves in the turbulent waters of Iraqi society and politics. Though the insurgency draws upon powerful entropic forces that might sustain it for a long while, its complete inability to produce a coherent program for a united Iraqi government makes their ultimate defeat inevitable. This fact more than any other argues compellingly for the wisdom of withdrawal.

Beyond this, there is one other condition that argues irrefutably for withdrawal, and this was my principal motivation for including an "update" to my last post. Though in writing about the Iraq conflict I am prone to discussing the US military in coldly factual and statistical terms, we must all remember that behind those facts and statistics are real human beings that are suffering and dying in our name and at our behest. However much one may have supported the initial invasion of Iraq, one must concede that it is fundamentally unfair to call upon our men and women in uniform to prosecute a mission that is locked in stalemate. If one accepts that the final result of the Iraq conflict will be similar whether the US withdraws over the next one year or ten, one is forced for the sake of our troops and the obligation we as a nation owe them to acknowledge the moral imperative to withdraw sooner rather than later.