Good news about Iraq

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.

12 thoughts on “Good news about Iraq

  1. We will know that things are going well in Iraq when tourism resumes. See:

    “LHOONG, Indonesia (Reuters) – As a rebel fighter, Marjuni Ibrahim hid out in Aceh’s jungle. These days he leads “guerrilla tours” taking visitors with a taste for extreme hiking and an interest in Aceh’s turbulent past over the same terrain.

    The treks in the northwestern tip of Indonesia are an attempt to lift Aceh out of poverty by developing local tourism projects and reviving the crippled economy after a 30-year conflict and a devastating tsunami in 2004.

    So just as tourists in Vietnam can scramble through the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Vietcong in the Vietnam war, visitors to Aceh can see where the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) hid from or fought against the Indonesian army (TNI) until as recently as 2005 when the two sides signed a peace agreement.

    Marjuni takes tourists on a scramble over sharp rocky trails, past teak trees cloaked in creepers, and alongside pristine waterfalls and sparkling rock pools.”

  2. Very insightful, and positive, post. Too long we have seen the world only from a top-down nation-building mental image. A more enduring alternative is local-initiative, bottom-up, as you suggest. This will take time and probably won’t be pretty. The difficulty will come from outside meddling, from the US and others in the region.

    The probability of the US walking away from all that oil remains near zero. The Iraqi curse.

  3. Excellent analysis, but I would take some issue with your view of future American roles. I doubt that the US Army is playing an effective role (or wants the role) of being the buffer or protector of public spaces. It would be far better to pull back to Kuwait and provide training assistance and intelligence services to the central government (or whoever they feel should benefit). The border issue is a critical one, and the question is, do you mean surveillance of the borders or border patrols? I vote for the former.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Good questions, to which I will not dissent. I was being generous.

  4. This is unfortunately not enough. The new form of Iraq, as an amalgamation of tribal territories, will require a hegemon, to keep the vestigial state functioning and to stop the neighbours from interfering. So American Army will have to stay.

    But it will not be able to stay much longer – the cost is becoming too great. Either America will manage to occupy Iraq much cheaper (a Foreign Legion?), to construct a unified state (unified enough to keep a viable army) or Iraq will become the arena of conflict between Kurds, Turkey, Iran etc.
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    Fabius Maximus replies, re: need for a hegemon. How do you know this? These folks have lived together, often peacefully, for millenia.

  5. Or, as the Iranians are reported to have told an American diplomat several years ago, “If you remove Saddam Hussein, you’re eventually going to have to restore him because only a dictator can keep that place together.”

    So there may well be another hegemon in Baghdad, but there’s little sign that the Iraqis are looking to us to fill that role.

  6. “These folks have lived together, often peacefully, for millenia.”

    Yes. Sumerian city states, from 2900 to 1800 BC.
    http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/SUMER.HTM

    Here is a short timeline of Iraq’s history. I suggest to anyone thinking that Iraq can survive without a strong central authority to try to find a period, AFTER Sumerians, where this happened.

    http://historymedren.about.com/library/text/bltxtiraqmain.htm
    http://www.al-bab.com/Arab/countries/iraq/history.htm

    See also:
    Iraq’s Culture of Violence“, Shafeeq N. Ghabra, Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2001)
    Culture in Post-Saddam Iraq“, Nimrod Raphaeli, Middle East Quarterly (Summer 2007)
    Correspondence: How Violent Is Iraqi Culture?”, Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2008)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: powerful evidence. Perhaps you are right.

  7. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But any such speculation is useless in practice. If Iraqis were left alone, it is quite possible that they would eventually work out a way to govern themselves without a dictator, either in form of a federation or simply by separating.

    But they are not alone. They border Iran and Turkey, and both those states have important reasons to intervene. Without a strong state they will not be able to defend themselves. Does a strong state require a dictator? Obviously not. But you cannot have a state without a strong center of authority. A bunch of tribes barely able to tolerate each other won’t be able to create an army strong enough to balance Iran. Therefore, Americans got to stay.

