Archive for January 2007

We Must Negotiate with Iran

January 31, 2007

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed (January 30), Viorst makes a case for involving the Arab League in efforts to end the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, he contrasts this suggestion with that of the Iraq Study Group that emphasizes negotiation with Syria and Iran, “the very countries”, he asserts, “that have an interest in Iraq’s instability.” This mistaken contrast undermines what chances we might have for serious negotiation as a way out of Iraq.

Iran is the only non-coalition country directly involved in Iraq. Its interests in the country are manifold and have a much deeper historical background than our own. It never had a love affair with Saddam Hussein and spent millions of lives rejecting his advances. Recently, it has been developing peaceful and constructive relations with leaders throughout the region, including the Kurdish leaders in the north and Shi’a leaders in the south. Its political, religious, and business leaders are willing and able to play a major role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and are beginning to negotiate this role with these leaders.

Yes, the Iranians are bound to be particularly interested in the fate of their co-religionists in Iraq. But they know that the best path to assuring Shi’ite success is the stabilization of the present constitutional system that guarantees their interests. If the United States would abandon its rejection of Iranians as though they had no business in “our Iraq”, then we could talk to them about how we might work together to achieve mutual goals. We might at last find a way to move beyond the chaos that our clumsiness has created.


Escape from Iraq Through Iran

January 15, 2007

Many in Washington believe that the alternatives to a disastrous retreat from Iraq are few. One of the alternatives that some feel administration people are entertaining is a widening of the war to Iran. American statements in regard to Iran have been threatening since the “Axis of Evil” speech. Iran was never given credit for the help that they gave us in defeating the Taliban. Since the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are fiercely anti-Shi’a, one would think Tehran would have been a natural ally. Instead, the Iranians have been reviled for suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, for their support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and for supposedly sending weapons into Iraq.

Some month ago Seymour Hersh reported that American agents were being sent into Iran to help dissident movements in Iranian Baluchistan and Iranian Kurdistan. Scott Ritter, the former weapon’s inspector and Hersh are all over the internet with statements about these agents, along with Israeli agents. Ritter has predicted war with Iran in the near future. Recently, we have announced that we are sending additional ships to protect the Persian Gulf against Iran. One of the greatest downsides to a war with Iran is that the Iranians could disrupt the movement of oil in the Gulf. Presumably the ships and their associated planes could reduce this danger. On two occasions recently we have arrested Iranians in Iraq. The latest event in Erbil in Kurdistan infuriated both the central Iraq government and the Kurdish regional government. We claim they are involved in bringing in weapons or explosives for the Shiite militias. Perhaps they are. In any event, we have signaled that we will be more active in the future in preventing such intrusions. We have repeatedly claimed that the Iranians are breaking the law in moving ahead with a nuclear enrichment program. The Iranians claim it is all for peaceful purposes, but even if not, after essentially approving the Indian, Pakistani, and Israel programs, we have a weak basis from which to criticize.

In any event, can one imagine a better way for the Bush people to reverse the Iraq disaster? After this new front heats up a bit, it can plausibly be argued that our problems in Iraq are due to Iranian intervention, that we have actually been fighting Iran all along without realizing it. I don’t see a great deal of ground action, but there could be a lot of dead Iranians if we use our air power to “teach them a lesson”. A new way to make friends in the region.

Ahmad Chalabi, Iran, and War in Iraq

January 15, 2007

I have recently realized that the war in Iraq may have been carefully nursed into flame by the Iranian government as a means of destroying their old nemesis (Hussein) and weakening their neighbor to the west, so that it could never aspire to much more than satellite status.

