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Dave Petraeus and Iraq Kabuki
Monday, 10 September 2007 23:12
by Larry C. Johnson

The die is cast with respect to Iraq and the surge. There will be no substantive change until April of 2008, when the 15 month deployment of the “surge” force of 30,000 comes to an end. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, attended by Senators and pliant members of the media, will take center stage in today’s so-called drama, Iraq Kabuki. Kabuki is a type of popular Japanese drama “in which elaborately costumed performers use stylized movements, dances, and songs in order to enact tragedies and comedies.” Today’s presentation in Washington will include heated rhetoric and self-righteous indignation but, when the day ends, the guy with an earnest face and a chest full of medals will have the high road and the Senators who attack him will be roundly booed as troop haters who are undermining the morale of our soldiers in combat.

Truth and facts do not really matter. Disagree? Please go back and watch what happened to Lt. Colonel Oliver North when Congress tussled with him as they tried to get to the bottom of the Iran Contra scandal.

Today’s presentation ostensibly is about our alleged progress in Iraq. But this argument is not about facts. If facts and ground truth were important then there would be no argument.

The facts are clear. Attacks on civilians have continued unabated notwithstanding the surge, according to the GAO report. And there has been no significant political progress in Iraq in terms of reconciling Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq.

Then there is the report from retired Marine General James Jones detailing the inadequacies and corruption of the Iraqi police. Notwithstanding progress in building a new Iraqi army, its capabilities are very limited and not likely to improve dramatically in the near future.

We also have Dave Kilcullen, an Austrailian special forces type who is working with Petraeus, who acknowledges that the so called success in Al Anbar has nothing to do with the surge and is an unexpected result of local tribes retaliating against foreign jihadists who murdered local tribal leaders and their families. In addition, countries with an interest in bolstering the Sunni tribes, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have provided finance and support.

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Then we have the fact that Petraeus and company are cherry picking the data and deliberately painting a false, rosy picture that security in Iraq is better and the the violence is abating. Of course he achieved this result by excluding car bombs and other sectarian casualties from the calculation.

The arguing over the troop deployment masksthe real issue–i.e., what should be the role of the United States in Iraq? The die is cast for the U.S. military in Iraq. We are coming up against some reality imposed deadlines. For example, by the spring of 2008 the United States will withdraw 30,000 troops from Iraq and does not have reserve forces to replace them. The withdrawal of those troops will mean diminished U.S. influence in those areas where the draw down will occur, regardless of whether or not the “surge” is working. The withdrawal of British forces from southern Iraq further strains the tactical demands on U.S. forces. The Shia militia, with Iranian support and meddling, will fight for a new staus quo in the area with minimal U.S. involvement. But this also means that the logistics resupply line that runs from Kuwait to Baghdad will be under the potential control of Shia militia and criminal gangs. So far they have not tried to shut down the resupply routes.

Then there is the issue of rules of engagement in Iraq for US troops. Currently, US special operations forces have some freedom to carry out unilateral operations. But the freedom is going to be curtailed, either because the political powers that be in the sectarian sections of Iraq will insist on limiting what the US can do or, at the national level, what passes for an Iraqi government will chafe at US actions and try to impose limits. Conventional military missions run the gambit from convoy security and patrols against suspected terrorist cells.

The biggest problem, in my view, is that the current mission of U.S. forces in Iraq continues to foster the perception that we are attacking Iraqis. Our troops should not be the ones conducting broad base raids on suspected terrorist targets in Iraq. Invariably much of our effort is counterproductive. We end up antagonizing those we attack. We end up incarcerating them and being perceived, fairly or not, as acting on behalf of the Shia or the Sunni. And to the extent that we provide security for operations carried out by corrupt police or military units, we ultimately get the blame for those actions as well.

The recommendations of General Jones provide an important map forward. We need a revamped and serious police/military training program that is handled by special forces with skills for the Arab world. Up to this point the Arabists in the Army have been marginalized in this effort.

We are past the watershed moment for Iraq. It is in the process of becoming what the former Yugoslovia is now–ethnic enclaves. There is no political leader with the clout or stature to unify the nation.

