Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

18 November 2005

Our War in the Shadows: Can We Succeed by Withdrawing?


Since ancient times, the best advice in war is “know thy enemy.” That means much more than knowing how your enemy fights. In a complex war like the one in Iraq it means---most of all---knowing who the enemy is and why he fights.

After thirty months of war, do we know these things about Iraq's insurgents? The best answer is “probably not.” We don't even know whether they are mostly foreign fighters trained by the likes of Bin Laden and Al Zarqawi, or mostly Baathist Sunnis trying to rule by force again. Inside the U.S., the answer depends on whom you ask. In Iraq, the field commander says simply, “We don't know.”

A whole lot depends upon the answers. If foreign fighters fuel the insurgency, then an early phased withdrawal may be the best thing we could do. Our presence in Iraq is a magnet for foreign fighters and the source of their religious zeal.

As every jihadi from Bin Laden to Al Zarqawi has warned, the primary goal of their jihad is forcing “infidels” from Muslim lands. Take the “infidels” away, and Iraqis will start thinking seriously about what kind of future they really want. Do these largely secular, long-suffering people really want to be ruled by a clone of the Taliban? Do they want another cruel strong man like Saddam Hussein? Or do they want an unruly, contentious, noisy democracy like the one beginning to take root?

It's hard to believe that people who by then will have gone to the polls in large numbers three times will knowingly choose any option but the last. Likely native Iraqis will deal with the foreign jihadis as an immune system deals with pathogens. The body politic will reject them and expel or exterminate them. Shia and Sunni will unite to take back their lives and their country.

If, on the other hand, the Baathist Sunnis are the insurgency, the outcome may be different, at least initially. Our phased withdrawal could embolden the Sunnis. Perhaps the civil war that is now smoldering at every army recruiting and police station might break into flames of open combat. Then our “democracy” project might be in jeopardy.

For several decades, Baathists in Iraq and Syria have had a crude but effective policy: kill to rule. They are effective killers, among the most ruthless in human history. They rule by threatening opponents with death and carrying out those threats as often as necessary. The Hariri assassination in Lebanon, allegedly ordered by Syria, is but one of many examples.

Saddam's biography is also instructive. He left his hometown of Tikrit, with a gun in his hand, after murdering a rival and getting away with it. He blew out the brains of a member of his own cabinet, in the middle of a cabinet meeting, after hearing something that sounded disloyal. He had his own son-in-law murdered, luring him back from exile by false promsises and threats to his family. In short, Saddam was the biggest, baddest guy on the block. A devotee of Stalin, he had a simple and terrifying message: “Cross me and die.”

Some facts on the ground do suggest a bloody Baathist hand guiding the insurgency. For a time, appalling numbers of the Iraqi Army's fresh Shiite recruits were murdered, execution style. Sometimes they died on their way home from enlisting. News reports did not say whether they were armed. (It may have been hard to tell, for of course the killers would have taken any arms after executing the victims.) But even if only some of victims were armed, their “execution” without a fight suggests that their murderers were Baathist Iraqis initially posing as “friends.” It is hard to see how foreign jihadis---who speak, act, and dress differently and have foreign accents in Arabic---could have gotten close enough to execute a whole platoon of fresh recruits without a fight.

Two other facts also suggest a Baathist hand in the insurgency. First, the insurgency has been strongest in Sunni areas, such as Tikrit, Fallujah, and the western part of Anbar Province. Second, it has been weakest in areas where Shiites predominate. There the insurgency lacks the “oxygen” of local support, protection and cover that insurgents need to survive. Baghdad has seen the worst of the insurgency, for there Sunni and Shia live side by side; the one can prey on the other and hide in the shadows.

We therefore should assume that a bloody Baathist hand is at least guiding and supporting the insurgency and perhaps providing its motive force. If that is so, what would be the consequences of a phased withdrawal be?

Our worst fear is that the Shia would quickly fall, democracy would die, and a new Sunni Baathist strongman would arise to rule by killing. There is some basis for this fear, for the Shia appear far more skilled at praying than at fighting. Saddam slaughtered the Marsh Arabs; Muqtada al Sadr and his “Mahdi Militia” proved no match for Coalition troops; and bands of fresh Shia recruits have allowed themselves to be executed without a fight. All this makes Shia look like sheep meekly waiting for the Baathist wolves to strike again.