Ahmad Chalabi might be singled out as the person most responsible for this outcome. As the reader may know, Chalabi is a wealthy Iraqi who has spent nearly all of his life in exile. He is well educated, publishing several papers in mathematics. He has had numerous business dealings, some of which were questionable (for example, he had to flee Jordan because of apparent bank fraud). In any event, whatever his setbacks, he seems to always bounce back. He has a lovely home in London and has recently purchased a home overlooking Tehran. He also has an extensive family compound in Baghdad. For the last years of the Hussein’s rule, he was known as a principal leader of Iraqi opposition, serving as the head of the Iraqi National Congress. He organized a resistance movement among the Kurds in the mid 1990s, fleeing after they were defeated. He then came to Washington where he became the idol of the neocons, the man who convinced them and many others that we should attack Iraq, and that the people were ready to transform their country into a democracy. His movement was well supported by the Americans.

After our victory, his Pentagon supporters managed to work him into top positions in the Iraqi government . He was appointed a member of the Interim Governing Council. But in 2004 his compound was surrounded by Iraqi forces. He was charged with grand theft and counterfeiting, and his nephew with murder. At about this time, the United States also accused him of passing U.S. government secrets to the Iranians. The Americans cut off his subsidy. But with the assistance of his friends, none of these charges were sustained. He had become one of Iraq’s leading Shiite politicians, and was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in April, 2005. Once again in the good graces of the United States, in November, 2005 he visited Washington for high level meetings with American officials and Congress. He followed this up with a trip to Tehran where he met with Ahmadinejad and other top Iranians. In spite of this international comeback, with Iraqi voters he seems to have lost any influence. He is now out of government.

Juan Cole and the Middle East

January 15, 2007

The reader of this blog can probably be as well informed as any about Iraq and its situation if he reads Juan Cole’s blog: The subtitle is “Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion”. In spite of its broad range, in recent years the emphasis has been on the Iraq war. Cole is a history professor at Michigan who has written several books, perhaps the best on the history of the Shiites in Iraq. He seems to have many contacts within Iraq and in the Iraq-aware community throughout the world. His approach to the war and the Middle East has been that of a liberal professor, but a much better informed and thoughtful person of this breed than most.

But Cole is also much more than an ordinary professor. He is an authority on the Bahais (and may be a Bahai, I’m not sure). He has written widely on Bahais, Sufis, and other spiritual movements. His web site also has quite a bit on the Unitarian-Universalist movement.

But for our purposes, the most exciting initiative that he is now involved with is something called the Global Americana Institute of which he is president. He has set it up to fill what he feels is a serious vacuum: the lack of available translations of American authors into Arabic. He is thinking particularly of Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, perhaps a history of Jews in America. He has toured widely in the Arab world and visits bookstores wherever he can. It is amazing how little literature he finds. He finds a fair number of American authors in English or French. But for those who only know Arabic, there is almost nothing. He thinks it would help greatly if the Arab public had greater access to our writings and one can only agree. (He hopes to extend the effort, probably to Persian on the one side and to Hebrew on the other.)

It is interesting that many of the programs that we thought were helping with this problem a generation or so ago have either disappeared or been greatly scaled back. There is apparently no longer a Franklin Book Program. There is a small U.S. Government translation program, but very few of its works are available to the general public. The United States Information Agency has been reduced in size and folded into the State Department. Their once well-known reading rooms have largely disappeared. The emphasis of Cole’s foudation will be on producing inexpensive paperbacks since connection to the internet is still rare and libraries are few and weak. American studies programs are almost entirely lacking in the area, and where they exist tend to be connected with the study of English. Some recent discussion of this initiative can be found at


Bing West’s War

January 13, 2007

In the latest Atlantic Bing West offers his upbeat vision of how things might be turned around in Iraq. I mentioned the CAP or Combined Action Platoons in an earlier posting. Bing was the one who originally presented this idea to me and other researchers at the Hudson Institute in the 1960s. He had just come back from Vietnam where he had been involved with this Marine effort. One must at least give him credit for consistency. Of course, he is no longer the dashing, undaunted young man, but one can see in his TV and radio appearances these days that the commitment and enthusiasm is still there.

