Monday, May 21, 2007

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Is there still an Iraq window?

Over at Harper's, Marc Lynch answers questions from Ken Silverstein. In light of the Bush administration's desperate new embrace of the Iraq Study Group, I found this response particularly interesting:

Q: So what’s the best policy choice at this point?

A: The United States should commit to a withdrawal, not tomorrow but with a clear endpoint – benchmarks, or whatever you want to call them. The insurgents have made it pretty clear in a series of public statements and private communications that they’re willing to start talking and dampen down the violence if the United States commits to withdrawing from Iraq. We’re at a moment where there’s actually a chance for positive developments, because we have a common interest with the insurgents in defeating Al Qaeda and they are putting out clear signals that they are willing to make a deal. But everything hinges on the United States making a commitment to withdraw – politically, they can’t and won’t get in the political game without that because it would destroy their credibility and because, frankly, getting the United States out really matters to them. But there’s a window here that I’m afraid we’re going to let close because of domestic politics. The insurgency factions turned against Al Qaeda because its Islamic State of Iraq project has been growing in strength, and if they can’t show some gains soon the tide may turn against them within the Sunni community.

Question to readers -- is there any reason to doubt this assessment?

posted by Dan on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM


I don't know enough to say whether it's correct or not. However, this sort of dance of trust and commitment and authority-to-speak-for-the-whole and evolving agreement is "diplomacy." How do you do that with insurgents? Who is the Dean Acheson of the Iraqi "insurgency factions," and who's got his phone number?

posted by: Callimachus on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

It's clear that Hezbollah, after Israel DID pull completely out of Lebanon, did NOT evolve peacefully.
It's clear that Hamas, after Israel DID pull out of Gaza, did not evolve peacefully.

It's not clear that the $2 bil/yr bribe/ corruption "aid" the US gives to Egypt to have peace with Israel is really helping develop that country -- so while Mubarak "kept" his deal, his people haven't benefitted much. AND they've noticed.

And perhaps Callimachus is most correct -- who can say those who say they favor a deal really control the others?

On the other hand, if the US pulls out, and the Sunnis continue with terror, the likely Shia death squad genocide of all ex-Baathists isn't something I'd feel any worse about than US inaction over Darfur; in fact, less bad.

Does "out" of Iraq into Kurdistan count?

posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

If you reward terrorism, you'll get more terrorism.

And by terrorism I mean not 9/11 but the tactics we've seen in Iraq. More specifically if these groups are allowed to succeed, then we'll see more of the same. There's nothing special about Iraq that limits this kind of thing to Iraq.

The random killing of civilians was supported by only a tiny minority within Iraq and such minorities exist everywhere.

If the U.S. military cannot come up with effective tactics to meet this challenge we're doomed to see more and more of it the future.

posted by: Mark Amerman on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

Analysis by Marc Lynch is simplistic and not complete.

What about the problem between Sunni and Shia factions? Why will that power struggle wither away? Lynch's analysis only focus on insurgents and Sunni fight.

Insurgency is there, but Bush Administration wants to live in the fantasy that it is a war between insurgents and Sunni which is causing the problem while ignoring the brutal control exerted by Shia. Why would Shia suddenly start sharing power with Sunni or sharing Oil wealth with all Iraqi people once Americans are gone? True, it is the insurgents who blew Samara mosque and they still continue to wage violence. But Shia's are unable to live with Sunni people too, they do not want to have any share for Sunni and that is not going to change even when Americans are gone. It will be exasperated and they will aim to drive away all of Sunni population from Iraq; at least from Baghdad and mixed population area.

posted by: Umesh Patil on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure Marc Lynch takes adequate account of one possible consequence of American withdrawal. The "surge," and increased American emphasis on dispersed counter-insurgency tactics, has not succeeded very well in reducing Sunni Arab mass-casualty attacks on Shiites, but it does seem to have reduced Shiite death squad activity against Sunni Arabs. It's very likely that physical withdrawal -- not so much the announcement of timetables or benchmarks -- but actual departure of American troops from areas in which Shiites live in close proximity to Sunni Arabs would precipitate a resumption of death squad activity on a scale similar to what we saw during most of last year.

