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February 25, 2006

Iraq off the rails: should we stay or should we go?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

For the last few months, since the Iraqi election in December, we've all lived with the sense that something bleak and horrible would happen to prove that the Iraq war effort truly was doomed.  The fear was driven by brooding conviction that despite the bright pronouncements of the Bush Administration about Iraq's standing up for itself, the country's weak security forces, unreliable leaders, ethnic fragmentation, militant clerics, and uncontrollable militias made the path to stability a bridge too far.

Now is time to dispense with the fear and start dealing with reality.  I've been talking for a long-time about the adverse consequences of Iraq's spiraling into a failed state.   I am convinced that all of these risks I listed out last August are still staring us in the face.    But what's becoming more questionable by the day are whether the 130,000 US forces in Iraq are any longer the finger in the dike they have been for the last 3 years.

Over the last few days, the principle concern in Iraq has not been violent and determined insurgents, but rather ordinary Iraqis - Sunni and Shiite - who have gotten caught in a escalating spiral of violence triggered by Wednesday's bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra.  Experts agree that American soldiers cannot interpose themselves between battling Sunnis and Shiites.

That's why, over the last few days, rather than trying to restore calm American commanders have largely kept their troops away from the hot-zones, knowing that a US presence would only further stoke tensions.  The Iraqi security forces, even if they possessed the skill and firepower to intervene, are so thoroughly riddled with partisan militiamen that they too may prove close to useless.   Some fear that if the conflict continues to boil, the Iraqi army may split apart.

Another major concern is the impact of these sectarian skirmishes on the formation of a new Iraqi government, a process that has already taken nearly three months  and has been setback significantly by the outbreak during the last few days.  Sunnis have formally pulled out of talks on how to allocate government ministries, and even if they return it seems unlikely that the Shiite victors will now readily turn over enough key ministries to allow for true power-sharing.

Some deep voices of Iraqi leaders have called for restraint, and its possible they'll manage to tamp down tensions.  This time.   But because they'll reassure ordinary citizens with the promise of protection from sectarian private armies, the crisis this week seems destined to repeat itself.

So where does this leave all our teeth-gnashing about whether the US should stay or go?  I have for the last six months or so argued that if an increasingly implausible set of conditions could suddenly arise, it would render our presence in Iraq a worthwhile bulwark against civil war.  I've proposed benchmarks for staying in, none of which appear to have been met.  Kevin Drum reports that we're now down from one fully combat-ready standalone Iraqi battallion in December to zero today.

At this point, on the one hand its starting to look like the US presence in Iraq isn't doing much good:  we're paralyzed in the face of the worst military crisis the country has confronted, our troops holed up in barracks for fear that getting involved would only make things worse.  On the other hand, were we to leave now in significant numbers, its hard to escape the sense that we'd be pulling out just as Iraq collapses.  Even the White House doesn't seem to have arrived at a way to spin this.

The hope is, of course, that Iraqi political leaders and clerics will succeed in their call for calm, securing a hiatus in widescale sectarian bloodshed.   If that happens, we need to look seriously at whether there's any justification for continuing to put American troops at risk.  The Administration's "strategy" - after dozens of reformulations and refinements - is failing.  Its possible that the tactics being used now could have worked if adopted earlier, but they aren't equal to righting Iraq in its present condition.  With a failing strategy, we will not succeed.

The only thing worse than Iraq as a failed state is Iraq as a failed state with 130,000 Americans living there.

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EVENING ROUNDUP....A few links to get you through the night: Did Germany provide the U.S. with copies of Saddam Hussein's planned defense of Baghdad? They say no, but the New York Times says yes. Suzanne Nossel: "The only thing worse... [Read More]

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EVENING ROUNDUP....A few links to get you through the night: Did Germany provide the U.S. with copies of Saddam Hussein's planned defense of Baghdad? They say no, but the New York Times says yes. Suzanne Nossel: "The only thing worse... [Read More]

Comments

The only thing worse than Iraq as a failed state is Iraq as a failed state with 130,000 Americans living there.

Perhaps not. How about an Iranian intervention in that same failed Iraq to assist Shiite allies in defending themselves against Sunni incursions into southern Iraq? That might be worse.

How about an Iranian occupied southern Iraq along with a Shiite revolt in eastern Saudi Arabia, ultimately bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia into direct conflict? That might be worse.

How about a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq to put down a Kurdish independence move, while the Kurds are at the same time attacked from the south by Sunni Arabs?

How about a successful Salafist-Islamist assault on the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, as the militants flow freely back and forth from Jordan and the most radicalized sectors of Iraq? That might be worse. Imagine radical Islamists take power, with the assistance of allies within the military, revoke Jordan's peace agreement with Israel, and begin sending weapons and fighters into Palestine. That might be worse too.

How about streams of refugees pouring over Iraq's border, and the humanitarian nightmare that might create as the neighboring states resist accepting them? How about decades of Iraqi refugee camps, just like they have in Palestime? That might be worse.

How about massive sabotage of Iraq's oil infrastructure, oil wells burning as during the Gulf War, and a complete breakdown of shipping in the Arabian/Persian Gulf as conflict intensifies, all bringing skyrocketing global oil prices? That might be worse.

How about worldwide instability in global hotspots, as the world community's attention is diverted by the chaos in the heart of the Middle East? How about renewed strife in Kashmir, and military confrontation between nuclear-armed Pakistan and nuclear-armed India? That might be worse.

