Saturday, October 06, 2007

How much progress?

There is no doubt about it—violence in Iraq has dropped during the last month. After nine months in which coalition (almost entirely American) deaths averaged over 90 per month, they fell during September to 69, and the rate so far has been even lower. The deaths occurred almost entirely in three areas: Baghdad, where about half of them occurred; Diyalac province north of Baghdad; and Anbar province, which is much quieter, but still a major trouble spot. Wounded Americans who could not return to duty within 48 hours fell by almost half. Meanwhile, the independent web site Iraqi coalition casualties says that violent Iraqi deaths fell from nearly 1700 each in both July and August to 842 in September. That still represents almost thirty deaths a day, but it is a step in the right direction.

Sitting here ten thousand miles away in my house, without any unpublished sources of information, it is extremely difficult for me to know how to interpret all this. Given the persistence of the much higher casualties since last December, I am inclined to believe that something has changed. The one change of which we are definitely aware is in Anbar, where American authorities have struck deals with local sheiks to form an alliance against Al Queda in Mesopotamia—an alliance cemented with American money and arms. That alliance is threatened by the assassination of several of the sheiks who are cooperating. Things have obviously quieted down a bit in Baghdad as well Two other possible explanations are a significant decline in insurgent capabilities thanks to better intelligence, raids on their bomb factories, and the detention of thousands more Iraqis, or a decision by insurgents (including Moqtar Al-Sadr) to lie low for awhile and avoid confrontations with American troops in the hope of an American withdrawal over the next couple of years. It is even possible that American troops are going on fewer patrols and exposing themselves to fewer ieds. Any assertion of which of these possibilities is true, much less any attempt to rank their importance, would be pure guesswork.

The trend must not be exaggerated. 69 deaths is around the median for the first eight months of 2006, just before the first of two major increases in US casualties began, and certainly not a period in which the war was going well. Baghdad and Diyala are far more lethal for Americans now than they were during that period, compensating for reduced American casualties in Anbar. The situation might be compared to Vietnam in 1970-1, when American troops had started coming out in large numbers and American casualties had fallen—all the way to the level of 1965-6, which didn’t seem very low at the time.

Meanwhile, there has been no progress towards the reconciliation of Iraq’s three major groups. The Kurds are signing their own oil deals, including one well-publicized one with a long-time friend of President Bush’s from Texas. The Sunni sheiks in Anbar and around Baghdad are arming with American help to defend themselves against the Shi’ites, and the Shi’ites are anything but happy about this process. And in southern Iraq, which has never had very many American or coalition troops (and which has fewer and fewer as the British pull back into bases and begin to withdraw), various Shi’ite factions are struggling violently for power. These issues have for the moment faded from the front pages, however, because of the Blackwater controversy. In any event, last month General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tried to put the whole issue of national political progress on the back burner. Since American forces were improving local security, at least in Anbar, that was what suddenly became important. We are reading much less about Prime Minister Al-Maliki in US newspapers today, except for his complaints about Blackwater.

A mixture of deployment in populated areas and (more importantly) deals with local elites—the stable of British and French imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—has calmed things down somewhat in what had been the most violent area of the country. Here another Vietnam parallel becomes relevant: the Accelerated Pacification Campaign initiated late in 1969 by General Creighton Abrams, William Westmoreland’s successor, which stationed more American units in Vietnamese villages and hamlets to force the Viet Cong to retreat. That campaign has been best described, albeit within only one province, by Vietnam veteran and historian Eric Bergerud in one of the most remarkable studies of the Vietnam War, The Dynamics of Defeat, which focuses on Hau Nghia, a province on the Cambodian border. His conclusions remain highly relevant. On the one hand, as long as American troops remained within the villages, violence declined and the Viet Cong had to lie low. Viet Cong casualties also increased somewhat. (Incidentally, Bergerud does a good job of dispelling another Vietnam myth—that the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese guerrillas, were wiped out by the 1968 Tet Offensive and never recovered. The truth is that their main force units, or conventional battalions, did disappear after Tet, but as local guerrillas, terrorists, and political operatives, they remained a very potent force in much of the country.) But what Bergerud also showed was that the American presence did nothing to increase local faith in the central South Vietnamese government. And since American withdrawals were in progress by 1970, the people began preparing to deal with the Viet Cong, whom they assumed (rightly) would easily prevail over the South Vietnamese government once the Americans had left. American troops—like French troops in Algeria in 1958-62—could substantially reduce insurgent violence, but they couldn’t bring about a lasting change in the political constellation.