The United States must accept that we do not have sufficient military forces to impose a unified, national political system in Iraq. We need to accept that our current efforts to empower the tribes in Al Anbar will antagonize the Shia government in Baghdad and help forge closer ties between Iraq and Iran. We need to accept that our efforts to build a government in Baghdad have in turn strengthened the hand of Iran in the region and fueled great concern in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

We are faced with the task of making chicken salad out of chicken shit. There are difficult issues facing us in Iraq regardless of whether we keep our troops there or withdraw them. We need to be asking what a policy should look like going forward that will serve our broader regional interests. Can we encourage political stability in Iraq that will not further inflame regional instability and heighten tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

I am doubtful the hearings this week will achieve little other than trapping the Democrats as defeatists who want to sale out America to the terrorists. That’s the storyline the Bush Administration will push and the media, by and large, appears willing to repeat unchallenged.

But this silly theater ignores serious, longterm problems confronting us in Iraq. We do not have a large enough Army to impose a political settlement in Iraq. Iraq cannot be fixed with military power. Arresting and incarcerating tens of thousands of Iraqis simply aggravates the tensions and fosters resentments and insults that, in terms of the culture, demands vengeance and recovered honor. A political settlement in Iraq is not possible without the assistance of Syria, Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. These are not new facts. The Iraq Survey Group pointed that out last year. But despite the facts, nothing significant is likely to change vis-a-vis Washington. The Democrats lack the unity and the Republicans lack the integrity to confront the realities of Iraq.

One thing is certain–American soldiers will continue to die in Iraq and sometime next year, we will still be wrestling with the same basic question. Who lost Iraq?
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Comments (1)add comment

a guest said:

Theatre of the absurd
To answer the question "Who lost Iraq?" is to chase blindly after the same red herring the GOP pointed to in the early 50's when Truman and the Democrats were accused of "losing" China. China was never ours to lose. And Iraq was never ours to lose.

I hope Larry Johnson is correct in his larger prediction that once this week's festival of fawning over General Petraeus has ended, the American people will prove themselves mature enough to see through the sabre rattling hype, reject another dose of the same old snake oil, and somehow reward the political decision makers of the reality-based community.

Maybe folks will see through the fraudulent data and manipulated statistical claims. Where's the data on US air strikes, sorties, and ordnance use during the surge? Is it true that civilian deaths attributed to sectarian violence are down because of a data definition change - that a corpse found with a bullet hole in the back of the head is counts as a sectarian casualty, and one with a hole in the front temple is now counted as a murder victim?

Assuming we're all going to have to swallow the accuracy of the Pentagon's statistics because there's no readily available alternative data base on the ground in Iraq, will folks pause to reflect on the true dynamics of all that great news being trumpeted about Anbar province and Baghdad?

In Anbar, Bush has abandoned last year's policy of trying to disarm sectarian militias in favor of a central government army and police force, and instead is now arming (through the CIA) Sunni militia groups and bribing (with military funds) Sunni sheiks who renounce their sympathy to the insurgency and promise - cross my heart and hope to die! - that they will henceforth aim their new AK 47's only at al Queda foreign fighters, and not at American foreign fighters. Clearly, this policy change promises a proliferation of violence in the long term for Iraqis and Americans alike, in exchange for a short term statistical blip to make the surge look like its working.

In Baghdad, some indices of sectarian violence may indeed be down because the major ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from mixed Shia areas has been completed (with over a million Iraqi refugees now in Jordan alone). Much like paying the sheiks for a de facto cease fire with US forces in Anbar temporarily improves the security picture, why should we be surprized to see sectarian killings down when Uncle Sam has simililarly prevailed upon Maliki's people to scale back on their death squad activities for a few months, again so as to attribute welcome changes in the pattern of violence to the brilliance of Bush's surge?

The historical moment is fast waning in which the Congress might actually force a complete and principled withdrawal of US forces from Iraq before the nation is rid of George Bush's vile regime. One reason why I think it should be a fairly rapid withdrawal (6 months tops) rather than a gradual, drawn out process is the point Johnson makes about the Kuwait-to-Baghdad resupply lines.

Scale back slowly enough, or have some collateral damage SNAFU erupt that suddenly enrages all the locals, and it sure could be Dien Bien Phu. Whoever doesn't factor in that risk, in my opinion, should be the guy that takes the political fall when Iraq is finally lost.

Bill from Saginaw
September 10, 2007 | url
Votes: +0

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