Yet many facts on the ground also suggest this fear is overblown. Shia strongholds like Basra and Najaf are relatively secure. The Shia hold large plots of contiguous territory. They have a wise and moderate religious leader in Ayatollah Sistani. Somehow, they have been able to keep him alive and well despite his being an obvious target for Baathist agents hoping to start a civil war.

Furthermore, the Shia have had a taste of democracy and self-rule for the first time in three decades. They therefore have the strongest possible motivation to defend themselves and their towns. The recent murders of two of Saddam's lawyers, while appalling from a Western perspective, at least suggest that not all the Shia are sheep ready for the slaughter. Finally, Shia outnumber the Sunni nearly four to one, even without the help of the Kurds' highly effective political and military organization.

This analysis suggests two conclusions. First, our withdrawal might fuel the insurgency only to the extent it is a Sunni Baathist insurgency. The more it is a jihad of foreign fighters, the more likely it is to be marginalized and rejected after the Coalition's “infidels” withdraw. Second, as long as the Coalition continues to provide materiel and limited military support, the Sunni Baathists are unlikely ever to win a civil war, though they might cause a great deal of chaos and suffering if they try. American air power contained Saddam's regime with a “no fly” zone at the height of its power and ruthlessness. It could do the same now far more easily with the enthusiastic support of well-armed Shia and Kurds on the ground. All the Shia may need are arms, equipment, supplies, and basic training, which should not take more than six months.

Do Sunni Baathists really think they can take over the country if the Coalition leaves? They may be cruel, brutal and deceptive, but they are not stupid. They can count heads. They can count arms. They can count their foreign and international support, which (apart from Al Qaeda and Syria) has been nil. And they know that even the cooperation of Al Qaeda is a temporary marriage of convenience. If by some strange quirk of fate the insurgency were to succeed, Al Qaeda would turn against the murderous, irreligious, materialistic, un-Islamic Baathists quicker than you can say “Allah.” Indeed, the Baathists might be second in Al Qaeda's gunsights only to the House of Saud.

The smart Baathists must know this. They must see the writing on their wall. That's why they voted in droves in the referendum on the Constitution, albeit voting “no.” That's why they are likely to vote in droves in the coming parliamentary elections. They realize that politics is their best chance to retain some hold on power and to avoid an ocean of blood, much of which would be their own. Given their history of brutality and deception, the Baathists may be using the insurgency as a temporary political tool or bargaining chip---a sort of grand and bloody bluff. Or maybe they are simply too immersed in the culture of “kill to rule” to know any other way.

In either event, there is a smart Coalition response to these challenges. The Coalition can offer the Baathist strongmen a choice. Either participate fully in the new democracy and wind down the insurgency, or face one of two undesirable futures: (1) becoming the loser in a bloody civil war, or (2) being contained by American air power and Shiite and Kurdish grounds forces for the foreseeable future.

Look at a map. In both of these possible futures, Sunniland would be surrounded by enemies on all sides, except for the border with Syria. Close that border, and a Ring of Steel would grip Sunniland, with no way in or out. This is no doubt why current Coalition strategy is focusing on western Anbar Province, and why it is meeting such fierce resistance there. The insurgents know that they cannot long survive a siege without keeping the road to Syria open.

The Bush Administration seems to think that a phased Coalition withdrawal would turn the insurgency into an overwhelming tide. That fear assumes that the insurgents have some hidden reserves that we have not yet seen. So far, the insurgents appear to have fought all out several times, including the runup to both elections. They appear to be fighting all out in Western Anbar Province now. Their all out pushes have been strong, but not that strong. They have hardly demonstrated the military capability to overrun the country, far less with all the air power and heavy weaponry in their enemies' hands.

Another Iraqi reality is worth mentioning: revenge. The culture of revenge is so inbred in Iraq that we Westerners will never understand it. For thousands of years, the Bible has told us that revenge is the Lord's. For just as long, Iraqis have lived and breathed the Code of Hammurabi: “an eye for an eye.” For them, it is an obligation of faith and a point of “honor” to avenge the killing of a close relative that they view as unjustified. That custom underlies the deaths and disappearance of many high Baathist officials and the recent murders of Saddam's lawyers. Revenge is in Iraqis' DNA.

