Thursday, April 05, 2007

Shifting Strategies in Iraq

Almost since Day 1 of the invasion, we've been discussing what the strategy is supposed to be in Iraq. One approach after another has been proposed, and so far all of them have failed to produce stability in the country. Now we have the "surge", but it's unlikely to produce any lasting improvement in the security situation in Baghdad, let alone all of Iraq. Awhile back Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations proposed we be willing to play each side (Sunni and Shiite) against the other, balancing their power and their interests in a way that left them no choice but to reach an accomodation. The Bush administration has never seen fit to adopt so radical a proposition, and at this point there's no promise that such a strategy-even adopted aggressively-would ultimately do anything to save the country from civil war. Now Professor Alan Kuperman of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin echoes Biddle with a plan that would have us getting behind moderate Sunnis, but with somewhat different purpose in mind:
Neither President Bush's surge of troops, nor the withdrawal deadline Congress is expected to send to him after the Easter recess, has any hope of stabilizing Iraq. So it is time to contemplate a more radical option: Switch our allegiance from that country's Shiite-controlled government to its moderate Sunni minority, on condition they help us wipe out Sunni extremists in Iraq, including al-Qaeda.

Because no option can stabilize Iraq quickly, we should refocus on our greatest achievable objective: preventing al-Qaeda from establishing a haven. This danger arises because Iraq's moderate Sunnis have allied with their extremist Sunni rivals. Why? They're trying to fend off domination and ethnic cleansing by the majority Shiites, who control Iraq's government, army and militias. Indeed, the U.S. strategy of bolstering and training Iraq's Shiite-controlled army drives Sunni moderates into extremist hands. The only way to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq is to switch our primary allegiance to Iraq's moderate Sunnis.
Kuperman is nothing if honest about what this plan means:
The most delicate problem would be managing our existing alliance with Iraq's Shiite-led government. In an ideal world, even as we armed the Sunni moderates to stamp out al-Qaeda, we could continue working with Iraq's Shiites to marginalize their militias, enabling the quick stabilization of Iraq under a moderate inter-sectarian government. But that scenario is improbable.

More likely, the moderate Sunnis would use our military aid not merely to quash al-Qaeda but to try to reverse recent ethnic cleansing. Shiite and Kurd militias would retaliate in kind. Iraq's government, dependent on support from militia leaders, including Muqtada al-Sadr, would not dare confront them. So the United States would be compelled to reduce military assistance to the government.

The good news is that al-Qaeda would be marginalized, but at least initially, Iraq's civil war would escalate. U.S. forces, needlessly in harm's way, would have to be withdrawn. The exception would be a limited number of special operations troops to arm, train and monitor the moderate Sunni forces, and coordinate airstrikes on extremists, as they did with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance in 2001.

Peace would become possible only much later, after our aid bolstered the Sunni moderates and produced an ethno-sectarian balance of power, leading to a protracted stalemate that convinced each side victory was impossible. Americans will be dissatisfied by this strategy because it cannot stabilize Iraq quickly. But no option can accomplish that cherished objective, and at least this plan could stamp out al-Qaeda in Iraq while permitting withdrawal of most U.S. ground troops.
Actually, Kuperman's plan adopts the central premise of Biddle's proposal, which is that we'd bolster the Sunnis to balance out the excesive power of the Shiite majority. But beyond the shock the Shiites might experience upon being told we were going to arm moderate Sunnis, they would still have to learn the hard way that the balance of power had changed. That would mean more fighting, until each side "learned" from the other the relative limits of their power.

But in assessing the situation honestly, how can we say we're not already at that point? Only American political pressure on the majority Shiite government, and veiled hints that we might not be so willing to arm them in the future if they didn't accede (or make the appearance of acceding) to our wishes to cool it with the death squads, has so far prevented the government from allowing the militias they are allied with to run rough-shod over the Sunnis Iraqis. But the government faces incredible pressure from those militias and their political wings, as well as from many ordinary Iraqi Shiites, to crack down on the Sunnis. For their part, Sunni extremists and their allies in Al Qaeda have been more than happy to provoke reprisals that push more and more moderate Sunnis into fighting back. However the situation looks now, the Sunnis are in truth far weaker than the Shiites. But they are not yet convinced of that fact, nor can the government or the death squads entirely prevent their attacks, and as is the case in all war, one side will battle the other until one or both realize that neither can "win" over the other. The fact of the matter is our troops are only delaying that day of reckoning, by trying to cap violence that we cannot ultimately stop or contain. Thus, the "surge" is the worst of both worlds: there will be neither peace, nor full war that will eventually lead to peace.