There is another parallel between Vietnam in 1969-70 and Iraq in 2007. The emphasis on pacification appears to be accompanied by more ruthless use of American firepower. That took place in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta, where American troops—specifically the Army’s 9th Division—went on a huge offensive against Viet Cong guerrillas for the first time. Their tactics, as reported by one of their battalion commanders, the late David Hackworth (one of the more remarkable American soldiers of the twentieth century), were to say the least aggressive. “If it moves, shoot it, and if it’s lying there, count it,” was the informal division motto, and although the unit developed some new quick-response tactics, it undoubtedly killed a great many civilians. Today’s New York Times contains yet another story of an Iraqi-American dispute, this one over an attack on a Shi’ite village near Baghdad which American forces attacked in an attempt to find weapons smugglers, including at least one Iranian. Iraqis claim the armed forces in the village were self-defense forces fighting Sunni Al Queda terrorists from neighboring villages, but the Americans claim they opened fire. The U.S. made air strikes, and approximately 25 Iraqis were killed—many of them, the Iraqis claimed, unarmed civilians. American forces, from General Petraeus on down, are obviously coming under great pressure to show results. That will make it harder to use the kind of discriminate violence which, every authority agrees, is essential to counterinsurgency.

What Petraeus seems for the moment to have proven is that an increased American presence among the population can reduce violence, although it remains at high levels. But that in turns only means—as for the French in Algeria or the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza—that the U.S. can hold down (but not eliminate) violence as long as it is willing to stay in Iraq. That is President Bush’s intention: for us to remain for generations. In their most recent debate, none of the leading Democrats would promise to get out of Iraq if elected. We may indeed be stuck in a long-term imperialist enterprise (because that is what it is, even if it relies upon local elites the way the British did in India.) I continue to believe, however, that we shall be a focus of Islamic hatred and terrorism as long as we try to occupy a major Middle Eastern country, and that the enterprise will continue to hurt our Middle Eastern friends and help our enemies, led by Osama Bin Laden. And in any case, the one overarching strategic truth about Iraq will never change: 150,000 men are simply nowhere near enough to pacify a country of that size. That point has just been made with renewed force by my friend Professor (and former Colonel) Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, in an article about General Petraeus in The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan’s organ. If Petraeus really believed in what he was doing and wanted to make it a success, he suggests, he should have asked for a tripling of the size of the army and a doubling of the force in Iraq. Petraeus’s thesis, however—which I have already discussed, and which Bacevich has read as well—was about how the Army must attempt to carry out whatever mission it has with whatever forces it has. His real goal, I think, is to lay the foundation (as Abrams did in Vietnam) for claims that the Army learned how to do counterinsurgency in Iraq. But he can’t do anything about the irretrievable miscalculation that led us into Iraq in the first place: the attempt to create an ally in a country where the political basis for long-term friendship with the U.S. simply does not exist.


Anonymous said...

The American Conservative is not "Pat Buchanan's organ." He was involved in its founding, but hasn't been at the top of the masthead in several years. It is published by Ron Unz and edited by Scott McConnell. It still publishes a column by Buchanan.

Anonymous said...

American Conservative is an interesting journal, to say the least.

It's thoughtful, it's highly critical of the Bush Administration. It isn't a one-note cheerleader for the free market, or the aggressive use of American power.

I actually think it is a 'real conservative' magazine, in an Edmund Burke/ Michael Oakenshot sense.

As such, liberals ought to pay attention to it. I know what Cato thinks about most things (let the free market rule), and I have similar values to Cato on personal liberty. I also can predict I'll pretty much disagree with everything Heritage Foundation says, driven by the Christian right and big business conservatism as it is.

American Conservative has things to say that are worth reading. The notions of community and caution over rampant international intervention are both ones liberals share, too, to some extent.


Anonymous said...

Once again this was a tour de force historical summary which shed real light on what is happening.

Neither the right, nor the left, seems to be able to come up with such succinct and germane analysis.

I think, largely, because the post modern critique of history (that history is basically what we want it to be) has led to the neglect of the serious study of history by pundits and policymakers.

Remarkably few people, for example, consulted the British record on invading and governing Iraq, 1915-1930, before the US made its invasion. Yet things have played out much as they did then.