Summary: Part 5 in a series about the Iraq War. Links to the other chapters apprear at the end.
“The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.”
— Lord Salisbury, discussing Great Britain’s policy on the Eastern Question (1877)
In the Fall of 2003 this author published on DNI a series of reports suggesting that there was an insurgency in Iraq, that it was waging effective 4GW, and that it was highly innovative. Those were extraordinary claims at that time. Today these are commonplaces, and the basis for our counter-insurgency operations.
This article says that the situation in Iraq has changed. There is no longer an insurgency in Iraq. This is good news, and opens a pathway to peace.
Who governs Iraq?
“Being born in a stable does not make one a horse.”
— Duke of Wellington (source and authenticity unknown)
Having a bureaucracy, capital, constitution, and seat at the UN, does not make a government. Governments have specific characteristics. The more of these they possess, the stronger and more durable they are. The most important attributes:
- Control of armed forces, or even monopoly of armed force in its borders.
- The ability to levy and collect taxes.
- An administrative mechanism to execute its policies.
- Territory in which it is the dominant political entity.
- Control of borders.
- Legitimacy (not love) in the eyes of its people.
The national “government” of Iraq has, by most reports, none of these. It lives on oil revenue and US funding. Its ministries are controlled by ethnic and religious groups, parceled out as patronage and run for their “owners” benefit. The only territory it controls is the Green Zone, by the grace of the Coalition’s armed forces.
“I am now prime minister and overall commander of the armed forces yet I cannot move a single company without Coalition approval.”
— Nuri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, interview with Reuters, 26 Octobe 2006
The “Iraq Army” is in fact a lightly armed force consisting of
- regional militias organized along a religious (e.g., Shiite) or ethnic (e.g., Kurdish) basis,
- privately organized forces operating for the state, much like regiments in 16th or 17th century Europe,
- an army organized and run by the Coalition, typical of colonial forces in a bygone era.
The End of the Insurgency
There is no insurgency in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. Not because the National government rules there, but because it does not. After fifty years of fighting, the Kurdish insurgency has won. They control the Army (Peshmerga), levy taxes, enact laws, and have the loyalty of a majority of the region’s people.
There is no insurgency in southern Iraq. There authority has devolved to local communities, run by a mixture of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders. The northern and southern regions are proto-states, run by governments in an early stage of growth.
In between lies an ungoverned or disputed zone, a diverse ethnic and religious mixture. Since there is no longer a national government for Iraq (the Coalition destroyed it) and no government in the disputed zone, there can be no insurgency.
They are striking into each other’s zones of control, and fighting for disputed areas. Perhaps this is a “civil war”, or it might be the preliminary to State formation.
What about the elections, the purple thumbs?
What were the Iraq elections? An expression of hope by its people? An ignorant or delusional attempt at nation-building by America? Perhaps both.
Either way, it was a step on a path to nowhere. A thenian democracy and the Roman republic were built on a foundation of internal political machinery by which the leaders’ decisions were translated into actions. Iraq lacked that after our invasion, and we constructed the government with no supporting bureaucratic mechanisms. Voting does not magically call the necessary apparatus into existence.
The only effective political apparatus in Iraq exists at the local level. Much of that is done by the most basic form of government: only those commanding armed men have a vote.
The current state of the Iraq war
The fighting wages today in two areas, plus low level of background violence throughout Iraq. First, fighting rages in the ungoverned or disputed zones — mostly for control of the northern oil fields and Baghdad. This violence spreads throughout Iraq as groups strike into each other’s zones of control. The only military solutions that seem viable to stop this are genocide or massive ethnic cleansing. These bleak alternatives should impel us to instead try diplomatic measures.
Second, fighting continues as the Coalition fights for control of areas ruled by local elites. Usually in the Sunni-dominated areas, rarely in Shiite run areas, seldom in the Kurdish zone. These operations seem hopeless, their goals bizarre. Worse, the methods we must use have on occasion seemed in violation of the Law of Nations – sometimes looking like outright terrorism.
Our quest to build a national government appears hopeless, whether by military force or diplomacy. Although there is no longer a functional central government, the fighting continues — mostly a combination of traditional guerilla warfare and terrorism.
The dead are just as dead as if they were killed in an insurgency.
The good news
Throughout Iraq local elites are creating regimes. Backed by or evolved from militias — which run the gamut from criminal gangs to formal armies — they fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the central state. This fragmentation can be seen as a descent into civil war, or instead as the preliminary to formation of a new Iraq state. These proto-states can be building blocks for something larger. Most importantly, many of these powerful local elites have the power to negotiate and strike deals. This offers a path to peace for us and the Iraq people, perhaps the only such.
In one sense, the conditions are ideal. After four years of war, no group can reasonably anticipate victory. Everybody has something to offer. Everybody needs something. The winners can consolidate their gains. The losers can prevent further losses.
Our emphasis has been on creation of a national structure, probably because that maximizes our leverage. Local elites will be more difficult for us to manipulate. Nonetheless a federal structure appears to be the only solution. Perhaps Iraq’s Parliament can initiate and guide the change. Perhaps local elites will have to push aside the denizens living in the Green Zone.
The Iraq Peace Conference
Here is an opportunity for the Coalition forces to play a constructive role in Iraq. The window of opportunity is brief, as President Bush’s domestic support will likely continue to diminish over the next two years.
