Monday, January 15, 2007

Some unhappy thoughts on options in Iraq (which all look scary)

I find that lately I've tended to put off writing down my thoughts on Iraq while I sort out my impressions and figure out what's going on--not least because developments there since mid-2006 have been complex, rapidly shifting, and mostly depressing. And by the time I get around to doing it, events have moved on, so I put it off again.

Earlier today I e-mailed some remarks to Mark Kleiman about the dynamics of sectarian/political conflicts in Arab Iraq, and he was good enough to ask whether he could post them on the group blog he started, The Reality-Based Community. Since Mark has posted them there, I might as well post them here, too (with a few links added). Some further thoughts on these matters may follow soon ....

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub
Guest-posted courtesy of Mark Kleiman (Reality-Based Community)
January 15, 2007
A regional war after a US pullout?

Jeff Weintraub, who teaches at Penn while not blogging here, sends some grim thoughts on the Iraqi situation, prompted by my reflections on the possibility of a coup. I don't entirely agree with Jeff (see post immediately above), but he knows more about the Middle East than I do by a considerable margin, and he gives a clear-eyed and unflinching view of a horrible situation.

[JW: The rest is my e-mail message to Mark.]

As you said in your post Iraqi government is anti-surge:
So it turns out the al-Maliki government doesn't want more U.S. troops. They figure that if we just get out of the way and let them go on killing Sunnis, pretty soon there won't be any Sunnis left, and the result will be peace. As great-grampaw used to say, ain't nothin' more peaceful than a dead Sunni.

On the one hand, if bringing in more U.S. troops means fewer government-sponsored massacres, that's not a bad result. On the other hand, unless the hidden agenda is a coup against al-Maliki, it's hard to see how this thing is supposed to work.
Some details here might be questionable, but essentially this captures a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The whole strategy of the so-called Sunni Arab "insurgency" (which essentially parallels that of the white-supremacist Redeemer Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan during Radical Reconstruction in the post-Civil War US south) has been based on the premise that if they could detonate a full-scale sectarian civil war and get the US troops to leave, then they could crush the Shiites in a straight head-to-head fight. Well, since the bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February 2006 they've succeeded in setting off the sectarian bloodbath they were looking for, and I suspect they may well get the withdrawal of US troops, too. This 'success' may lead to catastrophe for the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, but clearly they've been making different calculations (though not all of them).

On the other hand, once the Shiite political leadership gave up trying to prevent reprisals, they've become increasingly exasperated by US attempts to keep them from doing the same thing to the Sunni Arabs. The main figure who used to represent this option on the Shiite side was Muqtada al-Sadr, but since last February an increasing range of Shiite political forces seem to agree with him. I suspect that this might also turn out to be a disastrous miscalculation (not least because the "insurgents" can probably decapitate much of the Shiite political and religious leadership), but what they think matters more than what we think. Each side now includes significant political forces who believe they have a chance to crush the other in a head-to-head fight. This has been a key secret to the whole process over the past 6 months.

[JW: For some illustrations, see here and here.]

The big difference from the post-Civil War US south is that after federal troops withdrew, the different groups there were on their own (and the white supremacists crushed the blacks & Republicans fairly easily, even in states where there were black majorities). In the Iraqi case, a US withdrawal will lead to increased involvement by regional powers. This helps to explain why important forces in both the Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab communities are convinced they can crush the other, if the US gets out of the way.

The Sunni Arabs are not only counting on the fact that they constituted most of the officer corps in the old Iraqi army and can draw on the surviving Ba'athist military, secret-police, and other organizational networks that they have been using to great effect in the terrorist campaign against Shiite civilians. They are also counting on the fact that Sunni Arabs are a regional majority, and they expect to get strong support from the whole Arab world (as the Saudis have been signaling they will).

On the other hand, even though the Sunni Arabs constantly describe Iraqi Shiites as agents of Iran, they seem oddly oblivious to the significance of Iran's being right next door to Iraq. It's clear that the parallel conclusion drawn by Iraqi Shiite political forces is that, if they're abandoned by the Americans, they can count on support from Iran. At all events, if and when the US does pull out (and it's starting to look more like "when", perhaps camouflaged by some neo-Kissingerian "decent interval" strategy), then the Shiites will be forced into the arms of Iran, like it or not, out of simple desperation.

One implication of all this is that a US abandonment of Iraq--either in a quick and straightforward way or camouflaged by a Kissingerian "decent interval" strategy--really is likely to lead to pretty awful results. So the only morally acceptable argument for doing it would be that it's inevitably going to happen at some point whatever we do, so the US ought to admit (to itself) that the situation is hopeless and let it happen rather than postponing the inevitable. I'm not totally convinced that's true, but I can't feel very confident that it's not true (partly--but only partly--because this conclusion is self-fulfilling). This is now a mess with no good options. At all events, everything else is just a distraction or evasion (including most of the Baker/Hamilton ISG report's recommendations).

=> Which brings us to the current Bush/Cheney alternative, the so-called "surge" option. It doesn't appear to make much sense on the face of it, at least in simple military terms. So my guess is that its main purpose is political--not just in terms of US politics, but even more in terms of Iraqi politics. That is (1) to signal the various parties in Iraq that they shouldn't start acting on the assumption that a US withdrawal is inevitable, and (2) to test whether the Iraqi government, and Maliki in particular, is really willing and able to let the US take on the Sadrist militias as well as the Sunni "insurgents."

This probably does amount to a 'test' for Maliki that many people on the US side expect him to fail (though this does not at all fit the Ngo Dinh Diem analogy you mentioned), and that in turn would make sense in terms of two possible contingencies. Either (a) some of the Shiite groups ( e.g., Hakim & SCIRI) have signaled that they're willing to go for an alternative coalition that would pursue this strategy, or else (b) this is the Bush II administration's version of a bug-out strategy that allows them to blame failure on the Iraqis, while also creating enough of a "decent interval" that they can kick the can down the road to the next President.

I'm still trying to figure all this out. But I don't think either Bush II or the ISG or most advocates of a US pullout are facing these issues really seriously.

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