Monday, February 27, 2006

When Lose-Lose Equals Mission Accomplished

Pardon the glibness, but things in Iraq aren't exactly looking great these days. The recent uptick in violence - and frightening amplification in tensions - has been rightly traced to the proximate cause that was the bombing of the al-Askariya Shrine. But the underlying causes (and there are many, dating back decades) were building in pressure just under the surface for some time now. The tense mood in and around Baghdad has been noted by such disparate Iraqi voices as Riverbend and Iraq The Model. I don't think I'm being hyperbolic when I say their words are chilling.

Along with the unsettling developments, there has been an increased attention paid to issues surrounding the naming of the conflict; particularly whether or not this is a civil war. To some extent, it's hard to tell and to some extent, the nomenclature is irrelevant when contrasted with the reality of the bodycount. There isn't an agreed upon set of benchmarks that would apply in all settings. Most can agree on what a full-blown hot civil war would look like, but Iraq has defied such easier classifications by it's ability to sustain a low-level but consistently bloody civil conflict, without eruption, for the better part of three years. But that simmering ethnic/sectarian strife has only served to pack the powder keg tighter and move the sparks nearer the combustibles.

So when does a persistent, relentless violent campaign of an ethnic/sectarian nature equal a civil war? I can't say for sure, but I agree with praktike that Iraq has probably crossed the invisible boundary. The truth is that such transitions can occur without one key obvious or observable manifestation, but rather a confluence of factors. This can lead to a time-delay between facts on the ground and conventional wisdom amongst the onlookers. While the shrine bombing might become the Fort Sumter moment for Iraq, consider this post from Nibras Kazimi back in early January, more than a month before the al-Askari bombing and concomitant upheaval [emphasis added]:

And they - relics of my life back in Iraq - keep calling these days, telling me Baghdad is burning, as if I can do anything about it. The price for a Kalashnikov bullet is 1000 Iraqi Dinars, up from 400 last month. People are preparing, but for just what, nobody knows. [...]

And yet, we keep hearing from the Americans and the Iraqi political elite, that if a civil war has not broken out so far then it is unlikely to happen, which is a license for all parties involved to keep acting and speaking irresponsibly and provocatively. The saga of the Spanish Civil War shows that the ever-menacing embers were set aflame by the sharp words exchanged in the democratically-elected Cortes, or parliament.

I can't shake the feeling that Iraq went from a state of civil strife to one of civil war without anyone, least of which the Iraqis themselves, realizing it. Sunni political debutantes keep rhetorically pushing the envelope, while their adjuncts in the insurgency keep pouring oil on the fire. The Shia leadership, ensconced within multiple layers of security details, seem to have missed that the street-level refrain that used to say "give us the signal to fight" has shifted to "go f*ck yourselves, we'll do this on our own."

I hear of happy-go-lucky Baghdadi kids - groups of six or seven - organizing themselves into mini-militias. One such group that I know of, killed a militant Sunni preacher in Hai Al-Jami'a last week. Only last year, these guys obsessed about the latest hairstyles and the fanciest cell phone models. Recently, they've resolved to kill before getting killed.

What is going on? If this isn't civil war, then what is the proper technical term for it? I fear that no one can control it at this point - not Sistani, not Badr.

And after the bloodletting subsides, how do you bring a 'nation' back together?
Do you think Kazimi would be more or less sanguine today?

Kazimi makes reference to a factor in the evolving dynamic that should cause us all to worry: it is becoming increasingly unclear who, exactly, is in charge? The Iraqi government is, predictably, ineffectual and over the weekend Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a statement complaining that he was losing control of the Shiite street, and could no longer thwart some of the more violent tendencies of his followers.

This statement can be taken in three ways, none of which are particularly comforting: First, he means what he says, in which case an important moderating voice is being marginalized and/or superseded - to the detriment of all in pursuit of a peaceful and unitary Iraq. Second, Sistani is laying the groundwork for justifying an increase in number and armament of his own personal militia in an attempt to counterbalance challenges to his authority from al-Sadr - whose Mahdi Army has it's own means of "influencing" events. The problem is, for all of Iraq's wants, the last thing Iraq really needs is another private militia roving the landscape. Third, Sistani knows that big time violence is about to be unleashed and he wants to wash his hands of it - claiming that events are/were beyond his ability to control in order to stay above the fray. Of course, it could be a mixture of all three.

