Monday, January 10, 2005

Andrew Sullivan, in one of his trademark blogospheric mood swings, cites Stratfor's analysis as a sign to unceremoniously bug out of Iraq. Here's his Stratfor excerpt followed by Sullivan's comment:

"The issue facing the Bush administration is simple. It can continue to fight the war as it has, hoping that a miracle will bring successes in 2005 that didn't happen in 2004. Alternatively, it can accept the reality that the guerrilla force is now self-sustaining and sufficiently large not to flicker out and face the fact that a U.S. conventional force of less than 150,000 is not likely to suppress the guerrillas. More to the point, it can recognize these facts: 1. The United States cannot re-engineer Iraq because the guerrillas will infiltrate every institution it creates. 2. That the United States by itself lacks the intelligence capabilities to fight an effective counterinsurgency. 3. That exposing U.S. forces to security responsibilities in this environment generates casualties without bringing the United States closer to the goal. 4. That the strain on the U.S. force is undermining its ability to react to opportunities and threats in the rest of the region. And that, therefore, this phase of the Iraq campaign must be halted as soon as possible.

They recommend withdrawing U.S. forces to the periphery of Iraq and letting the inevitable civil war take place in the center. "

Not having the article Sullivan has at my elbow I'm at a disadvantage, not knowing what Stratfor means by " periphery". If they mean using the U.S. military to cordon off the Sunni heartland from the rest of Iraq while letting the Kurds and Shiites maintain order in their regions (i.e. kill off the Sunni insurgents where Kurds and Shiites are a numerical majority) it's not an unworkable or unlikely fallback strategy. I myself wrote something similar when I blogged about a controlled civil war. The Kurds and Shiites are a " strong horse" with armed followers willing to fight and die while the Interim Government is weak and without a reliable military arm. Those are facts on the ground.

Dave Schuyler, with a skeptical ( though still Glittering) eye asks some tough questions about Stratfor's/Sullivan's assumptions:

"Aren't there other alternatives? Isn't it possible (even likely), for example, that the Iraqi government put in place after the January 30 election will authorize the use of/use substantially more force than the U. S. has seen fit to use to date in providing security i.e. rooting out the insurgents?

"Do the combined nations of the world have sufficient intelligence capabilities to fight an effective counterinsurgency in Iraq? "

"How is such a civil war in the strategic interests of the United States"

"Are they really proposing that we exit Iraq with a strategic defeat?"

A civil war is not really in our strategic interests but having the insurgents win control over Iraq is even less in our interests. The United States faces a number of possible strategic choices in this situation, in my view, which I offer in no particular order.

" Muddling Through ": Not a long term solution or a good one but the Bush administration will probably hold to the status quo at least until the election is held or it is cancelled. Conceivably we could stand pat for another year, watching the situation in Iraq - and our army - slowly deteriorate. My point is that the roof is not suddenly falling in, it collapsed a while ago.

" Ramp Up": Theoretically, the United States could scrape the bottom of the barrell to throw in a few more hastily assembled divisions and enact conscription and eventually flood Iraq with soldiers about a year to 16 months from now. Exceptionally unlikely and it still wouldn't change the need for better military and political strategies.

" The El Salvador Solution": Face the hard facts that an insurgency of this size - probably 20,000-40,000 fighters and 200,000 supporters - requires that *somebody* uses the same tactics they use against them and shred their networks.

It doesn't have to be us but it has to be done if the insurgents are wedded to rules-free warfare. Algeria crushed ( or beat back) an even more vicious Islamist insurgency with a tiny fraction of our resources. If you don't the insurgents are not going to stop merely because we leave. Or because they win. Groups with those tactics often escalate to democidal-genocidal slaughter of helpless civilians in victory. Imagine an Iraqi junta that included Zarqawri and Baathist die-hards and you get the idea. It might make Saddam look humane in comparison.

True Counterinsurgency operations are not quite the same thing as indiscriminate Latin American style " Death Squads" but they still involve acceptance of a lot of collateral damage as you redefine the insurgency's civilian suppport network as targets. The difference is that our professionals are a lot more scrupulous about trying to find real bad guys than say the Colombian paramilitaries or even the Russian spetsnaz. If we leave abruptly like Sullivan counsels, the Kurds, Shiites and central government will be fighting for their lives and they are not going to play nice. Instead they will cleanse the Sunnis out of the south and Kurdistan and effect a partition of Iraq with great bloodshed.

If we stay in we have a hope of containing the violence geographically and in terms of magnitude. We also have the possibility of a Shiite-Kurd government in place that is democratically elected that might, against odds, take hold and command some real popular support.

Those are pretty much our realistic options. Leaving Iraq gets you # 3 without direct American participation and probably an extended " Lebanon" scenario until all sides " burn out " on war and make peace.

