Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rumsfeld is out. Good, but what’s next?

President Bush will meet with the Iraq Study Group (a.k.a. the Baker-Hamilton Commission) on this coming Monday to hear their recommendations for U.S. policy. There are not a whole lot of options left to pursue in the deteriorating situation and there is not whole lot of fresh ideas for alternatives either. Most likely, the recommendations will consist of something that has been proposed before. But while these may be recycled ideas what is new is they may get a serious hearing. The circle of advisors associated with the President’s father, former President George H. W. Bush, is on the move. It is not unreasonable to assume that James Baker was behind the sudden resignation of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld and his replacement was Robert Gates – a Baker protégée.

The departure of Donald Rumsfeld is certainly a positive move for the American and the Iraqi people. The Army Times, that editorialized days before the election that Rumsfeld must go. The Rumsfeld-Cheney axis has monopolized U.S. foreign policy under the Bush White House and is largely responsible for the mess we are in. With a weak president and weak Secretary of State (Condoleezza Rice) our international actions have been steered by a small ideological clique that had nothing but contempt for reality.

This is not to say there are not serious problems with the “realist” school of foreign policy exemplified by those around former President George H. W. Bush. It just shows how low we have fallen when involvement by the likes of James Baker and Robert Gates are improvements.

Robert Fox offers this analysis of the Rumsfeld exit and the Iraq Study Group in the Guardian:

Pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have warned that we should not expect too much change in US policy in Iraq - despite the sacking of Donald Rumsfeld, the principal scriptwriter in the Iraq disaster movie so far. Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has declared that America is pledged to "success in Iraq". But she is also an ally of Gates and Baker, and the other powerful member of president George HW Bush's circle now advising the court of his son, General Brent Scowcroft. At different times, all three - Baker, Gates and Scowcroft - have criticised the unilateralist, aggressive foreign and security policies of Rumsfeld and vice president Dick Cheney, both in their style and content.

The commentators who see no change in America's stance in Iraq and in the wider Middle East perhaps have their sights too much on the tarmac of beltway Washington or the grimy gothic facades of Whitehall and Westminster. They should look more closely at how and why Rumsfeld fell, and the facts on the ground in Iraq itself.


… Under the headline "Time for Rumsfeld to go", the leading military paper quoted soldiers and commanders in the field stating that the present concept of operations was facing total failure. Moreover, the commanders said they were getting neither the manpower in the field nor the funding and equipment to sustain current operations. In particular, it declared the current training programmes for the Iraqi army and police a dud.

"For two years, American sergeants, captains and majors training the Iraqis have told their bosses that Iraqi troops have no sense of national identity, are only in it for the money, don't show up for duty and cannot sustain themselves." The editorial concludes with this verdict on Rumsfeld: "His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear the brunt. Donald Rumsfeld must go." The Army Times was joined in this call by three other military papers.

A similar message had been coming from the generals in the field through the Baker-Hamilton commission. Since August, US and Iraqi army troops and police have been trying to bring security to Baghdad in an operation called Together Forward. Three months into the six-month plan, the violence, bombings, kidnaps and killings by death squads have shown little sign of abating. The US sub-unit commanders have reported problems in working alongside Iraqi units whom they cannot trust, and who could become their enemies and killers at the flick of a safety catch and squeeze of a trigger.


Three articulate US generals now in charge of forces in Iraq at last appear to be getting their message across to Washington. This summer, General John Abizaid, head of central command, of Lebanese parentage and an Arabic speaker, warned the US senate that sectarian violence in Iraq was as bad as it ever had been, and likely to get worse. His subordinates, Generals George Casey and Peter Chiarelli, have been quietly pointing out that the coalition forces are having a diminishing effect on the ground, and are seen as the problem, and not the solution, by increasing numbers of moderate Iraqis. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a tool rather than leader of the Shiite factions, is now openly criticising his former friends the Americans.

In short, they are saying that Iraq cannot now be won by military means - if it ever could. Much the same message is coming from British commanders. Hence the timely warning from their boss, the army chief General Richard Dannatt, that things cannot go on as they are for the Brits in Iraq.

This is the premise for a change in tactics on the ground for the coalition in Iraq and a switch in substance and approach in strategy for the whole region. It will start to come out through the Baker-Hamilton commission, but some of it may not be advertised publicly until it happens.

On the ground, the American, British and handful of allied forces will reconfigure, and pull out of the towns and cities, including large parts of Baghdad and Basra where they have been achieving little more than serving as targets for militias and insurgents. They will pull back to desert bases where they can be on call. The main effort will be in training enough of an Iraqi army as possible. Any similar programme for police will have to start again from scratch, and would be on a quite modest scale.

The streets will be left to the local militias - a painful and bloody experience, initially. But many of them belong to parties that have been democratically elected to local power, particularly in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. The problem is that there is no unified representation, even at the local level in the cities of the upper Euphrates and Baghdad. Specifically, the coalition commanders have warned against "taking on the Shiite militias", a favourite formula of the discredited Cheney-Rumsfeld recipe for Iraq.

The big question is whether this would mean the division of Iraq into three autonomous zones, a process already happening in Kurdistan and the Shia south. The Baker-Hamilton commission is likely to propose a loose federation with Baghdad as the capital, but most of the power devolved to the regions - which again leaves a problem in the Sunni areas of the centre where political authority appears to have atomised.

Any plan for achieving some semblance of stability in a federated Iraq would require some sort of understanding with the neighbours - Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and, above all, Syria and Iran. James Baker will propose engaging with, rather than confronting, Damascus and Iran, and Robert Gates is on record as vehemently opposing Dick Cheney's proposal for using military force against Iran.

…Staying the course, if it means no change, is no option. For the men and women in the field in Iraq - and to an extent in Afghanistan - it means ignoring the most basic military maxim: never reinforce failure. In non-military speak, staying the present course of disaster is just plain dumb.

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