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October 11, 2007

It's a Power Struggle, Stupid!
Posted by David Shorr

Kudos to Fred Kaplan for his Slate column yesterday. Kaplan is right that reconciliation is not within grasp, not in the cards, not really on the table in Iraq. He's also correct, largely, that the implications cut to the core of our options.

Kaplan and I had the same reaction to the same simple yet powerful idea: the political dynamic in Iraq is a zero-sum power struggle. For Kaplan, the eureka moment came in response to a Joshua Partlow piece in Monday's WaPo. For me, it was Brian Katulis and Larry Korb's Strategic Reset report from CAP (yes, this is about the fifth time I've linked to it). Here's how it boils down, the various political/sectarian/militia factions don't view the formal governmental process as a means through which they can protect their interests or amass the power they seek. This strikes at the entire premise of the surge -- and the ongoing troop presence, for that matter -- whatever 'space' US forces are 'opening up,' no political constellation of forces is going to use it to enact the benchmarks. Like we keep hearing, there is no military solution.

There's one point, however, on which Kaplan falls short in following the analysis all the way to its logical conclusion. He says the US can still play a role in pacifying the AQI element of the insurgency. The problem with this relates to the other key point about the power struggle: it is multi-sided, multi-factional, multi-directional. As the 82nd Airborne soldiers put it in the New York Times last August:

Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

The confrontation with AQI faces the same difficulty as the rest of the operation, in a war of all against all, how do we know whom we're really helping, and whom we're provoking? Katulis and Korb make an even more interesting point: once Americans pull out of Iraq, guess who becomes the main foreign occupiers?


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Katulis and Korb make an even more interesting point: once Americans pull out of Iraq, guess who becomes the main foreign occupiers?


I'm stumped. The Saudis? Soon possibly the Turks? I wasn't aware that, apart from the Americans, there were any foreign troops in significant numbers inside Iraq. It's almost all a bunch of different kinds of Iraqis fighting each other, right? Those relatively small numbers foreign fighters that are in Iraq fighting for the insurgency are, I take it, from a variety of countries across the Sunni Arab world.

The contention is that much of the resentment focused on US troops will turn towards foreign Al Qaeda elements, sans uniforms and military bases, to be sure. Of course you already knew that. It's not claimed that the foreign fighters are equal in scale or profile to our own troops, only that they will draw the same kind of hostility we're drawing and that our absence will heighten their profile. A plausible analysis, I think. But I guess you don't.

No David, I don't doubt that there are Sunni groups in Iraq prepared to fight Al Qaeda. If reports are to be believed, that is already occurring. But as I understand it, Al Qaeda in Iraq is only one component of a broader collection of Sunni Salafist groups, which are in turn part of spectrum of Sunni resistance groups, of varying degrees of Islamist inflection, running all the way up to the more secular Baathist and nationalist groups. And superimposed on top of all this ideological diversity is the complexity of tribal and clan organization. There is a multi-sided civil war of some kind going on in Iraq alongside the resistance to US occupation; and there will continue to be a multi-sided civil war of some kind after we are gone. It's a total mess, and I don't think anyone can say for sure what the ultimate outcome will be, who will emerge on top, and how long the fighting will last - whether we stay or go.

Lt Col Kilcullen was on Charlie Rose last week and he said that even Al Qaeda is made up mostly of Iraqi fighters, though he claimed the leadership was foreign.

Since we're trying to "leverage xenophobia response", I think we have to take this last claim with a grain of salt.

The Sunnis are going to be in deep trouble when we leave, so they may not have much choice but to accept more foreign fighters. But as Dan says, things are so complex that we can't really know how things will spin out.


Your response to Dan was off target. He never said that foreign fighters in Iraq were comparable to US forces in any way. He said that foreign fighters in Iraq, despite the hype they get, are a minority within the Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. government has turned the foreign fighters issue into propaganda that makes it look like we're fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Dan is just pointing out the truth -- we're really still fighting Iraqis, just like we were fighting Iraqis when we started this war.


I see the point.

There's no military solution in Iraq, but the buckets of profits keep flowing and the US has a huge military presence in the ME heartland, so what's not to like?

"Strategic Reset" is a good plan, I think it's the proper course of action. However it does not jibe with American exceptionalism, a vital part of which is continuing American hegemony in the Middle East.

from SR: "simply staying the course with an indefinite military presence is not advancing U.S. interests."

Actually, it is. Iraq is a strategically-located, resource-rich country, and controlling it is in the US interest. Iraq, bounded by Syria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, is the keystone of the Middle East. Besides the bounded countries, Iraq is a stone's throw from the oil-rich Caspian Basin, including Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Iraq has huge amounts of tapped and untapped oil deposits, and plentiful surface water. So the US will stay in Iraq.

"even if the security situation does improve, there will not be significant progress on the government side."

Not a problem. The US will run Iraq as it does now, through compliant puppet governors.

"The United States should mitigate the increasingly violent fragmentation in Iraq"

The US has promoted fragmentation in Iraq since it defeated the Iraqi Army over four years ago. Divide and conquer has served the US colonizer well.

"the United States should discard its plan to build the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad"

It won't happen. The embassy and the huge air bases (Balad is one of them--the Air Force brags that it is the busiest in the world after Heathrow) will stay, forever.

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