Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Mortician's Ruse

In the rush to proclaim "victory" in Iraq - a concept whittled down to a wisp of its former self - many war supporters obscure the larger strategic framework. By most reasonable definitions, we are not pushing for "victory", but rather are trying to finesse damage control: attempting to mitigate the enormous destruction that we have unleashed, and struggling to stave off the potential catastrophes that still loom on the horizon. This is as worthy a mission, and a necessary one, and it deserves our careful attention and support. But this is not about achieving "victory" in Iraq.

Victory in Iraq was supposed to be a quick war, of minimal costs and casualties, creating little strain on our military, that resulted in a liberal, democratic, unified peaceful state that would set off a chain reaction of democratic uprisings in the Muslim world, while vastly weakening al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations. By the warmakers' own lofty predictions - and by the nature of their shifted goalposts - victory has been rendered a moot point.

Now, after shedding the grandiosity that hubris engenders, we seem content to search for some way to create a balance of power, whereby the competing factions (sufficiently exhausted from intense fighting, and withdrawn to homogenous areas through massive sectarian cleansing) will perceive each other as sufficiently powerful enough that a cold war-like peace can settle in and some overarching accords can be forged to share some of the bounty at a quasi-national level. We would now redefine victory as: a loosely democratic construction, though theocratic and not liberal in at least two parts of the tripartite quasi-state, that is not truly unified or stable. It would be an object lesson to the region in not embracing democracy and a boon to extremism. But there is the possibility that Iraq could return to the status quo ante in terms of al-Qaeda's presence. Certain regions may be allied with us, but others would be as close or closer to Iran.

This new version of victory has been assigned modest euphemisms that betray the grim reality: "sustainable stability" and "stable equilibrium." Pollack and O'Hanlon declare this new objective as, "A War We Might Just Win," and indeed we might (though I remain pessimistic even using their new calculus). But what a pyrrhic victory it would be. Nothing will change that at this point.

Already, our actions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and grievous injury to hundreds of thousands more. Millions of Iraqis have fled the country, and millions more have fled to other areas within Iraq. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned and abused, terrorized and humiliated. When considering that this large number of dead, wounded, persecuted and displaced has been borne by a population of only 25 million people, it is safe to say that Iraq has been thoroughly traumatized. Is it possible to locate many Iraqis south of the Kurdish regions whose lives have not been devastated or deeply affected by loss, trauma or anxiety?

Then there are the costs to the United States in terms of thousands of soldiers dead (and the ramifications for the families), tens of thousands seriously injured and a military that will take many years to rehabilitate. The economic costs to this country will eventually top out in the trillions (that's trillions with a "t" in front and an "s" on the other end for those keeping score). Our fiscal outlook has gone from potential surplus to raging deficits that have left us ill prepared to face pressing domestic challenges, and have greatly weakened the dollar (as predicted).

Our image in the world, our alliances, our goodwill, our respect have all been diminished more than al-Qaeda could have ever achieved on their own. Speaking of al-Qaeda, we have helped them in numerous ways: from undermining reformers and pro-democracy movements in the region and destabilizing allied regimes to providing a new staging ground for the next generation of jihadists. As Matt Duss points out:

...[I]n supporting the Sunni tribes' fight against AQI, the U.S. has simply helped to contain a problem of its own creation, as al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq in any significant way before the 2003 invasion.

...[B]y creating a new jihad front, the war in Iraq has given another generation of fundamentalist mujahideen its own Afghanistan. In the words of one Iraqi Arab observer, "The Arabs went to Afghanistan and got a master’s in violent Jihad, but in Iraq they're all getting Ph.Ds." We have given them the opportunity to develop tactical and technological expertise against the most formidable military in existence, expertise that they have transmitted around the world. This is something that will not be reversed, even if AQI is completely eradicated.

We have been distracted abroad as well - ignoring many important emerging and dynamic regional realignments that at least require our attention. No foreign commitment has suffered more, though, than Afghanistan. Consider some facts:

NATO has a little over 40,000 troops operating in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The United States and Britain are the largest contributors, with 15,000 and 7,700 soldiers, respectively.

Those numbers pale in comparison to Iraq where at the peak of operations there were nearly 200,000 troops on the ground and where around 160,000 remain.

The neglect, of course, goes far beyond simple troop arithmetic. The comparative allocation of reconstruction dollars and other tangible and intangible resources has been equally disproportionate. The results have been predictable:

The conflict in Afghanistan has reached "crisis proportions," with the resurgent Taliban present in more than half the country and closing in on Kabul, a report said on Wednesday.

If NATO, the lead force operating in Afghanistan, is to have any impact against the insurgency, troop numbers will have to be doubled to at least 80,000, the report said.

[The Taliban's] ability to establish a presence throughout the country is now proven beyond doubt," it said. "The insurgency now controls vast swaths of unchallenged territory including rural areas, some district centers, and important road arteries."

Senlis said its research had established that the Taliban, driven out of Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion in late 2001, had rebuilt a permanent presence in 54 percent of the country and was finding it easy to recruit new followers.

It was also increasingly using Iraq-style tactics, such as roadside and suicide bombs, to powerful effect, and had built a stable network of financial support, funding its operations with the proceeds from Afghanistan's booming opium trade.

"It is a sad indictment of the current state of Afghanistan that the question now appears to be not if the Taliban will return to Kabul, but when," the report said.

It is the legacy of Iraq that even now, no "sustainable stability" or "stable equilibrium" can undo the vast and staggering level of damage already done in so many areas, in so many parts of the globe. Those that claim that victory is still possible, and that it could prove to be a boon to the GOP policymakers that perpetrated this calamity, have developed a pervasive and ongoing amnesia. This would not even be a hollow victory, just a thin veneer of makeup applied to a corpse.

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