Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Last Throes?

Nibras Kazimi is more optimistic than your average American - or American general - about the state of affairs in Iraq. In a column entitled, Iraq is Succeeding, Kazimi makes the case that the insurgencies in Iraq are in their, for lack of better phrase, last throes. To Kazimi's eyes, we have "turned" a "corner."

If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I'd say that Iraq is succeeding. A strategic corner in the counterinsurgency campaign has already been turned, but the tangible results will take longer to register in the public mind.

To support this bold - some could argue, counterfactual, claim - Kazimi relies on information he has gleaned from the elite echelons of the Iraqi insurgencies. A group he terms the "brain trust":

The insurgents are negotiating: They are knocking at the gates, hoping to be let in before it is too late. Hence, the spike in violence and the last big push before bringing the cowed Americans to the negotiating table at their most politically vulnerable.

The insurgency is confronting its limits. It is finding that replenishing expertise, personnel, and the treasury is getting harder and harder. They are also finding that the Iraqi state and the Americans are getting better at fighting them through enhanced intelligence and an increased sense of confidence. Not surprisingly, the most recent insurgent offensive aimed to hold down territory, but was beaten back all over Iraq, most notably in Mosul.

While Kazimi remains bullish about the trajectory of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, he does acknowledge that American military spokesmen are spinning the situation. Only, instead of hyping non-existent victories, or attempting to smooth over rough patches with soft-deception, Kazimi claims that the American military is spinning its successes as failures. For what reason, I cannot fathom. Said Kazimi in a separate piece [emphasis in the original throughout]:

The comments made yesterday by Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell about the relative slow-down in Operation Forward Together are very surprising to me....Contrary to Caldwell’s assessment, things are going moderately well.

Well, at least that's more grounded in fact than "remarkably well." Getting back to the evidence of the waning prospects of the insurgencies, Kazimi considers the recent surge in violence to be indicative of their weakening position and desire to create conditions conducive to their extracting beneficial terms in impending negotiations. While I don't doubt that insurgent groups would try to turn up the heat heading into negotiations as a ploy to make their position stronger at the table, I don't know that this is necessarily proof of the dire state of the insurgencies in Iraq. The two are not inextricably linked.

Further, not only have we heard that the insurgencies are in their last throes many times in the past (periodically, it seems, from our truth-challenged Vice President), but proponents of this happy talk have also relied on worsening violence as evidence of the insurgencies' imminent demise (See, ie, here and here). This does not prove that Kazimi's rosy predictions are wrong, however, just that we must remain properly skeptical.

Regardless, the willingness of insurgent groups to negotiate (and US officials to reciprocate) is a positive sign - no matter the cause. Other potentially promising news:

The insurgents are also fragmenting, as mainstream Baathists and sectarian Sunnis find that the agendas harbored by their fringes, such as bringing back the Saddam regime or declaring an Islamic state, are unrealistic bargaining positions. These are bad times for the insurgency. But they are benefiting for the time being from the chaotic conditions created by the followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who continue to undermine law and order in Iraq....Once these Shiite militias are confronted and broken up, the larger insurgency will find it harder and harder to breathe.

Again, fragmentation is a good sign, and I have long advocated creating political conditions that would facilitate marginalizing the more intractable strains of the Sunni insurgencies, but the last sentence in this paragraph serves as a bitter reminder of how far off the realization of those goals may be. If we have to wait until the "Shiite militias are confronted and broken up" for the larger insurgencies to be dealt with, then we might just be waiting for Godot. Let's hope I am wrong, and that Maliki is on the verge of breaking up the Shiite militias. But I wouldn't want to make plans based on the likelihood of that happening any time soon.

There was one other topic that I wanted to discuss while I'm still dallying at the Talisman Gate: the issue of amnesty for insurgents in Iraq. Kazimi said this of the infamous sniper, "Juba," featured in the insurgent videos recently aired on CNN:

Many policy experts are advocating a general amnesty for all insurgents minus Al-Qaeda. But that would also include “Juba.” It means that he would be off the hook, even after claiming responsibility for killing 668 American soldiers and wounding another 206, over the course of a single year.

I wonder how American families who've lost soldiers in Iraq through Juba’s crosshairs would feel about that.

And this in the context of the alleged negotiations between US officials and insurgent leaders in Amman, Jordan:

In the past few days, there have been press reports claiming that this “brain” is currently holding talks with the Americans in Amman, under the auspices of Jordan’s CIA-trained mukhaberat, the Jordanian Intelligence Directorate. I don’t think these negotiations will go very far: the American public will not stomach a peace treaty with those who have American blood on their hands.

My own thoughts on this matter are that, while it is entirely understandable that the families of slain soldiers might react with outrage at the thought of giving amnesty to insurgents that have killed American soldiers, there may be no better way to neutralize the insurgent threat. There are larger issues at play than the righteous anger, and heart-felt grief, of the bereaved.

Not only is it generally bad policy to allow small, narrowly focused groups to dictate larger foreign policy strategy for sentimental (even justifiable) reasons (see, ie, US policy vis-a-vis Cuba), but one could easily make a compelling moral case in reverse: while the grief of the family members is legitimate and should be met with sympathetic ears, what about the families that would lose loved ones in the future if the insurgencies are not effectively curtailed sooner?

How else do you convince the insurgents to give up their arms and forswear continued fighting if you don't offer amnesty? They aren't going to surrender, en masse, in the knowledge that they will be prosecuted and subsequently imprisoned or executed. Just as one must negotiate with enemies in order to resolve differences (see, ie, Syria and Iran), so too must amnesty be offered to the actual combatants in a conflict if you want those same combatants to cease...being combatants.

The only other alternatives are to keep fighting until we annihilate the insurgencies (any day now, right?), or narrowly tailor amnesty offers to only those insurgents that have exclusively targeted Iraqis (our regard for Iraqi lives shining through). But this group would be small, and thus, such selective amnesty would not represent a realistic means to fragment, splinter and otherwise de-fang the larger Sunni-based insurgencies. Even if it feels better on the surface.

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