Archive for February 2007

British Withdrawals

February 24, 2007

The announcement that the British intended to evacuate nearly half of their forces cast a gloomy shadow over American plans. Commentators noted that several of the other coalition partners had plans to reduce their forces or leave completely in the near future. These were mostly small symbolic forces, but symbols are important.

Juan Cole tells us in the current Salon online magazine that in leaving Basra the British will be leaving a city that they have simply been unable to control. After a brave effort to bring the militias to heel early on, in recent months they have backed off and let the militias do most of the policing. Cole tells us that the Virtue Party (a Shi’a group with which I am not familiar) and SCIRI (whose leader’s son the U.S. briefly detained on the Persian border) have both infiltrated the police to such an extent that they have divided up most of the city between their militias (in police uniforms). Both of these groups have enforced Taliban-like restrictions on dress, alcohol and so forth. The situation is complicated by the Marsh Arabs, many of whom have emerged in this area as criminal gangs. Most of Iraq’s oil passes through Basra and its environs, and the local warfare is to a large extent over who gets the bulk of the massive pilferage of oil that goes on.

Basra is said to be a completely Shi’a area. Yet at least in the environs there is a tough Sunni community that has strived to preserve its own turf against repeated Shi’a inroads.

Cole points out that nearly all the supplies for the American army in the center of the country must come through the Basra area. As the British presence is reduced, the chance that the militia-police might gradually or abruptly choke off these supply lines must worry the Pentagon. It may force the Americans to place more troops along this supply line. In any event, holding power in this chokepoint increases the bargaining power of SCIRI and other Basra militias on the national scene. SCIRI is very close to the Iranians and is the most likely group to approve of increased Iranian involvement in Iraq. Some months back a reporter in Basra was telling us that the city was essentially in the hands of the Iranians through its client organizations. I have not heard this claim lately, but in the end it may come down to this.

In conclusion, the British withdrawal will be opening the country to even more Iranians presence and pressure. As I have said elsewhere, this certainly seems reasonable from their perspective, but, again, it is not reassuring to Americans who have a rather different perspective.


“The Surge”: Another View

February 23, 2007

Congress is intent on showing up the foolishness of the administration, as exemplified by the sending of more troops to Iraq. Many of my comments have suggested the reasons why the surge is a foolish gamble.

Yet recent reports suggest that there is a chance that I may once again be wrong. There seem to be some successes on the streets of Baghdad. The most likely explanation is that the insurgents and sectarian gangs are doing what always makes sense when facing a heavily armed regular force: get out of the way, lay low, find handy places to hide arms, and wait until the more powerful enemy goes away, as he must do sooner or later.

There are, however, other explanations or at least part explanations. I have repeatedly pointed out how our efforts are undermined by the growth of a natural hatred of the foreign occupier. Yet even this hate can burn out. I think I can detect a possible weariness of the Iraqi citizenry. They are tired of the killing. They want it to all go away. And if the Americans have been part of their problem, more may come reluctantly to agree that they can also be a part of their solution.

Let us break down the situation in terms of some hypotheticals. The population can be divided into activists and passivists. In most revolutionary situations the passivists are the larger group. This is often missed since by their nature they do not want to bring attention on themselves. Their actions and answers to survey questions depend entirely on who is doing the questioning. Their real opinions are kept very much to themselves. The population can also be divided into the Shi’a and Sunni, and lesser groups of Turkomans, Kurds, Christians, and secularists. The Kurds, Christians, and secularists (aside from Baath) have tended from the beginning to support the American cause. The attitude toward the American military of members of other groups will vary as situations vary. In many places, particularly in parts of Baghdad, the Americans have come to be seen by Sunnis as a necessary evil, for they alone are able to defend the Sunnis against the Shi’a, and Shi’a-infested Iraqi police. On the other hand, in some areas, particularly rural areas to the north and south of Baghdad, Shi’as have found themselves under heavy Sunni pressure, or even heavy extremist Shi’a pressure (north of Najaf). In these cases, it is the Shi’a who have been happy to see the Americans intervene.

So the Americans have a role to play in Iraq for those Iraqis who see no other way out of their difficulties. The problem for American commanders becomes then to expand this opening by setting aside larger goals of defeating “the enemy” while confining action to the narrower goal of protecting the people. There just might be a strategy here that would work.

Meanwhile . . .

Afghanistan: Our First Responsibility

February 13, 2007

In the January/February Foreign Affairs Barnett Rubin has summarized in excellent and disheartening detail the problems we face in attempting to stabilize Afghanistan. He asserts that we have not lost yet, but the country is still ours to lose. The importance of winning goes beyond both the welfare of the Afghan people and the maintenance of America’s position in the world. He points out that NATO is now intimately involved in the effort to turn back the Taliban. If it should fail, this will not only harm the United States and NATO, but also seriously set back the effort to make NATO an accepted and viable alternative for bringing order to future situations.

