Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"The Silver Bullet": American Solutions to Iraq's Civil War

By Richard Norman

In January 2002, Henry Kissinger looked forward to “Phase II” of the War on Terror and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, he argued that one of the most important requisites for success in Iraq was for the United States to carefully manage the post-Saddam political outcome.

Local opposition would in all likelihood be sustained by the Kurdish minority in the north and the Shiite minority in the south. But if we are to enlist the Sunni majority, which now dominates Iraq, in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, we need to make clear that Iraq's disintegration is not the goal of American policy.

Dr. Kissinger’s advice might have been more useful had he known that the Shiite make up a 60% majority in Iraq—not a minority. (Of the 40% Sunni minority, as many as half are the placable Kurds). This op-ed is a perfect example of the blasé ignorance of Iraq that has characterized so much American pre- and post-invasion decision-making.

Such ignorance is still a large part of Washington's debate about Iraq. But it is now mixed with equal parts complacency and resignation. As both Sunni and Shiite positions become increasingly and irreversible entrenched, American pundits and politicians become more and more divorced from reality. They head to the safety of slogans and wildly generalized solutions.

This past Sunday's episode of Meet the Press (taking place in the shadow of the worst suicide bombing of the war) had many good examples of the complacency and resignation that has taken hold of American decision-makers.

Duncan Hunter, the outgoing Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (and a candidate for president in 2008), suggested to the host, Tim Russert, that moving more Iraqi troops “into the fight” in order to provide them with combat experience is the solution to the security crisis in Baghdad and Anbar province. Congressman Ike Skelton (the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee) has a plan to withdraw American troops to “Kuwait and Germany . . . and if you needed them for a very quick mission you could bring them back for another.”

There is nothing new about Hunter's suggestion. Training Iraqi security forces has been the policy of the U.S. military since the days of Paul Bremer. It has been increasingly unsuccessful despite renewed and redoubled effort. As recently as September 2005--back when there was no discussion of "civil war"--the readiness of Iraqi forces was already slipping with "the number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition [help] dropping from three to one . . ." By February of this year, the number had dropped to zero where it still remains. This issue is essentially moot, however, as the Iraq military is not the main guarantor of security on a civic level--that responsibility belongs to the police who appear to have been significantly infiltrated by insurgents and extremists. As for Congressman Skelton's plan to withdraw American troops to Kuwait and Germany with the hope that Iraqi forces (both military and police) will suddenly take responsibility for public safety is as fantastic as Wolfowitz/Chalabi's idea that a healthy, democratic government would appear fully-formed from the ruins of Saddam's presidential palaces.

The last few weeks have seen much criticism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (Indeed, the headline of today's Washington Post is "As Iraq Deteriorates, Iraqis Get More Blame"). A common question in Washington is one that Tim Russert blithely asks [Congressman Hunter], "Is Prime Minister Maliki afraid of Mr. Sadr? Why doesn’t he go in and just take apart his Shiite militia?"

The answer is: it's only ever that easy on TV. Prime Minister Maliki depends on Mr. Sadr for political support, Maliki’s constituency (and many of his ministers’) depends on the Mahdi army for security. Muqtada al-Sadr is not a weed to be toughly faced down and pulled out: he appears more and more to be the crown prince of Iraq. So long as the police are in shambles (if not a direct threat), many Shiites--especially those most disenfranchised--will look to Mr. Sadr for security. So long as Shiites constitute the majority in Iraq, Mr. Sadr will play a major role in Iraqi politics.

A Democratic-leaning retired general has this observation to make about Prime Minister Maliki:

[He] probably could, could cut 90 percent of the violence out if he could sit down and get all the different people together in Iraq and come to some very, very fundamental political decisions. Not military decisions, not security decisions, but political decisions. I don’t know if he can do this or if he’s the right man to do this.

True: if an Iraqi leader could sit down with every troublemaker in Iraq and give them what they wanted, all of the violence would end. Indeed, if such a UN Secretary-General existed, there would be peace on earth and good will for all. The chances of anyone playing this role is, as each group becomes more entrenched, fast approaching zero. It is vague, totally unrealistic talk like this that is increasingly characterizing American discussion of Iraq. Remove Maliki? He was the best possible option. Who would replace him? There is no Mandela in Iraq.

These half-baked ideas are indicative of how desperate the American government is becoming (as is the increasing "Blame the Iraqis" movement). It is very depressing.

Photo by Anders Brownworth