Friday, August 19, 2005

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Red On Red

Assume, as most but not all people do, that the American commitment in Iraq cannot and should not be sustained indefinitely whatever happens. What should the American military be doing there in the meantime?

I'd like to think that if I were lugging a rifle and a pack around Baghdad in the middle of the night my mission would be something a little more specific than "staying the course," "showing resolve," and "spreading freedom." Marking time until the Iraqis "stand up" seems somehow inadequate as well. What should our military's objective be in its operations in Iraq right now?

There is nothing original or even very clever in my idea that priority No. 1 should be to increase tensions between Iraqi Sunni Arabs and non-Iraqi jihadis. We know these tensions exist. We see evidence of them popping up occasionally in the mainstream media and in the Iraqi section of the blogosphere. To some extent they supply the answer to a question I asked last spring:

"...what is the likely impact of (apparently) widely divergent objectives on the part of different groups of insurgents on the future of the insurgency?"

Sunni Arab Iraqis may be fighting to avenge perceived humiliation, to restore Sunni political domination of Iraq or because they have nothing else to do, but they aren't fighting to become subjects of Saudi clerics and Jordanian professional terrorists -- and the foreign jihadis in turn are not fighting and dying just to uphold the honor of local tribal leaders or to restore a secular Baathist regime. They have had a common enemy, but no common goals.

Does this situation present some opportunities for us? Well, it ought to. But the difficulties are very considerable. Intelligence assets needed to identify exploitable areas of tension are evidently limited. This has to be partly because the enemy is aware of potential tensions between Iraqi and other fighters and is taking steps to keep them under control, and the uncertain political situation may be another reason. Probably the biggest, actually, is the thing that has plagued American intelligence since March 2003: the language barrier. In any event the desirability of encouraging "red-on-red" hostility is much clearer than are the things we need to do this.

In fairness to the many journalists, bloggers and others now arguing fiercely about levels of commitment, withdrawal timetables and so forth, these are much easier to grasp than are the tactical issues. It is easy enough to sit here on the East Coast and advise attempting to disengage from insurgents in areas where these are known to be entirely Iraqi while seeking out non-Iraqi fighters to attack; identifying likely gathering points on the insurgent "rat line" across the Syrian border and striking them from the air; or leaning on the Iraqi government to make sure that the non-Iraqi jihadis they capture never make it home. Whether any of these things is practicable I do not know. It is, again, easy to advise an offensive posture -- sitting around or patrolling up and down the same roads waiting to be attacked is neither good for morale nor likely to lead to a won war. Implementing this advice is easier said than done.

The other question I asked last spring was:

" what point does the enthusiasm of some Sunnis for massacring Shiites become a factor in our relations with Iran?"

I'm inclined to think now that this train left the station long before I posed this question. Iraqi Shiite leaders who did not fear assassination or massacres of their followers were much less likely to submit to Iranian influence than the ones we have now. Zarqawi and his followers have their own reasons for murdering Shiites Muslims in large numbers; Sunni Arab Baathists do too, and while these reasons may not be the same they do seem to have been compatible to this point (what appears to be the rather short moral distance between the most dedicated Baathist and the most zealous Wahhabi is probably a large obstacle to any plan to divide the two). Shiites seeking protection from terrorism will not rely on the American military; they know the mullahs in Tehran will want to fight their enemies, and know the Iranians will be there long after the Americans are gone.

There is a limit to how much we can do to limit Iranian influence in Iraq under these conditions. Actually, we may have been lucky -- if that idiot Muqtada Sadr hadn't thrown away many hundreds of his best men in frontal confrontations with American main force units last year we might already have a full scale Shiite/Sunni war in Iraq. In any event we share some interest with secular Shiite leaders and some Shiite clerics in avoiding a situation where a future Iraqi government becomes dependent for its survival on Iranian support, giving us, perhaps, another potential partner in an effort to separate our Iraqi enemies from our Islamist ones.

posted by Joseph Britt on 08.19.05 at 06:21 PM


It would have been entirely appropriate to utilize any of the factional distinctions between the various groups in Iraq to realize a democratic end. Or what ever end we had planned in Iraq.

But I do not think that was the plan going in. How could it have been. There was very little social analysis of the situation. Mostly I expect because we didn't really know why we were going. So analysis would not have been appropriate. Sort of thought we'd figure it out when we got there. Well we still don't really know. According to GW last week, we should have the lowest expectations.

Sadam certainly knew what he could get out of a war. He seeded the desert with weapons caches that will take 18 years to clean up. Evidently he believed in an unending civil war. He may get what he wanted.

Certainly Having Iraq on our side would have made sense. I firmsly believe that before we went it in, it was possible. In fact, the whole exersize is unthinkable without their cooperation. Yes, it would have been a bit bizarre but so was Nixon in China and it makes just as much sense. Iran is the only established state in the area older than 100 years and the only state who borders are basically ones it retains historically; not by the fiat of a power outside central asia. Its stable. And its right next to Afganistan. Look at the map. There it is George.

But we didn't go into Iraq to make sense out of our politics. We went in there to prove we could kick #ss. So not a lot thinking went into the effort.

We don't have many arab speakers. How one creates a democracy in a country whose language one can speak I do not know. Oh there is one way. Total military domination, like Japan. Then it can be done. But the faux cowboy's strategy a little here and there, will not work.

Mr. Drezner's questions are interesting academically. I don't think we are in a position to manipulate the situation, in the sensible ways he seems to be implying. We lack the man power for total domination (US strategy) , we lack the knowlege to manipulate local politics (British Empire strategy) so I expect we will ride this tiger till somehow it stops. Whereever it stops will be it's decision, not ours. Mr. Drezner's musing shall provide welcome diversion for what might have been.

It is an unholy cluster ##ck for which rational thinking and prudent hope may no longer be helpful.

posted by: exclab on 08.19.05 at 06:21 PM [permalink]

Looking a little further than the current tensions in Iraq, there's another question you (and the Kurds and Shia) might want to ask. All three regions of Iraq have all the classic ingredients present for devolving into long term shitholes:
- Oil, which means that a large amount of wealth will be passing through a small bottleneck. The smart and ambitious Iraqi knows he wants to be in the neighbourhood of that bottleneck.
- Oil, which means that the State will not be beholden on the citizen's tax dinars for revenue (that's what the wells are for) and which means the State will feel no need for accountability to said citizens.
- Oil, which means that the citizens will expect largesse to flow from the government, thus firmly entrenching the Ricardian rent-seeking worldview in yet another Middle Eastern state.
- Oil, which means that ethnic tensions, old grudges, and income inequalities can be manipulated to keep friends amicable and enemies on their toes, by those closest to the spigots.

In short, if you Americans get your wish, and avert full-scale civil war in Iraq, and create reasonably functional states, how do you prevent a new Egypt or a new Saudi Arabia from emerging?

Because, bear in mind, if 911 is what's bothering you, you really do not want an additional Egypt. Much less three.

posted by: Elliott Oti on 08.19.05 at 06:21 PM [permalink]

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