While it is impossible to separate the country from its context, let us begin with the challenges that would be faced even if there were no Taliban. Rubin finds only one major effective institution — the army. Beyond that, the police and the judicial system and local government are all highly corrupt and incompetent. The lack of any believable security and justice for the average person leads to a crushing lack of confidence that makes reconstruction almost impossible. Pervasive corruption makes the distribution of security funds a losing proposition. The only cash crop many Afghans have is opium. It has become much more important than it ever was because of the impossibility of getting more bulky products to the market. This problem is exacerbated by the high price paid for opium because other countries have been much more able to reduce production. Rubin adds that the opium problem is essentially impossible to control as long as the developed world criminalizes opium. The inevitable result of criminalization is high returns for those outside the law, a sphere in which most Afghans reside and will remain for the foreseeable future. The result of the situation is the empowering of “warlords”, which we might define as persons able to act without restraint against those under them. These warlords may be the old fashioned variety or the newer Taliban leaders.

Rubin points out some basic facts that it are easy to forget. The Afghans have been living through what is now a thirty years war. He also reminds us that Afghanistan has suffered from extreme poverty for generations, and it is this poverty that makes any effort by government, before or after this war, almost doomed to failure. Governments just cannot collect the funds that would allow them to do anything outside Kabul.

Yet with all this, his interviews suggest that the people do not want the Taliban back if there is a real alternative.

The other major thrust of Rubin’s article is that no insurgency has ever been overcome when there is an outside country willing to maintain a steady supply of insurgents. No matter how many we kill, there will be more. He explains that Islamabad supports the Taliban as part of a long-term strategy that we at one time seconded of opposing India at every opportunity. Strange as it may seem, Pakistan’s leading class lives in constant fear that India will “do them in”. In this paranoid vision, India is continually trying to squeeze Pakistan in a pincher between Afghanistan and India. All this goes back to the time of partition when some leaders of the NWFP sided with India and tried to strike out on their own by creating “Pakhtoonistan”. Pakistan saw the hand of India in all this. So its intelligence services took it upon themselves to block India. In recent years this has meant supplying and training the Taliban both within the country and in Afghanistan, as well as support for similar groups in Kashmir. To Pakistan, the American invasion of Afghanistan was a disaster — Rubin reports Islamabad considered going to war with the U.S. to preserve their Taliban ally.

All of which illustrates again that we are mucking around in an area that is almost impossible to understand, with allies and friends all mixed up together in strange relationships.

Nevertheless, Rubin echoes the Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations with Pakistan, as well as the other players. As he points out, we may not like, understand, or agree with the positions of other players, but we cannot simply ignore them. For example, the only way to get the Pakistanis to change their behavior in regard to the Taliban is to give them assurances, even guarantees, that their worst fears will not be realized if they cooperate with us. Even then, we might not succeed, but this is the only shot we have.


February 7, 2007

In a New York Times Op-Ed yesterday, Edward Luttwak describes an exit strategy from Iraq that makes more sense than most. (Luttwak is a very well known military analyst, generally expressing a conservative slant.) He suggests that as soon as the Bush people get over their current infatuation with the surge, they can blame failure on the Iraqis and then begin to withdraw. But he is not talking of just any withdrawal, but what he calls “disengagement”.

Luttwak begins with the observation that American forces are evidently unable to do anything about the violence on the ground. They can reduce it for a while in one area only to have it flare up elsewhere. Our troops are simply far too few and far too ignorant of the enemies they face to be able to accomplish the pacification mission. We do not have enough intelligence capability for effective counterinsurgency and we are not about to obtain it. This being the case, his suggestion is that we phase out our national guard and reservists in Iraq, retaining only our regular forces. These would be given the mission of defending against major attacks, either coming from outside the country or from massed forces within the country. Most of the time, our forces would be restricted to bases, most of which would be located a ways from population centers. The street by street, town by town pacification would be turned over to the Iraqis. They may not do is what we would like them to do, but we will have to put this out of our minds. At least, their goals and methods would be Iraqi, and the results would mirror the balance of power in the country.

In another recent article, it was noted that in spite of considerable effort, the Iraqi airforce is all but nonexistent, a situation that is expected to last for several years. (Much the same can be said of the Iraqi navy.) The article quotes a commentator to the effect that in this part of the world a country without an air force is a “protectorate”. Protectorate has many meanings, but I think one might reasonably use it to label a country under the protection of another, primarily against invasion from outside. What Luttwak appears to be suggesting above is that we define our role in terms of protecting Iraq from major, particularly external, dangers, leaving the sorting out of internal security problems to the Iraqis. Given the terrible carnage in Iraq, this is a harsh decision, but it will be less harsh on American families and little if any harsher on the Iraqis than would be continuing indefinitely with the present approach.