On War #229
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
William S. Lind
The "surge" in Iraq continues to generate good news, at least in the American press. Today's Cleveland Plain Dealer includes a typical story, in this case by Robert Burns of the Associated Press:
To the degree the good news is true, it probably has more to do with the last sentence quoted above than with troop numbers. It may also reflect a large dose of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. Some of the decline in violence in Baghdad is due not to U.S. troops but to the fact that the Shiites have completed the ethnic cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. A good portion of the improvement in Anbar province is a product of Al Qaeda blunders, which have alienated part of its base. While adoption of classic counter-insurgency techniques by U.S. forces is genuine good news, we should not assume events in Iraq are solely or even primarily a result of our actions. We are one player among many, and not always the most important.
It is also easy to forget the strategic measure of effectiveness, i.e., whether or not we see the re-emergence of a state in Iraq. Such American successes as are real stem largely from accepting the fact that there is no state and filling the void with local alliances. As Mr. Burns writes,
That is what American commanders should do, because it is all they can do. But it is a step away from, not toward, a restored Iraqi state.
That strategic step backwards is accompanied by a large and dangerous operational step backwards, namely moving toward a war with Iraq's Shiites. The August 6 Plain Dealer, in a story by AP's Kim Gamel reported that
This is a danger sign that should engage the urgent attention of senior American commanders. If we replace a war against Iraqis Sunnis with a war against the Shiites, we will not only have suffered a serious, self-inflicted operational defeat, we will endanger our whole position in Iraq, since our supply lines mostly run through Shiite country.
I say such a defeat would be self-inflicted because Shiite attacks on Americans in Baghdad seem to be responses to American actions. In dealing with the Shiites, we appear to be doing what spurred the growth of the Sunni insurgency, i.e., raids, air strikes and a "kill or capture" policy directed against local Shiite leaders. Not only does this lead to retaliation, it also fractures Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army as he tries to avoid fighting us. Such fracturing works against, not for, the potential re-creation of an Iraqi state.
A return to practices we know are counter-productive in dealing with Iraq's Shiites raises the question of motive. Are we so bloody stupid that at the same time we seem to have learned something about counter-insurgency against the Sunnis we are making the same old mistakes with the Shiites? Perhaps.
But perhaps something else is going on here. According to the story by Miss Gamel, General Odierno blamed not his own actions but Iran for the rise in Shiite attacks on Americans. Is a war with Iraq's Shiites a prelude to war with Iran? For the sake of the army we have in Iraq and our strategic position in the region, let us hope not. Sometimes, sheer stupidity is the most reassuring explanation for our actions.
William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.
To interview Mr. Lind, please contact:
Mr. William S. Lind
Direct line: 202-543-8796
The Free Congress Foundation is a 28-year-old Washington, DC-based conservative educational foundation (think tank) that teaches people how to be effective in the political process, advocates judicial reform, promotes cultural conservatism, and works against the government encroachment of individual liberties.