The main function of the US presence in Iraq now is to deter intervention by other states in the region, and to help secure Iraq's borders.

We can always imagine something worse, Dan. The question is, are our troops accomplishing anything long-term, or are we just breaking our army so we can pull out at a later date during a similar situation? As Suzanne says, it's hard to see much evidence of improvement so far. (No independent Iraqi battalions after almost 3 years of training!?)

If all we're doing is deterring neighboring states from intervening, we could probably accomplish that with half the force, maybe less.

If all we're doing is deterring neighboring states from intervening, we could probably accomplish that with half the force, maybe less.

Yes that's probably true Cal. And to be fair, Suzanne did mention that the problem might be 130,000 troops. I just want to raise the possibility that we may have to start thinking in terms of keeping a very bad situation from getting much worse, even if we give up hope of improving things.

Preventing a broad regional

Sorry, I didn't complete my last comment. The concluding fragment should read:

Preventing a broad regional war would be an important accomplishment at this stage, especially since we are the ones who set the cycle of escalation in motion through our intervention.

I've argued for the past several months the only reason to have any troops in Iraq is to supress a civil war.

I've thought that the US should deploy to protect the Sunnis from the Shiites, since they are the minority and don't have either the militias (either in or out of the Iraqi security services) to stop massive ethnic cleansing os Sunni areas. Ethnic cleansing is already being practiced on a more modest scale by Shiites.

But if US is going to order its troops to withdraw to its camps (as it did last week) while the Sunnis and Shiites fight each other, what good are they doing?

Continuing the occupation to deter a possible incursion from Iran isn't realistic because Iran already controls by one means or another the Shiite south and much of the Iraqi security services. The US would be fighting both the Iranian and Iraqi Army, and doesn't have nearly enough troops for that possibility.

How about an Iranian intervention in that same failed Iraq to assist Shiite allies in defending themselves against Sunni incursions into southern Iraq? That might be worse.

OK, how about that happening while 130,000 americans are living there? That might be worse still.

How about an Iranian occupied southern Iraq along with a Shiite revolt in eastern Saudi Arabia, ultimately bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia into direct conflict? That might be worse.

Yes, how about all that happening while 130,000 americans are living there? That might be worse still.

Etc.

Kind of like looking at various wishful thinking ideas and adding "and a pony", but in reverse.

I've thought that the US should deploy to protect the Sunnis from the Shiites, since they are the minority and don't have either the militias (either in or out of the Iraqi security services) to stop massive ethnic cleansing os Sunni areas.

Chuck, I think it doesn't make sense for US forces to try to protect sunnis from shias. Ever since the truce with the Sadrists, they've been fighting sunnis. Every sunni is a potential insurgent. We've bombed sunnis, strafed them, hit them with white phosphorus and the modern equivalent of napalm, we've occupied their cities, kidnapped civilians we thought looked suspicious, you name it.

Pretty much every time the US military has taken initiative in iraq since November 2004, it's been initiative against sunnis. And now we're supposed to protect them from our friendly shias? And we're suppose to trust them at our backs, assume that they'll let us protect them?

If we tried it -- our supply lines run through shia land. Our air supply routes go over shia land. If we're going to do things that annoy shias, well, look at the trouble we had convoying on those routes when it was sunnis doing IEDs, what should we expect when it's the bulk of the population against us?

We've been backing shias to the hilt for quite awhile. Maybe if we had some really smooth-talking diplomats we could get away with switching sides now. What do you think?

I'll have to remember this blog. Looks good.

Dan, I've been arguing to pull the troops our early before it was cool. Your argument about regional strife is not a bad one. In fact, it's the best argument I've seen yet for a US presence. However, Jack Murtha's Spec Ops/Kuwait plan does the job equally well to cover this scenario.

We're not likely to get any credit for the Iraq situation anytime soon in the Arab world, but sooner or later something really nasty is going to happen, and we're going to take the blame. Meanwhile, our leverage is only going to decrease.

(no independent iraqi battalions after three years of training!?)

For what it's worth, I don't think that there was enough focus on training to begin with because they didn't expect the local population to go along with the insurgency. They expected executions not ambivilance. I don't know how many battalions in the world are independent, but most of them are U.S.

My stupid prediction: The civil-war is a media thing, Iraqi's start to pull together (they still look forward to waving goodbye to the coalition) and end up joining NATO in one of the weirdest alliances ever.

Mike, the original idea was the iraqi troops would do the fighting and we'd supply them (and of course command them).

The problem we were trying to solve was that we were losing too many casualties, and also we needed more troops. The solution was to get iraqi troops and let them take the casualties. There was no interest in an iraqi army that could fight without our supplies, or for that matter without our artillery, armor, and air support. I doubt the concern came up explicitly that if they could fight independently they could fight against us, it was more that we simply never thought about planning for the distant day that we might pull out.

So now the problem isn't that they need battalions that are completely independent. The problem is that they don't have a battalion that can fight without our supply. And if we aren't there to give it, then the iraqi army just sort of evaporates even if the men are dedicated.

I've seen the claim that it takes *longer* to train the supply people. And we have a later start, supposing we've started that training by now. And of course it takes longer to train higher officers. Iraq has some guys with that training (probably not nearly as good as ours) but they're mostly sunnis and Ba'athists and not considered reliable.

Some people were saying we had to stay in iraq until the iraqi army was trained. But we never intended to leave and never intended the iraqi army to operate without our close supervision.

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