Here's a pair of interesting headlines. Anne Gearan of the Associated Press reports:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mocked anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a coward on Sunday, hours after the radical leader threatened to declare war unless U.S. and Iraqi forces end a military crackdown on his followers. ...
"I know he's sitting in Iran," Rice said dismissively, when asked about al-Sadr's latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. "I guess it's all-out war for anybody but him," Rice said. "I guess that's the message; his followers can go to their deaths and he's in Iran." ...
Rice praised al-Maliki for confronting al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which had a choke hold on Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The assault was al-Maliki's most decisive act by far against al-Sadr, a fellow Shiite and once a political patron. Kurdish and Sunni politicians, including a chief rival, have since rallied to al-Maliki, and the Bush administration argues he could emerge stronger from what had appeared to be a military blunder.
The words "appeared to be a military blunder" may no longer be operative. Bill Roggio reports the relentless advance of the Iraqi Army against Moaqtada al-Sadr's strongholds in Basra. The NYT now says Sadr's last strongholds have fallen to the IA.
The NYT wonders why the media-consensus "winner" simply refuses to "win". Maybe it's because he isn't winning at all, but losing.
Despite the apparent concession of Basra, Mr. Sadr issued defiant words on Saturday night. In a long statement read from the loudspeakers of his Sadr City Mosque, he threatened to declare “war until liberation” against the government if fighting against his militia forces continued.
But it was difficult to tell whether his words posed a real threat or were a desperate effort to prove that his group was still a feared force, especially given that his militia’s actions in Basra followed a pattern seen again and again: the Mahdi militia battles Iraqi government troops to a standstill and then retreats.
Why his fighters have clung to those fight-then-fade tactics is unknown.
Meanwhile, in another quagmire, the "losers" are ardently intent on pursuing the "winners". The NYT reports:
WASHINGTON — American commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include American attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to United States officials.
The requests have been rebuffed for now, the officials said, after deliberations in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who fear that attacking Pakistani radicals may anger Pakistan’s new government, which is negotiating with the militants, and destabilize an already fragile security situation.
American commanders would prefer that Pakistani forces attack the militants, but Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas have slowed recently to avoid upsetting the negotiations.
The core problems in both Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan are both political: the incapacity of the local state to establish a working civil society; a fact that has allowed all kinds of mischief to be based within their borders. But as events have shown, the solution to the political problem contains a large military component. Unless security is provided for the local good guys, the bad guys can always use terror to coerce the population into line. The dove flies under a parasol of swords. If there is no such thing as a "purely military" solution, neither is there such a thing as a purely political one.
For the first time in about two decades none of the Gulf States, nor ironically even Iran need fear an invasion from an belligerent Iraq. For the first time in a similar period, the Kurds no longer have to worry about being gassed or mass murdered. Over the same period, the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (including China and Russia) no longer have to worry much about "militants" training with Osama in Afghanistan. Those militants are too busy fighting for their lives.
There are now political opportunities to advance stability that never existed before. But they are only opportunities, which by their nature are fleeting and available only to those who recognize their potential.
One of the reasons the Fall of the Berlin Wall came as such a surprise to the Western intelligensia is that they had dismissed Ronald Reagan's strategy as a losing one. Therefore no one was more astounded than the newspapers when the former Soviet Union collapsed. Like Sadr's pathetic retreats, it wasn't supposed to be that way. None of this is to say that the US War on Terror, which has had committed many mistakes, should be compared to Reagan's push. But surely it is rational to argue that it has gotten some things right.
The challenge that will face the new President in 2009 is how to build on those achievements while remedying the mistakes. It seems inconceivable that any new President would throw everything away as worthless and start from scratch. And yet that is essentially what two out of three Presidential candidates plan to do in Iraq. This makes sense within the context of their accepted narrative. But as Sadr's loss of Basra should suggest, it may be worth considering whether that narrative is no longer operative.
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