    What is worrying me is that Americans seem to be following an Iranian script. Iran needs now Americans in Iraq – they need “hostages” so they won’t get bombed. A low level infiltration etc keeps things on the boil without provoking anything dangerous for the Mullahs.

    When they get their nuke, they will want America to leave, so they can go grab as much oil as possible. Fortunately, by that time America will be out of money and American public will be tired of the whole expedition.

  8. This looks interesting “Kosovar Independence and the Russian Reaction“, George Friedman, Stratfor (20 February 2008):

    “…The primary American interest in Iraq at this point is a negative one — namely, that Iraq not become an Iranian satellite…”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is interesting. It would be more interesting if Friedman had a decent record of forecasting in Iraq. Or if there was actual evidence that Iraq might become an Iranian satellite. I doubt the Kurds will. I very much doubt the Sunni Arabs will. One of — perhaps the most — popular and powerful Shiite Arab leaders is very much opposed to Iraq becoming an Iranian satellite.

  9. All the blood and treasure in the U.S. will not change the fact that Iran is the regional power. Short of nuclear destruction or full-scale invasion I cannot see a way that the U.S. can prevent Iranian influence in the Shia portions of Iraq or restore Iraq as the “anti-Iran” it was during the Hussein era – there was a reason Donnie Rumsfeld went to Baghdad to give the old tyrant some Yankee lovin’, after all. So as long as significant factions see Iran as a counterweight to their enemies, e.g. as Dawa/SIIC sees the Persian help as needed against both nativist factions like the Sadrists and Sunni groups supported by the Saudis (and now the U.S.) Iran will continue to have serious influence there. I agree with Mikyo that this will NOT be true in the north and west generally.

    I suspect that the “best” outcome available to the U.S. at this point is a soft partition, with a nominally soverign government in Baghdad within the Iranian sphere of influence. The problems I see with even this are:

    1. None of the neighbors are going to be happy with a functionally independant “Kurdistan”, which as you point out, isn’t exactly internally stable, either. While I doubt that any of these neighbors will physically invade, the past five years have shown the many ays you can find proxies within Iraq to carry your water if you want to make trouble there. And possibly only Syria (as the weakest and poorest) has any motive to make access deal with the Kurds, an issue for a landlocked country.

    2 The “mixed” provinces and Baghdad provide lots of potential for continued friction in the form of ethnic cleansing and factional fighting. In essence, Mr. Bush’s crusade has functioned to move the Arab-Persian border several hundred miles south and west. Both factions and their sponsors (Saudis and other Arab states in Anbar and the Sunni-element mixed states like Diyala; Iran for the “federal government” and SIIC/Badr) will continue to vie for power.

    3. As noted above, the victory hymns are all about the IA/IP. Civil government in Iraq is a bad joke now and has been since the corruptionpalooza Bremer years. A semi-failed state with a strong Army as the only working institution? Can you say “military dictatorship”, boys and girls? I expect a caudillo in Baghdad within a decade. The only question at that point is will this Shiite Somoza be working hand in glove with the CIA, or with the Iranians (or playing us off against each other) and what will happen if, like many of the breed, he gets a dream of “reuniting” Iraq and invades the north, or attacks the Sunni CLC/militia areas.

    For this mess we needed a Machiavelli or a Tallyrand and instead we had Dougie Feith and a troupe of GOP circus monkeys. Sweet baby Jesus!

  10. Excellent new article about the Surge, the Anbar Awakening, and modern Iraq: “The Myth of the Surge“, Nir Rosen, Rolling Stone (6 March 2008). Headline:

    “Hoping to turn enemies into allies, U.S. forces are arming Iraqis who fought with the insurgents. But it’s already starting to backfire. A report from the front lines of the new Iraq.”

    Also worth reading is John Robb’s new analysis “Adrift” (25 February 2008).

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