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 October 2006

Is Iraq Irretrievably Lost?

Over four months ago, this writer speculated that Iraq was at a turning point. The near-simultaneous extermination of Zarqawi and completion of the Al-Maliki cabinet gave reason for hope. Now, over four months later, further optimism seems hopelessly naïve.

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. After only four months, the reasons for the accelerating collapse are too painfully apparent. They are simple but profound.

The first reason is our own strategic blunder. We sent too few troops. From that simple fact flowed all the subsequent tragedy. It remains the chief and ultimate cause of the mess we see today.

Because we sent too few troops, we could not secure the mountains of ordnance left scattered around the countryside when Saddam’s rule ended. Those explosives fueled the insurgency and random violence from the very beginning. Sequestered by insurgents, they have become IEDs, suicide bombs and other instruments of terror. They have killed and maimed thousands of our own soldiers. Now they are increasingly used in instruments of mayhem directed against the Iraqis themselves.

Because we sent too few troops, we could not maintain order in the places that needed it most. We still cannot today. From Fallujah to Ramadi, from Al-Anbar Province to the bloody ethnic neighborhoods of Baghdad, we have played a persistent game of “whack a mole.” We’ve have done so because we’ve had too few troops to hold and secure all the places that need stabilizing.

Virtually everyone but our first North American junta---Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld---acknowledges that we sent too few troops initially. But if we sent fewer troops than we needed initially, don’t we have far fewer than we need now? Did the war get any easier as the Sunni insurgency grew, jihadis flocked to Iraq from the four corners of the Earth, and Sunni and Shia began slaughtering each other in a low-grade civil war? If we had too few troops to begin with, we have far, far too few troops now.

The second reason for the present collapse is equally simple and equally profound. Iraq is Yugoslavia redux. It is not a nation. It is a tale spun by the British Foreign Office---an odd amalgam of inimical ethnic groups, with little in common, held together only under a strongman’s heel. Once we deposed Saddam, eventual collapse was the likely outcome.

If we had not been so ignorant of both Communism and Islam, we might have seen the parallels sooner. One of the few good things about Communism was its tendency to repress longstanding ethnic and religious hatreds. Ditto Sunni Baathism.

The vicious police states of Tito and Saddam suppressed grievances that go back over a millennium. Remember the butcher Milosevic stirring up Serbian troops with tales of the Battle of Kosovo Pole in 1389? Tales of Sunni-Shia rivalry go back even further. They are mostly about a struggle for power, not religious doctrine. Now those millennial enmities have burst into open warfare on the streets of Iraq.

Maybe, just maybe, things might have been different. With 300,000 to 400,000 troops, we might have stopped the looting, picked up all those loose explosives, stabilized key locales, and created an atmosphere in which political reconciliation might have been possible. But that chance vanished only months after the President prematurely declared “Mission Accomplished.” Now it is surely gone forever. Some mistakes don’t come with second chances.

The third reason why optimism is futile is the knot we have tied in Iraq. We disbanded the Iraqi Army and fought the Sunni insurgency because, we thought, both threatened to restore the rule of Saddam or someone like him. Our doing so convinced many Sunnis, irrevocably, that we are not on their side.

That knot of suspicion is only getting tighter. According to the press, our most recent pacification policy employs a two-step strategy. We aim to pacify the Sunni areas first, in order to relieve Shiites’ fears and convince them to disband their militias. Then we hope that the Iraqi government will assuage Sunni fears and reduce the level of violence by actually disbanding them.

But as we tighten the knot on the Sunni insurgency, they neither see nor believe that the second step is coming. They only see what they have seen since March 2003: a powerful, foreign occupying army that appears to wish them ill. As Sunni suspicions and fears increase, so does the level of violence, against both Shiites and our own troops. As the level of Sunni violence increases, the chance of Shiites voluntarily disbanding their militias vanishes. This vicious circle makes a farce of our naïve two-step strategy.

And how can we blame the Shia? We are the ones who abandoned the Shiite Marsh Arabs to Saddam’s tender mercies after Gulf I. Do we really expect them to trust us to protect them now? If anything in Iraq is easy to understand, it is Shiites’ desire---at last---to have armed forces loyal to them alone, which they know will protect them. Survival is a very strong motivator.

The prospects seemed better four months ago when Al-Maliki took the helm. He promised to crush the militias with an “iron fist.” But in hindsight that promise seems empty talk. The historical, political and military reasons for the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government not to disband the militias are just too strong. No Shiite politician can credibly ask for that kind of seemingly unilateral sacrifice with three decades of Baathist tyranny and the Marsh Arabs’ slaughter so fresh in Shiites’ minds.

We might have prevented all this had we sent enough troops to do the job. We might still pacify the country, if we are willing to commit half a million troops and put our nation on a war footing for at least five years. But our people have no stomach for that kind of commitment, and our leaders have never asked it of us.

We have tried to “win” a war on the cheap, with unclear and utopian objectives. From the beginning, we have been unwilling to devote the resources needed to “win”—whatever that means. Now that fate and our own stupidity have upped the ante by an order of magnitude, can we really talk about staying in the game?

We are left to face an increasingly clear reality: Iraq will splinter and become like Yugoslavia. Baghdad may have to be partitioned, perhaps with Arab League soldiers enforcing the partition. The Kurds may have to be protected from Turkey and prevented from destabilizing that nation, which so far is the sole beacon of democracy in the Islamic Middle East. Everyone will have to work hard to minimize casualties and hardship.

That ultimate future, however, is not so terrifying. The Kurds have shown themselves to be eminently capable of both self-government and self-defense. The Shia are learning rapidly. The only big question is the Sunnis’ future.

Our own nightmare, of course, is an Iraqi Sunniland becoming what Afghanistan was under the Taliban. But how likely is that? The Sunnis are secular, and they have the infrastructure (albeit battered) of a modern industrial state. Their “invitation” to jihadis seems to have been a temporary marriage of convenience. Moreover, Iraqi Sunnis’ supporters and potential supporters abroad---Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan--are concerned about the rise of Shiite radicalism and the Iran’s increasingly muscular foreign policy. As autocracies that (except for Saudi Arabia) are largely secular, they have little reason to encourage an Al-Qaeda haven. And Saudi Arabia is first in Al-Qaeda's crosshairs.

Even Syria has common interests with the United States in this regard. As a Baathist dictatorship and a secular, Sunni autocracy, it has only a little less to fear from an Al-Qaeda haven in what is now Iraq than do the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians. We should be talking to the Syrians about these common interests, rather than stiff-arming them like some fifteenth-century Pope.

It is time, therefore, for a return to realpolitik. What used to be Yugoslavia is relatively stable, now that it has been balkanized. Secure within its own borders, each of the splinters is returning to the path of economic progress and civilization. Eventually, most or all of them may become parts of an expanding Europe.

In the long run, a similar future may unfold for divided Iraqi Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish nations. Once secure within their separate borders, perhaps they might eventually join an Arabic or Muslim free trade area and begin the long march back to peace and prosperity.

In the meantime, the prospects for successful Shiite and Kurdish democracies are excellent. We’ve no business sacrificing more of our blood and treasure in a futile and half-hearted attempt to fix the future of the Iraqi Sunnis, who hate our guts and are determined to go their own way.

A partitioned Iraq would likely produce two strong new democracies, one Shiite and the other Kurdish. Two out of three ain’t bad. Given the cost and risk of alternatives, we should be content to leave it at that.

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