I’ve been putting off writing this post for a couple of months. Not out of any fear of blogospheric consequences although it would pain me if my honest opinion drove people away from this site. But I realize many readers who have been following my evolving position on the War in Iraq know how pessimistic I have become over the last six months about the chances of that bloody land achieving anything like a stable, democratic government. For them, it may come as no surprise that I have reached a point where I believe we must make a decision as a nation about whether we want to continue our involvement – which would mean an increase in resources and a direct confrontation with Iran and Syria over their massive support for the terrorists and insurgents – or whether we should pack up and go home. In other words, escalate or leave.
Why now? And why bother writing about it?
Simply put, the reason I have come to this conclusion now is that the enemies of Iraqi democracy have established a clear upper hand in the country and it is uncertain at best whether the situation can be retrieved at this point.
And the reason to write about it is equally simple; to join a growing chorus of conservatives who are becoming very critical of our involvement and try and break through the spin and myopia of the Administration which is making the situation worse by pretending that things are getting better or are not as bad as we think they are.
The ultimate question to be asked is do we make one, final, massive attempt to alter the deteriorating situation by committing more resources to the war while at the same time giving ultimatums to both Syria and Iran to halt their clandestine and outrageously illegal assistance to the terrorists who are murdering thousands of civilians every month.
The risks involved in the latter should be self-evident; a general Middle East war that could drag the world into both economic chaos and a massive regional conflict with uncertain consequences for our friends and allies. And, of course, the risk in committing more resources is that we increase the number of American targets for the terrorists and insurgents as well as face the possibility that all our efforts will be for naught anyway.
The evidence that has been piling up the last three years against this Administration’s management of the war can no longer be dismissed as the rantings of dissatisfied bureaucrats or the partisan attacks of critics. Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, a respected military correspondent for the Washington Post, is an absolutely devastating account of the war and how the civilians (and some Generals) in the Pentagon not only made massive and continued mistakes in Iraq but also when confronted with the facts on the ground that refuted their rosy forecasts of progress, refused to change direction. This not only cost American lives but also helped the insurgency grow.
But perhaps the most damning record of stupidity and spin comes via the book Cobra II by Michael R. Gordon and General (Ret.) Bernard E. Trainor. Much of the book is a heartbreaking recitation of erroneous assumptions, overly optimistic assessments, and finally, a risible refusal to admit mistakes and change course.
Lest one think that these books are the products of left wing loons or authors suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome, the one common thread running through both volumes is the massive amount of research and unprecedented access to documents that went into writing them. To deny the reality of all that these authors have uncovered is too much of a stretch, even for a Bush partisan like myself. Facts are facts and if the Administration had confronted many of the problems – insurgency, militias, disenchanted populace, the extent of foreign assistance to the insurgents, and sectarian factionalism to name a few – it may be that a different outcome to the war could have been salvaged.
For as it stands now, we are at a psychological tipping point in Iraq where drastic measures are needed in order to turn the situation around and give the weak Iraqi government a chance to gain control. There are many hands raised against this government and as of right now, they are losing any semblance of legitimacy due to their powerlessness in the face of the massive violence that has been unleashed.
Here’s a short list, by no means comprehensive, of what is happening in Iraq as you read this:
- An Sunni insurgency that despite offers of amnesty and clemency continues apace and if anything, is growing stronger and bolder. Certainly a large part of the insurgents strategy now is to ratchet up the violence in the lead up to the American elections in hopes that the Democrats can gain control of Congress and force the President to withdraw. And in perhaps the most disheartening news imaginable, as we have transferred troops from insurgent strongholds in the central provinces to Baghdad in order to quell the violence there, the insurgents have moved back into areas vacated by departing American troops and have re-established themselves in towns already “swept and cleared” by our men.
- The Iraqi army is not making the kind of progress that would allow us to draw down our forces anytime soon. With the exception of a dozen brigades (around 7500 men), the Iraqis are poorly equipped, poorly trained, poorly led, and are riddled with corruption and infiltrated by militias whose loyalty to the government is at best questionable.
- The end result of the Israeli-Hizbullah war has emboldened both Iran and the militias who are apparently doing Tehran’s bidding by stoking the fires of sectarian conflict. The Shia militia death squads are taking a fearful toll of Sunnis and are even starting to fight amongst themselves. There is ample anecdotal evidence of the Iraqi army turning the other way while the slaughter goes on which calls into question whether the violence can be stopped by American forces alone.
