Thursday, January 10, 2008
Who'll Protect Us When We're Gone?
Several retired US military officers explained in an interview on NPR yesterday that the success of the surge is economic, not military. The US pays the 70,000-80,000 fighters better than the tribal elders and al Qaida. Al Qaida tends to pay based on piece work – per operation -- whereas the US has put the tribal youth on salary. Retired General McCaffrey is quoted as saying at $10 per day per fighter the US can pay that indefinitely.
The payments began in May and the attacks declined shortly thereafter for the first time in three years. In this interpretation, it appears the US won the bidding war in a labor auction in a depressed economy where unemployment is about 50%.
The obvious question is, how can the U.S. military insure that these payments continue as the surge winds down? It hasn't been easy to convince the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry to put former Sunni insurgents on the payroll, and any promises to do so once the U.S. reduces its footprint in Iraq likely wouldn't be worth a bucket of warm spit. But administering these salaries is going to require a certain number of Americans to work with tribal and local leaders, make the payments, and monitor how the funds are being used. And then those people need to be protected.
It's thorny issues like this one that U.S. presidential candidates such as Barack "out of Iraq in 16 months" Obama need to address.
I'm not quite sure this is as problematic as Blake asserts. In essence, the money we are spending on Sunni elements is providing a return on investment in the following ways: (1) reducing the number of attacks coalition forces; (2) reducing the attacks on Iraqi government forces/civilians; and (3) pricing al-Qaeda out of the market.
Let's look first at #1. Blake worries about our ability to maintain payments to former Sunni insurgents once we remove our troops from the arena, and that this could lead to a spike in the number of attacks. But the obvious rebuttal is: We won't have to pay Iraqis not to attack us once we leave, because we won't be there to attack! Money saved, problem solved - at least one third of the way.
"What about attacks against Iraqi government forces/civilians?," one might ask. "Shouldn't we stick around in large numbers to keep paying for Sunni forbearance along these lines?" I'm not so sure. Blake himself observes that the Iraqi government shows no interest in paying Sunni forces from government coffers. There are generally two possible reads for this stinginess - each of which, again, points in the direction of a common solution to Blake's conundrum.
First, the Iraqi government values the recent reduction in violence, but knows that it doesn't have to incorporate Sunni militant forces and/or pay them for civilian jobs while the US is around to foot the bill. If this is the case, then fear of a resumption of violence once we leave will force the Iraqi government to divert real assets to Sunni areas upon our exit.
Second, the Iraqi government has no intention of ever paying money to, or incorporating, armed Sunni groups for fear (imagined, though likely real) that those Sunni groups will turn against the Shiite led Iraqi government at some point in the near future. But if that is the case, what does our presence really accomplish?
We will be occupying a country immersed in a civil war that is locked in suspended animation, as we bribe both sides to remain frozen to the spot. But we, too, will be captive to circumstances for such a lengthy duration that McCain's "hundred years" bravado might begin to look optimistic. General McCaffrey may consider that a situation that can be perpetuated indefinitely, but then again, he also predicted a meltdown of the Guard and Reserve forces due to the strains resulting from the type of prolonged deployments necessitated by such a role.
The bottom line remains: unless the Sunnis and Shiites want peaceful reconciliation, we won't be able to afford the demands of being both referee and paymaster for the better part of this century.
Note: Even if we were to remove all troops, our government could manage to get some money to the target groups, even if not in the same volume, or with the same level of control and oversight. If the Iraqi government felt compelled to cooperate with Sunni forces by our departure, we could help fund the process through the central government. If not, and perhaps in tandem, we could get money to certain Sunni leaders from the near abroad. We're already moving forces out of Anbar, for example, yet we will remain familiar enough with local players to keep the money flowing. This could be replicated on a larger scale upon our departure.
Assuaging the concerns associated with the third part of our inquiry is, perhaps, the trickiest. Without our dollars persuading Sunnis to work with America Corp. rather than AQI Inc., there is a possibility that AQI will be able to recruit more freelancers and others in search of a paycheck. There are a few factors that suggest that the potential workforce might not be as willing and able even if our ability to siphon money to the region is impaired by the removal of our military forces in the future.
Tribal elders and other Sunni leaders were already chafing at AQI's presence and tactics before we began to seriously fund and arm our enemy's enemy. The animosity arose because AQI sought to impose hegemony over Sunni groups - including tribal leaders that aren't inclined to supplicate themselves before anyone. As mentioned above, though, if the Iraqi government reluctantly funds the Sunni regions upon our exit (with our supplemental aid), AQI would likely continue to be personas non gratas. Even if the Iraqi government refuses, it is still possible that we could pump enough US money into the region to keep tribal leaders - who are already hostile toward AQI - from allowing their flock to give in to the lure of AQI salaries.
Either way, fear of a re-emergence of AQI is weak justification for maintaining close to a hundred thousand troops in Iraq for close to the next hundred years. McCreary offers the central lesson:
Even if the dollar doesn't quite have the same buying power.
Nation building is expensive. The US experience in Vietnam, El Salvador, Haiti, Somalia, North Korea-since-the-War, and Iraq have in common the lesson that it is cheaper to buy a country than to fight over it and have to rebuild it afterwards.