Friday, June 02, 2006

Haditha Tragedy

U.S. soldiers entered a town after the enemy had surrendered. A group of unarmed civilians accused of looting were gathered together in a bombed-out factory and summarily shot. Among the dead were children.

The town was Canicatti, Sicily during July of 1943. The soldiers were military policemen serving under the command of General George S. Patton. Accounts of what happened at Canicatti differ, but the evidence leaves little doubt that a terrible atrocity was committed and that it was tightly covered up by the US high command at the time.

More recent events at Haditha, Iraq come to light in a superpoliticized atmosphere and are sure to deepen the partisan divide between those who support the Bush policy and those who do not. Arguments over what happened or who is to blame add little moral clarity to what is, in the final analysis, an ineffable human tragedy. Beyond this, no amount of moral clarity will do much to illuminate the significance of Haditha for the Coalition mission in Iraq.

Juxtaposing Haditha with Canicatti helps clarify its broader ramifications in ways that no amount of wrangling over the specific tragedy can. Rightly or wrongly, the growing public perception in both Iraq and the US is that something comparable to (or worse than) the massacre at Canicatti transpired in Haditha. If, in fact, such a horror did occur it no more serves as a blanket indictment of the Coalition mission in Iraq than Canicattti does of the Allied mission in World War II. However, the strategic significance of Haditha does infinitely outweigh that of Canicatti because of the structural differences between the Iraq conflict and World War II.

World War II was a war of position and maneuver, it was decided by the deployment and engagement of large capital assets (tanks, guns, planes ships) over strategically critical terrain. There were some political dimensions of the conflict, but the concretely military aspects of the war were vastly more important in determining victory and defeat. The number of incidents like Canicatti committed by the Allies could have been doubled or tripled and it would not have had a material effect on the outcome of the war.

The same cannot be said of the Iraq war. The phase of the Iraq conflict that resembled WWII ended after the short weeks in which Saddam Hussein's army was tactitly routed. The conflict since then has not been a war of position and maneuver (though the Bush adminsitratioin has been inclined to treat it as such), but a long, hard counterinsurgency. Like WWII the Iraq counterinsurgency has both political and military dimensions, but in the case of Iraq their relative importance to the outcome of the conflict are inverted. The old saw is no less true for being by now cliche- counterinsurgency warfare is 80% political, 20% military.

Thus though one could have doubled or tripled the number of atrocities committed by US troops in World War II without retarding the Allies' strategic position, every act of misconduct in Iraq costs the Coalition dearly. The only hope of victory in Iraq is to bleed the insurgency of civilian support and political legitimacy, and rightly or wrongly every act of misconduct by Coalition forces solidifies the insurgents'support and political standing. This was a hard reality that the US and its allies faced coming into the Iraq conflict, and it is a central fact driving events now.

Where a dozen Canicattis may not have been enough to sink the Allied war effort, in the wake of Abu Ghraib Haditha is one tragedy too many for the Coalition. The actual events of Haditha are in some respects moot by now in this regard- Premier Maliki's unequivocal excoriation of the Coalition troops demonstrates that the Iraqi public has already rendered its verdict. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the Iraqi government would distance itself so urgently from the very soldiers it relies on to maintain order.

Does this mean that the Coalition mission is now doomed to failure and the insurgency will win? No- the insurgency will never possess the coherence and substantive political and military assets necessary to conquer, much less govern, Iraq. But the strategic efficacy of the Coalition force is severely depleted in the long term. One year ago doubling the number of Coalition soldiers in Iraq (in concert with progress in the nascent Iraqi political process) might have had some hope of turning the strategic tide against the insurgency. Now that hope is gone- no troop increase can have any positive impact given the political handicap under which the Coalition must now work. The only viable strategic option left open to the Coalition now is a staged withdrawal undertaken in tandem with a redoubled effort to help build strong Iraqi political, economic, and social institutions to lay the foundations for order and peace as Coalition soldiers depart.


Anonymous said...

"Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why the Iraqi government would distance itself so urgently from the very soldiers it relies on to maintain order."