The political consequences of this as far as the Sunni Arab population, and the strength of al-Qaeda-oriented groups within it, are concerned Lynch doesn't address. Very possibly they could be strongly negative from the standpoint of "national reconciliation." This is not of great concern from my point of view -- my priority is liquidating the American commitment in Iraq, period -- but there is no point in closing our eyes to unpleasant possibilities just because preventing them may not be in our power.

posted by: Zathras on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

An assumption of the argument is that the violence in Iraq is, or is caused by, anti-American attitudes.

Intuitively, this can't be correct. Overwhelmingly, the victims of violence are fellow Iraqis, not American or British soldiers. Americans are losing on the order of 60-100 soldiers a month; Iraqi civilians are being killed at probably 30 times that rate.

Thus, why would groups that are currently bombing marketplaces and police stations stop bombing marketplaces and police stations if Americans soldiers are not there?

It may happen, and there may be an argument for it. But I'd like to see it.


posted by: Sk on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

Hi -

The question boils down to how credible the "opposition" in Iraq is: can one trust them to keep their word?

If you believe that, then I have a great deal on a bridge in New York for you, only one owner, great mileage.

Seriously, the "insurgents" making it "pretty clear" that they're "willing" to "start talking and dampen down" the violence is simply filled with weasel words (all in quotes) that mean absolutely nothing.

There is no monolithic insurgency, no General Giap on the other side to talk to. Cut a deal with one, nobody else will keep that deal. And that's the way that they want it.

Welcome to the world of asymmetric warfare: Marc Lynch is thinking symmetrically, of clearly defined actors within a symmetric playing field. The Iranian-financed "insurgency" in Iraq is anything but that: they have learned that acting symmetrically gets them killed.

This is one of the biggest dangers now: assuming that you can actually deal with the "insurgency" as if they were some sort of state-like actor: they are not, cannot and will not be anything like that.

posted by: John F. Opie on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

Sounds like ample reason to doubt the assessment, Prof. Drezner. Setting a timetable for withdrawing has potential benefits, yes, but also risks, and the question is, how do those stack up against the risks and potential benefits of not withdrawing. I am beginning to think that, in the near future, the timetable might offer the better package. (That is, after all, the point of the surge.)

At some point, the US can test the hypothesis by announcing a timetable and observing how things change -- particularly, whether all the Iraqi groups train their fire on Al Qaeda. If things go even more pear-shaped, cancel the timetable. (As a semi-controlled experiment, this can only work once.) Would be a heck of a test for a new US President, wouldn't it.

posted by: George W on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

There's more than room for doubt on time tables. It' s a horrible idea. We need to win. Our security is inextricably linked to a stable, friendly Iraq that has beaten back a salafist insurgency, and provides a regional counterbalance to Iran. Yes, it's very difficult. But please stop making it sound like Stalingrad. The commitment in men and treasure will be a pittance compared with the price of failure. And please don't spotlight any more whinny flag officers who spent their careers fighting the Cold War, and are infinitely more to blame for our God awful strategy in Iraq than Bush. Had we been fighting a counterinsurgency from the beginning we would be on the road to victory, but the knuckleheads who a decade ago thought the Army's biggest crisis was losing a self-propelled artillery piece. Endless lip service on "Full Spectrum OPS", but all we ever trained on was the same old Cold War crap. The honorable 4 STAR talking heads on TV & many recently in uniform betrayed the American Soldier in a profound way. They are the Doug Haig's of our time, and they want to blame Bush for ruining the super-duper great units they had in garrison. I really hope & pray we give COIN a chance.

posted by: CPT Mike Foley, USAR on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

The insurgency factions turned against Al Qaeda because its Islamic State of Iraq project has been growing in strength, and if they can’t show some gains soon the tide may turn against them within the Sunni community.

