Monday, December 5, 2005

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Do the insurgents really want the U.S. to withdraw?

Time's Michael Ware has a long profile of the Iraqi insurgency and U.S. strategies to cope with it. The single most depressing sentence: "After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, the U.S. still can't say for sure whom it is up against."

The basic thrust of the article is that the U.S. believes that a fair amount of the insurgency consists of "Sunni rejectionists," an odd word choice given that they are nevertheless interested in participating:

The vast majority of those groups fall into a category the military dubiously refers to as Sunni "rejectionists." Mostly Baathists, nationalists and Iraqi Islamists, they oppose the occupation and any Baghdad government dominated by Iraqis sheltered from Saddam by foreign-intelligence agencies, such as Iran's or the U.S.'s. But they don't oppose democracy in Iraq. Many voted in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and have plans to participate in the Dec. 15 election. Few see a contradiction between voting and continuing to battle U.S. forces. "I voted in the referendum, and I'm still fighting, and everybody in my organization did the same," says Abu Marwan, the Army of Mohammed commander. "This is two-track war--bullets and the ballot. They are not mutually exclusive."
Here's the most revealing paragraph:
Evidence of shifts within the insurgency in some ways presents the U.S. with its best opportunity since the occupation began to counter parts of the Sunni resistance. Adopting the long-standing attitudes of secular Baathists, some Sunni leaders tell TIME they have lost patience with al-Zarqawi and would consider cutting a political deal with the U.S. to isolate the jihadis. "If the Americans evidenced good intent and a timetable [there's that word again--DD] for withdrawal we feel is genuine, we will stand up against al-Zarqawi," says Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "We already stood up against him on the Shi'ite issue, and if he doesn't follow us, it will be a bad path for him." Baathist insurgent leader Abu Yousif, who has met with U.S. intelligence officers, says, "The insurgency is looking for a political outlet--once we have that, we could control al-Qaeda."
Color me skeptical about these assertions, for one simple reason -- the Sunnis will be the big losers when/if the United States were to withdraw. It would be irrational of them to give up the extralegal strategy of insurgency, precisely because such a tactic has garnered them influence beyond their number to date.

Assume the withdrawal goes well. in any electoral democracy, the Sunnis will lose because they are vastly outnumbered by the Shia and the Kurds. Now assume the withdrawal goes poorly -- the insurgents will face a Shia majority pefectly willing to use extralegal means to ensure that they control the levers of power. Either way, the insurgents are better off right now than they will be when the Americans leave.

The one possibility of a U.S. withdrawal contributing to the Sunnis laying down their arms is if there's some kind of grand bargain behind the scenes in which the Shiite parties basically pledge to keep their militias from engaging in any kind of a pogrom -- but if I was Sunni, I'd take my chances playing cat-and-mouse with the U.S. military instead. Indeed, my strategy would be not to engage with U.S. forces at all, but do as much damage to Shia-predominant military units as possible.

[What about the possibility that Iraqis are now in the mood to vote for secular, non-sectarian parties?--ed. Again, great for the Sunnis, if true -- but the disturbing thing about both the Time piece and the Christian Science Monitor story linked above is that neither of them have any hard data -- just assertions by the reporter. Also remember that the supposed beneficiary of this secular trend -- former PM Iyad Allawi -- just got pelted with shoes in Najaf.]

posted by Dan on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM




Comments:

Dan,

Considering how well US reporters did at predicting voters' actions in 04 (!) and the infinitely harder task of discerning the leanings of foreigners who have never even voted (!!!) I'm with you on the skeptical side of things here.

While I'm at it, I'd like to commend the US military for paying Iraqi reporters to skew things in the press over there ("fair and balanced" but for said influence peddling? methinks not). It's called wartime propaganda people, and it has been used to great effect in every American victory and absent only from our singular loss in Vietnam.

