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November 19, 2007

Why Biddle is right about 30 years
Posted by Max Bergmann

Marc Lynch reported a comment from Steven Biddle that it would take “80,000-100,000 troops in Iraq for the next twenty to thirty years” to achieve stability in Iraq. Biddle’s assessment is a welcome departure from the conventional and simplistic view now out there that, as General Petraeus remarked, “the average counter insurgency is somewhere around a nine or a 10 year endeavour.” What is important about this difference is that it shows that counter-insurgency experts advocating the 10-year time-frame fundamentally misread the conflict in Iraq.

The conflict in Iraq is not just a two-dimensional conflict between occupier vs. insurgents (or government forces vs. ideologically-driven communist rebels – as much of the 10 year counter-insurgency modeling is based). It is more fundamentally, an ethnic conflict – and these are generally much more intractable and take a lot longer to resolve, because you simply don’t “win” an ethnic conflict.

Take some of the existing ethno-sectarian conflicts around the world such as in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and even the Basques in Spain or the Kurds in Turkey. Each of these are highly intractable conflicts that involve one group resisting being ruled or dominated by another. Each has gone on for decades. Northern Ireland exploded in the 1970s, Sri Lanka and Kashmir in the 1980s, the modern Basque nationalist movement originated from the 1950s and 60s, and the Kurdish PKK in Turkey from the late 1970s.

Importantly, external attempts to unilaterally resolve these conflicts through force almost always backfired. 

In Northern Ireland for instance, the British put in more than 40,000 troops in the early 1970s, the equivalent of more than 700,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, they also spoke the language and had excellent intelligence, but to little effect. In Kashmir, Indian forces attempted to suppress both the Kashmiri independence forces and the pro-Pakistani forces but were ineffective. Spain and Turkey have each attempted to militarily deal with the Basques and the Kurds, yet these conflicts remain.

In the cases where progress has been made, it wasn’t until a broader regional approach was adopted. In Northern Ireland, the UK and Irish government’s agreed on a framework for peace that laid the ground work for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In Kashmir, the situation has improved significantly largely due to an improvement in relations between India and Pakistan. In Bosnia, the peace agreement was only tenable because it was a broader regional initiative that included Croatia and Serbia – and that still required the equivalent of more than 400,000 troops in Iraq, and a UN/EU High Representative with dictatorial powers to enforce the agreement. 

What makes Iraq unique is that there is both a conflict directed against a foreign occupation and an internal ethnic conflict. While the U.S. strategy in Iraq has achieved some movement in addressing the two-dimensional occupation occupier (U.S.) v. insurgent (Sunnis/AQI) conflict, largely due to co-opting of the Sunnis in Anbar, there has been no progress in resolving the ethno-sectarian conflict - in fact some of our strategies in Anbar may in the long run worsen the civil war. Administration supporters will point to the decrease in sectarian violence as indicative of a successful strategy, but violence in an ethnic conflict ebbs and flows. In Iraq the ethnic groups have largely been separated, neighborhoods have been cleansed, and as a result there is less sectarian-based violence to inflict. This does not indicate progress.

Instead, the fact that political reconciliation at the national level has gone absolutely nowhere, even though Iraqi leaders are more insulated than those at the local level, indicates that the struggle for ascendancy in post-Saddam Iraq is only just beginning.


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All the blather about counter-insurgency misses the fact that there is no insurgency. There are at least five dimensions to the Iraqi conflict and none of them is an insurgency, which is a revolt against civil authority. There is no effective civil authority in Iraq and there may never be in our lifetimes. We have US/Iraqi, Sunni/Shia, Sunni/AQI, Shia/Shia and Arab/Kurd conflicts going on, with the latter promising to be the biggest, possibly involving Turkey and Iran. On top of the recognizable conflicts there are numerous gangs and thugs, either armed by the US directly or indirectly, committing armed mayhem, much of which is not reported. It's the law of the jungle, but as Rummy said "stuff happens". At least he was more quotable than Petraeus, who is plain foolish.

The righty bloggers like Hugh Hewitt and Victor Davis Hanson are crowing about the "victory" in Iraq because violence is down to 2006 levels, whereas others are talking about thirty years, Meanwhile the Dems in Congress continue to cave because they think their 2008 chances are improved if the war continues--overlooking the fact that in 2009 they won't be able to end it for fear of losing in 2012. And so it goes on, with no end in sight. Thirty years is overly optimistic.

Before we discuss how long it will take to accomplish our goals, we should be clear about what our goals really are.

If our main objective is stability, then we shouldn't be arming the Sunnis and trying to create an anti-Shia coalition in the region. (Keeping Chalabi around is also unhelpful.) But if we want permanent bases in Iraq, then a little instability and fear on all sides is just what we want.

This is why the Katulis-Kahl debate was so disappointing. Both sides assumed that our objective is to prevent a wider regional war and bring stability to Iraq. These clearly aren't Bush's main priorities, and I would argue that many Democrats more or less share the president's "vision."

Stability is not a US goal. Iraq was stable when the US invaded. (Iran is stable, and it is threatened.) The US goal in Iraq was and is a puppet government with US bases. That's what it's got and that's what it'll keep, stability or not. Republicans and Democrats agree on that. Why do the beltway bandits keep likening Iraq to WWII? Because the US still has troops in Japan and Germany (and Korea) after more than fifty years. FIFTY! Okay, sixty.

Of course affording this continuing fiasco while the dollar tanks and the planet burns up is another story entirely. Is anyone really interested in US security, as opposed to an Arabian nights fairy tale?

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