The concept as applied to Iraq is for the American military to break many of its units into small platoon sized advisory teams that would be embedded with somewhat larger Iraqi forces (perhaps in a ratio of one American to four Iraqis). They would live and patrol with the Iraqis for long periods. The Iraqis would identify the targets and the Americans would bring in the firepower that would lead to victory, victory in small increments, but consistently.

Bing gives some good examples of where particular officers in some cities in Iraq have succeeded very well with versions of this approach. They combined this with making alliances with local tribes that then became the main backers of the local police forces. It has always seemed to me that this approach if carried out consistently and on a large enough scale would have real promise. The problem again is that it may be too late. And breaking up of units for long periods in this way has never been popular with higher commanders.

Other aspects of the West approach are less satisfying. He is right that we need to treat the conflict as more of a police matter and we need to give the equipment and support to the police that they lack. But he combines this with a “get tough” approach that says in effect that we need to get the bad guys off the streets, no matter what the doubts we may have about the legality of what we are doing. If the jails are not full, in his mind the American-Iraqi police not doing their job. He seems to ignore what the Iraqis do to men in jails. He implies that we pay too much attention to such details. We need to get the job done! He has little patience with coddling the Iraqis at any level (and “ours” or “theirs”).

This reminded me of what Brezezinski said tonight on a television discussion. “What we are doing in Iraq is going against history. We are fighting a colonial war in an era in which no one accepts colonial wars.” Bing is still outlining a policy for a colonial war.

The Bush Plan for Iraq

January 11, 2007

President Bush’s long awaited plan for Iraq was followed on television by several, mostly critical remarks by political leaders, political analysts and military experts. The plan is essentially to send about 21,000 additional troops into Iraq, 17,000 of them to be used in Baghdad to establish firm control over the city in conjunction with Iraqi troops and police. Another part of the plan is to spend additional money to help restore basic services and increase the availability of jobs. All of this sounds good, and it may work out better than the critics believe. But then so many plans have sounded good.

The criticisms fall under several headings.

  1. Several commentators criticized the Bush plan as essentially a minor tactical adjustment. The additional troops are too few, too late. His new strategy is not a major change. The biggest difference is that the Iraqis are supposed to take the lead. Something they have not shown themselves capable of previously.

  2. General Odom and Jim Webb, the new senator from Virginia said in their comments that what was needed was a fundamental change of strategy. Specifically this means that more pages should have been taken from the Baker report. They believe we should promote a regional solution. The Persians, Saudis, Turks, Syrians, and the Gulf States need to be brought together in a common undertaking to develop and secure Iraq. There was nothing about the need for regional involvement in the speech. Instead, there were the usual negative statements about Iran playing a part in the terrorism. The fact that because of geography, history, and religious affiliation Iran has to be a part of the solution has simply never been addressed by this administration. The only alternative to taking it seriously would be for us to permanently station American troops on the Iranian border.

  3. There is a persistent failure to understand the enemy we face. It is not that we face a few thousand rebels and terrorists living amongst an otherwise passive population. There are millions of people against us. And every Iraqi we kill increases the number. In addition to this general struggle against the foreigner that is managed by outside terrorists as well as Iraqi nationalist (Baath), Sunni, Shi’a and Turkoman militias, there are the struggles of the sects and their militias against one another and against the Kurds and Turkoman. And within each of these groups, there are power struggles that often lead to violent deaths. The most notable militias are the Mahdi army of the Shi’a leader Moqtada al-Sadr and the peshmerga of the Kurdish enclave (intent on defending their heartland and extending it in the Mosul and Kirkuk areas). Some believe the Mahdi army is as large as the national army.