American reporters in Iraq had better start questioning the motives of their local sources with the same scrutiny they apply to US military sources. Naivete is not excuse. We cannot continue to hand our enemies propaganda victories whilst flagellating ourselves about strategem that does not pass muster with the Girl Scout handbook.

posted by: Kelli on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



The use of the word "timetable" suggests some rejectionists are watching Western media. That word has become our shorthand for distinguishing those who want a plan of withdrawal with approximate dates and those who want withdrawal to be conditioned on some performance criteria.

posted by: PD Shaw on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



And if John Stewart doesn't do a comedy montage of all the news anchors explaining that "throwing stones at someone is a grave insult in that part of the world," he . . . [um] . . . deserves to have stones thrown at him.

posted by: PD Shaw on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]




Considering how well US reporters did at predicting voters' actions in 04 (!)

It seems that they did a reasonable job generally (at the Presidential level anyway). I remember fairly devastating articles by both the New York Times and the Washington Post a few weeks after the Republican convention pointing out how the so-called battlefield states for Kerry had shrunk to the point that he had to win either of Ohio and Fl and how he seemed to have stopped competing in WV and LA. Most reporters (and polls did underestimate) how much Bush would win by in FL, but many also predicted that Bush would win WI. Equally, there were even predictions that NJ or HI could be close.

Furthermore, the NYTimes Magazine had a front page article in April/May 2004 describing the huge GOTV organization the Republicans had built in Ohio.


While I'm at it, I'd like to commend the US military for paying Iraqi reporters to skew things in the press over there ("fair and balanced" but for said influence peddling? methinks not). It's called wartime propaganda people, and it has been used to great effect in every American victory and absent only from our singular loss in Vietnam.

Nonsense.

1) Tactical stories intended to support operations (e.g. misleading insurgents over where we're going to strike) or protect intelligence sources are perefectly fine. But longer term strategic stories of this kind are another matter altogether.

2) It is simply not true that the American government has initiated similar actions (clandestine funding of foreign press for reports) in every war. Please indicate when we did this in the war of 1812 or even in WW - I (other allied powers did this, but I've not heard of Americans doing it). Even in the Spanish American war, it was American magnates, not the government.

3) On the other hand, such operations did take place in Vietnam. I presume the reason you don't want to include Vietnam in the list of places because you want to make the bogus point that this was partly responsble for the loss in Vietnam ?

4) Most importantly of all, the sole remaining justification for this war at this point is to build Iraq into some sort of functioning liberal democracy in order to initiate positive changes in the Middle East. Operations of this sort badly undermine American prestige and moral authority, something that is absolutely vital to winning in the peace. There is always a lingering suspicion in many parts of the world that pro-American columnists are paid by American intelligence, and operations like this most definitely re-inforce that paranoia (is it really paranoia if partially true).

posted by: erg on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Dan

I won't read too much into the story that Allawi was stoned by a mob. In fact, I wouldn't be that concerned either. Most probably it was just a local group of Sadrists, who are still fairly strong in Najaf. Finally throwing stones, while not exactly democratic, is 2 steps up from throwing grenades.

As far as trying to read the mood of the insurgency, its hard to say. The problem is that there are so many groups that I dont think anyone can speak for all. Much of what the Sunnis may want (essentially getting back the status they had under Saddam is a goal that they simply cannot get. Will political settlements tempt people to put down their arms ? Hard to say.

posted by: erg on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



If you listen closely, you can hear the voices of History. Every one of those voices, from Thucydides, to President Lincoln, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas McArthur are saying the same thing, "There is no substitute for Victory." The Peloponnesian War dragged on for almost 30 years without Victory as the Greek Historian Thucydides tells us, the Battle of Gettysburg did not end the fighting during the American Civil War, the Allies did not liberate France and when they got to the border with Germany say, "We're done. Everybody pack up and go home." For President Roosevelt, Victory meant unconditional surrender, something that did not happen in Korea, much to Gen. McArthur's disappointment.

It is good to remind oneself that as Leon Trotsky, a man who knew about such things, is reputed to have said, "Insurrection is an art form like any other..." And, like any other art form, insurrections, and the craft of countering them, can be mastered. But, you must be committed to doing so. Such commitment is not demonstrated by deciding, "Well, this is too hard. Let's just forget about it, and bring the boys home."

