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Archive for March, 2009

Michael Hanna has some wise words for those of us who think the U.S. is leaving Iraq hanging out to dry by committing to withdraw its forces regardless of the consequences:

I shudder to contemplate genocide in Iraq or even wide-scale sectarian/ethnic war, and the possibility of regional instability is not something to be taken lightly. So there are valid concerns about our withdrawal on national interest and purely ethical terms. But I wonder what we could do to stop such a war if it actually broke out. In 2006-2007, we were not able to halt the civil war; many Iraqis believe we simply sat on the sidelines and dealt with the consequences once the sectarian fighting had sorted things out for us. Would we be able to exert our will in the future with decreased troop numbers? I have serious doubts on that front.

Fair enough. Let’s for the sake of argument say that even if it would save lives, an open-ended military commitment is ultimately unwise because it’s costly and it’s bad for everybody. Surely, then, the U.S. must be helping Iraq in some other way? Trying to facilitate refugee return? Speeding up reconstruction? Working with the UN to solve the Kirkuk problem? Making sure that when American troops depart, an international effort to stave off another civil war will kick in? You know, as in “when we stand down, they will stand up”?

That’s right, I’m being facetious. And the reason is that while I can see a strategy for a military pullout, I don’t see any sign of a “civilian surge”, or, in fact, anything resembling a concerted effort to give Iraq a hand. Maybe it’s because after the U.S. military re-made itself into a soft power counterinsurgency force in 2007 and basically took over post-conflict clean-up duties from the civilians, no one thought to come up with a plan for what to do when the soldiers eventually leave.

Or maybe there is such a plan, we just haven’t seen it yet.

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“When I was on book tour in California last week,” Tom Ricks writes, “some people attending one of my signings were arguing for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and said that they understood that a genocidal civil war might break out there — but didn’t care.” Ricks wonders: “Do a lot of Americans see it that way?”

I don’t know about ordinary Americans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt pretty confused. After all, many of those who should know better — the wise, the educated, the influential — are calling for a swift withdrawal regardless of the consequences. Here’s how Andrew Sullivan sums it up:

The place will go to hell when we leave. Which is not a reason to stay.

What puts Sullivan in a class of his own is that unlike many other pullout advocates, he acknowledges the likelihood of disaster yet flaunts his callousness shamelessly. This is particularly presumptuous coming from a man who supported the stupid goddamn war.

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How do we know when a war ends? Judah has a point when he calls for “a consensus on a good working definition of peace”:

That’s what will ultimately determine when we actually leave the wars we’re currently engaged in. So far, no one has really gotten around to identifying exactly how we’ll know there’s no more job left to be done. Depending on the criteria used, Mexico might not meet the definition. For that matter, a number of American cities during my lifetime might not have either.

Here’s the thing, though: The stated goal of the international coalition in Afghanistan, and of the U.S. in Iraq, is not peace but victory. Let’s not confuse one with the other. Victory is not a prerequisite for peace, nor does it necessarily lead to one. Wars have a tendency to produce victors yet go on for years after morphing into other conflicts. Sixty years of bloodshed in the Middle East have not brought peace despite glorious victories. And in Afghanistan, war has followed war even when one side has prevailed over another. Victory smells like napalm in the morning.

The American obsession with winning has caused nothing but trouble for us all. In Iraq, the U.S. has apparently settled for being able to say it won and skipping town before everything unravels. In Afghanistan, despite all the fancy talk of ending the conflict by non-military means, the aim still is first and foremost to beat the Taleban, while peace slips further away. In Pakistan, victory over al-Qaeda is so important it does not seem to matter that the whole country might go down as collateral damage.

Scoring a victory is easy compared to the herculean task of actually ending a war. In Iraq, for example, ultimately the question is “whether the civic culture required to sustain democracy has taken root in society”, David Smith writes in the New Atlanticist:

People must respect the outcome of elections, letting the government govern until the next constitutionally appointed election.  During the interval, citizens have a right to express themselves, even to show their strength and ardor in orderly public demonstrations.  Moreover, they should build the institutions of democracy—effective political parties, alternative programs, meaningful local elections and articulate non-governmental organizations. However, democratic culture must distinguish between freedom of expression and the political immaturity of street action purportedly in the country’s interest, but simply aimed at toppling the elected government.

In The Gamble, the dissident generals, desperate for a change in strategy, fret over and again how the U.S. is close to “losing”. Disappointingly, Ricks never challenges them to define defeat. What exactly was the U.S. losing in 2006 that it isn’t losing now? As long as victory, not peace, is the overriding concern, Iraq — and all the other countries where the West is waging war — will remain just as close to the abyss as they were when things were supposed to be worse.

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Things will definitely get worse in Iraq before they get better. Today, the country’s parliament voted to cut the 2009 budget by 7 percent — nearly $4,2 billion — due to plummeting oil prices. Anyone who has bothered to venture out into Iraq’s cities knows that the situation is desperate, with infrastructure in ruins, unemployment rampant and people generally at the end of their tether. What little flicker of hope there is has focused on the government’s pledge to use oil revenues to make things more bearable, but that now seems increasingly unlikely.

The repercussions will be grim. The SoI will go unintegrated, the army won’t be paid, returning refugees and IDPs will be left to fend for themselves, reconstruction will grind to a halt, and before long, we’ll see the Kurds and the Arabs battling over Kirkuk’s oil.

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Men at Work

I’m traveling in the U.S. for a few days. Posting will be light.