Perhaps this new government finds itself between the Scylla and Charybdis of popular opinion and Realpolitik.

Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine suggested this yesterday (6/2/2006) in his segment on Washington Week: (starting at 'Two Dozen...')

The Iraqi government needs Coalition support but also needs to maintain "street cred" -- and thus, perhaps, its criticism of the Coalition. One hopes there is back-channel dialog with the Coalition that differs from the public rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

When you say "No- the insurgency will never possess the coherence and substantive political and military assets necessary to conquer, much less govern, Iraq." it makes me wonder do you have a crystal ball that allows you to see the future. Up until that point I agree with much of your argument. However, I believe that in a world where tommorrow is never promised to any of us a historian should hold off on making blanket predictions based on how things stand in the current moment.

Any number of events could occur that swing Iraq towards the growing insurgency. The fact is the longer the battle goes on the more chances the insurgency will get to win. Especially as the enemy troops they are fighting are thousands of miles away from their homes and always have the option of packing up their ships and returning home. The insurgents however are fighting for power over their home land and therefore have a more vested interest than the common coalition professional soldier.

Just a thought that maybe an insurgency victory is not so far fetched. Stranger things have surely happened.

Madman of Chu said...

Dear Anonymous,

Your criticism is quite valid. History is not a predictive science, and I should have at least qualified my assertion with a phrase like "in my estimation," "by my reckoning..." That being said, let me give my reasons for believing as I do:

1)I feel we must try as much as possible to view the Iraq insurgency in terms of *domestic* Iraqi politics. Yes, the insurgents draw unity and momentum from anti-US sentiment, but that is clearly not their overriding strategic concern. If driving out the US was the chief goal of the insurgency they would not have opted for tactics (like the Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra) that preclude making common cause with other anti-US elements (Iran, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army). The insurgency is fighting as much (more, in fact) to undermine the nascent Baghdad government as it is to drive out the US. These goals are linked but not identical.

2) Viewed in this light, one must ask whether the insurgents have a chance of defeating the Baghdad government, especially once the US withdraws. Pressure might force a dissolution of the government, but even then the current insurgents would be left to fight against the fragments that emerge from the split. Taken as a whole the insurgency is quite marginal within the Iraqi political field, as demonstrated by the heavy presence of foreign leadership among the insurgents and broad Sunni participation in recent elections. The insurgency as a whole is far smaller than the larger fragments that would emerge from a breakup in Baghdad (SCIRI, the Mahdi Army, the Kurdish Pesh Murga). Moreover, the insurgency is a hodgepodge of groups pursuing radically divergent agendas. No one of them can craft a coherent program that stands any chance of drawing a critical mass of support that could win through, either against the Baghdad government or in a war of "all against all" that might result from a general government meltdown.

It is true that if the situation became fluid enough some groups that currently compose the insurgency *might* ally with splinter groups peeling off the Baghdad regime to produce a coalition that might win through, but that possibility seems less and less likely in the wake of the Samarra bombing.

Madman of Chu said...

P.S. One further note by way of clarification-

Seriously examining the contest between the Coalition and the insurgency from the perspective of Iraqi domestic politics compels the recognition that it is not a zero-sum game. In other words, when I declare that I am confident the insurgents cannot win I am not expressing certainty that the Coalition cannot lose. There are plenty of scenarios in which everyone loses- the tragedy of course being that it is the Iraqi people who will pay the heaviest price if that is the case. Two trends seem evident to me- 1)The insurgency will not end as long as the US military is in Iraq; 2)the insurgency will never form a stable Iraqi state on its own. Beyond that I would not venture to predict what will occur. Once the US withdraws, with leadership, initiative, and vision the Baghdad government might rally itself to impose order and defeat the insurgency (though there is no telling how many years that might take). Alternatively, the Baghdad government might collapse under the pressure of the insurgency and throw the country into years or decades of anarchy and civil war. The only thing that seems clear to me right now in the wake of Haditha is that the US cannot impose a particular outcome militarily.