March 31, 2008

Iraq: Still an Insurgency?

Here's a question for the class: is the Iraq War still a counter-insurgency? Not too long ago, a very smart friend of this blog with years of experience in Iraq since 2003 wrote that Iraq was not merely an insurgency but a competition for power and resources.

That's the phrase Abu Muqawama had in his head watching Basra go up in flames last week, and that's also the phrase he had in mind as he read this op-ed in Sunday's New York Times by Anthony Cordesman:

EVEN if American and Iraqi forces are able to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, there are still three worrisome possibilities of new forms of fighting that could divide Iraq and deny the United States any form of “victory.”

One is that the Sunni tribes and militias that have been cooperating with the Americans could turn against the central government. The second is that the struggle among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and other ethnic groups to control territory in the north could lead to fighting in Kirkuk, Mosul or other areas.

The third risk — and one that is now all too real — is that the political struggle between the dominant Shiite parties could become an armed conflict.

Cordesman goes on to write, of the fighting in Basra, that...

There are good reasons for the central government to reassert control of Basra. It is not peaceful. It is the key to Iraq’s oil exports. Gang rule is no substitute for legitimate government. But given the timing and tactics, it is far from clear that this offensive is meant to serve the nation’s interest as opposed to those of the Islamic Supreme Council and Dawa.

A few thoughts: One, the fighting in Basra and Baghdad is, on one level, about asserting the control of the central government. That is a good thing. But two, on another level, the fighting that took place last week was about ISCI trying to set the stage for this fall's provincial elections. It wasn't about the central government versus local authorities at all -- it was about cold-blooded intra-Shia politics.

Do we have a dog in such a fight? Alas, we do. That dog's name is ISCI. As the same friend mentioned above has noted, historians studying Iraq decades from now will wonder why the United States allied itself with the Iran-backed ISCI instead of the popularly-supported Sadr movement. (Hint to those historians: it's because they dress well and speak English. This is what happens when you send smart but young Republican loyalists -- who only speak English -- to help run the CPA in Baghdad.) Once again, we have backed the loser:

American military and civilian officials were candid in telling me that the governors and other local officials installed by the central government in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq had no popular base. If open local and provincial elections were held, they said, Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council were likely to be routed because they were seen as having failed to bring development and government services.

So where does this leave us? Well, on the ground, we should stick to FM 3-24 -- and Abu Muqawama isn't just saying that because if there was nothing "COIN" about this war he couldn't write about it anymore. No, the maxim employed by then-Major General James Mattis and his Marines in 2004 and stolen from some Greek guy -- first, do no harm -- is a good one. Keep doing the kind of population-centric COIN outlined in FM 3-24, boys, because if nothing else, it's not going to make the situation worse.

But tactics only get you so far. If the strategy isn't sorted, the tactics can be world-beating stuff and still fail. (Charlie's favorite historical example: Germany in WWII.) So politicians in Washington better get their act together and sort out the big picture. On the one hand, the president and his policy-makers need to decide at what point these intra-Iraqi political disputes become none of our business. Why should U.S. soldiers and Marines die so some fat Iraqi politician can have a greater share of the oil revenues? And folks in the opposition -- including all the presidential campaigns (you too, McCain) and Congress -- need to start prodding the president along by asking the tough, critical questions about the decisions we're making. What is our responsibility to the central government? How can we avoid allowing our soldiers to be the shock troops for the ruling party who is nervous about an election defeat in the fall? And finally, echoing a question then-Major General David Petraeus asked a Washington Post journalist on the eve of the war, how does this all end?

Update: One a lighter note, The Bateman has been watching those videos of Kansas basketball fans and has revised his opinions of Western culture, the war in Iraq, and Jaish al-Mahdi:

Heretofore he has made what he thought were valid, if broad, observations about the nature of Western culture. These were observations generally set in contrast to the state and nature of, for example, seemingly "extreme" cultures which derived the value of individuals from concepts of "honor." The theory was that "Islam" was not at the core of issues, but the misunderstanding of multiple "honor cultures" might be at the root. The killing of those without "honor" being a central element. These are concepts of human behavior which had, more or less, died off in the late 19th century in North America and most of Europe. It has, after all, been some 200 years since members of the President's cabinet shot at each other with pistols and the intent to kill. The death knell of this cultural trend, The Bateman believed, came twixt WWI and WWII.

Prompted by curiosity stemming from Charlie's apparent behavior (since he doesn't follow many sports), The Bateman has now seen the YouTube videos of Kansas fans.

His hypothesis is now shattered. JAM should dream of such fanaticism as the Kansas fans display.

Abu Muqawama will be cheering for UNC for the first time in his life next weekend.