  4. We are expecting the government forces to help us destroy the Shi’a militias in Baghdad. These are the same militias that have penetrated the army and police forces and are strongly supported by the Interior ministry. Apparently Maliki recognizes that he cannot effectively attack his political allies, so, as I read, he is bringing in units of the Kurdish peshmerga to help the Americans. The commentator that made this report said many doubted that the Peshmerga fighters would show up, and if they did, would risk their lives. We can well ask why they would help secure Baghdad. The peshmerga were formed to defend Kurdistan and extend its borders. They know that a peaceful, united Iraq would in the end endanger their dream. So what is in it for them? 98% of Kurds say in polls that they want a separate state. The American government has just never faced the reality of what it is our Kurdish “allies” really stand for. There are no doubt many enlightened, westernized Kurds that want to see a peaceful, united Iraq emerge from the chaos. The President is, after all, a Kurd. Yet this is clearly not the view of the bulk of the Kurdish population who feel they have never had it so good. They have already gone their own way.

    One of the most cogent comments made by an after-talk panelist (Odem or Webb) was that there would not be stability until American troops leave. He was emphasizing the point that the war has to a considerable extent been from the beginning a struggle against what is perceived as an occupying power. The longer we stay and the more Iraqis we kill, intentionally or not, the more this will remain a critical factor. Many Iraqis have believed from the beginning that we were there to stay, that talk of ever leaving was window dressing. Any more troops will simply reinforce this view in the minds of many, including many Shi’a. Of course, we could probably bring peace to Iraq with 400,000 troops. We would then be an occupying power and the decisions would all be ours. We would not have to negotiate whether or not we attack the militias.

One interpretation of Bush’s plan is that it was an attempt to remake what Washington knew that the Maliki regime wanted. Its leaders had opposed more American troops in Baghdad. Instead, they had wanted the Americans to move their troops to the outskirts so that the Iraqi police and army would have a freer hand in putting down the violence (which appeared to mean in attacking Sunnis and not Shi’as). The American plan to have our soldiers work directly with the Iraqis is not at all what they wanted. Bush said that the Iraqis would be taking a leading role in securing Baghdad, but these commentators are saying that this is exactly not what Bush wants.

One last thought of the commentators was that the Bush strategy is actually designed as a means of opening the door for an exit from Iraq. They argued that his subtext throughout his talk was that it is now all up to the Iraqis. They can make it work. But if they cannot, then there will be failure and it will be on them. Maybe so, but whatever we say, the world will see Americans leaving a still chaotic Iraq as our failure and the disastrous consequences of failure that the Bush people keep talking about would not be avoided. I cannot imagine that the administration really has a fall-back strategy of this kind. But what is their “Plan B”?


University Projects for Iraq

January 10, 2007

Recent reports are that the United States and the Kurdish enclave have developed a plan for an “American University” modeled on that in Beirut. Instruction will be in English. It is to be located near Sulaimaniya in eastern Kurdistan. There seems to be initial funding and the land has been staked out. The report suggests that many feel that such a university should be in Baghdad, where most of higher education is now located. But the developers of this idea think Baghdad is just too dangerous. Yet this should not be a consideration since we are talking about a project that will not mature for a few years..

There are several problems with the idea. First, although the aspiration is to create a major “Iraqi” university, the funding and support is Kurdish and American, which is fine only if it is to be a Kurdish institution. The plan mixes grand rhetoric with minor ambitions. The first students are expected to be a handful of Kurds, and they will not arrive for several years. There are projected to be 1000 students by 2011. In comparison, Baghdad University has (on paper at least) 70,000 students, and even Sulaimaniya University has 12,000. The American embassy believes there are 475,000 Iraqis pursuing higher education at the moment. The diplomats may be smoking something, but this gives some idea of the scale. Secondly, the intellectual and political figures supporting the project, Iraqi and American, are primarily those who supported the invasion — likely not to be popular group for Iraq’s next generation.

On December 12, I posted the idea of creating a major Iraqi University near Baghdad in the tradition of Jundi-Shapur and the Bayt-al-Hikmah of the Middle Ages. The concept was for a secular university that both Iran and Iraq could take pride in, binding the nations together in a positive manner that would avoid the sectarian struggles of the day. Obviously, this too is not something that will happen tomorrow. But it could be a major project for the future. The project for a new English language university in Kurdistan is an interesting one, but would see these as more complimentary than competing ideas.