In Surrender in Al Anbar province I described the tactical retreat we made in Anbar, and why it may prove a wise move. History shows that apt tactical retreats have ocassionaly led to strategic gains, and often ended fruitless and expensive engagements.
While a big step backwards in terms of our strategic goals — to establish a strong, friendly Iraq State — this is probably a step towards peace in Iraq. Iraq is fragmenting, probably at best into a loose federation. Ending our fighting with the local elites in Anbar (and afterward throughout Iraq) — more than that, giving them our military and financial support — helps them to establish functioning local and regional governments.
I described this path to peace for Iraq in March and September of 2007. This post provides an update and shows a way forward. My thanks to those, like Smitten Eagle, who joined the discussion on “Surrender in Akbar” and whose questions and insights contributed this post.
Victory in Iraq
One of the major similarities between the Iraq and Vietnam Wars lies in our goals. In Vietnam we fought to prevent the nations of southeast Asia from falling into the Communist block — the Domino Theory. The dominos themselves did not believe this likely, and following our defeat were mostly correct.
In the summer of 2007 our goals in Iraq changed, silently — with no official changes to the White House Victory Conditions or to the Congressional Benchmarks (listed here). Almost everyone we fought become “al Qaeda”, and our aim was to prevent al Qaeda from taking Iraq (see this for detail on “al Qaeda as meta-enemy”). Like the domino theory, there is little or no evidence that this scenario is possible — let alone likely.
Imaginary goals have one great advantage: we can declare victory and leave, secure in the liklihood that this improbable threat has been averted.
The End of the Insurgency
The victory narrative, seen most clearly in reports by war-bloggers like Michael Yon and Bill Roggio, describes progress most often in terms of the Iraq Army and Iraq Police. Unfortunately these are no longer national institutions (something well established by reports and studies of Iraq during the the past three years).
This blindness allows them to ignore the obvious fragmentation of institutions and loyalties in this former nation-state. What pretends to be a national government has little legitmacy and less power, possessing few of the attributes of a real government. Hence there is no longer an insurgency in Iraq. Most authority has devolved to local communities run by a mixture of tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders.
Certainly not among the Kurds. They control an Army (Peshmerga), levy taxes, enact laws, and have the loyalty of a majority of the region’s people. Kurdistan is a state in all but name.
The Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab regions are proto-states, run by governments in an early stage of development. Development of functioning governments proceeds slowly. The massive ethnic cleansing of 2007 might accelerate this process. Much will depend on the abilities of Iraq’s leaders, men such as Muqtada al-Sadr, and their ability to work together.
The current state of the Iraq war
The fighting in Iraq was largely of two kinds, plus a high level of background violence. First, fighting raged in the ungoverned or disputed zones. I said in March 2007 that the only military solutions to stop this were genocide or massive ethnic cleansing. They wisely chose the latter.
Second, the Coalition fought local elites for control of “their” areas. Usually in the Sunni-dominated areas, rarely in Shiite run areas, almost never in the Kurdish zone. In March I said that these operations seemed hopeless, their goals bizarre. Worse, some of the methods we used appeared to violate the Law of Nations — on occasion looking like outright terrorism.
Our causalities have decreased as we abandoned these quixotic battles. The “Anbar model” shows the future of Iraq: local elites consolidate power, then “ally” with America. We provide arms and training; in exchange they give us little or nothing. No wonder the Shiite Arabs wish to join the Kurds and Sunni Arabs at this free lunch.
Next stage of the war
How much more fighting until the Iraq obtains peace? Massive bloodshed is possible, often predicted by pundits with a almost perfectly forecasting record in this war. This is their problem, not ours — and not worth spending unlimited American funds and blood attempting (perhaps in vain) to prevent it. There are other scenarios. Each proto-state might achieve internal order. They might come to terms with each other. At this point almost anything is possible.
We can expect continued conflicts of two kinds in Iraq. The number, duration, scope, and intensity of these conflicts are unknowable. First, fighting within the varous zones, as local elites fight for control. It need not be large scale killing, nor even violent.
Will the PUK and PDK continue to peacefully share power in Kurdistan? How much influence do the Turkmen have? How is the northern oil shared?
Who will rule the Shia-dominated areas? Will fighting continue or even intensify between Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) (nominal followers of Muqtada al-Sadr) and those aligned with the other major Shi’ite group (the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council — SIIC, formerly SCIRI). In one of Iraq’s many ironies, both the US and Iran support SIIC against JAM. For more on this conflict see the Department of Defense’s September “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” report, especially page 24.
Second, there might be fighting to establish the borders between zones. For example, the next flashpoint might be over control of Kirkuk.
Whatever the nature and scope of the fighting, as the national government fades to oblivion our role as the arms provider for all sides will become increasingly problematic – both morally and diplomatically.
Role of US forces in Iraq
We have taken the necessary first step, recognizing that the insurgency is over and winding down our efforts to crush local militias. They are, for good or ill, the building blocks of the new Iraq. Following that insight, other steps became obvious. First, helping to secure public spaces in Iraq’s major cities – a form of static defense. No longer attackers, we slowly change in Iraq eyes from targets to neutral guardians. Second, securing Iraq’s borders, especially with Iran (Iraq has no Army, probably by our design to maximize their dependence on us).
Next steps in Iraq
Now America can play a constructive role in Iraq. An easy way to determine our role: ask the peoples of Iraq how we can help. We could act as honest brokers amidst the many factions. But the responsibility is theirs.
As Barbara Tuchman said, “Though a coalition between enemies is an illusion, it can be used for a temporary settlement.” Perhaps even Talleyrand could not bring this group to a useful agreement. Whatever the result, at least we will have tried. Staying in Iraq, for one year or (as McCain said here and here) one hundred years gives us no strategic benefits. Worse, it will strain or wreck our military and cost trillions more than we cannot afford.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Go here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War.
Update: this post might explain, to some extent, the differing evaluations of the same events in Anbar: Today’s ABCD’s: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy.