Re: Surge Succeeding?

I know this has been decided now because everybody keeps saying the surge has succeeded and I must look like some horrible anti-American left winger to question that assertion….but here goes.

As you may recall, the point of the surge as announced by President Bush was to create “breathing space for national reconciliation.”  So in the technical (sorta literal) sense of that formulation the surge succeeded.  It did create that breathing room.

Of course the reconciliation never happened.  And is never going to happen.  In Bush’s self-declared criterion for the surge, the clear implication being that the breathing room is a means to an end (reconciliation) or at least a means to a bigger means (reconciliation) which is itself a means to an end (peaceful democratic Iraq).

So achieving the means but the means not translating into the ends by most standards would be considered a failure.  I mean really what is the point of achieving the means if the means doesn’t lead to the end desired?

This is however not a knock on Petraeus or the soldiers.  They achieved their end of the deal.  They did so as much if not more through finesse than brute strength (contra many right-wing cheerleaders) but did so nonetheless.  But they were set up for a failed mission for the get go and that is entirely missed in all the discussion about “Are we Winning or Losing?”  Winning and Losing what?  Winning battles? Sure.  But winning battles and even having a better COIN doctrine has not, does not and will not translate into lasting political achievement (losing).  Or rather into a situation where winning/losing as we normally conceive of them doesn’t apply.

The key point to remember in this is that Iraq under Saddam was a police state and the United States destroyed and utterly overthrew the remnants of that state–particularly under Bremer with de-Baathification, army dismemberment, etc.  The US however did not replace that vacuum that inevitably arose in the aftermath of that police state wipeout.

The United States during the Gen. Casey years of Big Superbase Entrenchment (prior to the Anbar Awakening and later the Surge) left the vacuum open and it was filled by the Civil War.  At that point mostly Shia-Sunni (the potential for Kurd-Sunni and even Kurd-Shia Civil War is increasing by the day for Civil War 2.0).

What the Petraeus COIN did was put a seal around the vacuum but did not fill it.  It prevented/hampered others from filling that void and then made side-deals with essentially all available militias outside the sealed vacuum.

But the vacuum remains to be filled.  And that is why no reconciliation will take place.  Because A)there is no legitimate government with which to make deals  B)everybody is simply waiting for their moment to rush the vacuum so why make deals prior to the fight?  Why possibly screw yourself and your militia/ethnic grouping for the future prior to what is actually going to decide that outcome (i.e. violence)?

The surge then failed because it never had a chance to succeed. (edit: relative to the goal) . Petraeus will go so far as to say that the US military can not win the peace.  i.e. It can continue to win military battles but it can not enforce national reconciliation.  On that score he is right (contra McCain) yet there is another piece to add: the presence of the US occupation works as the primary excuse for the lack of a reconciliation.  The political reconciliation desired is not going to hapen anyway in my opinion, but the US army occupation allows everybody to use that as an excuse to not do so anyway.  [And not fight openly at the moment either.]

iow, There will be no reconciliation as long as US troops are there.  The reconciliation won’t happen until there is a new equilibrium reached vis a vis the nation-state vacuum.  That is, until after a new round of fighting I fear.  I generally favor the Biden-Gelb plan for federalization but that looks like a no go from the Iraqi side.  The leadership and the populace it appears both wants to go at each other across ethnic-sectarian lines and yet not devolve either (excepting Kurdistan of course).  That is in my mind a recipe for bloodshed and perhaps the Lebanonization of Iraq where the next civil war cuts across lines with certain Sunni groups perhaps aligning with certain Shia groupings and vice versa.

But the continued policy of the occupation only grows the seal around the vacuum.  It never fills it.  Maliki is doing his best to try and use the occupation (and the training of the Iraqi Army/Shia militia) to allow him to fill the vacuum as a Shia Neo-Dictator (the only the country is held together with a strong government) playing his hand now to push the Americans out.  He both needed them to build up his forces and now needs them out of battle/the streets to gain his legitimacy with the populace.

If violence re-erupts on a much larger scale (as I’m afraid to say I think is inevitable) I wonder whether we will look back on the surge as a kind of timeout before round 2 rather than success.

Update I: This is far from the best analogy, but what I’m trying to get at is something like creating a strategy that is going to create breathing room in my life so that someone can send me a trillion dollar check.  Whatever we decide are the appropriate mechanisms whereby to achieve that strategy, let’s surmise I meet them, i.e. I do create the breathing room for receiving my trillion dollar check—it doesn’t matter.  Because no one is ever going to send me a trillion dollar check (national reconciliation in this analogy and then even further out/by extension democratic stable unified Iraq).  So if I achieve that strategy (“breathing room”) but it is hitched to a completely unrealizable goal (reconciliation/trilliion dollar check receipt) what is the point of having the strategy?  And what sense does it make or even matter if the strategy (breathing room) is achieved or not?  Why focus on the strategy when the goal is unreachable?

The trillion dollar check example of course is harmless.  All that’s lost is my time (and perhaps some money).  But with the surge of course it comes at the cost of more wounded and dead soldiers and debt.  [The calculation of dead relative to Iraqi civilians is hard to decipher in this context, but the calculation relative to the US is clear].

