Showing his colors
Maliki rejects American pressure to shut down Shi'ite militias: The Iraqi PM publicly denounced American calls for a timetable to shutdown militias and decried US operations against death squads, including operations against Sadr City. "We expected it," US officials said. (AP/Breitbart)
Maliki has nailed his colors to the mast on this issue at least. Legally Iraq is a sovereign country, which the US must treat it as any other country from the perspective of US national interest. Theoretically Maliki is under no obligation to obey Washington, which is correspondingly under no compulsion to support Maliki. While America would prefer to see a stable government in Iraq that is ultimately a task that cannot be delegated to Americans indefinitely. So expect some hardball to be played as this is the way of relations between nations. That said, Maliki's statements imply he values American support less necessary than the goodwill of his Shi'ite base. Or that he perceives Shi'ite support as so important that he's willing to risk American goodwill. How solid that Shi'ite base will prove is open to question. The Badr Brigades and Madhi Army have continually clashed as they strive to control the Shi’ite areas and its valuable oil resource.
Although enmity between the two militias dates to the 1990s, it is now rooted in the desire of their political sponsors to dominate Iraq's Shiite community. They focus particularly on the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad, a region stretching over nine provinces that is home to Iraq's holiest Shiite shrines in Najaf and Karbala and much of the country's oil wealth.
The rivalry could shatter the unity of the Shiite community at a time when many of its members feel threatened by the Sunni Arab-led insurgency and are alarmed by what they see as a gradual shift of U.S. support away from them and toward Sunnis. The Sunni Arab minority oppressed the Shiite majority for decades before Saddam's ouster.
A Shiite official who has regular contact with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, said al-Sistani was discreetly trying to defuse tensions between the Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army.
The Opinion Journal has a letter from a sergeant in a US Army intelligence unit which argues that despite the fact that Iraq is legally a "sovereign nation", in reality it is now a bag of murderously opposed factions. If this analysis is correct, Maliki isn't really the prime minister of a country so much as the spokesman for a coalition.
This breakneck pace with which we're trying to push the responsibility for governing and securing Iraq is irresponsible and suicidal. It's like throwing a brick on a house of cards and hoping it holds up. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)--a joint term referring to Iraqi army and Iraqi police--are so rife with corruption, insurgent sympathies and Shia militia members that they have zero effectiveness. Two Iraqi police brigades in Baghdad have been disbanded recently, and the general sentiment in our field is "Why stop there?" I can't tell you how many roadside bombs have been detonated against American forces within sight of ISF checkpoints. Faith in the Iraqi army is only slightly more justified than faith in the police--but even there, the problems of tribal loyalties, desertion, insufficient training, low morale and a failure to properly indoctrinate their soldiers results in a substandard, ineffective military. A lot of the problems are directly related to Arab culture, which traditionally doesn't see nepotism and graft as serious sins. Changing that is going to require a lot more than "benchmarks."
In Shia areas, the militias hold the real control of the city. They have infiltrated, co-opted or intimidated into submission the local police. They are expanding their territories, restricting freedom of movement for Sunnis, forcing mass migrations, spiking ethnic tensions, not to mention the murderous checkpoints, all while U.S. forces do . . . nothing. ...
The problem is that there's nothing to give stability and support to. We hollowed out the Baathist regime, and we hastily set up this provisional government, thrusting political responsibility on a host of unknowns, each with his own political agenda, most funded by Iran, and we're seeing the results.
The intel sergeant's solution is to go back to the very beginning and start again.
We need to backtrack. We need to publicly admit we're backtracking. This is the opening battle of the ideological struggle of the 21st century. We cannot afford to lose it because of political inconveniences. Reassert direct administration, put 400,000 to 500,000 American troops on the ground, disband most of the current Iraqi police and retrain and reindoctrinate the Iraqi army until it becomes a military that's fighting for a nation, not simply some sect or faction. Reassure the Iraqi people that we're going to provide them security and then follow through. Disarm the nation: Sunnis, Shias, militia groups, everyone. Issue national ID cards to everyone and control the movement of the population.
Reasserting US sovereignty over Iraq and attempting to build a unitary nation will prove very difficult and probably impossible to effect. It may just be possible if a bipartisan commitment to Iraq can be found. But this is doubtful. Many have written about how wonderful it would have been if the old Saddam crowd had simply been left in charge, but it is questionable how stable the basically unstable imposition of Sunni majority rule would be. It would not last forever. And like it nor not, Sunni rule is irrevocably broken, largely due to US power and the rise of the Shi'ite militias is evidence of that. In one sense, the US defeated Saddam's Army and the Sunni insurgency too well. Is that to be regretted? Another letter writer at Opinion Journal argues that Iraq would have remained a problem, maybe a worse problem, if Saddam had been left in charge.
It is possible--I'd say likely--that had we not removed Saddam, we'd find ourselves in a much worse place today than we are. At the time of President Bush's decision to remove Saddam, U.N. sanctions were crumbling. Shortly thereafter Saddam would have had piles of money to spend on weapons, suicide bombers and bribing Russians, Chinese, the French and various U.N. factotums. If Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction then (a dubious proposition even now), he would have imported and built a stockpile by now.
The United States' credibility as a serious world power would be nil. Threatening Saddam for more than a dozen years (through the Bush and Clinton and Bush administrations) without once following through on those threats would mean we'd have no influence in any crisis whatsoever. Our position now is certainly not a good one--but had we not followed through on our threats, we'd be in a much worse place than we are.
It's always a mistake to see the world as it is today and mistakenly compare it with the world as it was on a day in the past. It's harder to do, but infinitely more useful, to try to compare today's situation with that in which we'd find ourselves if we had done nothing.
It's probably fair to say that America has swapped on set of threats for another. There is no more Iraqi threat to Saudi or Gulf oil fields; no more need to worry about an Iraqi nuclear program; no more need to station the Navy in the Gulf. But the load has been transferred to the ground forces. And in place of the threat represented by Saddam, there are a new set of threats that may lurk in the dogfight that is emerging among the different ethnic groups.
A few posts ago I remarked that the closest historical analogue to Iraq was the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, also a former ethnically mixed Ottoman state. That experience provides a benchmark against which to measure the length and duration of the challenge that Iraq represents as well as to understand the incentives of ethnic politics. The debate over how to handle the Yugoslav wars revolved around those who wanted to let the "ethnic cleansing" happen on the way to a more stable set of boundaries and those who wanted to keep the old Yugoslavia a multiethnic place. To some extent those are also the issues in Iraq now. The current Iraqi constitution, with its provision for federal states, reveals a preference for devolution among at least some Iraqis. But it is important to remember there were always a large percentage who believed in Iraq as a country; who thought of themselves as fundamentally Iraqi. Even surveys recently taken show a surprising support for a united Iraq. But the hope of achieving such a unitary, multicultural society is slipping away. And the terrible possibility emerges that the new Iraqi government is part of the problem and not part of the solution. While on the subject of comparisons with Yugoslavia it may be useful to remember that the architects of its civil war purposely stirred up trouble with the idea of grabbing pieces of the disintegrating state. It's certainly plausible to imagine Iran and perhaps Syria licking their lips at the thought of picking up the pieces of Saddam's old domain. For them unrest is not a bug; it's a feature; disturbance not an aberration but an opportunity.
One solution to an Iraq divided by tribal and religious loyalties is to let it divide in a semi-orderly way yet manage the separation so that one doesn't finish up with a dozen Somalias but a number of stable areas. The problem, as the fighting between the Badr Brigades and the Madhi Army shows, is that some way of dividing up the oil resource still must be found. Without some kind of central government to ensure that revenues are shared the seeds for future regional war will be planted. One simply remembers why Saddam went to war against Kuwait. It was for oil.
The task of managing peaceful devolution -- if that goal is not changed by unforseen events -- requires resources. It may require the half million men that the intel sergeant mentions or it may require less. One officer writing from Iraq to whose reference I've forgotten believes that only "unconventional solutions" will work. No massive armies of occupation, but more Lawrences. I hope he's right. Lawrence's greatest talent was his ability stir up ethnic unrest. He achieved no Arab state. But whatever the mission, it will require something. And that something will not be provided without a bipartisan commitment to midwifing the successor Iraqi state or states. More importantly, it will require an agile national leadership which can act opportunistically within the framework of a strategy rather than simply to implement a fixed vision. Perhaps the real flaw in Iraq was not a lack of force but a lack of imagination. From one perspective Iraq provides an opportunity perhaps of historic proportions; certainly Iran and neighboring countries with far fewer resources have treated it as such. The last three years have shown how ill equipped, politically and operationally, America has been to make use of that opportunity. That needs to change, a change should begin with the way Washington's bureaucries do business under any administration. Washington is not the seat of empire. It's the seat of local politics with the reach of empire.