Reason to doubt:

Many of the insurgency factions, and the Sunni community, turned against Al Qaeda and their Islamic State of Iraq for the same reason that many Afghanis turned against the Taliban-- life under religious fascism just isn't that enjoyable. Otherwise, why wouldn't the insurgency factions just be allying with Al Qaeda if the Islamic State of Iraq has been growing in strength? They certainly allied with them more at the start. So yes, the "success" of the Islamic State of Iraq project turned Sunnis against Al Qaeda, but not in the way that Marc Lynch is implying.

That's at least the case in Anbar province, which has had some of the greatest amount of Sunni tribal-based insurgence and opposition to the new Iraqi government. And the reports out of Anbar clearly indicate that great portions of the Sunni community that at least tacitly supported or did not interfere with Al Qaeda are now coming around to supporting the new Iraqi government-- without additional commitments to withdraw beyond those that have been repeatedly given.

Reason to doubt number two:

The United States has made repeated commitments to withdrawing, especially once the violence is "dampened down." It's a bit ridiculous to say that "everything hinges on the United States making a commitment to withdraw." It's especially absurd to pretend that the US's repeated insistence on intending to withdraw cannot be trusted but that the insurgents' intention on dampening down the violence can. The United States has had for the entire occupation a policy of 1) being committed to withdrawal, 2) attempting to negotiate with the Sunni and former regime elements parts of the insurgency to split them from Al Qaeda, and 3) bending over backwards in negotiations and in actions to try to get the Sunni insurgency to lay down their arms and join the new government.

posted by: John Thacker on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

The real question is not whether Lynch's answer makes sense (and it does) but whether or not there is a "win" for the U.S. somewhere over the rainbow.

And with all due respect to my esteemed fellow Captain posting above, the answer to that is unambiguously "no."

By no definition of the term can the U.S. salvage a "success" out of Iraq that comprises a stable, pro-US (or at least friendly), multi-confessional Iraq that is also an ally in the war on terror (the Bush administration's jello-like definition of success).

Civil conflicts end with victory. By one side over the other. Unless the U.S. suddenly decides to overtly take sides, nature has to take its course. It will be ugly, bloody, and terrible and will extract a high price in U.S. reputation worldwide since we will have caused it.

Adding the "but what about al-Qaeda's safe haven" layer doesn't complicate the equation. Al-Qaeda has a safe haven. It is called Pakistan.

posted by: Russell B on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

"is there any reason to doubt this assessment?"

Cut to its most unnuanced level, it all depends on how you frame benchmarks. Benchmarks can be defined in terms of 'if you don't do this by that date we will withdraw' or "if you do this we will withdraw on that date.' The former, IMO, is a shotgun to the foot (or head). The latter strikes me as a much better idea and close to, if not beyond, the standard of reasonable doubt that Dan proposes.

The possibility of acting in bad faith by either Shia or Sunni is not beyond the realm of possibility. However, if we want Iraq to be a sustainable democracy we have to have a little faith and trust in the idea that they are not. Of course, the creation of an untested democracy is always a test of faith in the trustworthiness of the members of that democracy.

Ultimately, Lynch must define the devil in his details before I'd completely sign off on his proposal.

posted by: Eric M on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

Treat insurgent "negotiators" more as focus groups than anything else. Try to get a sense of what they want and where they disagree with each other, because that's useful info to the degree you can believe it.

No need for formal agreements with them. But if you happen to make them offers -- you'll avoid airstrikes on certain areas as long as they meet certain conditions etc -- then they might carry your offers back to people who can act on them. No harm done if they're offers you're ready to honor.

This sort of thing should have been going on all along. If it wasn't then that's a bit of incompetence getting corrected. And it's another propaganda piece for the US public, a bit of hopeful news in a time when there's very little that looks at all hopeful.

We need to win. Our security is inextricably linked to a stable, friendly Iraq that has beaten back a salafist insurgency, and provides a regional counterbalance to Iran.

All of that was true for the USSR in afghanistan. But it didn't come out that way and now there's no more USSR. So sad for them.

We can't win, the best we can do is salvage what we can on our way out.

posted by: J Thomas on 05.21.07 at 01:41 PM [permalink]

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