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April 16, 2008

O'Hanlon... Again
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

In his weekly column op-ed in the Washington Post today Mike O’Hanlon has another gem which makes pretty much the same points he’s been making for the past year.  What annoys me most is the fact that considering the broad variety of opinion on Iraq out there, why the Washington Post continues to give him so much space.

But that aside.  O’Hanlon and Ann Gildroy lay out six reasons for why they think we should keep 140,000 troops in Iraq through at least early 2010.  The problem is that they don’t actually explain how a large American force presence helps address any of these problems, and in fact the points they lay out could make an equally good case for why American forces should be withdrawn.  There are also as usual, a number of extraordinarily optimistic and rosy predictions that just don’t hold water.  And ironically, outside of making very broad assertions there doesn’t seem to be any road map or path for “How this can end” even though that happens to be the title of the article.

Below the fold I’ve got the point-by-point rebuttal.

Basra:  ...Over time, the Iraqi government cannot leave this region, which accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the country's oil wealth, in the hands of criminals. We may not need large U.S. forces in the south, but we will need greater, not less, engagement in the coming year or two.

Really, what kind of engagement?  What can the United States actually do in Basra to make the situation better, and why do we need to be choosing sides in what is essentially an intra-Shi’a battle?  Why can’t we find ways to negotiate with Sadr instead of siding with ISCI?  Basically this argument amounts to we need to stay because Basra is bad without actually explaining what we can do.

Election sites, political offices and campaign events all require physical protection. We do not want to make Iraqi politicians worry so much about security that they behave as they did in the 2005 elections, watching out for their own sectarian groups (and affiliated militias) out of sheer survival instinct. Those who claim that accelerating our drawdown will foster greater Iraqi political compromise and reconciliation do not, in our experience, understand the motives and the reasoning of most Iraqis.

Elections can be violent and that is a legitimate concern.  But the idea that if we provide security, Iraqis won’t vote along sectarian lines is preposterous.  The Iraqi public’s political and civic identity is based on sectarian groups.  They just went through a brutal and bloody civil war and an extensive campaign of sectarian cleansing, both of which may recur and to a great extent are still ongoing at some level.  The idea that this won’t be the case for a generation is a huge stretch.  In fact, at a recent event, I had someone try to make the point to me that there is a diversity of political parties in Iraq by telling me he met Shi’a who were opposed to Sadr.  Ya, great.  But let me tell you. They won’t be voting for Sunnis or Kurds.

On top of that to broadly assert that those who claim that putting pressure on Iraqis through a drawdown don’t understand the motive and reasoning of most Iraqis, without actually backing it up with some kind of an argument is silly.  Back it up when you say something like that.  O’Hanlon has done this before.

Refugee return. Since 2003, more than 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, and a comparable number have been internally displaced. With security now far better, many will be interested in going home. But as their homes are generally occupied by others, doing so could reignite an ethnic cleansing dynamic. There is no organized process in place to handle this problem. Nor is there an international or Iraqi program to help people relocate elsewhere in Iraq (with, for example, housing grants to build new homes, which could also help create jobs). Pulling American forces out before such a policy can be developed and implemented would ask far too much of Iraqi Security Forces, given the incendiary nature of this issue

.
This is a huge problem.  But again, what role will American forces play?  The Iraqi Government has shown no willingness or capability to handle this issue, and it’s not something that we can do for them.  This is ugly ugly stuff, but if there is no political will or capacity on the part of the Iraqi Government, this is not a reason to stay in Iraq.  It is a reason to dramatically increase our humanitarian aid, support the countries around Iraq that are absorbing the refugees, open up our own borders, and ask other rich countries to do the same.  But we must be realistic.  We are dreaming if we think we can facilitate some kind of orderly resettlement of 4.5 million people.

Kirkuk:  Until a referendum can be written, voted upon and initially implemented, Kirkuk will remain a powder keg. We will be asking for trouble if we expect Iraqis to handle this on their own so soon.

This requires a political solution.  Not a military solution.  Again what role will 140,000 American troops play in mediating the conflict in Kirkuk?

A national oil law. Related to Kirkuk is the question of how Iraq's future oil resources will be developed and shared.  Bills to accomplish this remain mired in debate and dispute in Parliament, even as Kurdish politicians sign deals with foreign oil firms to develop sites on Kurdish land. In theory, this matter could be cleared up at any time; in practice, it will probably take a few months and additional American prodding.

Again.  How does having 140,000 troops in Iraq make this happen?

Overwatch" of Iraqi security forces. The Iraqi army and police are much larger, better equipped and more proficient than ever. But they are still not a dependable force. Just last year, we had to ask Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to purge well over half the brigade and battalion commanders of each organization in the Baghdad area.

You have to assume that when the United States eventually leaves the Iraqi Security Forces aren’t just going to end up fighting it out with the former Sunni insurgents, CLC’s, Sons of Iraq.  Or that the security forces won’t be used by one Shi’a faction (ISCI) against another (Sadr) as they were in Basra.  Still, I have some sympathy for this argument of overwatch, but not very much.

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Comments

Good work.

You know, I'm starting to get a little irritated by people writing things like "Kurds or Sunnis" because, well, it's inaccurate. The Kurds are largely Sunni. Better to write "Kurds or Sunni Arabs," or to find some other way to remind people that the ethnic group characterizations are distinct from the Sunni/Shi'a divide. It would no doubt help John McCain to engage in such an exercise on a routine basis. But it would help everybody remember that this a multi-dimensional problem.

You know, I'm starting to get a little irritated by people writing things like "Kurds or Sunnis" because, well, it's inaccurate. The Kurds are largely Sunni. Better to write "Kurds or Sunni Arabs," or to find some other way to remind people that the ethnic group characterizations are distinct from the Sunni/Shi'a divide. It would no doubt help John McCain to engage in such an exercise on a routine basis. But it would help everybody remember that this a multi-dimensional problem.

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