Alternatively, yet equally disconcerting, this article by Ed Wong and Robert Worth in the New York Times discusses how Sistani and other erstwhile proponents of the moderate position are being pushed into more hardline and confrontational roles by the internecine struggle for power and influence within the Shiite community. In an effort to maintain their respective power bases, and to keep enraged, aggrieved, vengeance-seeking constituents in their respective folds, figures such as Sistani have been led to adopt a more militant footing vis a vis the insurgencies. If the Sistani's in the community don't re-assert their militant bona fides, their more desperate followers might be wooed away by the fiery rhetoric of the likes of al-Sadr. This becomes more and more likely as violence inflames anger and patience is lost with Sistani's restrained approach.
American officials have been repeatedly stunned and frequently thwarted in the past three years by the extraordinary power of Muslim clerics over Iraqi society. But in the sectarian violence of the past few days, that power has taken an ominous turn, as rival hard-line Shiite clerical factions have pushed each other toward more militant and anti-American stances, Iraqi and Western officials say.
This is worrisome because of the power dynamic created: no longer are the clerics with their moderating rhetoric helping to rein in the passions on the street, but in an inverted sense, the passions and impulses on the street are influencing the clerics. Which of course will create a self-reinforcing loop spiraling toward a severely destructive terminus.

As if this wasn't bad enough, Chris Allbritton discusses certain political realities that could be contributing to the deteriorating conditions (via the omnipresent Swopa). Allbritton observes two interacting phenomenon that don't bode well for Iraq's future: First, that the Iraqi government is mostly a meaningless fiction, with the real power belonging to clerics and sub-groups with their own private militias (some of which have attained the status of officially sanctioned Iraqi government forces but, in reality, are little more than militia members in fancy uniforms). Second, even some of these relatively impotent politicians might be gaming their American counterparts by presenting an appealing public face - while behind the scenes, working in ways that undermine their stated goals. From Allbritton here:
It's clear the authorities, at least the ones who appear on television with titles such as "Defense Minister" and "U.S. Ambassador," have no clue what to do....

...We have reached a point where the facade of the "political process" has been shredded. The real power lies - and has always lain - in the hands of the sheikhs, the clerics - especially Moqtada - and the gunmen. The politicians in Baghdad can continue their silly little exercise in government building and the Americans and the foreign diplomatic corps can tell their audiences in their home countries how much progress Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is making at building bridges with Saleh Mutlak. But we on the ground know the truth. We're on the edge of a hot knife, and it's getting hotter.
And again here:

What Iraqi politicians say to U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and to Green Zone-based reporters is largely meaningless. What is much more influential is what they say to their followers through sermons in the mosques, their tribal allies and pernicious whisper campaigns. For example, shortly after Wednesday's bombing, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said Khalilzad bore some responsibility. Although he recanted shortly after, the calls for Khalilzad's expulsion were as strong as ever in mosques loyal to SCIRI and the Badr Organization on Friday.

...For the last 18 months, we've been in a low-grade civil war. The Askariya bombing kicked us up to "medium-grade," I guess you might call it. Both Sunnis and Shi'a I've spoken with are waiting and preparing for it, and that very preparation might make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. For to many Iraqis, it's only a matter of time.
Allbritton seems to channel Kazimi, Riverbend and Omar from Iraq the Model in noting the tense resignation in the collective Iraqi psyche that, "it's only a matter of time." Can't say I blame them considering that the best that we can point to now in terms of avoiding conflict is the diplomatic skill of Moqtada al-Sadr - with his dubiously motivated Sunni outreach - and the increasingly hawkish - and marginalized - Sistani. It should be noted, as Allbritton does, that while many such as Sadr are putting on a show of unity, forces loyal to that wily diplomat were busy fighting street by street with forces from Sunni groups with which he had apparently struck a pact or truce. Not encouraging.

So with that stage set, it brings me to another topic worth poring over: the timing of withdrawal. My position all along has been that we owe it to Iraq to try to stabilize the country and head off a full-blown civil war. I believe that, despite the counter-productive radicalizing effect our presence has had, US forces are still a net positive in terms of helping to keep the lid on civil war writ large. But my opinions on this matter are evolving. The violence of the past week - together with the above stated revelations concerning the dynamics of power - have caused me to reassess.

Fundamentally, it is a matter of troop strength - that bugaboo that has hounded Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. since invasion and before. As praktike also noted, troop strength limitations greatly inhibit our ability to act as a mitigating buffer to a larger civil war. If at our current troop level, we cannot effectively defeat the insurgencies when we have the tacit or active cooperation of roughly 80% of the population (Shiites and Kurds), then what can we expect our troops to accomplish if 80% of the population (Shiites and Sunnis) were committed to all out warfare? Not much probably, as illustrated by the fact that as the recent spate of violence was unfolding, the prime directive of US forces in Baghdad was to stay in their barracks lest they provoke more violence or get caught up in the intra-Islamic maelstrom.

