Iraq has been my most frequent topic here, and something undoubtedly has changed during the last few months. It is time to record this and to speculate about what it means.
To begin with, after eight months of very high casualties from January through August of this year, American deaths have dropped precipitously, falling to 40 in October and November and to less than one a day so far this month. Numbers of wounded are also down, although not that much. This could not, it seems to me, represent the purely military effect of the surge (which in fact initially increased casualties.) A 20% increase in forces could hardly translate into a 50-60% drop in casualties. Many of our enemies have either been driven underground or have decided to lie low. Meanwhile, Iraqi casualties have been reported to have fallen as well, but it is much harder to say how much. The respected military analyst Andrew has raised questions about the statistics issued by the authorities, claiming that their definition of political violence is too narrow. Simultaneously, US forces and their allies have arrested and incarcerated thousands more Iraqis.
We have scored some important political successes in Sunni areas, but we must understand what they mean for the long run as well as for the short. The United States has established relationships with a number of tribal leaders in some of the most violent Sunni areas, and those leaders have turned against some more militant elements, including Al in Iraq. This looks like a good thing, but it is not laying the foundation for a stable, free and independent Iraq. We have purchased the loyalty of these tribes with money and arms, in classic imperialist fashion, signing up hundreds of Iraqis into new local police forces at relatively handsome salaries. We shall presumably have to continue to do so to keep things quiet. Meanwhile a number of our new allies have been assassinated, showing that the battle is not yet over.
More importantly, as a recent Los Angeles Times survey pointed out, this has done nothing to bring Iraq's warring factions together. The Shi'ites and the Shi'ite-dominated national government do not approve of what we are doing and do not want to integrate the new forces we have sponsored into the national army or police. Meanwhile, different Shi'ite militias are struggling for power all over southern Iraq (where the British are about to pull out of Basra.) The Kurds and the Sunnis are girding for a big battle over Kirkuk. One Iraq observer characterizes the new Iraq as a failed state in which the government enjoys no power outside the Green Zone. Oddly, the United States still seems to view the Sunnis as our natural allies--and wants to rely on them regionally to contain Iran--but has, of course, empowered the majority Shi'ites by liberating the country from the regime. It is hard to see how that circle will ever be squared.
Meanwhile, there seem to be discussions--and a lively argument--about a formal agreement to establish a long-term American presence in Iraq. The Associated Press quoted a couple of Iraqi government sources a couple of weeks ago to the effect that such talks were moving ahead, but more recently the Iraqi National Security Advisor proclaimed loudly and publicly that Iraqis did not want such a presence. Al-Sadr, who has been lying low, also seems to oppose it. In my opinion this will eventually lead to a serious political crisis.
We have no idea now what the Bush Administration's long-term plans are--perhaps it is safe to say that they have no plans lasting beyond the next thirteen months. US troop strength will fall somewhat during the next year, but I predict that it will not fall to pre-surge levels. Violence may increase during the summer in an effort to put pressure on the Presidential candidates to commit to an end to the war. (Such offensives are frequently misunderstood--the North Vietnamese did not in my opinion undertake huge offensives in 1968 and 1972 to influence whom the American people would elect, but rather to commit both candidates to an end to the war. They succeeded.) I would not indeed be surprised in the Bush Administration reached some agreement for an indefinite American presence between November and January of next year and dumped it in the lap of its successor. I do not believe, however, that an indefinite American occupation of Iraq can work because I do not believe that the Iraqi people will ever accept it.
American troops proved in Vietnam from late 1969 through 1971 that they could pacify contested areas, and violence in Vietnam during those years fell at least as much as it has fallen in Iraq in the last few months. The problem on the ground, however, as detailed in particular by Eric Bergerud in his excellent study of one province, The Dynamics of Defeat, was that the average Vietnamese never had any confidence in what would happen after the Americans left. When they did, and when North Vietnam launched its new offensive in 1972, many of the gains evaporated. We will probably face another of the same dilemma in Iraq. The American army will have proven once again that it can conduct pacification operations, and conservatives will once again be able to blame eventual setbacks on Americans who refused to fight forever.
Meanwhile, we have supposedly restarted the Middle East peace process, an attempt to create a Palestinian state led by US-supported Abu Mazen, who has totally lost control of Gaza and is threatened with the loss of the West Bank. The press coverage of Annapolis ignored that President Bush in 2004 endorsed the maximum Israeli position on two key issues: the Palestinians will have no right of return into Israel (a key issue whether or not they are actually allowed to return, on the one hand, or offered compensation, on the other), and Israel will be able to take advantage of "facts on the ground" and keep any territory it has settled in a new agreement. That did not stop the Administration from staging a media event, but it will stop the parties from making any progress. (The Israeli government has rammed home the point by starting up new construction in East Jerusalem, creating a new "fact on the ground." How such facts are created in the West Bank, incidentally, can be followed in a recent article by an Israeli peace activist in The New York Review of Books.
A footnote to last week's comments on Hillary Clinton: I regret offending fellow Democrats, but I am calling them as I see them. The new Clinton campaign tactic (actually pioneered by Michael Dukakis in the last desperate stages of his 1988 campaign) of having campaign workers raise negative issues about Barack Obama (that he is a secret Muslim, that his admission of cocaine use will become a campaign issue), followed a day or two later by stories of that worker's resignation and comments from leading campaign staffers that of course the Clinton campaign will not raise issues of Obama's religion or drug use, would surely do credit to Tricky Dick. And when I said that Nixon, like Clinton, occasionally had friends emerge to say that he was really a charming and relaxed man in private, I was not suggesting that those friends were telling the truth. The most revealing portrait of Hillary, I suspect, remains Joe Klein's "Susan Stanton" in Primary Colors, which is worth a re-read about now. But don't get me wrong--if she's the nominee, I'll vote for her, and if she's elected, I'll hope for the best.