- In the south, Shia on Shia violence is also starting to escalate as militias battle for supremacy in towns and villages that were formerly peaceful. More Iranian meddling here as one of the prime movers behind the violence are the Badr Brigades who, like Hizbullah, were trained in Iran.
- In the north, a confrontation with NATO member Turkey has been avoided for the present as the terrorist arm of the Kurdish independence movement, the PKK, continues it cross-border terrorist activities against Turkish targets. The Turks had threatened to invade Iraq and handle the PKK problem with or without our blessing which has necessitated sending precious assets to the border region in order to deal with the Kurds.
- Also in the north, sporadic fighting is occurring between Kurds and Shias over oil rights. Despite clearly belonging to the Kurds, northern oil centers are under pressure from Shias as they seek to move the Kurds out.
- While weakened, al-Qaeda in Iraq has not gone away and is killing dozens daily with sophisticated car bombs and some suicide bombers. Coordination between the Sunni militias who make up the insurgency and the terrorists in AQI has improved in recent months thanks to the elimination of al-Zarqawi who was generally hated by all Iraqis. So for every step forward, it appears at times that we lose a step in the process.
- There are now more than 250,000 Iraqi refugees (mostly Sunnis) – people driven out of their homes in mixed Shia-Sunni areas by force. The dwindling number who stay in these areas are subject to harassment and ostracism.
- Criminal gangs who kidnap up to 70 Iraqis a week for ransom. They use the money to fund their extortion and shakedown rackets as well as buy guns to sell to insurgents.
- 3400 dead civilians in July alone. Thousands more injured. And no sign of any let up in August.
The government’s plan to combat this escalating violence which was implemented in June has failed miserably. They deployed 60,000 Iraqi troops and policemen in Baghdad in order to stem the violence. All told, the violence worsened. This is the direct result of the machinations of the Iranian backed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose Mehdi militia at the moment is engaged in a low level insurgency against Americans.
It is al-Sadr’s thugs who are carrying out the brutal public execution of hundreds of Sunnis with impunity. Only recently has the government given the go ahead to try and take the Mehdi militia down, something long past due. Since the police and army are simply too untrustworthy for this task, it has fallen to Americans with some assistance from the Iraqi army to try and defang the Shia militia. We are suffering increasing casualties as we move through Sadr City and systematically go door to door looking for weapons and members of the death squads. It is uncertain how this campaign will turn out.
But this campaign may be undermined by the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. The medicine is harsh and some innocents are being killed. Maliki has already severely criticized the operation and it is unclear at this point whether we have scaled back our operations in response. If so, it makes the job of disarming the Mehdis that much more difficult.
But even disarming the militias, while minimizing the violence, won’t help deal with the insurgency. This is a political problem for the Iraqis themselves and one that, so far, they have failed to address in any comprehensive way. Clearly some kind of amnesty program and national reconciliation will be needed. But this will never happen until Shias stop killing Sunnis. Most of the insurgency is made up of Sunni militias whose tribal and clan loyalties require them to protect their own and not depend on the central government to do so. They will never disarm until they can be assured that their participation in the political process will not leave their people open to slaughter.
Given all of these complex and heartbreaking problems, what has our government been telling us about the state of affairs in Iraq?
Here’s Rumsfeld earlier this month:
Q: Is the country closer to a civil war?
SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I don’t know. You know, I thought about that last night, and just musing over the words, the phrase, and what constitutes it. If you think of our Civil War, this is really very different. If you think of civil wars in other countries, this is really quite different. There is—there is a good deal of violence in Baghdad and two or three other provinces, and yet in 14 other provinces there’s very little violence or numbers of incidents. So it’s a—it’s a highly concentrated thing. It clearly is being stimulated by people who would like to have what could be characterized as a civil war and win it, but I’m not going to be the one to decide if, when or at all.
The “14 other provinces” may not have the violence that Baghdad has but Rumsfeld never mentions the lawlessness that necessitates a constant military presence in the streets. Not does he mention that 75% of the Iraqi people live in the three most violent provinces.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by the President, albeit with a little less nonchalance. What this adds up to is an Administration unwilling or unable to face up to its past blunders and apply the necessary lessons in order to try and win through to victory.
For if there is a victory to be had in Iraq – and one can just barely make one out in the distance amidst the blood and ruin – it will take courage on the part of the President to confront these problems and do what is necessary in order to reverse course. And this will entail both risks and probably a larger casualty count among Americans fighting there.
