Thursday, March 30, 2006

Putting Out The Fire With Gasoline

President Bush has used this trope consistently to defend the exit strategy (such as it is) in Iraq:
It's the Iraqis' fight. Ultimately, the Iraqis are going to have to determine their future. They made their decision politically; they voted. And these troops that we're training are going to have to stand up and defend their democracy. We got work, by the way, in '06 to make sure the police are trained as adequately as the military, the army. It's their choice to make. And I like to put it this way: As they stand up, we'll stand down.
Problem. It probably won't work.

Stephen Biddle, Senior Defense Fellow for the Council of Foreign Relations, is the award-winning author of Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. A former Associate Professor and Elihu Root Chair of Military Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, he currently examines U.S. defense policy and strategy for the War College.

Hardly a bleeding heart liberal or Islamofascist, you'll agree.

Biddle writes the following in his essay, Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon:
Contentious as the current debate over Iraq is, all sides seem to make the crucial assumption that to succeed there the United States must fight the Vietnam War again -- but this time the right way. The Bush administration is relying on an updated playbook from the Nixon administration. Pro-war commentators argue that Washington should switch to a defensive approach to counterinsurgency, which they feel might have worked wonders a generation ago. According to the antiwar movement, the struggle is already over, because, as it did in Vietnam, Washington has lost hearts and minds in Iraq, and so the United States should withdraw.

But if the debate in Washington is Vietnam redux, the war in Iraq is not. The current struggle is not a Maoist "people's war" of national liberation; it is a communal civil war with very different dynamics. Although it is being fought at low intensity for now, it could easily escalate if Americans and Iraqis make the wrong choices.

Unfortunately, many of the policies dominating the debate are ill adapted to the war being fought. Turning over the responsibility for fighting the insurgents to local forces, in particular, is likely to make matters worse. Such a policy might have made sense in Vietnam, but in Iraq it threatens to exacerbate the communal tensions that underlie the conflict and undermine the power-sharing negotiations needed to end it. Washington must stop shifting the responsibility for the country's security to others and instead threaten to manipulate the military balance of power among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in order to force them to come to a durable compromise. Only once an agreement is reached should Washington consider devolving significant military power and authority to local forces.
(emphasis added)

Indeed. In Viet Nam, you had a unified people: they all hated us, but didn't hate each other. In Iraq, you have what amounts to tribal factions whose animosity predates not only Saddam, not only the British occupations of 1941 and pre-1932, but stretch all the way back to Muhammad himself, the 7th century CE. Add to that the fact that they hate us as well, and you have a stand-off at a high stakes poker table, with no one prepared to team up to help the other (least of all us, although we may be forced to choose sides now.) Or as Biddle puts it:
In such situations, even the government is typically an instrument of one communal group, and its opponents champion the rights of their subgroup over those of others. These conflicts do not revolve around ideas, because no pool of uncommitted citizens is waiting to be swayed by ideology. (Albanian Kosovars, Bosnian Muslims, and Rwandan Tutsis knew whose side they were on.) The fight is about group survival, not about the superiority of one party's ideology or one side's ability to deliver better governance.[...]

If the war in Iraq were chiefly a class-based or nationalist war, the violence would run along national, class, or ideological lines. It does not. Many commentators consider the insurgents to be nationalists opposing the U.S. occupation. Yet there is almost no antioccupation violence in Shiite or Kurdish provinces; only in the Sunni Triangle are some Sunni "nationalists" raising arms against U.S. troops, whom they see as defenders of a Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government. Defense of sect and ethnic group, not resistance to foreign occupation, accounts for most of the anti-American violence. Class and ideology do not matter much either: little of the violence pits poor Shiites or poor Sunnis against their richer brethren, and there is little evidence that theocrats are killing secularists of their own ethnic group. Nor has the type of ideological battle typical of a nationalist war emerged in Iraq. This should come as no surprise: the insurgents are not competing for Shiite hearts and minds; they are fighting for Sunni self-interest, and hardly need a manifesto to rally supporters.[....]

Although Sadr may still have a political future, so far he has failed to spur a broad-based Shiite uprising against either the U.S. occupation or the Shiite-dominated government. Some Iraqi Shiites do resent the U.S. occupation, and nationalism does feed anti-American violence. But nationalism is only a secondary factor in the war, and its main effect is to magnify the virulence of the Sunnis' violence in what is fundamentally a communal civil war.
A clever President, then, would co-opt the Sunnis. Not appease, co-opt. Subtle difference, but one where the US holds all the cards.

Too bad we don't have a clever President.

, ,