Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Surging" Into a Shiite Insurgency

Among the many problems with Fred Kagan's plan for Baghdad (now being adopted by the White House as the next bold new strategy for victory in Iraq) the major one is the question of exactly what tens of thousands more American soldiers are supposed to do in relation to the Shiite militias running rampant across the city. Fred Kaplan discusses the problem here:
Kagan also explicitly states that U.S. forces should focus their efforts in the Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of Baghdad, the source of most sectarian fighting. He ignores the internecine fights among the Shiite militias. Is this intentional? Is he tacitly proposing—as Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing these days—that the United States take the Shiite side in the Iraqi civil war? If so, his briefing's advocates should make this clear, so the audiences know what they're getting into. If not, and we have to go clear, say, Sadr City too, do we need still more troops?

As impossible as it is to believe, the plan is not actually clear on what our soldiers are supposed to do about the Shiite militias, whose attacks on Sunnis are helping to drive Iraq further into civil war. But Vali Nasr thinks he knows:
The language of the administration suggests that the surge will be used to fight radical groups and sectarian militias—Sunni ones and especially Shia militias and death squads associated with Muqtada al-Sadr. But listen closely; what they mean is that surge is in fact meant to finish off Sadr. And there lies the danger.

New troops will be in Iraq not to police the streets and hold the line against the creeping violence, but to expand the war by taking on the Shia militias. This is an escalation strategy. Will it work; maybe, maybe not. But it runs the risk that it may very well provoke a Shia insurgency—something Iraq has not so far witnessed. Thus far the U.S. has faced a Sunni insurgency (which by most estimates continues to account for 80% of U.S. casualties), and sectarian violence in which Shias and Sunnis are killing each other. Shia militias are violent, destructive and radical, but Shia militias are a very different problem from the Sunni insurgency. Shia militias, unlike te insurgency, are not targeting American troops. But it looks like the administration is set to change that. Over the past year Washington and its Baghdad embassy have alienated the Shia and undermined the authority of the more moderate Ayatollah Sistani. Anti-Americanism has grown in Shia ranks as they accuse U.S. of favoring Sunnis by focusing on Shia militias rather than Sunni insurgency. By going to war with the increasingly popular Sadr Washington runs the danger of losing the Shia altogether.

I am not a proponent of the "back the Shiites" plan that some (see Cheney) in the administration seem to think is the magical formula for peace and stability in Iraq. At the same time, it would be absolute insanity to provoke the Shiites to open war against us by attempting to destroy the militias and the parties they represent, including Sadr's party. Our soldiers in Baghdad and elsewhere have very, very carefully ratcheted up a campaign over the last year to control some of the excesses of the Shiite militias. Throwing thirty-thousand troops on top of this effort, with the express goal of containing the militias militarily, is a recipe for immense casualties among our soldiers and Iraqis alike and disaster in general(and unsurprisingly, the Iraqi government opposes it.)Despite the presence of 140,000 heavily armed soldiers in Iraq, we possess only slight leverage over Sadr, and any efforts we make to sideline him in this twilight phase in Iraq must be carefullly calibrated so as not to enrage the Shiites in general. To escalate the war into a two-front fight with Sunni and Shiite insurgents would be madness.

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