Iraq’s holding pattern

On the fifth anniversary of our invasion,it is hard to escape the fact that most Americans are busy tuning out the Iraq War. The Iraq War is old news. Yesterday, it was hard to muster even a few dozen war protestors for a demonstration in front of the Internal Revenue Service. While more sectarian death in Iraq is hardly news, reckless philandering by a call-girl happy governor is news and so much more interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten about the Iraq War. By large margins, Americans agree that going into Iraq was a mistake and want us to withdraw. Only the fools who instigated this war like President Bush and Vice President Cheney remain in denial. President Bush said yesterday that the surge “opened the door to a major strategic victory in the war on terror”. I want whatever he is snorting; it must be pricier than Elliot Spitzer’s call girls. Also yesterday, Vice President Cheney took time from his busy schedule to sneer at the American people. Asked by ABC News for a reaction to polls that consistently show two thirds of the public oppose the Iraq War he rejoined, “So?” A small majority of Americans now think that we could ultimately succeed if we stayed in Iraq long enough. Yet the public does not want to hang around long enough to see if it can happen. Maybe the ten billion dollars a month that our occupation is costing has something to do with our calculus.

The Iraq War has become the crazy old grandmother in our nation’s attic. We find it convenient not to talk too much about it. Our reaction is understandable if not childish. Just as Germans found it was hard to talk about the Holocaust after World War II, so we find it hard to stay engaged on our folly. In some ways, it was easier to stay engaged when things were getting worse. For the price of his surge, Bush at least bought himself at some relief from the incessant questions of his decision to invade Iraq. Instead, we find ourselves focused on some of other catastrophically bad decisions his administration made which are much closer to home, like skyrocketing gas prices, a falling dollar and our plunging stock market.

President Bush of course wants you to believe his surge is not just working, but will actually bring peace to Iraq. Here is what is working for sure in Iraq: ethnic cleansing. Before our invasion, ethnically mixed areas in Iraq were commonplace. Few cared whether a Sunni married a Shi’ite. Now, only a handful of mixed neighborhoods remain. The result is that Baghdad has been transformed into hundreds of smaller cities all but a handful of which are either Shi’ite or Sunni. Mini cinder block Berlin walls separate these enclaves. Within its citizens are generally safer than they were when they were ethnically mixed. The dubious success of ethnic cleansing (which we did not succeed in preventing earlier in the war) is responsible for much of this reduction in violence. Our forces have also been blessed by decisions of some militias, like Moqtada al-Sadr’s, to refrain from violence.

Unquestionably, considerable violence was quelled because of the surge. Bush and General Petraeus can take credit for this. In itself, it is not too surprising. It is hardly a novel strategy. When crime rates spike in the District of Columbia, police go on overtime and saturate crime prone areas with cops until crime levels drop. With enough force, you can win a rough peace anywhere. The problem is it is a faux peace. The thorny political problems remain. Only three of the eighteen political benchmarks we laid out for the Iraqi government has been achieved. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is planning another two-month vacation. They might as well go on vacation since they seem unable to agree on much of anything. In truth their parliament is quite representative. Their inability to agree on much of anything shows that the country of Iraq is simply a fiction.

What about those “concerned local citizens”? These small police and military forces are in primarily Sunni areas of the country. It is true that they have largely gained the upper hand against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda though remains a tiny fraction of the unstable forces in the region. What is less reported is how such cooperation was achieved. Sunnis are cooperating with American forces for two important reasons. First, Shi’ite militias were succeeding. Sunnis were losing their civil war and needed help anywhere they could get to survive. They found it convenient to make the Americans their friends. Cooperating with us became better than extinction. Second, they were bribed. Those concerned local citizens did not spontaneously come together, but found common cause only when we started handing them money and arms.

The Iraqi Army remains largely ineffectual. For all practical purposes, it can be considered a Shi’ite militia, and not a very good one at that. They show all the sterling qualities of the South Vietnamese Army, only they are not nearly as good. Few of their battles are waged independently. Most are done in cooperation with American forces. The surge has helped “concerned local citizens” deal with their own security problems by providing the necessary guns, ammunition and training needed to control behavior. All factions seem to tacitly agree on one thing: they do not want to agree to solve their thorny problems. Their real loyalty is to their ethnicity, not their country.

The reality is that Iraq has already self-segregated into three ethnic states, only its boundaries are still fluid, particularly within Baghdad. As I predicted, in areas where our military forces were densest, terrorists and insurgents relocated to areas that are more favorable. Currently these are cities like Karbala, Kirkuk and Mosul. 160,000 troops is a lot, but it cannot pacify all of Iraq. The civil war, well underway before the surge began, has at best been postponed. However, no occupation force can stay forever. The Iraqi government shows no willingness to actually govern their nation. They cannot even come to consensus on some of their most basic problems, like the division of oil revenues. This means of course that the country of Iraq is dead and cannot be resuscitated. It existed as long as Saddam Hussein ruled. It was doomed to fall apart when he was overthrown.

Force of arms and infinite patience will not force the shards of Iraq back into a coherent shape. The surge has helped to reduce the level of violence. What is needed now is an imperfect end to our occupation. It will not come from this president, but I expect the next one will implement a withdrawal strategy similar to what I penned last September. For a limited time, we should facilitate the desire of Iraqis who want to move safely from one ethnic area to another. We should do our best to police the boundaries of these new states. Then we should withdraw a few divisions every month until we are gone. With luck we may find some other international forces to take our place.

On one thing, I am certain: a year from now under a new president we will at least have begun a real withdrawal from Iraq.

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