The die is cast with respect to Iraq and the surge. There will be no substantive change until April of 2008, when the 15 month deployment of the “surge” force of 30,000 comes to an end. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, attended by members of Congress and pliant members of the media, will take center stage in today’s so-called drama, Iraq Kabuki. Kabuki is a type of popular Japanese drama “in which elaborately costumed performers use stylized movements, dances, and songs in order to enact tragedies and comedies.” Today’s presentation in Washington will include heated rhetoric and self-righteous indignation but, when the day ends, the guy with an earnest face and a chest full of medals will have the high road and the Representatives who attack him will be roundly booed as troop haters who are undermining the morale of our soldiers in combat.
Truth and facts do not really matter. Disagree? Please go back and watch what happened to Lt. Colonel Oliver North when Congress tussled with him as they tried to get to the bottom of the Iran Contra scandal.
Today’s presentation ostensibly is about our alleged progress in Iraq. But this argument is not about facts. If facts and ground truth were important then there would be no argument.
The facts are clear. Attacks on civilians have continued unabated notwithstanding the surge, according to the GAO report. And there has been no significant political progress in Iraq in terms of reconciling Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq.
Then there is the report from retired Marine General James Jones detailing the inadequacies and corruption of the Iraqi police. Notwithstanding progress in building a new Iraqi army, its capabilities are very limited and not likely to improve dramatically in the near future.
We also have Dave Kilcullen, an Austrailian special forces type who is working with Petraeus, who acknowledges that the so called success in Al Anbar has nothing to do with the surge and is an unexpected result of local tribes retaliating against foreign jihadists who murdered local tribal leaders and their families. In addition, countries with an interest in bolstering the Sunni tribes, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have provided finance and support.
Then we have the fact that Petraeus and company are cherry picking the data and deliberately painting a false, rosy picture that security in Iraq is better and the the violence is abating. Dave and his boys achieved this result by excluding car bombs and other sectarian casualties from the calculation.
The arguing over the troop deployment masks the real issue–i.e., what should be the role of the United States in Iraq? The die is cast for the U.S. military in Iraq. We are coming up against some reality imposed deadlines. For example, by the spring of 2008 the United States will withdraw 30,000 troops from Iraq and does not have reserve forces to replace them. The withdrawal of those troops will mean diminished U.S. influence in those areas where the draw down will occur, regardless of whether or not the “surge” is working. The withdrawal of British forces from southern Iraq further strains the tactical demands on U.S. forces. The Shia militia, with Iranian support and meddling, will fight for a new status quo in the area with minimal U.S. involvement. But this also means that the logistics resupply line that runs from Kuwait to Baghdad will be under the potential control of Shia militia and criminal gangs. So far they have not tried to shut down the resupply routes.
Then there is the issue of rules of engagement in Iraq for US troops. Currently, US special operations forces have some freedom to carry out unilateral operations. But the freedom is going to be curtailed, either because the political powers that be in the sectarian sections of Iraq will insist on limiting what the US can do or, at the national level, what passes for an Iraqi government will chafe at US actions and try to impose limits. Conventional military missions run the gambit from convoy security and patrols against suspected terrorist cells.
The biggest problem, in my view, is that the current mission of U.S. forces in Iraq continues to foster the perception that we are attacking Iraqis. Our troops should not be the ones conducting broad base raids on suspected terrorist targets in Iraq. Invariably much of our effort is counterproductive. We end up antagonizing those we attack. We end up incarcerating them and being perceived, fairly or not, as acting on behalf of the Shia or the Sunni. And to the extent that we provide security for operations carried out by corrupt police or military units, we ultimately get the blame for those actions as well.
The recommendations of General Jones provide an important map forward. We need a revamped and serious police/military training program that is handled by special forces with skills for the Arab world. Up to this point the Arabists in the Army have been marginalized in this effort.
We are past the watershed moment for Iraq. It is in the process of becoming what the former Yugoslavia is now–ethnic enclaves. There is no political leader with the clout or stature to unify the nation.
The United States must accept that we do not have sufficient military forces to impose a unified, national political system in Iraq. We need to accept that our current efforts to empower the tribes in Al Anbar will antagonize the Shia government in Baghdad and help forge closer ties between Iraq and Iran. We need to accept that our efforts to build a government in Baghdad have in turn strengthened the hand of Iran in the region and fueled great concern in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
We are faced with the task of making chicken salad out of chicken shit. There are difficult issues facing us in Iraq regardless of whether we keep our troops there or withdraw them. We need to be asking what a policy should look like going forward that will serve our broader regional interests. Can we encourage political stability in Iraq that will not further inflame regional instability and heighten tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
I am doubtful the hearings this week will achieve little other than trapping the Democrats as defeatists who want to sell out America to the terrorists. That’s the storyline the Bush Administration will push and the media, by and large, appears willing to repeat unchallenged.
But this silly theater ignores serious, longterm problems confronting us in Iraq. We do not have a large enough Army to impose a political settlement in Iraq. Iraq cannot be fixed with military power. Arresting and incarcerating tens of thousands of Iraqis simply aggravates the tensions and fosters resentments and insults that, in terms of the culture, demands vengeance and recovered honor. A political settlement in Iraq is not possible without the assistance of Syria, Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. These are not new facts. The Iraq Survey Group pointed that out last year. But despite the facts, nothing significant is likely to change vis-a-vis Washington. The Democrats lack the unity and the Republicans lack the integrity to confront the realities of Iraq.
One thing is certain–American soldiers will continue to die in Iraq and sometime next year, we will still be wrestling with the same basic question. Who lost Iraq?