But wait, it gets worse. While our current troop levels would likely make effective interdiction prohibitively difficult, and of inconsequential impact, our current troop levels cannot be sustained for long - and this becomes especially true if we begin to suffer increased fatalities and casualties in the role of the traffic cop in a raging hot multi-directional civil war. So we would be trying to pacify more regions, housing more combatants, embroiled in more intense conflict with fewer and fewer troops. Not realistic.

On top of that, the hotter the civil war, the more likely that more and more citizens from neighboring Sunni-majority countries would stream in to defend their Sunni brethren - as would money to fuel the fight. So we would be facing an even larger hostile force on the Sunni side alone - again, with fewer troops - not to mention the generous contributions from the Iranians on the Shiite side of the ledger.

Further, we must consider the role we would be playing. On the one hand, we could step in to defend the Sunnis, but this would put us in a peculiar and awkward position. We would be on the side - at least ostensibly - of the jihadists, the Zarqawi-ists and the former Baathists against our putative allies in the Shiite dominated government - the government we helped to establish with much purple-hued fanfare. This defense of the Sunnis whom the Bush administration has alternately labeled terrorists, thugs, al-Qaeda-ists, dead enders and former regime elements would alienate the majority of Iraq's Shiite population and could cost us our ability to establish friendly relations with Baghdad going forward. In addition, without us to provide needed support, the Shiites would further cozy up to Iran in order to buttress their fighting ability. We will have swapped Saddam's Baath for a hostile Shiite regime under even more potent influence from Iran. How's that for money/human lives well spent?

On the other hand, we could support the Shiite side in a broader conflict that would be drawing intense scrutiny, recruits and money from the entire Sunni-dominated Muslim world. But as I cautioned in an earlier post, this could have dire and wide-reaching consequences. Just think, for a moment, about how this would play out in the Muslim world - especially on the Sunni side from which the Salafist jihadist terrorists are recruited. A paraphrase of my prior admonition:

The United States (already viewed with suspicion, cynicism and mistrust) will have - in effect - armed, trained and possibly provided air support and other on the ground combat assistance to one side (the Shiites) in a clash of religious sects within the Muslim world. As the ongoing images of a local Sunni population being crushed militarily spread across the airwaves in the local Arab media, the broader Sunni population in other Muslim nations (a majority in almost all save Iran) would be radicalized, enraged, humiliated and desperate to strike back at the "imperialist crusader" that many would no doubt blame for the carnage -- probably inordinately so, but that is to be expected.

Judging by the proclivity for conspiracy theory and rumor to gain acceptance in the region, these events would no doubt be spun as the culmination of deliberate planning by US forces. According to the expected speculation, America would be seeking to weaken the Muslim world by throwing Iraq into chaos and stoking wider sectarian conflict. Of course, this narrative might take root regardless of which side we support.

Regardless, can you imagine the propaganda field day Osama would have? Just think about how many new recruits and copycat organizations there will be - with an ongoing casus belli, on the job training in Iraq and broader financing/logistical networks established from the contacts initiated in Iraq and/or through al-Qaeda generally speaking.

We're talking al-Qaeda on steroids, with growth hormone cocktails, daily workouts and plenty of Popeye's spinach. This outcome would not be inevitable, and I suppose that we could attempt to straddle the field and push each respective side back into their corners. But we would have to trust the skills and nuance of the Bush administration to apply delicate pressures on many valves in order to avoid getting sucked in on one side or the other - and even then, with far too few troops to effectively accomplish those goals. Not exactly a prospective role that instills confidence huh? That is why I am left with the uncomfortable and morally repugnant position that if and when a larger civil war erupts in Iraq, our best possible course of action might be to get out of the way. Trying to thread an infinite number of needles in an intra-Islamic battle of epic proportions is folly on the grandest scale imaginable.

Leaving Iraq to roil in bloodshed and destruction is not something that sits well on my palate, however. It would mean turning a blind eye and disengaging from a tragedy in progress - one that we had no small part in bringing to fruition. But the amazing thing is, there might just be worse positions to take. I'm more than willing - eager in fact - to listen to counterarguments to the position that if the lose-lose dynamic of a full blown civil war should occur, the Bush administration should act as if the mission were really accomplished. Minus the cod piece and flight suit and with as much damage control as possible. But ultimately, attempted solutions might be beyond our means, and our ham-handed attempts could result in making tragic circumstances even worse.

In times like this, all I can fall back on are the wise words of that political sage John Hinderaker:

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.
Hey George, heckuva job in Iraq! Should we do Iran next maestro?

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?