Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Road to Bloody Conflagration or Just Unthinkable Catastrophe?

Noah Shactman provides some insight into some of the tactics employed by the Bush administration in pursuit of the recent Anbar Awakening that should give us all ample cause for concern (via Rob Farley):

Sunni political and tribal leaders are increasingly throwing in their lot with U.S. forces here against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent types. But, to get them to come over to our side, the American military has fed them a steady diet of anti-Shi'ite propaganda.

Arrests and killings of Shi’ite militants are announced from loudspeaker blasts; President Bush’s bellicose rhetoric towards Shi’a Iran is reported on friendly radio programs. But the majority of this country is Shi’ite. Are we setting ourselves up as the enemies of the majority here? Are we priming the pump for an all-in sectarian battle royale? It seems like a possibility.

The motivations behind this tilt toward Sunni militants are as fraught with peril as the particular means that we are employing to effectuate the plan. Under the most charitable reading, the Bush administration is arming, training and funding former insurgents (even if some are required to join "official" Iraqi police and military units that aren't "officially" recognized by the actual Iraqi government) in order to more effectively neutralize the already negligible al-Qaeda in Iraq presence.

A slightly more cynical alternative (and an ancillary benefit regardless) would be the fact that by taking this route, the Bush administration would be able to reap the short term political benefit afforded by being able to highlight a decrease in anti-US attacks in Anbar (see, ie, Petraeus/Crocker and the associated media blitz). Slightly farther out on the limb of cynicism, the Bush administration could view the strengthening of ties with the Sunni factions in Anbar as a means of hedging its bets in terms of maintaining options for establishing the desired permanent military presence in Iraq. If the Shiites reject us, maybe the Sunnis will abide - or so the argument would go.

In a related sense, the Bush administration could be pushing a strategy that would further calcify the nascent, de facto partitioning that has been occurring through ethnic cleansing and population displacement. By propping up Sunni elements, and further breeding mistrust and animosity between the Shiites and Sunnis, the Bush team could be moving Iraq closer to a break-up.

The most dangerous and reckless read of the situation, however, would be that the lean toward the Sunnis is part of a larger strategic preparation for war with Iran (as discussed here and here). According to this interpretation, the US would seek to use Sunni militants to counter any push by Shiite factions in Iraq mobilized by a US invasion of, or strike on, Iran.

The problem is, however, that no matter what the motivation is, we are indeed "priming the pump for an all-in sectarian battle royale" as Shactman put it. First, the least cynical option: What good is picking off a smallish al-Qaeda presence that was already wearing out its welcome with the local Sunnis regardless of our stance, when in order to achieve this, we not only arm former insurgents that maintain a bitter, violent opposition to the Shiite government (and US forces even if this animus is in suspension), but also stoke the fires of that underlying sectarian feud by promulgating incendiary propaganda. This is a recipe for greatly intensifying the civil war(s) and initiating the onset of that oft repeated parade of horribles (genocide, regional conflict, etc.) the prevention of which is, ostensibly, our primary reason for staying.* That's like one step forward, a mile trotting back.

While feeding the sectarian furnace might make eventual partition easier, the furnace would also likely overheat, resulting in an eruption of inter-state violence, whereas prior to the partition, such violence was between occupants of the same state. Six dead, and half a dozen corpses of the other.

As for the moderately cynical options, the same enormous costs apply with even less of a legitimate payoff. Which brings us to the Iran question. The strategy of supporting these Sunni elements, while simultaneously using inflammatory propaganda to exacerbate the tensions, makes the most sense in the context of an imminent conflict with Iran. Unfortunately, an imminent conflict with Iran makes the least sense in terms of America's long term strategic outlook in the world. Such an attack would lead to a political and military catastrophe the likes of which we haven't seen since...well, since the invasion of Iraq. But we can't afford one, let alone two. Simultaneously.

So, in summation, the Bush administration is either pursuing an incoherent strategy that will only serve to vastly increase the levels of bloodshed in Iraq when we leave (and before), or there is a general coherence to the strategy, but the underlying objective is to widen the war to include Iran, which will also play out - with heightened intensity - via proxy in Iraq. So, would you prefer the conflagration or catastrophe?

*[The gorilla in the room is, I suppose, the proposition that the Bush administration could be deliberately provoking - or at least fueling - sectarian/ethnic conflict in order to keep Iraq weak, divided and easy to occupy. Matt Yglesias was flirting with this concept last week (at least acknowledging that the current outcome, even if not the product of deliberate policy, has resulted in these types of benefits). My problem with this theory is that it rests on assumptions such as these from Matt:

And, indeed, while the absence of political reconciliation is probably Iraq's biggest problem, it's not a particularly large problem for the American military presence. On the [contrary], a unified Iraq -- especially one swayed by Iraqi public opinion -- might be very likely to give the US the boot. By contrast, in a divided and chaotic Iraq one can easily imagine the main players resenting the US presence but preferring it to anarchy.

However, the continued violence and instability stemming from the lack of reconciliation creates a rather sizable obstacle to maintaining a permanent US presence in Iraq - if viewed from the domestic political situation in America, rather than Iraq. It would be far easier to sell American voters and politicians on the plan if the military wasn't literally breaking under the pressure, with costs soaring into the trillions. Relatedly, there are actual logistical hurdles created by the current level of violence and instability such that the military might not be able to maintain the desired "permanent" position absent some change in footing.

Also, a "unified Iraq" was and is a far-off longshot with or without alleged US manipulation. With Saddam removed, an earnest competition for power, influence and money has been unleashed, with long aggrieved parties seeking to assert their dominance, while displaced parties look to reclaim what was lost (with various permutations in between). Where was the unity that the Bush team needed to thwart going to come from? Sketch out the plan whereby the Shiite factions and Sunni factions agree on who gets the aforementioned money, power and respect. In fact, a little unity under the helpful guidance of permanent US security forces would have likely been a much more palatable option for both domestic, and indigenous Iraqi, audiences.]

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