Saturday, November 18, 2006

What is happening in Iraq?

We have become so self-centered here in the United States that we have trouble seeing what is happening elsewhere, even in areas of greatest concern. The election proved that the American people are deeply unhappy with events in Iraq--as well they should be--but it also has apparently convinced the media that something dramatic is about to happen to change our policy, such as the report of the Baker-Hamilton commisson. For reasons I laid out last week, I doubt that very much--but our domestic controversies are diverting attention from something else. We are not simply in a quagmire in Iraq and we are not holding our own. Politically and even militarily, what evidence we have suggests that we are losing, with our enemies getting more numerous and stronger all the time.
The United States, as the Administration repeats again and again, seeks a united, pluralist Iraq in which all Iraqis enjoy equal rights. (Tony Snow last week characterized partition of Iraq as a "non-starter.") It has admitted that it will depend upon Iraqis to make that happen. The events of the last few weeks suggest that very few Iraqis--and very, very few of those with weapons--share that goal. The Sunni insurgency evidently wants to return to the days when the Sunnis ruled Iraq. The Shi'ites, while stronger, are harder to analyze from my relatively uninformed perspective, but it does not seem that many of them will be satisfied with a federal state in the southern half of the country. Moqtar Al-Sadr has been against that from the begininng, and the militias in Sadr City in Baghdad seem to be pursuing the ethnic cleansing of much of that city. (This week I also heard a retired Marine who is following the situation state that as many as a million Iraqis have already been displaced by the violence.) The Maliki government does not seem to want to take Al-Sadr on, although the United States is trying to arrest some of his subordinates, who are apparently deeply involved in deadly militia activity. The Shi'ites, it seems, want to be left alone to deal with the Sunnis. The kidnapping of American contractors yesterday looks like another shot across the American bow. Maliki has already forced the US to take down checkoints in Sadr City, and more confrontations seem likely. During the civil war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, then-Secretary of State Baker famously said, "we don't have a dog in that fight." Increasingly it is not clear that we have a dog in this one either--in the sense of a major ally within Iraq that shares our goals.
Sadly, I must in this connection question what looks like a sensible middle-ground strategy for Iraq, one that the military is pushing: that of expanding our training and advisory effort. With almost no Arabic speakers and no political roots in the region, the American military cannot transform the loyalties of young Iraqi men. It can teach them, perhaps, to clean their weapons, shoot, and make arrests--but how can it convince them of who should be arrested and who should not, much less of what the new Iraq should look like? Last weekend's New York Times had a very disturbing study about the involvement of the Iraqi Army--which compared to the Iraqi police is supposed to be a success story--in ethnic violence, and the inability of American advisers to do anything about it. As in South Vietnam, while we may be able to provide some technical training, we cannot provide will.
And at the purely military level, the evidence has become undeniable: things are getting significantly worse for the American forces. These emerges very clearly from our numbers of killed (for the entire coalition--customarily at least 90% US) and wounded (using the figures for those who did not return to duty within 72 hours, compiled by the excellent web site, Iraq Coalition Casualties, at http://icasualties.org/oif/ .) In the first quarter of 2006 we suffered 155 coalition deaths and 433 seriously wounded. For April through June the figures were 224 killed and 569 wounded, and for the third quarter, 189 killed and 768 wounded. We are now just over half way through the fourth quarter, and at current rates, it will end with 304 dead and about 1050 seriously wounded. The total figure of killed and seriously wounded (using the 72-hour definition for "seriously") is probably the best overall indicator of enemy activity and effectiveness, since survival is often a matter of luck, and based on that indicator the last quarter of 2006 will be more than twice as bad as the first quarter. A recent Times story explained one reason for increasing coalition casualties--the growing and effective Iraqi use of snipers, who fire only one shot from a range of several hundred yards and then manage to escape. President Bush frequently talks about changing tactics in Iraq, and perhaps the time has come to end the continuing American patrols, which apparently have little purpose except to draw fire and take casualties. US forces might better sortie as quietly and unpredictably as possible, and only when they know what they are after and have a good idea of where it is.
Sunnis, apparently, are still inflicting the bulk of the casualties on American forces, and according to an op-ed by Laura Rozen in the LA Times, National Security Adviser Steven Hadley and the rest of the senior Bush team recently discussed "unleashing" the Shi'ites and allowing them to beat the Sunnis into submission. Given the increasing US-Shi'ite tension, this does not seem to be happening yet. It would mean collaborating in massive ethnic cleansing and the killing, probably, of tens of thousands of Sunnis; it would leave a regime friendly to Iran in power and probably stimulate Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in other countries; and it would be a terrible blow to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and several Gulf states who are our major allies in the region. It apparently appeals to some Administration officials because it would put us on the winning side. I do not see, however, how it will advance the interests of the United States in the long run. A broader civil war may be inevitable, but I would rather see us lead an international effort to try to stop it and then withdraw if we cannot.
Our attempt to transform Iraq with about 150,000 American troops seems destined to end very badly. How we have gotten into this mess involves not only our misuse of our military power, but a vast misconception, in my opinion, of how much power we have and how much we can do with it. That, however, will be the subject of another post later in the week.

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