Sunday, April 15, 2007
Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq II
In February of last year the Golden Mosque of Samarra was destroyed. In the rubble of that blast could be seen the whole future history of the Iraq crisis until now. That attack was the single most successful tactical strike launched by any party in the Iraq conflict. It reshaped the entire political and military situation of Iraq and created repercussions that continue to reverberate powerfully today.
Last Thursday a truck bomb destroyed the monumental al-Sarafiya bridge across the Tigris River in Baghdad. On the same day a suicide bomber struck the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament, killing one person, the Sunni Parliamentarian Muhammad Awad. The Islamic State of Iraq, a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for both attacks. In the same way that the rubble of the Golden Mosque portended much that has transpired in the last year, in the twisted girders of the al-Sarafiya bridge and the destruction of the Parliament cafeteria one can see the future of President Bush's Baghdad security plan. Neither attack will likely prove to have achieved the enduring tactical effect of the Samarra bombing, but taken together they evince systemic problems that will likely prove the security plan unworkable.
Defenders of the Bush plan have pointed to measurable successes that have been achieved in its early phases. Unfortunately, those successes have been mainly in the realm of reducing sectarian violence perpetrated by Shi'ite militias throughout the capital. Until now it has been statistically unclear whether or not the security plan and its US troop increase has been having a measurable impact upon the other grave security concern in Baghdad: bombing attacks by Sunni insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq. These latest bomb attacks cast serious doubt on any positive assessment of the effectiveness of the security plan in this latter realm.
Keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets is a task for which the mobility and firepower advantages of the US military provide effective leverage. Though the capability of the Shi'ite militias to "go to ground" would make it very difficult for US forces to completely neutralize them, any standing "hot war" conflict with the US would cost the militias dearly in manpower and material resources, as prior conflicts between the US and the Mahdi Army have shown. The commitment of new US forces to Baghdad has thus succeeded in making the militias "blink," and turn down the heat in their campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The challenge of protecting Baghdadis from suicide and car bombers, however, is one for which the technological dominance of the US military provides less advantage. The destructive combat power of US troops provides no deterrent or genuine protection against those who are already resolved to die. As the insurgent attacks themselves require little in the way of personnel or materials, ramping up the US troop presence in the capital does not really increase the strategic risks for the insurgency. Whether they succeeded by blind luck or careful planning, Thursday's attacks registered points that cannot be ignored by anyone observing or experiencing the security situation in Baghdad. The attack on the al-Sarafiya bridge demonstrated that the insurgency can target vital infrastructure and materially degrade the conditions necessary for effective policing of the capital. The attack on the Parliament showed that the insurgency can penetrate the areas where the strictest security measures have already been put in place, sowing doubt that the security plan will be able to make the ordinary citizens of greater Baghdad, where nothing even approaching such strict measures have yet to be implemented, any safer.
In defending against attacks like those on Parliament or the al-Sarafiya bridge no technology exists that can genuinely stand in place of observant eyes and ears on the ground, scanning for suspicious activity. On this principle it would be difficult to know how many troops would be "enough." In a city of six million people, how many soldiers would create enough vigilance to prevent attacks like those of last Thursday? One can choose whatever number one desires- double, triple, or quadruple the number of US soldiers called for in the current plan. It would be impossible to know the effectiveness of such numbers until they were implemented. Such speculation is in any case moot, as the recent extension of Iraq tours for US units from 12 to 15 months suggests that at the levels programmed into the current security plan the US military is already working at something close to its maximum threshold. Moreover, the security plan itself puts US forces into a paradoxical bind. In expending manpower and energy on keeping Shi'ite militias off the streets, the US is intensifying the difficulty of warding off the insurgency. Without the eyes and ears provided by militia forces, the burden placed upon US soldiers to stand sentinel against insurgent attacks becomes even greater.
Senator John McCain is quoted in today's New York Times as supporting Mr. Bush's security plan, declaring that he has no "Plan B" for how to ameliorate the crisis in Iraq. In real terms the security plan itself is in fact probably "Plan X" or "Plan Y" if one counts through all of the various shifts in tactics and policy attempted by the Bush regime since the invasion of 2003. What Thursday's attacks demonstrate is not merely the weaknesses of this latest plan, but that there should never have been a "Plan A"- the invasion of Iraq- in the first place.
As much as this is true, one must note that there is another sign to be read in the rubble of the Iraqi Parliament and the al-Sarafiya bridge. Though these attacks target an irredeemable vulnerability of Mr. Bush's security plan, they also evince the strategic and moral impoverishment of the insurgency. Any movement grounded so firmly in gratuitous destruction has little long-term chance of enduring success. One must keep in mind that the political forces which perpetrated these attacks only possess the traction that they do in Iraqi society because the US invasion opened up a space for them. The US can thus go a long way toward eroding that traction by constructively disengaging from Iraq. This is the "Plan B" that Mr. McCain fails to grasp, though in fairness there seem to be few leaders on either side of the partisan divide in the US who do.