UPDATE: Global Guerillas offers an important caveat on the El Salvador option.
To be fair to Sullivan, I think he's trying to beat the alarm drum more than pissing in his pants. It appears the current administration wants to play pretend more than it wants to grapple with problems.

That aside, a quibble: the Islamist - Government quasi civil war in Algeria (which is not over yet) never approached where Iraq is already. Of course now many informed actors see the current violence in a round of score settling between factions of "le Pouvoir" as the Algerians unfondly call the military power behind the civilian government facade.

Problem with Algeria as an analogy is the FLN origin of the civilian government and the strong apparatus in place gave it a clear foot up over an insurgency. The issue with Iraq is that there is no "Pouvoir" in place and to date the US is (and I see no reason to think that will change) incapable of generating one.

If something approaching a clever result comes out of elections, and the US is clever enough to let Sistani and the Kurds hammer out their own deal and do things their own way (including perhaps things like amnesties to Sunni fighters who have killed Americans - recall that last round of stupid interference?), then there is a chance a "Pouvoir" with enough street cred might begin to emerge and get on its feet.

However, it will not happen as a clear creature of the Americans.

Is the Bush Administraiton clever enough to allow someone to spit in its face for its own long term good? By the evidence to date, I think not, but I hope they will..... Steel you know.

I do not think all is lost, however I do not think there is a panacea either. This is probably a decade long deal involving a large number of troops. The "death squad" option is dicey. Some version of muddling through may end up being the best course. I'll and have something on this later today.

It's a very dicey strategy wherever it is used because to work you unleash forces - another self-sustaining network - that could quickly get out of control. It doesn't always succeed either. Diem and Nhu wacked a large number of VC organizers and activists via their own personal secret society/death squad but it didn't alter the balance of power in their favor in South Vietnam. It simply aggravated and alarmed both Hanoi and Washington.


You bring up a good point:

"Problem with Algeria as an analogy is the FLN origin of the civilian government and the strong apparatus in place gave it a clear foot up over an insurgency. The issue with Iraq is that there is no "Pouvoir" in place and to date the US is (and I see no reason to think that will change) incapable of generating one."

The Algerian government/ruling circles, however unpleasant, are authentic rulers and have the will to stay in power and an ideological sense of self. Our artificial construct in Iraq doesn't and I don't think we'd ever be able to breathe any life into it that it would need to survive. They will disintegrate when we leave if the election does not replace them first.
The French action in Algeria is a better model for reflection, with of course the caveat of the settler issue. However the Iraqi perception (abstract away from your feeling on its facticity) that the US wants to land or resource grab for bases and oil gets one back in a similar space.

In re the elections, the problem is I don't see them being able to generate instant street cred. It's possible it will work, again if the US doesn't play puppet master, but I don't think the current crew is capable of excertizing that.

Some accuse Bush of being "simple-minded" and then when he actually acts in such a fashion they refuse to accept it. Instead of looking for land grabs for bases or oil grabs, you should at least start from Bush's stated policy: bring democracy to Iraq (and then the rest of the ME). With elections coming in Iraq a large step in that process will be completed. At that point the responsibility of the U.S. shifts to supporting that government. Will this new gov't be viewed as a U.S. puppet and collapse before it is even formed? I don't think that is likely. With the exception of Allawi, most of the candidates are not "pro-U.S.", and the process is supported by Sistani. While U.S. troop levels may increase in the very short term, look for them to be lower, perhaps much lower by the end of this year.

Hi Barnabus,

I don't think Bush is simple-minded. My feeling is that he's a very shrewd judge of domestic politics in terms of what policy is politically salable and what his opponents moves are going to be. His other strength is interpersonal dynamics - not public oratory but the holistic range of relationship building behaviors done in small groups and one on one. Very useful skill-set for a politician.

What Bush is not is an intellectual. His whole persona is action driven which is why once he has a goal he moves at it with great tenacity - moreso than most politicians - and he will keep doing so until a better/more attractive objective or exit strategy appears. He's a doer not an analyst and his incuriousity and the floundering we saw with the CPA is the flip side of Bush's fairly ruthless decisiveness when faced with clear choices. I'm not bashing Bush here, just acknowledging his strengths are better suited for less ambiguous situations. Iraq's occupation though, was a hugely mismanaged disaster and has set Bush's own GWOT timetable back at least a year.

There are no clear choices anymore in Iraq because of all the wasting of time, resources and opportunities by Garner and Bremer - just a set of comparative risks exist now. I hope the election results in something along the lines of a Kurd-Shiite moderate coalition discussed above, something with the wherewithal to fight the insurgency directly and hard.
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