Saturday, February 25, 2006

Pre-Announced US Exit from Iraq?

There is nothing like visible, extreme events to trigger off strong views. The past few murderous days in Iraq have John Quiggin arguing that, although a pullout of US troops from Iraq would be a disaster, there is no better option than to set an immediate timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq sometime next year.

This is a more than a knee-jerk reaction however since it is also the current policy of the Australian Labor Party. But I just do not understand such views.

In his recent post, JQ is responding to, and rejecting, Lawrence Kaplan’s claim, in NRO, that there is a case for staying in Iraq and for abandining the current implicit drift in US policy that supports cutting-and-running. JQ argues, instead, that as the US will not commit troops necessary to make Kaplan’s proposal work, the best option is to preannounce a withdrawal. But, if one believes withdrawal will be a disaster for Iraq, better policies are for current troop deployment numbers to remain or, at least, to express a verbal commitment to maintain the commitment as PM Howard has done, prior to any eventual reduction. How can pre-announcing a cut-and-run policy improve the situation in Iraq when much of the current conflict reflects sectarian concerns within Iraq between Sunni and Shia? Will these violent concerns diminish if the US and its allies withdraw?

Kaplan is saying that the US is withdrawing from Iraq with US reconstruction aid already running out, infrastructure disintegrating , insurgency raging and with religious factions fighting in what some alarmists claim is approaching a state of civil war. Recent concerns in this regard follow the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. This bombing and subsequent attacks on 27 mosques in Bhagdad, are an attempt to drive a civil war, although it is doubtful these events, in themselves will do so. More likely there will be limited reprisals, demonstrations withe people of Iraq returning to their miserable, difficult lives.

According to Kaplan, the US looks to many Iraqis ‘like an honest broker’ preventing the country’s disintegration. The US presence has become a buffer between Iraq's two major religious sects and between relative order and mayhem. Where the US does not operate in Iraq it seems nothing works. Competing local sects control government ministries as fiefdoms, where connections count for everything and ability for nothing. And, just as the ministries ignore direction from above, local fims ignore ministries. While the Iraqi military are performing better – they no longer ‘melt away’ - their ability can be questioned as they are dominated by sectarianism. The Iraqi police operate as brutal militias and oppress Sunnis. In some areas previously anti-American Sunni’s are turning to the US for protection. If the US withdraws Iraq could become an even more devastated horror show. On sectarianism in the military and the police and the codoning of militia activity see the New York Times here. Quote 'The militias pose a double threat to the future of Iraq: they exist both as marauding gangs, as the violence on Wednesday showed, and as sanctioned members of the Iraqi Army and the police'.

The need is to isolate the population from the insurgents by providing them with security. This is the only way to win this type of asymmetrical war. But the US administration intends to draw down troop levels to 100,000 by the end of this year, with the pullback already well underway as US forces surrender countryside and head for their major bases. Implicitly the US seem to be accepting defeat. Kaplan (and following him, JQ) cite a single military officer as saying that 180,000 troops, more than double the number under intended policy, are needed. I am unsure how much weight should be placed on this single officer’s assessment but the clear implication of Kaplan’s argument is that the current intended number of troops is too low and that the US should stay the course and at least maintain troop numbers until the situation stabilizes.

An effective counterinsurgency strategy requires times and patience but the US seems close to having exhausted its resolve. Global pressures to induce them to leave will further weaken it. The need now is to support the people of Iraq by not leaving the country in a state bordering on civil war but, instead, to rebuild infrastructure destroyed by US bombing, secure major roads and seek a non-sectarian, effective civil administration, police and army. A major initiative should be to provide public sector employment for unemployed Iraqi male youth. Another essential initiative iis to replace the current government with a non-sectarian alternative.

The initial case for going into Iraq is an irrelevant ‘sunk cost’. Moreover, the bitterness many feel towards the Coalition's intention to go into Iraq is clouding judgements. That the invasion itself may have been a military disaster does not deter from the fact that the current difficult - though not impossible - situation must be addressed.

