Sunday, February 25, 2007

Surging in Iraq

It was the Baker-Hamilton Commission that finally shook loose the Bush administration’s denial that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating and had been in a downward spiral for years. It was only then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield was shown the door – a move long overdue. However, rather than use the opportunity presented by the commission to open a dialogue about the future role of the United States in the Middle East in general and the Iraq situation in particular, the administration circled the wagons and came up with an attempt to quell the civil war by introducing a “surge” of 21,000 American troops mostly in the Bagdad area. Unfortunately, the strategy is fraught with problems.

Peter Galbraith’s writings about Iraq are always “must-reads” and have been cited in this blog before (here, here and here). Former Ambassador Galbraith has been an advocate for the Kurds of Iraq for many years and authored the book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Below are excerpts from his most recent piece on Iraq, published in the New York Review of Books. It is his assessment of the Bush surge strategy.
Bush's strategy is the polar opposite of that proposed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group report. Where they recommended the withdrawal of combat troops, Bush announced an escalation. Where they urged a diplomatic opening to Iran and Syria, Bush issued threats.

Bush's plan is laden with ironies. Four years ago, military and diplomatic professionals warned that the US was embarking on a war with insufficient troops and inadequate planning. President Bush never listened to this advice, choosing to rely on the neoconservative appointees who assured him that victory in Iraq would be easy.

In devising his new strategy, Bush again turned to the neoconservatives. The so-called surge strategy is the brainchild of Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute who has never been to Iraq. And once again, President Bush dismissed the views of his military advisers. General George Casey and General John Abizaid, the commanders in the field, doubted that additional troops would make any difference in Iraq. They were replaced by surge advocates, including Lieutenant General David Petraeus, now the top commander in Iraq.

Petraeus, on whom so much now rests, served two previous tours in Iraq. As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage—including a Newsweek cover story captioned "Can This Man Save Iraq?"—for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from America's Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul's local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents. Neither this episode nor the evident failure of the training programs for the Iraqi army and police which he ran in his next assignment seemed to have damaged the general's reputation.

President Bush's plan has no chance of actually working. At this late stage, 21,500 additional troops cannot make a difference. US troops are ill prepared to do the policing that is needed to secure Baghdad. They lack police training, knowledge of the city, and requisite Arabic skills. The Iraqi troops meant to assist the effort are primarily Kurdish peshmerga from two brigades nominally part of the Iraqi army. These troops will have the same problems as the Americans, including an inability to communicate in Arabic.

Bush's strategy assumes that Iraq's Shiite-led government can become a force for national unity and that Iraqi security forces can, once trained, be neutral guarantors of public safety. There is no convincing basis for either proposition. The Bush administration's inability to grasp the realities of Iraq is, in no small measure, owing to its unwillingness to acknowledge that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war.

At the core of the Iraq fiasco has been Bush's unwillingness to send forces adequate to accomplish the mission. Now the President proposes a military strategy to confront twice as many foes with just 15 percent more troops. The Mahdi Army may choose to wait out the Americans by taking a low profile for the duration of the surge. If so, this will be helpful to US troops, but, of course, it will have done nothing to break the power of the Shiite militias. President Bush's public statements indicate no awareness of the risks of escalating America's mission in Iraq. Democrats have concentrated almost exclusively on the escalation in troop numbers, giving the President a free ride on the far more dangerous escalation of the mission itself.

Iraq's government is a partnership between a coalition of Shiite religious parties and the two main Kurdish nationalist parties. The Shiite coalition is itself evenly split between a faction led by SCIRI and a faction heavily influenced by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr. The Kurdish parties have a close relationship with SCIRI that goes back decades in the struggle against Saddam and is built around a shared commitment to a highly decentralized Iraqi state. By contrast, Moqtada al-Sadr, with his political support coming heavily from Shiite east Baghdad, opposes federalism and Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. Like the Sunni Arabs, he objects to the constitutional mandate for a referendum to determine Kirkuk's status and has sent the Mahdi Army there to fight the peshmerga on behalf of Kirkuk's Shiite Arabs. (Kirkuk's indigenous Arab population is Sunni and Kirkuk is adjacent to Iraq's Sunni Arab govenorates. As part of his plan to make Kirkuk more Arab and less Kurdish and Turcoman, Saddam settled Shiites from the south in the homes of Kurds and Turcomans who were killed or expelled. Many of these Shiite settlers want to return south but those who wish to stay are a fertile pool for Mahdi Army

A battle for Baghdad between the Mahdi Army and Kurdish troops could spill over to Kirkuk. If the Shiite coalition stays together, it could fracture the Kurdish–Shiite alliance. Or the Shiite coalition could itself fracture, making Iraq's civil war a three-way affair among Sunni Arab insurgents, the Mahdi Army and its allies, and a SCIRI–Kurdish alliance. Neither outcome will make resolving Iraq's problems any simpler. The Kurds, of course, are aware of the risks. Their decision to send troops at America's behest reflects their deep commitment to their American ally in spite of a history that would suggest they are more likely to be double-crossed than to have their support reciprocated.

Scholars who study civil wars observe that they generally last a long time—a decade is the mean since 1945—and they end, in 85 percent of the cases, with one side winning a military victory. If Iraq's civil war is fought to the end, there can be little doubt that the Shiites will prevail. They are three times as numerous as the Sunnis, are in control of the armed apparatus of the Iraqi state, and have a powerful ally in neighboring Iran. While Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, talk about supporting the Sunni Arabs, those that border Iraq are relatively small, militarily weak, and separated from Iraq's population centers by vast tracts of desert.

The three-state solution I have outlined in my book would protect the Sunni Arabs from military annihilation —and its attendant humanitarian consequences—by giving them their own self-governing region with defined borders. The alternative to promoting this kind of power-sharing arrangement is to let the civil war take its course. In late 2006, Vice President Cheney floated a trial balloon dubbed the "80 percent solution." In starkest terms, the 80 percent solution would write off reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs on the grounds that they are intractable and focus on supporting the 80 percent of Iraqis who are Shiite or Kurdish. In essence, the United States would take the Shiite side in the Sunni–Shiite civil war.

This is a plausible, if cruel, strategy. But it would not result in a democratic, unified, or stable Iraq. The common ground between Shiites and Kurds is their shared commitment to the partition plan embodied in the Iraqi constitution. An 80 percent solution is, in effect, a two-state solution with Kurdistan and a Shiite-dominated Arab Iraq. It becomes all the more difficult to achieve if Bush administration efforts to involve the Kurds in the civil war shatter the Shiite coalition or break up the Kurdish–Shiite alliance.

George W. Bush has said he will leave the problem of Iraq to the president elected in 2008. Rather than acknowledge failure in Iraq—and by extension a failed presidency—Bush has chosen to postpone the day of reckoning. It is a decision that will cost many American and Iraqi lives, will leave the United States weaker, and will prolong the decline in American prestige abroad caused by the mismanaged Iraq war. And it will not change the truth that the President so desperately wishes to escape: George W. Bush launched and lost America's Iraq war.
You can read his entire article here.

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