Kuperman's plan not only accepts this grim reality, but is more in accord with our interests. Although the Democrats have been quiet about what they have in mind once our soldiers begin redeploying from Iraq, it's speculated that they've accepted that some soldiers will remain behind to hunt terrorists (and in fact their budgets for the war seem to allow for such.) If that's one of our goals, why not employ Sunnis to help us do it? Incidents of violence between Sunni tribes and Al Qaeda are well-documented going back to at least a year ago (though they so far have failed to produce a decisive rift between the two groups. ) We should be taking advantage of that, arming moderate Sunni groups that have less reason to attack us, and more reason to attack foreign fighters and Shiite death sqads.

Secondl, it's no secret that in toppling Saddam's anti-Iran regime and permitting a government to come to power that represents the Shiite majority, we've handed Iran a natural ally that sits right on their border. Despite this, we continue to bolster the Shiite government, even as they fail time and time again to show their unwillingness to truly represent anything other than Shiite interests. Perhaps it's time not only for the blanket approval to end, but also to show the Shiites that we're not unwilling to assist the Sunnis in their efforts to defend themselves from Shiite death squads, and that we are very unwilling to allow four years of American casualties to produce nothing more than an ally of Iran that didn't exist before we invaded.

Kuperman's right that the American people would be dissatisifed with such a plan. But they're dissatisfied with the current plan, and despite initial signs of limited succes with the surge American opinion still largely supports withdrawl from Iraq. But this plan doesn't require more troops. In fact, we could implement this plan and start bringing the troops home tomorrow if we wanted to. Kuperman's plan admits that we can't bring peace to Iraq in the near-term, but gives us an opportunity still to facillitate it, if only we're willing to admit that we're facillitating bloodshed that will occur with or without our assistance, but in the hopes of producing peace faster than would otherwise come about. At the same time, we will reduce American casualties, rebuff Iranian influence over Iraq to some extent, and continue to hunt Al Qaeda.

Yes this plan sounds cold-hearted and there's more than whiff of the old-school "realpolitik" to it. No one should ever forget that it was our fool-hardy invasion that produced this situation. But at this point, what other plan do we have? And what do we have left to lose with a radically new approach?

UPDATE: For some more evidence on why we ought to be concerned about Al Qaeda in Iraq, there's this "Daily Analysis" from the Council on Foreign Relations:
As al-Qaeda grows more diffuse, its franchise operations in places like Iraq appear to be gaining in strength and numbers. Across the country, suicide attacks against civilians are up in recent months, according to a March study by the Gulf Research Center, a Middle East policy institute.

Another disturbing trend: the growing use of chlorine-laden bombs (

Of course, rumors of al-Qaeda’s demise have been grossly exaggerated before. Indeed, its tensions with Sunni groups are nothing new and stretch back to December 2005, when al-Qaeda leaders threatened Sunnis against voting in parliamentary elections. Then again, after last summer’s death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, reports surfaced of the organization’s eventual downfall, as this Backgrounder notes. Zarqawi’s successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, has kept a lower profile. Yet all the while he has proven effective at encouraging not just sectarian violence, but also Sunni-versus-Sunni violence. “Al-Qaeda is attempting to destroy any resistance in the Sunni community to the Islamic State of Iraq,” writes Bill Roggio in the Weekly Standard.
President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and other war supporters would use the same evidence to argue that we can't pull any troops out of Iraq, because Al Qaeda will be strengthened, and will in turn "follow us here." That's probably not the case, as they seem pretty well preoccupied with trying to take over or subvert the political process in Iraq, a goal which is not likely considering that they are vastly outnumbered by the Shiite majority and operate only at the pleasure of their allies-of-convenience the Sunnis. Even if we left Iraq completely, leaving absolutely no more troops behind, we would also remove any real incentive the hard-line Shiites would have not to carry out a campaign of murder and mass relocation against the Sunnis, and while Al Qaeda would trouble them for sometime, it would also be considerably more difficult for Al Qaeda to operate in such a climate. But why let it come to that? According to Kuperman we can stay, hunt Al Qaeda with our troops and arm Sunni moderates also opposed to Al Qaeda, while bringing most of our troops home.

In other words, staying in Iraq forever is not the only solution to the problem of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It's not even the best solution. It's just more of the same stuff we've seen for four years now, and don't let them try to tell you otherwise.

1 comment:

adam said...

But how would the world react to this?