One part of the current problem is the role of Iran and this is something that can be addressed, if necessary by military action. Indeed 31% of Americans now regard Iran as the US's most significant enemy . In-so-far as Iran is funding the Shia uprising in Iraq and threatening to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, these perceptions of the US public are accurate.


Mike Hart said...

HC, I was never a supporter of the war at its genesis. It was founded upon a flawed over estimation of the risk that Hussein's dictatorship presented and a severe underestimation of the risk that cultural, religious and ethnic divisions of essentially three national identities melded by the British into one many decades ago represented. The intervention into Iraqi affairs was founded on a dubious political theory of democratisation whose protagonists were Perle and Wolfowitz.

The ignorance of US policy centres on the history and cultural strands of this area was susbstantial. The US intervention created a vacuum of authority and nationhood. The indecision as to what that nationhood should be amongst the Iraqis is manifest in their differences. That they would turn to their religious and cultural bretheran in other countries perfectly expected. To now talk of a disintegration into civil war is nonsense, the civil war has been ongoing since 2003. So what does the US now do? Interesting proposition. US self interest in stable middle east energy supplies would suggest staying the course. Staying the course is not going to wash with the voters in the US given the cost and inexorable rise in military casualties. The US army is engaged in a war of attrition, more of its morale than men and equipment. The invastion has effectively destabilised the fertile crescent and arabia with many unpredictable outcomes. The political shifts in Iran and Palestine, Syria and the southern former soviet republics are yet to be felt.

Well, I think it would be best handed over to a round table of the nations of the middle east to be responsible for, let them call it, Americans and others stay and help or do the Islamic nations pick up the can for a democratic and islamic Iraq? But that would require a UN initiative would it not and that now raises a whole new set of problems for the US, Australia and the UK.

hc said...

Sam, Yours a sensible post. I was an intervention supporter though now have doubts. Getting rid of Saddam fine but he was holding together an unstable equilibrium and the costs of dealing with that high. There is much ex post wisdom about the war. A former DFAT official I know, now a prominent war critic, told me at the time of intervention that he was certain Saddam had WMD because the US had given them to him during the Iran-Iraq war!

My reading is that Iraq is not in, or close to, being in a state of civil war and that most citizens want a moderate non-extremist response. Many Sunni are married to Shia and get on fine - its the fanatics not the population driving this madness. If the US leaves now (or signals it is retreating) this will be unhelpful to these moderate, sensible muslims. The allies have created a mess and must clean it up.

Large sections of the US military see Bush et al as retreating and do not like it.

On your final sentence. Isn't this effectively almost what the US is doing. Isn't this conflict largely about the future role of countries like Syria and Iran in influencing this region. If the country is not to split into 3 groups it must have a secular regime with secular administration, police and army. It doesn't have this now.

Anonymous said...

Harry, your relatively upbeat assessment is not shared by Kaplan or the military officers he quotes. They say that current US strategy is failing and that many more troops are needed. Implicitly, also, a lot more money is needed. But the reconstruction money has already run out, having delivered less than zero net gains. As regards troops, given Kaplan's previous record of error, why not accept the judgement of Jen Shinseki, who was sacked for saying 400 000 would be needed.

Either way, neither the money nor the troops are going to be forthcoming, so why do you think current policy is likely to succeed.


hc said...

John, I read Kaplan as criticising the current direction of US policy, opposing that and calling for retention of forces. He is citing miltary officers to support this claim. I agree criticing the policy is crazy if the plans are set in stone but are they?

And how is there value in preannoubcing the intention to withdraw as you have suggested. Will that help the current extent of civil (sectarian) conflict in Iraq? Will Sunnis and Shia 'kiss and make up' when those nasty Americans leave?

Its a mess no-one disagrees with that but it is not yet civil war and there are opportunities to improve things.