Update II: What I’m really suggesting is that the question about succeeding or not succeeding is the wrong question.  In some ways it can be said to have succeeded, in other ways I would say not (given that is it’s connected to a failed/unrealizable goal which has to effect the status vis a vis a determination of the tactic like it or not).  But ultimately the question is about the goal of the democratic unified Iraq and the primary means of trynig achieve that goal being through a national reconciliation (so-called) political deal.  The surge is simply a tactic to give space for the strategy (reconciliation) which is the way to achieve the goal (democractic unified Iraq).  Each layer (tactic-strategy-goal) can be thought of as kind of emergent (not defined solely by the addition of its simpler parts) and hence judgment regarding effectiveness or not depends on which layer we are discussing.  My assertion is that only looking at the tactical level is the simplest (in the bad sense, aka simplistic) form of evaluation.

The flaw of the McCain position has always been that victory at the lowest level of complexity (tactical-military) will automatically bubble up into more complex layers (political).  This is why he still uses the frame of a war–because then the way to win is through military battles.  But if as I’m suggesting each layer has emergent properties then this entire view is stopped short right there.

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Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 9:20 am  Comments (2)  
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Response to Reihan Re: Iraq

Andrew Sullivan highlights this (concluding) graf from Reihan’s new Current piece on Iraq:

Advocates of a continued American presence have much to answer for as well. Why is it that Maliki hasn’t made the necessary concessions? What can the U.S. do to encourage reconciliation that hasn’t been done? Has the economic strategy of the Iraqi government been adequate to the task of rebuilding the country? It was fair and reasonable to neglect these considerations during the struggle to bring Iraq back from the brink. But that neglect has proved very costly indeed.

Let’s go one at a time on this:

1)Why hasn’t Maliki made the necessary concessions?

–Because in his world, there are no concessions to be made.  The notion that he has to make “necessary concessions” is predicated on a certain view dictated by the United States as to what Iraq should look like.  This is the central flaw of the entire war, surge or no surge.  Maliki spent years in hiding from Saddam’s assassination forces and by all accounts is a quasi-paranoid individual (as would be normal under those circumstances I imagine).  He is a member of the Dawa Party who sees it role as defending the Shia in Iraq.  That is his job.  And he is doing it.  In Maliki’s world, either the Shia will run Iraq or the Sunni will take back over and return the Shia to the position of the powerless.

2)What can the US do to encourage reconciliation?

–Nothing. Neither staying (Salam) nor half-drawing down (Colin Kahl).  Nothing in my opinion.  See #1.  There is no encouragement because there is no desire for a deal.  If the US abandons the Shia in Iraq, they know Iran will have their back and Iran isn’t supporting some mass integration of the Sunni militias into the Iraqi security forces.

3)Has the economic strategy been adequate to the task of rebuilding the country?

–Again this assumes our understanding of what the country should be.  The economic policy, such as it is, has been correctly predicated on lining the pockets of the Shia elites to buy leverage so they can control power.  Because the Tribesmen want to fight the Shia gov’t.  The Shia mass underclass tends more to support Sadr.  In other words, they aren’t thinking about rebuilding the country.  They are thinking about ruling what’s left of it.

Reihan almost answers his own questions here, but I think backs away from the edge at the last second:

The trouble with Maliki’s vision is that it leaves no room for the Sunni Awakening. One increasingly gets the sense that Maliki sees the Sons of Iraq, one of many names for the various Sunni militias that have turned against the insurgency, as a threat. Which is entirely understandable — a proper state possesses a monopoly on legitimate force, and it makes perfect sense that he would eventually disband irregular militias. But the Sons of Iraq have no confidence that there will be adequate representation of Sunni interests in the new Iraqi state, and Maliki hasn’t exactly helped in this regard.

I don’t think it’s correct to say the Sons of Iraq turned against the insurgency.  They are the insurgency.  This has big implications.  Because what happened of course then was the US paid off these guys to stop fighting us and paid them to kill some jihadis, mostly foreign.  This necessary act undermined however the goal and strategy of the entire operation:  namely the creation of a centralized pan-ethnic government.  The fact that they were paid off by the US (against Maliki’s wishes) means that underneath they are still the insurgency against the Shia.  Against the government.  Just waiting for their moment.

Maliki knows this and that is why he is trying to preemptively neuter them.

While it’s true as Reihan states that Maliki distrusts the Sons of Iraq because any legitimate state in a Weberian sense wants a monopoly on force. But Reihan is missing a key point here.  The specific reason he distrusts this specific non-state militia is that leaders within the movement have professed that once they finish off al-Qaeda their next target is the Shia government.

In sum, the only (given the history, culture, ethno-religious makeup) way Iraq stays together with a strong central government is under a dictatorship–see Maliki’s recent heavy handedness not only with the Sunni but now with the Kurds.  The notion of a national reconciliation/strong central gov’t, constitutional democracy is not in the cards.  And still too many are thinking in terms of the US imposing its will–either through force or persuasion.  It ain’t happenin’.  It hasn’t happened in nigh on six years.  And it ain’t startin’ anytime soon.

Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 9:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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As Good as Post on Iraq as You’ll Read

From Dr. I-Rack at Abu Muqawama. He details good news, lingering bad news, and potential deal breakers.

On the positive side violence against US forces is down to 2004 levels however:

1. The right metric for violence? Attack levels are now down to March 2004 levels, but overall Iraqi civilian casualty numbers over the past few months (perhaps a better gauge of stability) are still at late 2005/early 2006 levels. That is a big improvement over late 2006/early 2007, but Iraq remains a very dangerous place.

Maliki has won some short term tactical victories against Sadr (it would appear) and according to the good Dr. may have a moment’s opening with the Sunnis. But Maliki is not interested in dealing with the Sunnis, integrating the Awakening Sons of Iraq into the army or any such thing. Maliki sees his role as the protection of the Shia particularly the traditional Shia order. Down the road the question is how long can the ISCI (which wants federal Shia regionalization in the South) and Maliki (who wants to become a strongman dictator) link up last? Seems to me some potential tension points there.

As with other operations, some networks of the Mahdi Army clearly have been hit, but also some have not. Plenty have escaped, the balloon was squeezed and people went elsewhere. Sadr is moving towards revolution from below via the poor outreach social organization of the movement.

And more importantly the tactical wins to the degree they happened were dependent (as Dr. points out) due to US airstrikes and logistics.

To invoke Biden for a second, this still does not get at the heart of the lack of a political deal. Just seems like different militias (some the government, some not) moving pieces on a chessboard and some short term reduction in violence (though again far too high for civilians).

To wit:

3. Electing to fight. There is a real danger of violent intra-sectarian competition in the lead-up to, or immediate aftermath of, the provincial elections. For obvious reasons, considerable attention has been paid to intra-Shia fights in recent months between Dawa/ISCI and OMS/JAM, and this could generate more strife as the ascendant but still unpopular Dawa/ISCI compete with OMS/JAM’s residual “street” power. Less noted in the media is the risk for intra-Sunni clashes between tribal and Awakening forces and “Green Zone” Sunni groups (Tawafoq/IIP) in the lead up to elections or in their aftermath if either side feels like they were cheated out of their rightful share of power.

So to bring this back to US political discourse, when Andrew Sullivan (and a reader who sends in the comment he responds to) says that McCain was as right in 2007 as Obama was in 2002, this doesn’t quite work.

Because this is still conflating correctness relative to military tactics (McCain) with overall strategic correctness (Obama). I could even quibble with the McCain was right tactically given the real reductions had to do with the flipping of the Sunni tribes (which started before the surge and is not tied to the surge), the separation of the populations/ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (again prior the surge), etc, but I’ll just give him that for the purposes of the argument.

The reader’s comment states:

The fact remains: he [McCain] was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress.

Everything following the but seems on the surface to make logical sense. But I think what Iraq has shown overall is that the US has no influence over the politics and the assumption that the US working to create some local deals, reduce violence, security does not translate (at least hasn’t yet) into political progress. I actually think it won’t and is structurally set up not to. In a weird way (and disturbing because obviously I don’t want this) I actually think there won’t be political “progress” or rather end-game status/new equilibrium until there is more violence. Horrifically much more violence.

The only other option being that Maliki does in fact become a dictator in which case we’ve changed a Sunni dictator for perhaps a slightly less villainous Shia one. Though by most accounts Maliki would give Hussein a good run for his money on levels of paranoia. [Though in the Iraqi context, what I would label paranoia might from that vantage point be better termed intelligence].

I should put my cards out on the table and state that I think the country known as Iraq is gone and is not coming back. All Petraeus’ horses and all his men are not putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In that sense, McCain and his support of the surge may not have been right nor wrong but merely sideways to the central issue: there’s no endgame. The reader admits nearly as much but I don’t think takes that insight to its conclusion. Namely if there is no sense of where to go next and any ability to influence such a plan, how then does reduction in violence lead to a place no one really has any idea about? Made worse insofar as McCain publicly upholds the idea of a unified pan-ethnic state that is an ally in the war on terror.

[And this is not to downplay the reduction in violence, though if the gains in violence reduction are more to with the US army, then obviously withdrawing troops a la Baker-Hamilton would have reduced probably more violence against US soldiers as there would be a lot less of them].

Biden on the Surge

It’s a failure.

Finally somebody has the guts to say this.  Obama needs to learn this response.  It was created to afford political reconciliation.  In light especially of the recent failed offensive against the Mahdi Army, the surge is dead.  There is no reconciliation coming.

This says it all:

“I believe the president has no strategy for success in Iraq,” Biden said. “His plan is to muddle through, and hand the problem off to his successor.” Republicans say they are satisfied with the recent drop in violence and that more time is needed to improve the situation there.

Here’s the crux of the issue.   The surge was no surge but an escalation and a further embedding in Iraq which will now be harder to extricate from.  No words exist to make clear how pathetic the president’s handling of this has been and his desire (as Biden correctly notes) to dispense with any responsibility and leave this to someone else.  Just like the rest of his life, rich boy son who messes things up and someone else has to fix his screwup while he floats to the next opportunity, never held responsible.

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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