Lastly, if you should the occasion to talk to many of the veterans of the 1990-1991 war against Iraq, they will tell you their greatest regret is the feeling that they did not get the job done when they had the chance; and someone had to go back and finish what they did not. Regardless of the fact that the decision was not theirs to make, regardless that they had indeed "accomplished the mission" of throwing Saddam's army out of Kuwait, many still feel, "If only they had let us go all the way to Baghdad. We were ready for that. Then everything would be different now." Maybe so, and no doubt the right decision was made at the time. The right decision now, however, is not to quit, equivocate or lose one's nerve. War, what is happening in Iraq, is very real, and can tolerate nothing less than Victory.

posted by: Mike Anders on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



"Color me skeptical about these assertions, for one simple reason -- the Sunnis will be the big losers when/if the United States were to withdraw. It would be irrational of them to give up the extralegal strategy of insurgency"

Is it possible that AMS, as afraid as they may be of the Shia, is MORE afraid of being outcompeted for Sunni support by moderate and secular groups, and so they WANT a withdrawl that will lead the Shia to take off the gloves, and thus force Sunnis into the insurgent (and insurgent friendly AMS) camp? Its not necessarily a zero sum game ya know.

posted by: liberalhawk on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Mike,
What would victory look like in Iraq? Our objective was to topple Saddam, root out WMD programs and to "stand up a democracy" in Iraq. This doesn't compare well with the Civil War or WWII. Victory in the civil war meant Sherman's march through Georgia, burning and pillaging as he went to force the south to accept that they would never have an independent polity. Total victory in Germany meant reducing Berlin to rubble and firebombing Dresden and Hamburg to force the Germans to accept having their country reconstructed on allied terms. The terms of both wars were clear: we were out to crush the will of the South and of Germany so that WE could call the shots afterwards.
Is that what we are out to do in "Operation Iraqi Freedom?" Isn't the pretext here that we are fighting on the behalf of the Iraqis? How do we look the rest of the world in the eye and tell them that we had to destroy Iraq to save Iraq? In the Civil war the future of the Union was at stake. In WWII the Axis attacked us first and we entered into total war to the finish. What is at stake for us in Iraq? Originally the utopian fantasy that if we removed the dictator the flowers of democracy would spontaneously flourish in Iraq. Now that that delusion has gone by the wayside we are left fighting for our prestige, that is, to demonstrate that we arenít a paper tiger that submits to terrorism and canít take casualties. Quite an awkward and unnecessary position to have put ourselves in. So what do we do?
Do we do as the British did in 1920 and bludgeon Iraq into submission? I don't think that would be acceptable in this day and age, especially given that we claim to be there to promote Iraqi freedom. Blatantly cutting and running would let loose a potentially disastrous chain of events that would damage our prestige and interests. The best we can hope for at this point is cutting a deal with the interested parties that lets us claim victory and doesnít plunge Iraq into chaos. Others might imagine grander victories but I think this is what realistic victory looks like at this point.

posted by: Ken on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Let's not be too gullible about insurgents who claim they don't oppose democracy in Iraq. They will support it, as they support the insurgency, to the extent it promises to give them what they want -- a return to the position of dominance over Iraq's other religious and ethnic groups that they held under Saddam Hussein.

Democracy is a dead end in that respect, from which it follows that Sunni Arab insurgents will only abandon the insurgency if the alternative is catastrophe, a civil war against united Shiites and Kurds. Dan is exactly right on this point.

posted by: Zathras on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



That calculus seems pretty straight forward, but we really have no idea what the variables are. Is this strictly a Sunni insurgency? In the Cairo meeting two weeks ago, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders collectively declared that there was a legitimate right of resistance. The meeting was attended by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd (and so "one of ours," right?), as well as other Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni political leaders. So is it "our Iraqis," the Shiites and Kurds against a Sunni resistance? Is it just a matter of convincing the Sunnis that it is in there best interest to go along with the democracy plan and get on board with the Shiites and Kurds? Are the only hold-outs Baathist dead enders? Or is something else going on that is far more complex and whose contours we have no grasp of?

posted by: Ken on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



"Color me skeptical about these assertions, for one simple reason -- the Sunnis will be the big losers when/if the United States were to withdraw. It would be irrational of them to give up the extralegal strategy of insurgency, precisely because such a tactic has garnered them influence beyond their number to date"

