Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop Chasing Victory; Start Making Sense in Iraq

The time for US leaders and citizens to cease imagining the Iraq crisis in terms of "winning" and "losing" has long past. The US faces no tangible enemy that it may defeat in Iraq. Conversely, virtually any potential "victory" for US foes involves such suffering and loss for the putative "victor" that to call such a triumph "Pyrrhic" would be a ludicrous understatement. The Coalition mission right now, to the extent that it has any coherent and viable motive principle, is not a military or even a political contest in any meaningful sense. US leaders must stop using the logic and rhetoric of competition and begin to conceptualize and articulate the Iraq mission as a nation-building enterprise. Only when the US and its allies realize that they need to help make Iraq, not war, will any path to resolution of this crisis emerge.

Though erroneous logic prevails in almost all corners of the US discourse on Iraq, any review of the reigning climate of confusion must begin with the Bush regime. Though Mr. Bush and his subordinates speak constantly of "victory," they give no specific definition of what such a state would entail. "A free and democratic Iraq" is too vague to serve as any standard. Iraq already has as democratic a government as it has ever enjoyed and freedom is running riot through the streets of its cities and towns, yet no one could call the current state of affairs "victory." The shape of Bush "victory" must be inferred from the negative spaces in Bush rhetoric.

Mr. Bush's refusal to state definitively that the US desires no permanent troop presence in Iraq would seem to indicate that such a permanent troop presence is precisely one of his fundamental criteria of "victory." Right now in order to remain in Iraq the US must tolerate the death of about 50-150 US soldiers per month. Mr. Bush seemingly intends to fight until this number reaches zero. Once Iraq is no longer hostile terrain for the US military "victory" will have been secured.

The first question one must ask of such a "victory" is how one reaches it. After four years of occupation Iraq is deadlier terrain for US soldiers today than it was in March of 2003. Undaunted, the US military has implemented a new "counterinsurgency" doctrine. Such a doctrine is no doubt quite useful in addressing the tactical problems faced day-to-day by US units operating in Iraq. But a "counterinsurgency" strategy will not win through to any enduring victory.

The task of fighting the insurgency in Iraq is bedevilled for US soldiers by the fact that the insurgency is not fighting the US, nor is it compelled to. The insurgents have no ultimate stake in whether or how long the US remains in Iraq, their one critical task is to prevent the success of the constitutional government in Baghdad. Some insurgent attacks on US soldiers are no doubt motivated by anti-American feeling, and all such attacks are useful to the insurgents as propaganda among certain Iraqi constituencies. But the insurgency is not bound to any timetable or specific "to do" list in its strategic orientation toward the US military. The insurgents may attack the US if and when they choose to, very little is at stake if the insurgents choose not to attack US soldiers on any given occasion or in any given period.

Herein lies a deeply intractable conundrum for the US military: how does one fight an opponent who is only incidentally interested in fighting oneself? The liabilities of this conflict are stacked almost exclusively on the side of the US, and US assets of firepower and mobility are trumped by insurgent advantages of local knowledge, time flexibility, and logistical proximity. Beyond this, the US military finds itself locked in the jaws of a Catch-22 that could spin Yossarian's head clear off his shoulders:

The US is fighting the insurgency;

the insurgency is fighting the government;

the continued US military presence undermines the government's legitimacy,


Every tactical move the US military makes against the insurgency, whether it inflicts damage upon the insurgents or not, aids the insurgency in its struggle against the government.

This situation would be bad enough, and would argue strongly against the practicability of a plan for the type of "victory" the Bush administration is chasing. This analysis only begins to enumerate the complexities faced by the US military in Iraq, however. If the insurgency was the Coalition's only worry "victory" might be imaginable in some impossibly rosy best-case scenario. But the insurgency is by far the easiest of the challenges confronting the US and its allies. Even as the insurgency fights to destroy the government the US helped establish, elements of that same government are mobilized to assault both the Coalition and the larger fabric of Iraqi civil society. Paramilitaries such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army cannot properly be called "insurgents," in that they are deeply implicated in the political process the Coalition is fighting to protect. Yet such Shi'ite militias rampage through major urban centers throughout central and southern Iraq, killing Sunni civilians and Coalition soldiers in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing punctuated by occasional expressions of anti-foreign rage.

