Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Don't Call It A Quagmire

As I remarked in my previous post, the fact that the media has finally gotten into the habit of referring to the violent opposition in Iraq as "insurgencies" in the plural (as opposed to the singular "insurgency") is a sign of progress, at least in terms of understanding the nature of the problems we face. Unfortunately, the need to adjust the lexicon to the ever evolving situation doesn't stop there. Not only are there multiple strains of insurgency to contend with, each with competing interests and varied compositions, but there is yet another truly frightening specter revealing itself in Iraq at this juncture - the prospect for multiple civil wars.

Many observers correctly point out that there is already some low-intensity civil war unfolding in Iraq today; with predominately Sunni insurgents lashing out at Shiites and Kurds, resulting in retaliatory crackdowns on the Sunni forces by Iraqi security forces which are comprised of mostly Shiite and Kurdish fighters. The near universal fear is that this low level violence will erupt into full blown civil war, with an exponentially higher rate of civilian and combatant casualties. While these fears are well founded, they are not exhaustive of all civil war scenarios.
Anthony Shadid clues us into another possibility:

This question of civil war is really pressing, and I think it is actually important to say whether one is under way or not. I believe it is, but maybe not in the way we've fashioned it in the past: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. When I think of the civil war in Iraq, I'm struck by the fault lines that are getting less attention. There is the sometimes explosive rivalry between Hakim's Badr militia and the Sadr forces. We've seen time and again the flaring of differences in western Iraq between insurgent groups. (As far back as last year, I heard an Iraqi guerrilla from Fallujah, of the nationalist variety, vowing to shoot any Arab expat trying to give him orders.) We should be careful in not minimizing differences between the two Kurdish parties. Understandably our attention is focused on Zarqawi's threats to wage an unrelenting campaign against Shiites. But in the long run, it's the intra-communal battles that I think are more decisive and worrisome. [emphasis added]
According to Shadid, there is as much, if not more, to be concerned about with respect to possible Shiite on Shiite, Kurd on Kurd and Sunni on Sunni violence. In other words, rather than a massive civil war between the three major sects/ethnicities (or perhaps in addition to it), we could see a bloody mosaic of internecine conflicts that spread their tentacles into all corners of Iraq as the myriad organizations vie for power in a Hobbesian nightmare. Such catastrophic outcomes seem a far cry from predictions of democratic change spreading through the region. Instead, there could be a ripple of violence and instability emanating like a shockwave from Baghdad. Swopa, as usual, is on the case citing a separate piece by Shadid:
As Shadid notes in a separate post sketching what Iraq might look like after an American withdrawal:

I think you could have an ostensible government in Baghdad, with ministries and embassies around it. In the hinterland, you could have militias staking out turf: Badr, Sadr and so on vying for influence in parts of Baghdad and the south, elements of the insurgency laying claims to land in the west and center, the Kurdish parties competing in the north, with varying degrees of intensity. Their points of intersection would be explosive, though not necessarily numerous.
A complicating factor here is how neighboring countries would react to Iraq's disintegration. With the U.S. no longer the biggest dog in the yard, several might see an opportunity to tip the balance of power in their direction -- Iran through a more overt alliance with one or more Shiite factions, Turkey by intervening in Kurdistan, and so on.
Add to that list Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordanians and Syrians, backing one or more of the various Sunni factions, and there is a recipe for region-wide mayhem. All the while, we are relegated to "staying the course" in order to plug the many holes in the dike. The problem is, we are running out of troops, and so we are running out of fingers for the dike which grows more porous by the day. Speaking of which, the realities of the deteriorating situation in Iraq are probably behind the British government's recent reversal on troop deployments to the region:

Secret plans by the Government to reduce troop numbers in Iraq have been shelved - and there is now no official date for the withdrawal of British soldiers, The Sunday Telegraph has learnt.

The decision comes as ministers prepare to announce an unexpected redeployment of up to 6,000 members of the 7th Armoured Brigade - the renowned Desert Rats - in the conflict zone next month. This follows growing concerns that Iraq is heading into full-scale civil war.

Under the original withdrawal plans of John Reid, the Defence Secretary, up to 8,500 troops should have returned to Britain by next month with the rest coming home by the middle of next year.

But the confirmation of a new large-scale troop redeployment, and the news that there is no end-date for British withdrawal, have sparked fears among serving soldiers and senior military figures that Iraq may be developing into Britain's own "Vietnam".
Of course, the recent violence in the supposedly "stable" southern city of Basra (an area under British control) will not likely cause the British to upgrade their pessimistic outlook - though it may make their prolonged presence untenable in the long run. In that incident, two British "soldiers" (they were actually operating in civilian clothes) were taken prisoner by the local police and had to be rescued by a contingent of British tanks. The two soldiers had, according to the Iraqis, killed a local police officer. In addition, at least two Iraqi civilians died in subsequent clashes with the British troops. But this incident only revealed the extent of the problems that lurk beneath the surface in the new Iraq.
Brig Lorimer added: "It is of deep concern that British soldiers held by the police should then end up being held by the militia. This is unacceptable."

BBC Defence Correspondent Paul Wood said local police revealed the whereabouts of the two men after the station was stormed.

"At the point of a 30mm cannon - no shots were fired - but at the point of this cannon, the Iraqi police gave away the location of where the two British soldiers had been taken," he said.

...Paul Wood said none of Basra's 20,000 police officers had helped the UK troops "partly because of reticence by their commanders, partly because, I am afraid, they have been infiltrated by these militants".

He added: "Now we are in the situation where presumably revenge will be sought by relatives of the dead Iraqis - and our allies in the police, I think there has been a complete breakdown of trust and it's going to be very difficult for British troops to call on them." [emphasis added]
To summarize the situation in Basra, heretofore an example of stability, the police and local militias are increasingly indistinguishable and ostensibly operating in tandem. And the militias' leadership is growing impatient with, if not hostile to, the presence of foreign troops. Things are getting dicey at a time when both the British and American governments are looking for an escape hatch. The Iraqis might be forcing one on them. Swopa, once again:

With the U.S. and British militaries so badly overstretched by the ongoing violence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they've been desperately looking for a Peter to rob so they can pay Paul. For a moment, they thought they'd found him in southern Iraq, planning to hand authority to local Shiite militias Iraqi security forces so that more British troops could be sent to Afghanistan while the Americans devote more manpower to fighting Sunni guerrillas in western Iraq (in fact, the larger-than-usual offensive in Tall Afar used forces diverted from the south).

The unrest in Basra, though, makes that house of cards tumble down. Previously hinted-at plans to withdraw British troops have been scrapped, meaning that the U.K. can't replace U.S. troops in Amnesiastan [sic], which in turn can't be used to relieve the strain in Iraq's al-Anbar province. With a relatively minimal amount of effort, al-Sadr has helped make sure the Americans and British remain in an unsustainable position of trying to plug too many security holes with too few troops. And it's entirely up to him whether to turn up the pressure even further.
I know this word is taboo, and its mere utterance inevitably elicits jeers and condemnations from certain quarters, so forgive me. But if this isn't a quagmire, it is about as close as you can get.

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