Yes we need more troops – a lot more at least temporarily. Order must be brought to Baghdad and its environs and to do that we would need, according to General Trainor, is perhaps as many as 50,000 more Americans to both police the area and ferret out insurgents and the death squads.
For that to happen, the President would have to admit he and Donald Rumsfeld have been wrong all along and that in order to achieve stability, the additional troops must be sent. It is of the utmost distress to me that this President has failed to take responsibility for past mistakes and admitted to error in prosecuting the war. The grudging admissions of mistakes just isn’t getting it done. If he is serious about winning in Iraq (and he has called Iraq the “frontline” in the war on terror”) then he is going to have to go before the American people and explain why additional troops are necessary.
Yes I can understand why he has not admitted past mistakes and errors. The political climate wouldn’t give him “credit” for doing so. The situation in Iraq has gone far beyond the politics of the moment and now engages the future security of the United States. If he can’t be a man and take the inevitable finger pointing and name calling, then all hope is lost and we should start bringing the troops home now. The whispers in Washington that the President wishes to simply “hang on” in Iraq and leave the denouement to his successor is possibly the most immoral, cynical thing I’ve ever heard – which leads me to believe that it is not true. But it is equally immoral to simply apply more of the same prescriptions to a war that is now clearly out of control. Drastic changes are necessary. And if the President is not willing to apply them whether out of fear of the political consequences to his presidency or the Republican party, then he doesn’t deserve to sit in the big chair.
In war, rhetoric must match reality or you lose credibility. By constantly reminding us that Iraq is at the forefront of our anti-terror strategy – and then not doing the things necessary to win through to victory – the President takes the risk that our deterrent will lose its edge. And this is no more true than in the actions of Iran and Syria.
Both nations have judged that we will do nothing to stop them from continuing their support for the terrorists and the insurgency. We interdict what supplies and men that we can but it isn’t enough. And Iran and Syria have apparently decided that since there is no downside to their support for our enemies in Iraq, that they can bleed us white while engineering a humiliating defeat for American prestige in the process.
Jawboning hasn’t worked. Clearly some kind of diplomatic demarche is in order. Whether it involves sitting down in formal talks and making clear that our apathy toward their support for terrorists is at an end or we actually threaten force against assets that are supporting the insurgents, peace will not come to Iraq until those two nations stop their meddling. And why we have done so little in the past three years to stop them is, to my mind, one of the biggest mysteries of the war.
Restoring hope to the Iraqi people by radically diminishing the violence will help retrieve a situation that is getting worse by the week. It will take courage, initiative, boldness, and a more humble approach to the problems caused by our presence there. But there really isn’t any viable alternative. If we leave, Iraq will become what we all fear; a haven for radical Shia fundamentalism and terror. And the humanitarian disaster of Sunnis being slaughtered and driven out of the country will be a reality that will echo as painfully as the plight of the Vietnamese boat people a generation ago.
But if we are not willing to do what is necessary to win, then the only sane, moral course of action is to bring the troops home as fast as humanly possible. Such a humiliation should not result in a single additional death or injury to the men and women who have performed so bravely and selflessly in the face of blunder after blunder by their superiors.
To those of you who have taken the trouble to read this piece in its entirety, I thank you.
The Commissar weighs in with a comprehensive critique of Iraq of his own. He prescriptions are similar and he mentions something that I didn’t make clear.
I still support the policy that led us to invade in the first place. How is that possible given the failures to date? (Yes Dave, our policy will be a success when we are able to draw down the bulk of our troops and we are farther from that today than we were at the beginning of the year).
Those who see the war on terror as a police action fail, in my opinion, to take into account the rogue states that support and facilitate terrorism. Try as you might, you cannot seperate Saddam from Palestinian bombers (who he gave $25,000 to the family of the suicide bombers) or from radical fundamentalists who all evidence points to him getting closer to. It is also clear to any objective observer given the revelations contained in the Saddam papers, that the dictator and al-Qaeda were in close contact and were on the verge of consumating a strategic partnership in order to attack American targets.
This does not mean we attack willy nilly countries like Iran, Syria, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia. It does mean that we need a military as a credible threat and, in extreme cases, to effect regime change. There is a large military component to the War on Terror and I agree with the Commissar that Iraq was a logical target. The fact that the post war environment was botched unconscionably doesn’t obviate that point.