What is their alternative? We tend to dwell on our own problems, but the Sunnis are hardly in a tenable situation themselves. Their cities are warzones, their neighbors are angry and growing angrier, they tend to get their heads handed to them any time they take a potshot at an American, and their so called allies end up killing more fellow Iraqis than anything and set up mini-Afhanistans at the drop of a hat. Going on like this indefinately is no more palatible to the Sunnis than to the Americans.
Meanwhile, the Shiia and Kurds have bent over backwards to include the Sunnis in a representitive government. Reprisals have by historic measures been few. Certainly there is nothing like the chaotic purging vengence many predicted pre and post invasion.
Ultimately, what choice is there? The sunnis will never be able to take control again, either the US or Iran will see to that. At best they could keep up a seperatist battle with the central Iraqi government, but that would surely incur the exact scenario mentioned above. Looking at things from the Sunni point of view, cutting a deal is _the only_ alternative in the long run. If they can win some concessions from the Americans to save face, so much the better for them. But no other scenario has any better upside, and plenty have far worse.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Say which? The Sunnis will be the big losers when the US withdraws? On the contrary, when the current civil war escalates, which it will, the Sunni Baathists will win out.

posted by: decon on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



"The Sunnis will be the big losers when the US withdraws? On the contrary, when the current civil war escalates, which it will, the Sunni Baathists will win out."

Eh? How exactly will they manage that? Seems to me by the time we withdraw there will be in excess of 200,000 trained and veteran Iraqi Army troops, including tanks and artillery, most of which will be Shiia and Kurds. Not to mention the quarter million or so Kurd paramilitaries up in Kurdistan and however many Shiia militia can borrow RPGS from their Iranian friends. No, even if the US somehow utterly abandoned Iraq, the one thing that is least likely is for the Sunni to seize power over the country again. Theyve simply been bled too heavily while the other two groups have grown strong.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Your analysis may be correct, Mark, but for that to matter there must be a consensus among Iraq's Sunni Arabs that it is correct. There is some reason to doubt such a consensus exists -- the most obvious of which, of course, is the persistence of attacks on Shiite civilians and mostly Shiite security forces, something that can hardly be attributed to anything else than a desire by Sunni Arab insurgents to inspire a civil war they think they can win.

posted by: Zathras on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



I disagree Z. First, I dont know that there is evidence Sunnis are particularly responsible for attacks on Shiia. Certainly there are instances, but it seems to be the foriegners work by and large. The Sunnis seem to be targetting Americans and those they deem directly collaberating. That maintains their resistance argument, so popular in the Middle East. Secondly, in a sense the resistance is the Sunnis best bargaining chip. To lay it down before its exchanged for something is illogical. Unfortunate but true, and all the more reason to seek a political solution asap.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



Your analysis is naive, Mark. The "foreign" terrorists -- nearly all of them Sunni Arabs, incidentally -- could not have operated in Iraq without the active cooperation of Iraqi Sunni Arabs in the insurgency and the acquiesence of many others. That's the first thing.

The second is that "collaboration" as an excuse for killing someone can and has been used to apply to just about anyone in Iraq who works for the government, does business with people who work for the government, is related to people who work for the government, or lives near people who work for the government -- and of course to anyone else who manifests opposition to the insurgency. As a practical matter this means your basic insurgent is well justified in thinking that if he kills just about any Shiite or Kurd, he can get away with calling it "resistance."

The last thing is that you seem to assume Iraq's Sunni Arabs are thinking the way Americans would in their place. I doubt this is true. Saddam Hussein did not commit his crimes by himself all those years; he was enabled by many thousands of Iraqis, most of whom had no problem with anything he did or any moral objection to running their insurgency as he ran his government -- indeed, they may not be able to conceive of running an insurgency in any other way. I don't think most of the people leading the insurgency are any more capable of bargaining before they face catastrophe than Saddam was. Obviously, one problem with this mindset is that by the time the Sunni Arab insurgency does face catastrophe -- with the Americans on their way out and the majority of Iraqis determined to establish security by any means available -- it may well be too late for bargaining.

posted by: Zathras on 12.05.05 at 09:45 AM [permalink]



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