We do not know how much violence aimed at our forces this primal force has motivated. We do know that we have caused a large number of civilian casualties. We think of this as “collateral damage,” an inevitable result of war, and we shrug. But Iraqis think and feel differently. For them, God, family, and honor demand revenge. Our own news reports tell stories of ordinary Iraqis who have gone over to the insurgency after seeing family members killed or humiliated in Coalition raids.

This motive for killing is personal, not political. It says nothing about the perpetrator's support for democracy or desire to be ruled by a Baathist tyrant. An Iraqi bent on revenge for “collateral damage”---particularly if he is otherwise unemployed---may plant an improvised explosive device under our humvees one day and go to the voting booth the next. Yet his bomb kills our troops all the same.

This is one of the chief reasons to begin leaving now. Our troops are dying for reasons, like revenge and religious zealotry, that have nothing to do with their mission. Sometimes they are blown up by vengeful, unemployed Iraqis who brood on the wrongs done them and their families. Sometimes they are blown up in the name of Allah, by extremists who cannot believe that our forces really have no intention of staying in the long run.

In light of these facts, a strategic, phased withdrawal from Iraq does not seem such a bad idea. A withdrawal would not mean “cutting and running.” Far from it. Coalition forces would not all go home. Some of them would return home for a heroes' welcome and much-needed rest. Most of them would remove to Kuwait or whatever regional base would have them. There they would remain to support Iraqi Defense Forces when called upon and when, in their own judgment, their assistance is necessary.

While outside the theater, these troops would offer assistance with air power, and only rarely with ground forces. They would also provide a supply base and keep supply lines open. By so doing they would make sure that the Shia never again face a situation like Saddam's slaughter of the poorly armed Marsh Arabs. Our forces would remain mostly out of sight, out of mind, and out of harm's way, leaving the Iraqis to determine their own fate by ballots and by bullets if necessary.

Every generation has its nightmare. Ours is the specter of the last American helicopter leaving the embassy compound in Saigon, with would-be refugees literally clinging to its runners. But Iraq is not Vietnam, and no one is really talking about that kind of exit. In Vietnam we were attempting to shore up a corrupt and despotic puppet regime against a popular anti-colonial and anti-foreigner insurgency that had been growing in strength for generations. In Iraq we are building a democracy with the enthusiastic support of two capable ethnic groups---the Shia and the Kurds---and the sullen and brutal opposition of a third, the Sunnis. In so doing, we have put ourselves in the middle of a “cold” civil war. We have thus made our troops the targets of misplaced nationalism, interethnic strife, religious fervor, and revenge killing. Their presence now may be doing as much harm as good.

The question, therefore, is not cutting and running, but a phased strategic withdrawal with a single purpose: the orderly transition of military power to Iraqi security forces. We'd announce that we're not leaving, just withdrawing to our bases in Kuwait and elsewhere, ready to return if needed. We would take at least six months to withdraw fully. We would insure that the legitimate government of Iraq has all the equipment and supplies it needs to fight the insurgency. We would hold the full might of our air power available to the Iraqi government on request. We might even make ground troops available when, in our own judgment, they are needed. But our troops would no longer be present as ready targets, would no longer provide an excuse for jihad, would no longer suffer revenge killings, and would no longer make possible political dirty tricks in which the Baathists tar their opponents as being in league with “foreigners” and “infidels.”

Our withdrawal would have also have an incidental benefit. It would provoke an almost immediate split between Al Qaeda and Baathist forces in the insurgency. One wants Taliban-like religious rule, the other a secular, materialistic and brutal dictatorship. Never the twain shall meet. Our withdrawal would provoke jockeying for power and perhaps open conflict between the two sides, making both sides easier to find and destroy.

In any event, once we help the Iraqis close the border with Syria, we will really have done all that we are qualified by training, language and culture to do. We toppled Saddam Hussein and killed his vile sons. We transferred sovereignty and encouraged the development of political and social institutions. We facilitated two elections and are about to oversee the third and most important.

To ask more of our troops is unreasonable. They don't speak the language. They don't understand the culture. They have no real intelligence because they have no way of telling directly whether their sources are lying. Their fatigues and armor and general appearance paint bulls eyes on their backs. They have no business and little skill resolving thousand-year-old grudges among ethnic groups for whom subtlety and deception is a way of life. Their straightforward use of massive firepower does not fit the culture of Iraq or the nature of the conflict.

