Friday, November 03, 2006

Right Where They Want Us

As the midterm election draws nigh the Bush administration remains on message concerning the Iraq conflict: the US cannot withdraw troops before "we get the job done." Democratic rejoinders about the ill wisdom of "staying the course" are weak at best, as they might be taken to imply that the US should not "stay the course" because it cannot "get the job done." This latter prospect cannot be appealing to voters however persuaded they are of the shortcomings of the Bush Iraq policy, and Democrats would be better served by pointing out why Bush's "get the job done" injunction simply does not make sense.

Bush rhetoric immediately raises two questions for which there are no simple answers: 1)what job? 2)what can the US do that it has not already done to "get the job done?" Bush defenders might insist that there is a clear answer to question one: foster a free and a stable Iraq. But that still leaves unanswered what problems must be overcome to get there, and in that respect it must be acknowledged that if the US troops are in fact to proactively work toward that end they must accomplish three jobs: 1)end the violent ethnic cleansing campaign being waged by Shi'ite militias; 2)defeat the Sunni insurgency; 3)dislodge the foreign jihadists.

Once one acknowledges that US troops in Iraq are faced with three jobs, not one, it soon becomes clear that they will not be able to accomplish any of them by staying in Iraq. The first job of ending the Shi'ite ethnic cleansing campaign is manifestly beyond the strategic reach of US forces. This weeks' standoff between CentCom and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki makes clear a trend that has become increasingly evident these past months- the US military does not have the full cooperation of the Iraqi government in its anti-militia operations, an obstruction which will preclude success in those endeavors.

The second job of defeating the Sunni insurgency is also out of reach of US forces as they are currently deployed, a fact that US Centcom itself acknowledges. This is the crux of the "stand up, stand down" policy- only when the Iraqi Army and police reach full combat readiness, so goes the Bush strategy, will there be enough troops in place to defeat the insurgency. But as the length of the Iraq conflict draws even with that of the US participation in WWII the proposition that more time will yield more or better Iraqi soldiers grows increasingly absurd. By now a significant number of US soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad had never fired a weapon prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unless an Iraqi for some reasons requires 3 or 4 times as much training as an American to be made into a soldier more time on the current tack is not going to create a significant change in the strategic trajectory of the counterinsurgency.

With regards to jobs 1 and 2 the plain fact is that they will only be accomplished by the withdrawal, not the continued deployment of US troops. Iraqi soldiers will only begin to make headway against the Sunni insurgency when they have true strategic and tactical autonomy. As long as the Iraqi Army remains dependent on the air, armor and artillery support of the US military the denizens of the Sunni triangle will continue to tacitly support the insurgents. Only when it has its own tanks, planes and guns will the Sunnis view the Iraqi Army as a serious and permanent force with which they are compelled to deal, and only then will a negotiated resolution to the Sunni insurgency be achievable.
In the same vein, the Iraqi government and army will never feel compelled to deal politically with the problem of the Shi'ite militias as long as the US military remains to shield them from the consequences of their neglect. Only as the US withdraws and Iraqi authorities are forced to weigh the competing priorities of defusing the Sunni insurgency and placating the Shi'ite militias against one-another will the Iraqi government and army move aggressively to disarm groups like the Mahdi Army.

In many American assessments of the Iraq war, job number 3 is the "clincher" concern that compels the US to keep its troops in Iraq despite all other reasons to withdraw. The foreign jihadists now based in Iraq are lethal enemies of the US, and it would be disastrous if they could ever develop a stable base in Iraq from which they could plan and launch 9/11-type attacks against US soil. As real as that concern is, it must be viewed against two factors:

1)Keeping US troops in Iraq to hunt down jihadists is simply not a tactically viable mission. US Centcom estimates that foreign jihadists make up 5-7% of the insurgency,thus asking our troops to hunt them in the vast expanse and dense society of the Sunni triangle and Baghdad is effectively sending them after a needle in a haystack. More concretely, we would be sending our soldiers to search for the needle with a flamethrower, and the "hay" in which it was hidden would be the Iraqi people. With so few boots on the ground and so little intelligence-gathering assets in place the only thing our troops could accomplish would be to further anger and alienate the Iraqis and thus make the very terrain in which they were operating more dangerous for themselves and more welcoming to the jihadists.

2)The history of Iraq shows that the ONLY condition that gives the jihadists any purchase in Iraq is the presence of US soldiers. As long as a critical mass of Iraqi society is angered at the US presence in Iraq the jihadists' suicidal malevolence makes them welcome allies of anti-Coalition forces. If and when the US pulls out, however, the jihadists' militancy for an Islamic state and their willingness to provoke foreign nations to further ideological ends will make their welcome in the relatively secular and nationalist society of Sunni Iraq expire very quickly.

Again, the plain fact is that the jihadists have us right where they want us. As long as US soldiers remain in Iraq the jihadists' toehold in Iraqi society remains firm, once the US leaves the Iraqis will pass them like a kidney stone. Bush critics who want to defuse the political efficacy of Bush's rhetoric must expose the rotten logical foundations upon which it rests. The one card the US has left to play to get anything like "the job" done in Iraq is a staged withdrawal, and the longer the US waits to begin that strategy the lower its prospects of success will sink.

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