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Iraq: The Forever War

It took the better part of a trans-Atlantic flight, but I finally finished The Gamble. What I find most admirable about Ricks’s book is that it manages to paint an incredibly bleak (and to my mind, realistic) picture of the future of the U.S. endeavour in Iraq while at the same time giving credit for the success of the surge to those who deserve it.

In a twist of fate only armed conflict can bring about, many of us who opposed the war now find ourselves siding with its architects, who keep sounding the alarm on withdrawal plans they think are reckless. Ricks:

Even as security improved in Iraq in 2008, I found myself consistently saddened by the war, not just by its obvious costs to Iraqis and Americans, but also by the incompetence and profligacy with which the Bush administration conducted much of it. Yet I also came to believe that we can’t leave.

I couldn’t agree more.

Unlike, ahem, some others, Ricks is not a moralist, but I liked the fact that he lets Crocker have the last word:

‘What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves […] I think is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what’s happened up to now.’

Again — my thoughts exactly.

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Talking about narratives: Here’s what the ISAF press office is feeding journos in Afghanistan. Dig it:

  • The Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF are making progress on the ground.
  • The Afghan National Army is a significant success story.
  • NOTE to PAO: If pressed, reference to force capability deficiencies rather than estimated numbers should be made. In general, issues concerning force generation should not be debated in public.
  • Progress is steady, but there remains a long way to go.
  • Any talk of stationing or deploying Russian military assets in Afghanistan is out of the question and has never been the subject of any considerations.

[h/t: Ambinder.]

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Since President Barack Obama announced his plan last week to withdraw the bulk of U.S. troops from Iraq by August 2010, I’ve watched the debate in the U.S. with an increasingly heavy heart. Among the many wise opinions uttered, I can’t find one that seriously addresses what I think is the crucial moral question: If Iraq implodes after 2011, who is responsible?

There are a number of schools of thought on this, some more cynical than others, but almost all equally America-centered — curiously so, since many of the same observers advocate what they believe is an “Iraq-centric” approach.

There are those, for example, who claim that Iraq was already broken in more ways than one when the U.S. invaded. Devastated by 13 years of economic sanctions, the country was divided by sectarian and ethnic faultlines. Conservative Islam was a fact of life, because that was what many ordinary Iraqis, encouraged by Saddam, had embraced to make their pitiful existence more tolerable. Hence, this line of thinking goes, even if Saddam would have been deposed by internal opposition instead of a foreign army, upheaval would’ve been inevitable.

Another school of thought posits that even if we allow that America “broke” Iraq, it can now be said to have been “fixed” to such a degree that the new, unwieldy construct can be handed back to its rightful owners. And if they break it again, well, too bad — superpower glue jobs don’t come with a guarantee.

I have a couple of issues with these arguments.

First, the fact that Iraq was already fractured and bankrupt in 2003 is a poor excuse for making it even worse so. The shock of war unleashed forces that the Americans were ill-prepared to handle and that the Iraqis couldn’t have handled even if they’d wanted to, because they’d been stripped of power. Things may or may not have been different, had Saddam been removed in a domestic coup. But at least the Iraqis themselves would’ve been responsible for making the new order work. The minute the first U.S. combat boots hit Iraqi soil, that responsibility was placed on America’s shoulders.

Second, I find the idea that Iraq is now being “fixed” — or will be “fixed” enough by 2011 for the U.S. to pack up and leave — arrogant to say the least. By all indicators, Iraq is a mess, and there’s no reason to believe it will be significantly less so in 2011. Sticking to his timetable will be politically expedient for Obama, who will be up for re-election just one year later, in 2012; and being seen as the one who kicked out the Americans will do wonders for Maliki’s strongman credentials. But I doubt whether ordinary Iraqis will appreciate the end result.

Why does this matter? It matters because great powers are in the habit of wreaking havoc without assuming any responsibility, but with a new president running one of those powers, I think there’s a chance for improvement. The first step is to recognise that once you choose to change other people’s destinies by force, the responsibility never ends. No matter what convulsions have racked Afghanistan since the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, Russia will always be held accountable, and for good reason. Do they care? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean the United States should be equally cynical about Iraq.

Of course, there are better ways to show that you care than keeping 150,000 troops in a country forever. But in the wave of relieved punditry about Obama’s speech — about America finally, finally getting out of that dirty, miserable Iraq — I haven’t seen one mention of what exactly those non-military measures would be.

I’ll let Reidar Visser have the last word:

[…] Much seems to hinge on the efforts of some of the top diplomats recently nominated to key positions. There will be ‘sustained diplomacy’ with the aim of establishing a ‘prosperous and peaceful Iraq’, and the United States is going to be an ‘honest broker’, but where is the leverage in this process going to come from? […] Will elections assistance by the United Nations and capacity-building assistance to the Iraqi government be sufficient to deal with the monumental task of getting the Iraqi constitutional process back on track? The withdrawal will not start in earnest until after the parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2009 […], but where are the measures that can help turn those elections into the truly transformative moment that Iraq never got during the first try in 2005 – and thereby make the US presence tolerable and perhaps even legitimate in the eyes of most Iraqis until 2010, in a determined but finite political ‘surge’?

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What the…?

The United States believes Iran has obtained enough nuclear material to make a bomb, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said on Sunday.

‘We think they do, quite frankly,’ Mullen said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ program when asked whether Iran has enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

[UPDATE: Turns out this is old news. Mullen is touting the false narrative that Jeffrey Lewis has already deconstructed. And here’s Gates trying to salvage what he can.]

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