In fact, American firepower may be counterproductive at this point in the action. The massive destructive force of our Cold-War weaponry seems to engender fear, mistrust and hatred, not respect. We know that Iraqis have manipulated intelligence to bring our big guns to bear on their own personal enemies, against the Coalition's interests. Our weapons deal death wholesale; Iraqi culture demands it retail. Iraqis should do the retail fighting, for only they can do so effectively in the context of their culture.

There remains the question of national pride. A phased strategic withdrawal should not harm our own pride as long as we ultimately achieve our objective: a stable, free, and relatively democratic Iraq. A phased withdrawal now seems more likely to achieve that end than continued blundering attempts to micromanage every response to the insurgency. Without knowledge of the language and culture, our soldiers in the shadowland that is Iraq are stumbling in the dark. It is time they stopped stumbling and let the Iraqis fight.

But we should also recognize that Iraqi pride is at stake. Many Iraqis are still grateful for what we have done. But do you think they really like being controlled by foreigners whose religion and customs most of them abhor? How do you think they feel when they see pictures of American troops killing Iraqi troops, or (worse yet) Iraqi civilians, on the evening Al Jazeera news? How do you think they feel when American commanders belittle their own readiness to face the insurgency? Did some of them fail to show up for battle at Fallujah because they were cowards, or because the Americans fought so well and had so much better equipment, and the Iraqis did not want to die under American command?

We'll never know the answers to these questions until we give the Iraqis---particularly the Shia---a chance to fight on their own. After all the wrongs and oppression they have suffered, the Shia must know that this is their last chance to save themselves from tyranny. We've removed their tyrant and battered their enemies. We can and should promise to give them all the arms, supplies and air support they need. We can (and perhaps should) train them outside the country, where they are not subject to daily terror while they learn the soldier's trade. They will have the support of their neighbors and the international community, except for Syria, and we will have helped them cut Syria off. With all these advantages, plus a four-to-one advantage in numbers, the Shia should be up to the job. If not now---or after six additional months of training and equipment transfer---they probably never will be.

A strategic phased withdrawal offers one final advantage over current policy. The American people are tired of this war, but the Bush Administration keeps stressing its importance. Both sides can claim some right. The Bush Administration has squandered lives and money in some of the most outrageously stupid military bumbling in the history of warfare. Failing to secure the explosives now blowing up our troops and Iraqi forces and disbanding the Iraqi Army are only the tip of the iceberg. Our people understandably want the sacrifice and suffering to stop. But it is nevertheless still true that a stable, friendly, democratic Iraq is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

For all the political posturing on both sides, we really do not have the faintest idea how close to that goal we are. A lot of things are exploding in Iraq, but then we stupidly left mountains of ordinance out in the open to steal. With all those unguarded caches of explosives left all over the country, a few hundred men---let alone a few thousand---might be responsible for all the havoc that we see on the nightly news. Maybe if we withdraw, and only Iraqis are targets, the Iraqis will get serious about finding those men. We sure as hell are not going to find them ourselves, not speaking the language, not knowing the culture, and not having a thousand-year history of subtle deception to guide us.

If we withdraw but stay in the region, the killing of our troops will stop. Public disgust with the war will wane, and a “wait and see” attitude toward Iraqi democracy will develop . If the Iraqi government shows any clear signs of success after we leave, our own public sentiment will quickly recover. It may even recover enough to justify re-entry if the Iraqis get in serious trouble. Withdrawal therefore may be the best way to manage both the war and our own public opinion.

We have no way of knowing for sure what will happen if we withdraw. But we don't really know for sure what is going on now. Iraq is a land of shadows, mirrors and deception. If the sorry history of Saddam's alleged WMD taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that. The President may well be right: the insurgency may be small and crumbling. But we also may be underestimating the Iraqis. The Shia troops may only have seemed to run at Fallujah. After all, they were on the enemy's turf, were not as well equipped as our own troops, and anyway had us to do their fighting for them. They may fight like tigers when their own families, towns and neighbors are at stake, for many of them are still tribal people. Maybe removing the incitement of “infidels” in Iraq, plus closing the border with Syria, will stop the inflow of cannon fodder that fuels the insurgency. We will never know unless we try.

One thing above all is clear: we need a change of policy to achieve our goals. The “plan” we have, if plan it be, does not appear to be working. If anyone has a better plan, let him speak up now. "Stay the course" is not a plan; it's a slogan.



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