Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Between Iraq and a hard place

Dedicated to the memory of Andrew Bacevich, Jr.

There's little to say about Iraq that hasn't already been said, although a lot of what has been said so far is nonsense. It's depressing to think about what's left to try and what might happen when US troops leave. Iraq is now experiencing a limited civil war - war with the emergency brake on. Without outside troops to serve as peacekeepers and deterrents, that civil war is almost certain to get much nastier before it ends. Stop thinking Vietnam; start thinking Lebanon, only bigger and badder. Already civil conflict in Iraq has stimulated one of the largest movements of Middle East refugees in the last century; only the Iran-Iraq and Soviet-Afghan wars of the 1980s were larger.

The essential practical problem is summarized by the words, "Too few troops." There have never been more than 150,000 coalition troops total, in a country of about 24 million - about four times too few by reasonable historical measures. Even excluding the fairly peaceful Kurdish north, that's one soldier per 130,000 population, still more than three times too few. And the Kurdish north is peaceful only because it has its own unified semi-professional militia to police it. A proper occupation of Iraq would require half a million soldiers. Such an army was available in 1990, but not today. Almost every problem from April 2003 on - the Sunni insurgency, the overuse of the National Guard and reserves, the misuse of non-uniformed contractors (the root cause of the Abu Ghraib scandal), etc., - is a result of "too few troops."

"Too few troops" means that the troops now there are just enough to serve as targets, but not enough to provide a consistently successful counterforce. The so-called "surge" cannot mitigate that outcome except in a limited and temporary way - "here and there for a while." The cruel irony of this situation is that, while Iraq has too few troops for a classical occupation of overwhelming force (like Yugoslavia in the 1990s or Germany and Japan in the 1940s), it has too many for a classical counterinsurgency. The latter strategy would need about 20 to 30,000 troops, with few support troops, no Green Zone or "force protection" (Pentagonese for "build a fort and stay inside"), no typically American long logistical tail, and so on.* Americans have used this strategy before - in the Philippines and in Vietnam - and, to the extent it was tried, it worked. The British did it even more successfully in Malaysia in the 1950s, a positive contrast to the contemporary French mess in Indochina and Algeria.**

If you're expecting me to complain about WMDs, I won't, because the issue is entirely irrelevant. If Saddam had restarted his advanced weapons programs, and the coalition had bulldozed them into the Euphrates in April 2003, the situation a few months later would not have differed in the slightest from what it's actually become. The core problem of the Bush thinking was not WMDs, but magical thinking: the fantasy that Iraq would instantly snap into functioning as a modern state after Saddam was deposed. In fact, Iraq is an artificial country assembled, like Yugoslavia, after World War One and held together only by strongmen and intimidation. Remove the intimidation and, surprise, surprise, you get a civil war.

What's happening now in and around Baghdad (where virtually all of the violence occurs) is the long-postponed, final disintegration of another piece of the Ottoman empire. The process started long ago in the early 19th century, when Greece and Serbia became independent. The European part of the disintegration didn't finally end until the war in Kosovo in 1999. As historian Niall Ferguson points out in his recent, depressing tome, War of the World, virtually all of the massive violence of the last century has been concentrated in and around the world's long-lasting empires, as they underwent collapse or internal revolution. The first, European wave of violence ran from the late 19th century to the 1950s; the second ran from the late 1950s through the 1990s and, in the Middle East and Africa at least, hasn't ended yet.

In and around Baghdad, the practical result is the influx of Shi'ites and the outflux of Sunnis. The Sunnis were about 18% of Iraq's population in 2003, although they had virtually all of the power; now they're down to 16% and dropping. Such ethnic cleansing is one of the most regular features of the familiar and dreary script of empire-disintegration covered in mind-numbing detail by Ferguson. The 2003 invasion enabled the return of the Shi'ites (mainly from Iran). The 2005 Iraqi elections made it clear just how large the Shi'ite population is and that the Sunnis would never regain their control of the country; the Sunni exodus ensued.

There are many lessons to take away from this debacle. Some of them have already been preached by others, so I'll mention a few of my own here.
  • Don't put soldiers in impossible situations. Soldiers will take big risks and die for feasible goals. It's criminal to put them in a bottomless tunnel with no exit.
  • If another military action should prove necessary in the near future - for example, against Iran - it must be, like the wars in Yugoslavia and the bulk of the Persian Gulf war, an air-naval war, involving no ground troops. Ground troops should be sent in only on condition of an organized and complete surrender of enemy forces, with some continuity of government.
  • Think long and hard before "uncorking" another bottle under high pressure. For example, Iran is only about half Persian; the rest is Azeri Turk and Arab.
  • Resist the temptation to play favorites. The goal of peacemaking, if and when it becomes possible, should be that no one side wins outright. For example, the Iraqi Sunnis will never again control Iraq and dominate the Shi'ites the way they did between 1931 and 2003; but that doesn't give the Shi'ites license to trample all over the Sunnis. No place in the world is more prone to endless and often pointless payback than the Middle East; no need to stimulate more.
  • Avoid being used by and taking information from only one faction in someone else's civil war without having a larger, independent picture. Develop your own sources and analysis of intelligence. Otherwise, you're flying blind in a dark cloud.
And it would help to have an administration not permeated by the frat boy spirit. At the frat house, you can get by cheating on homework and exams and calling home for more money; in the real world, Daddy's not always there to bail you out.
* Such a counterinsurgency proposal was contained in an important Atlantic article by Bing West, journalist, Vietnam veteran, and author of No True Glory, one of the best books to emerge from the current Iraq war.

** Part of the reason the British decolonization strategy worked was because the British were clear that their post-1945 goal was indeed successful decolonization, not holding on indefinitely as the French tried to. Since the Treaty of Versailles changed the equation of empires versus nations in 1919 with Wilson's principle of "self-determination," every empire has acquired a built-in time limit. Only China's is left.

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