Americans have experience building a federal government from purely local regimes. The thirteen states were the only legitimate polities after our revolution. Between 1777 and 1783 we experimented to learn the desired balance between local and national authority, and since then the structure of the US has continued to evolve.
We can act as honest brokers to help Iraq find a similar path.
That is, assuming we try realism instead of more fantasy. Attempting to negotiate victory from defeat will just waste everyone’s time — as we did at the Paris Peace Talks, which ran from 1968 to 1973.
The Articles of Confederation (1777) offer a viable model. As does, at the other extreme of the range of federal structures, the US constitution. How the Iraq people draw the balance is up to them, or rather their leaders. The responsibility is theirs, and likewise it is their problem if they fail. We can only help.
Even a lesser outcome, one that stopped the killing for a while, would be a valuable accomplishment, allowing us to leave Iraq. As Barbara Tuchman said, “Though a coalition between enemies is an illusion, it can be used for a temporary settlement.” Or it could end as a total bust. Perhaps even Talleyrand could not bring this group to a useful agreement. Whatever the result, at least we will have tried.
Role of US forces in this scenario
If negotiations are our objective, what should be our military objectives? What do we have to offer the Iraq people? Our limited counter-insurgency capability is now useless, and we lack the SysAdmin forces (described by Thomas Barnett) that would be useful today.
One easy way to determine our role is to ask. How can we help in the brief period before we leave? That would make an interesting discussion for Iraq’s Parliament, the UN, and our fellow Coalition members.
Also obvious: recognition that the insurgency is over means that we stop attempting to crush local militias. They are, for good or ill, the building blocks of the new Iraq.
Beyond that, there are two possible ways we can help. First, to secure public spaces in Iraq’s major cities — a form of static defense. No longer attackers, clear to all as only temporary helpers, we might transform from targets to neutral guardians.
Second, even more important, we can secure Iraq’s borders, especially with Iran. Iraq has no Army, probably by our design to maximize their dependence on us. In this role we can relocate our forces out of harm’s way (except as needed as above). Unlike the dreams of neocons, this is probably not a long-term arrangement. If Iraq survives, eventually it will build a real army and tell us to leave.
This plan gives us a soft exit path, no matter what happens in Iraq.
What about the inevitable bloodbath after we leave?
That our withdrawal means massive killing is an assumption, made most often by people whose guesses so far have proven disastrously wrong. It’s just a guess.
Do Coalition forces bring stability to Iraq? Or do we exacerbate the situation? We do not know, and it does not matter. The collapse of American elite and public support means that we will leave soon. Today is not too soon to prepare for the inevitable.
But we now have leaders experienced in counterinsurgency — and they have a plan! We now have substantial and competently run counter-insurgency (COIN) team in Iraq, but too late. Again we see one of the great anomalies of modern warfare, that the electronicized, computerized US military assimilates information and responds slower than it did in WWII. Perhaps slower than did Nelson’s Admiralty or Napoleon’s “Ministry of War.” The causes of this we will discuss on another day.
However, even the best-run COIN operation has a serious flaw. COIN operations make time our enemy. Attempting to win the war before US support collapses gives the advantage to our local enemies, who need only outwait us. This is, of course, easy for them to do.
Time becomes our friend once we plan to exit.
What about the Surge?
When the enemy advances, we retreat. …
When the enemy retreats, we pursue. …
When the enemy halts, we harass him. …
— Chapter 2 of Basic Tactics by Mao Tse-tung (1937)
There is really nothing more that can be said about the surge at this time.
Will we follow a wise course?
Admit error. Consult with friends and enemies. Use diplomacy instead of force. Spend billions to obtain peace instead of bombing Iraq suburbs.
Does anyone imagine that Americans have sufficiently large souls to do such things? Perhaps not. To many Americans we are a superpower, at least until China and Japan demand that we repay our debts. Invulnerable in our pride and arrogance, we need never admit fault.
Instead we might muddle along in Iraq, trying one fool thing after another until the scope of the resulting disaster becomes evident even to the American people. Or we might act like children, as our enemies — and some friends — believe us to be. We might pick up our toys and flounce off, leaving behind a wrecked Iraq, repeating the mantra of 21st Century America: “It’s not my fault.”
“This really isn’t our failure. The failure is on the part of the Iraqis. … Again, we didn’t destroy Iraq.”
— Ralph Peters, NY Post, 1 November 2006
No matter what we do, the Expedition to Iraq has failed. Only the scope of the failure, the price to be paid by the Iraq people and by us, remains uncertain.
The long-term result of the Iraq War will depend on our reaction to this failure. That will tell us much about ourselves, and help determine what kind of America we leave for our children.
What happens next?
“It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”
— Winston Churchill (source unknown)
For more information about the Iraq War
Other articles in this series:
- Kuber-Ross gives us a perspective on the evolution of the Iraq War, 11 November 2006 — Introduction
- This is a defining moment in Iraq. The next six months will be crucial. Again. And Again., 12 Novembe 2006 — Part one.
- Part II – What Should We Do in Iraq?, 9 December 2006
- Part III – More Paths to Failure in Iraq, 19 December 2006
- Part IV – Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
Reference pages with links to other sources
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – my articles
- About Iraq & Sub-continent Wars – studies & reports
- About the Iraq War – Goals and Benchmarks