In essence, the US military has been tasked with protecting a government that does not yet exist even in embryo. Elections have been held and cabinet posts filled , but exquisitely convoluted battles rage over which institutions will hold real power in Iraq and who will be authorized to speak for those institutions. One small corner of this drama has been playing out in Diwaniyah (80 miles south of Baghdad), where US and Iraqi Army forces have been locked in battle with the Mahdi Army for three days, inciting anti-US protests among Shi'ites throughout southern Iraq. The proximal cause for this conflict was an assault by the Mahdi Army upon the municipal police headquarters of Diwaniyah. Was this attack motivated by anti-US feeling? Anti-Sunni hatred? None of the above. The Mahdi Army targeted the Diwaniyah police because they had been infiltrated and were controlled by the Badr Corps, a rival Shi'ite militia under the leadership of Ayatollah Aziz al-Hakim. The struggle in Diwaniyah is thus not ultimately over whether the US will remain in Iraq or even what role the Shi'ite clergy will enjoy in Iraq's new order. It is over what groups within the Shi'ite community will be authorized to represent the Shi'ite clergy in the political arena.

Convoluted as it undoubtedly is, the Diwaniyah incident embodies only one of myriad such volatile schisms which riddle every element of Iraqi society. Individually, either extinguishing the insurgency OR putting a stop to interethnic and interpartisan violence would most likely have proven beyond the capacity of the US and its allies to accomplish militarily. Together they present a completely insurmountable strategic task.

What can or should be done? Though the Bush strategy for "victory" is logically bereft, Mr. Bush's critics among the Democrats have come up with little better in the way of long-term proactive thinking. Democratic leaders like Senator Carl Levin talk of setting political "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet, but this is in effect an altered form of the same kind of "win-lose" game theory propounded by the Bush White House. In the same way the Bush White House cannot explain how deploying US troops can make Iraq safer for US troops, Mr. Levin cannot explain how a government that cannot defend itself meets "benchmarks" or what effect it will produce should it do so. Senator Hilary Clinton (among other Democratic leaders) has proposed ideas that combine all of the worst elements of the Bush strategy with none of its merits. She would withdraw most US troops from Iraq and leave a small contingent behind to fight Al Qaeda, thus completely subverting the chances of the nascent Iraqi government by treating Iraq as a geostrategic chessboard for the furtherance of US interests. Iraq would burn bright and hot as US troops engaged in a wild goose chase that could do little damage to Al Qaeda and bring even less security to the US.

The situation in Iraq is so complex that not only are positive steps difficult to conceive, developing criteria by which progress toward some goal might be measured is virtually impossible. If US casualties were the only significant gauge of "victory" or "defeat" some murky picture might be discernible. But such numbers exist alongside and are ultimately eclipsed by the 2,800+ Iraqis who have died per month over the last year of the conflict (according to UN figures). In relative terms this is the equivalent of more than 36,000 US citizens dying violently per month. Iraq is a society in cataclysmic and self-devouring collapse. All notions of US "victory" or "defeat" are rendered meaningless by this glaring and tragic fact, and all other goals are superseded by the urgent necessity of turning Iraq back toward sustainable stability.

The Coalition must abandon all notions of "victory" and focus exclusively on this latter goal of returning Iraq to stability. The strategic principles that should guide such a nation-building effort are:

1) Coalition casualties are a less important gauge of success than Iraqi civilian casualties. All policies should be focused on reducing the number of Iraqi deaths in the long term, even if it requires a short term rise in Coalition casualties.

2)All aspirations for a permanent US military presence in Iraq must be abandoned. The ultimate strategic goal of the US should be to disengage from Iraq in the manner that affords that nation its best chances for enduring stability.

3)Aspirations for a cease of hostilities against US forces must be abandoned. Not only will it be impossible for US forces to stay in Iraq, no exit will be possible free of continued lethal violence against US personnel. Iraq will remain provisionally lethal terrain for US soldiers until the day the last soldier departs, our best hope is for that departing soldier to leave behind an Iraqi government and military that can survive and ultimately restore order.

4)Aspirations to bring a total end to the insurgency and/or interethnic and interpartisan violence before the final departure of Coalition forces must be abandoned. Though the number of Iraqi civilian deaths should stand as the ultimate gauge of policy success in Iraq, the US and its allies must be prepared to see that number hold steady and perhaps even rise immediately after Coalition forces depart Iraq. The goal of nation-building should not be to force a Pax Americana on Iraqi society, but to help foster the creation of an Iraqi state authority that will, over time, be able to bring Iraqi society into order. Though the Coalition may take (and has taken) steps to help create such an authority, it may only fully establish itself after Coalition troops have fully withdrawn.

5)The US should embrace the goal of full autonomy for the Iraqi state and military, and undertake all risk and expense necessary to supply the Iraqi government and army with all the economic and military assets it will need to assert and defend its authority. The US should abandon self-serving interests such as privatization of Iraq's oil markets if it will aid the Iraqis in coming to a political settlement that will strengthen the foundations of government authority.

These are the basic principles of what I would term a strategy of nation-building rather than "victory." In several posts below I have outlined specific policies that would help advance such a strategy toward potential, provisional success.

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