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.


Ahistoricality said...

This is one of the best arguments for withdrawal that I've seen, and yet I remain -- in the short term at least -- unconvinced. Two reasons:

1. The US domestic political equation: I don't agree that US popular support for our efforts in Iraq must necessarily collapse as casualties rise, particularly if there is a continuing sense that Iraq is some kind of national security issue. People don't like casualties, but they don't like looking like cowards or the uncertainty of post-withdrawal politics, either, particularly when economic health is at stake.

2. The idea that post-withdrawal Iraqi politics would necessarily settle down (after the initial upsurge in violence) assumes that the US is the only significant "fuel" which would not be replaced by something else. I'm thinking specifically of Iraq's neighbor states, each of which has a stake in a particular outcome in the struggle to define Iraqi identity and polity. They've already been supplying men and materials, and in the absence of US border security and US targets to invite retaliation on their heads directly, I suspect their interference would increase.

I don't have a stake in a unified Iraq, particularly, but it calls into question, for me, the notion that withdrawal would necessarily be better, long term, than the continuation of the "stalemate" we are presently stuck in.

Food for thought.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Ahistoricality,

Thanks for the feedback. I'll keep your thoughts in mind as events play out.

I have a different sense of the temperature of public opinion. I don't think Bush's approval numbers would be nearly as low as they are now (even with Katrina) were it not for the Iraq war, and I think that US casualties are what weigh heaviest in people's minds. You are probably right that the public doesn't want to look like cowards or risk economic harm, but they will not necessarily view rising casualty numbers in that context. Even if they did I don't know that you would be smart to bet on their compliance. At the outset of the war polls showed that most Americans viewed the invasion of Iraq as an essential response to the 9/11 attacks, even then when asked if they would support a mission that caused high US casualties they answered "no."

As for your second concern, about the opportunistic machinations of Iraq's neighbors, while I would grant that it is a real issue, I don't agree that it merits maintaining an indefinite stalemate in Iraq. Countries like Iran and Syria have a single clear logistical advantage over the US- proximity. But in all other respects they are so much less powerful than America that it is reasonable to infer that they will not succeed where the US failed (i.e. in imposing a political resolution of their own devising). Yes, there interference is likely to cause the insurgency/civil war to go on longer and be more destructive, but they are not likely to produce an outcome significantly different than what would occur had they not interfered. If a monster like Saddam Hussein could rally enough support to contest Iranian power for almost a decade a democratically elected government (even one that includes pro-Iranian factions) seems likely to ultimately succeed in asserting Iraqi autonomy in the face of any schemes by its neighbors.

Ahistoricality said...

Looks like this guy would agree with you, at least about the civil war.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Ahistoricality,

Thanks for the link. I don't find much in Miller's analysis with which I would agree, my latest post lays out the reasons why.