Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Harder They Clap, the Harder We Fall

Andrew Bacevich has a superb piece in this Sunday's Washington Post that pierces the "success of the surge" narrative and, relatedly, the recurring and currently waxing "victory" meme. The Bacevich article addresses some of the facets of the tendentious surge storyline discussed on this site last week, here and here. To his credit, Bacevich also makes clear that, even if Iraq were to steadily improve from this date forward, "victory" is not a word that should be used to describe the engagement - a point I tried to drive home here. An excerpt from Bacevich:

But how exactly do these sacrifices serve the national interest? What has the loss of nearly 4,000 U.S. troops and the commitment of about $1 trillion -- with more to come -- actually gained the United States?

Bush had once counted on the U.S. invasion of Iraq to pay massive dividends. Iraq was central to his administration's game plan for eliminating jihadist terrorism. It would demonstrate how U.S. power and beneficence could transform the Muslim world. Just months after the fall of Baghdad, the president declared, "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution." Democracy's triumph in Baghdad, he announced, "will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation." In short, the administration saw Baghdad not as a final destination but as a way station en route to even greater successes.

In reality, the war's effects are precisely the inverse of those that Bush and his lieutenants expected. Baghdad has become a strategic cul-de-sac. Only the truly blinkered will imagine at this late date that Iraq has shown the United States to be the "stronger horse." In fact, the war has revealed the very real limits of U.S. power. And for good measure, it has boosted anti-Americanism to record levels, recruited untold numbers of new jihadists, enhanced the standing of adversaries such as Iran and diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, a theater of war far more directly relevant to the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Instead of draining the jihadist swamp, the Iraq war is continuously replenishing it. [emphasis added]

These paragraphs describe one of the starkest strategic defeats suffered as a result of the invasion of Iraq (leaving aside the staggering loss of life and unthinkable human suffering). Whether it be the opportunity to study tactics, techniques and weapons systems, the establishment of networks and cadres of experienced veterans, or the sharp uptick in anti-Americanism worldwide, the Iraq war has been the Christmas gift that keeps giving to bin Laden and his ilk. A fully endowed Jihad University, coupled with a massive PR campaign paid entirely by the US taxpayer (to the tune of a few trillion dollars). That's some sugar daddy.

In a perverse sense, trumpeting the dubious "success" of the surge only ensures that our defeat is exacerbated: the more we insist that we're winning, the more our losses will grow. While the happy surge talk will enable Washington policy makers so inclined to perpetuate the occupation, the longer we do so, the worse the problems highlighted by Bacevich will become. So it is that we are opting for the fleeting gratification of hyping some faux victory over the thankless though crucial task of acknowledging the moribundity of the patient and applying the tourniquet where possible. To paraphrase Henley: every day the vanity of old men and the cowardice of their courtiers deepen our hole.

Iraq war blowback has already been witnessed on the battlefields of Afghanistan - where IED technology and use has spread virally - and in terrorist attacks against Western targets throughout the globe. It will undoubtedly get worse. Nir Rosen recently published a piece in the Boston Review that, with encyclopedic attention to detail, discusses the deteriorating situation within Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the role played in that downward spiral by radical militants - many of them veterans of the Iraq war jihad, or potential jihadis inspired by Iraq, but diverted to Lebanon while en route to Iraq by terrorist plotters (these Lebanese developments discussed, in brief, on this site here and here).

As Palestinian Salafist preachers’ influence increased, their followers began to train in and out of the camps and new factions started to appear inside the camps. Usbat al Ansar is the largest and oldest of these jihadist groups in Ayn a Hiweh [ed: a refugee camp]. Rougier calls them “a travel agency and YMCA for jihad.” “They are a jihadi group, they must act,” he explains, “so the way of solving the contradiction of being in Lebanon but not fighting Israel or anybody else is by sending jihadists to Iraq and secretly helping groups like Fatah al Islam.” [...]

Abu Salih, whose tattoos suggested that he had not always been devout, had fought in Fallujah in the fall of 2004, staying for about fifty days with between 250 and 300 other fighters of different backgrounds. He said he met Zarqawi there one dark night in Fallujah’s Askari neighborhood. Zarqawi had been very nice to “the brothers” and had cooked for them. “The earth was burned,” he said. “Planes were bombing, but we had cold water, appetizers, grilled chicken.” I asked why he went to Iraq and had not tried to liberate Palestine. “It’s impossible to go fight in Palestine, the Arabs closed the borders, Jordan, Syria,” he said. “Here, if they open the way to fight Israel, many people would go fight.”

Abu Ghassan...had a nine-millimeter Glock pistol on his belt. It made its way to Lebanon when some “brothers” returned from Iraq with large quantities of weapons, and its price in the camp was two thousand dollars. I had seen the Glock pistols that Americans had given the Iraqi police used by Shia militias in Iraq and sold on the black market in Baghdad. An August 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office estimated that 190,000 weapons Americans had given Iraqis were unaccounted for. [...]

As Iraq becomes a less hospitable place for jihadists and foreign fighters, and as there are fewer American targets to go after, these veterans, experienced at fighting the most advanced army in the world, will look for new battles. Andrew Exum, a former U.S. army officer who led a platoon of light infantry in Afghanistan in 2002 and Army Rangers in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been studying militant Islamist groups. “The fighting in Nahr al Barid is, unfortunately, just the first round in what I fear will be a series of battles fought in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” he says. “On Internet chat rooms, we’re seeing militants turn away volunteers to go fight in Iraq and promising the next fight will be in Lebanon and the Gulf. Lebanon, especially, is a magnet for Sunni extremists,” he says. “You not only have a haven for these groups in the Palestinian camps, with security services from rival Arab states competing for their loyalty and attention, you also have two tempting targets: both the pro-Western ruling coalition in Beirut, as well as the opposition, led by a powerful block of Shia parties. How can we not expect these Sunni militants, who have spent the past four years waging war on the Shia of Iraq, to try and carry that fight on to the large, politically active Shia population in Lebanon? Or on to the pro-Western regime that precariously hangs onto power?”

On the other hand, the surge has reduced violence in Iraq to 2006 levels, so it's hard to say.

(h/t to Teh Aardvark for one of the tastiest delicious sidebars around)

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