Previewing Petraeus and Crocker
I will have more to say later this evening about the testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before Congress today. And for live commentary today, I highly recommend my colleague Tom Ricks's liveblogging of the hearing. But before things get started, I wanted to highlight comments by two of the country's sharpest people on Iraq -- Stephen Biddle and Nir Rosen. Both testified last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and each offered a sobering outlook on the state of Iraq today. Their comments provide invaluable context for today's Petraeus and Crocker show.
Biddle cautions that we should not expect too much from Iraq's fractious political situation, and that we will likely never see Iraq evolve into "Eden on the Euphrates." But, more important, he notes that the current situation is the result of "bottom up" actions -- and not the direct result of "top down" actions like the surge of U.S. military forces -- and argues that we must continue to reinforce these successes at the provincial and local level:
Instead of a national political deal, the military defeat or disarmament of the enemy, or their conversion into peaceful politicians in a reconciled, pluralist society, violence fell because most of the former combatants reached separate, local, voluntary decisions to stop fighting even though they retained their arms, their organizations, their leaders, and often their ambitions. These decisions were not accidental or ephemeral -they reflected the post-2006 strategic reality of Iraq, which for the first time gave all the major combatants a powerful self-interest in ceasefire rather than combat. This new self-interest in ceasefire creates an important opportunity for stability. But the decentralized, voluntary nature of these ceasefires means that peace would be fragile and would need careful and persistent US management to keep it from collapsing, especially early on. . . .
This is not what the Administration had in mind when it invaded Iraq. Reasonable people could judge the costs too high and the risks too great. But an Iraq stabilized from the bottom up in this way nevertheless offers a meaningful chance to stop the fighting, to save the lives of untold thousands of innocent Iraqis who would otherwise die brutal, violent deaths, and to secure America's remaining vital strategic interest in this conflict: that it not spread to engulf the entire Middle East in a regionwide war. No options for Iraq are attractive. But given the alternatives, stabilization from the bottom up may be the least bad option for US policy in 2008.
Quite right -- all our courses of action are sub-optimal, but we still must choose one.
Rosen presents a more disturbing picture of Iraq that highlights the risks inherent in the plan Biddle suggests, particularly the risk for renewed open ethno-sectarian warfare:
Today Iraq does not exist. It has no government. It is like Somalia, different fiefdoms controlled by warlords and their militias. I have spent most of the last five years since April 2003 in Iraq, with Iraqis, focusing on their militias, mosques and other true centers of power. Events in the Green Zone or International Zone were never important, because power was in the street since April 2003. When the Americans overthrew Saddam and created a power vacuum, massive looting followed. That first month of Occupation there was enormous hope, but the looting created an atmosphere of pervasive lawlessness from which Iraq never recovered. The entire state infrastructure was destroyed and there were no security forces, Iraqi or American, to give people a sense of safety. They quickly turned to inchoate militias being formed, often along religious, tribal and ethnic lines. Those same militias dominate Iraq today. This would have happened anywhere. If you removed the government in New York City, where I am from, and removed the police, and allowed for the state infrastructure to be looted and then you dismissed the state bureaucracy you would see the same thing happen. Soon Jewish gangs would fight Puerto Rican gangs and Haitan gangs would fight Albanian gangs.
. . . In 2007, when most reasonable observers were calling for a reduction of American troops and an eventual withdrawal, the Bush administration decided to increase the troops instead. The immediate impact was nothing, and since it began nearly a million Iraqis fled their homes, mostly from Baghdad, and Baghdad became a Shiite city. So one of the main reason less people are being killed is because there are less people to kill. This is a key to understanding the drop in violence. Shiites were cleansed from Sunni areas and Sunnis were cleansed from Shiite areas. Militias consolidated their control over fiefdoms. The violence in Iraq was not senseless, it was meant to displace the enemy's population. And if war is politics by other means, then the Shiites won, they now control Iraq. Fortunately for the planners of the new strategy, events in the Iraqi civil war were working in their favor. The Sunnis had lost. They realized they could no longer fight the Americans and the Shiites, and many decided to side with the Americans, especially because many Sunnis identified their Shiite enemy with Iran, America's sworn enemy as well. The Americans armed both sides in the civil war. David Kilcullen, the influential Australian counter insurgency advisor, defined it as "balancing competing armed interest groups."Though supporters of the war touted the surge as a success, they forgot that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed, the millions displaced, and the thousands of dead and wounded Americans just so that violence could go back to the still horrifying levels of just a couple of years ago.
This apocalyptic picture represents the dark side of the American strategy, and the potential outcome of a withdrawal after years of training, equipping and organizing partisans on various sides of Iraq's ethno-sectarian-political divides. I agree with Biddle that we must continue to pursue a bottom-up approach that leverages our meager successes at the provincial and local level -- largely because the Maliki government is rotten to its core and incapable of ever forming a viable, effective national government. But I think we must do so cognizant of the risks highlighted by Rosen and others -- and understand that our actions one day might create the conditions for renewed violence the next.
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