Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Facing realities in Iraq 

George Friedman, founder of Stratfor and author of America's Secret War, has issued one of his periodic Geopolitical Intelligence Reports (by subscription only), this one titled "Facing Realities in Iraq." As with all of Friedman's work, it makes startling observations that are going to leave everybody unhappy. He argues that the United States has achieved its original strategic objectives in Iraq and can exploit them for additional gains in the war on Islamist jihad, but that it cannot succeed in its broader goal of pacifying Iraq and birthing a democracy.
We ... do not agree with the view that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. It had a clear strategic purpose that it achieved: reshaping the behavior of surrounding regimes, particularly of the Saudis. This helped disrupt the al Qaeda network sufficiently that it has been unable to mount follow-on attacks in the United States and has shifted its attention to the Islamic world, primarily to the Saudis. None of this would have happened without the invasion of Iraq.

The main argument of the principled anti-war crowd (ignoring the "not in our name" numb-nuts) is that the American adventure in Iraq has both distracted us from the war on Islamist jihad and been a powerful recruitment tool for al Qaeda. Friedman believes (and has written elsewhere) that al Qaeda cannot succeed without state support, particularly from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has been doing what it can to influence Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to advance its interests, and largely succeeded before September 11. Since then, the United States has had the strategic objective of denying al Qaeda actual and potential state sponsors. The actual state sponsors included Afghanistan and substantial elements in both Pakistani and Saudi government and ruling elites. Potential state sponsors included any number of Muslim regimes, including Iran, Syria and possibly others. Since September 11, we have destroyed the government of Afghanistan and cajoled and coerced Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, at least, into depriving al Qaeda of its easy havens. Friedman argues convincingly in America's Secret War that the Iraq war has been an essential element in this progress.

But wait, there's more. And it won't make hawks happy.
As frequently happens in warfare, the primary strategic purpose of the war has been forgotten by the Bush administration. Mission creep, the nightmare of all military planners, has taken place. The United States has shifted its focus from coercing neighboring countries into collaborating with the United States against al Qaeda, to building democracy in Iraq. As we put it in May: "The United States must recall its original mission, which was to occupy Iraq in order to prosecute the war against al Qaeda. If that mission is remembered, and the mission creep of reshaping Iraq forgotten, some obvious strategic solutions re-emerge. The first, and most important, is that the United States has no national interest in the nature of Iraqi government or society. Except for not supporting al Qaeda, Iraq's government does not matter."

Within reason, of course. The return of a maniacal dictator with expansionist ambitions would be bad, but if Iraq were to revert to the Arab average in such things, Friedman would be just fine with that. This argument amounts to a total repudiation of the Wilsonian ambitions of those in the administration who believe that a democratic Iraq will help "drain the swamp" in which jihadism flourishes.

Friedman further argues that we cannot destroy the insurgency, and he does so with an analogy to Vietnam:
Most comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam are superficial and some are absurd, but one lesson is entirely relevant to Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States attempted to simultaneously re-engineer Vietnamese society and wage a counterinsurgency campaign. That proved impossible. The United States is attempting to do precisely that again in Iraq. It will fail again for the same reason: The goals are inherently contradictory.

Creating democracy in Iraq requires that democratic institutions be created. That is an abstract, bloodless way of putting it. The reality is that Iraqis must be recruited to serve in these institutions, from the army and police to social services. Obviously, these people become targets for the guerrillas and the level of intimidation is massive. These officials -- caught between the power of U.S. forces and the guerrillas -- are hardly in a position to engage in nation building. They are happy to survive, if they choose to remain at their posts.

Even this is not the central problem. In order to build these institutions, Iraqis will have to be recruited. It is impossible to distinguish between Iraqis committed to the American project, Iraqis who are opportunists and Iraqis who are jihadists sent by guerrilla intelligence services to penetrate the new institutions. Corruption aside, every one of the institutions is full of jihadist agents, who are there to spy and disrupt.

This has a direct military consequence. The goal of the Untied States in Vietnam was, and now in Iraq is, to shift the war-fighting burden -- in this case from U.S. forces to the Iraqis. This can never happen. The Iraqi army, like the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, is filled with guerrilla operatives. If the United States mounts joint operations with the Iraqis, the guerrillas will know about it during the planning stages. If the United States fights alone, it will be more effective, but the Iraqi army will never develop. For the United States, it is a question of heads you win, tails I lose.

The United States cannot win the intelligence war on the ground level. Its operations to penetrate the guerrillas depend on Iraqis working with the United States and these operations will be quickly compromised. The guerrillas on the other hand cannot be rooted out of the Iraqi military and intelligence organs because they cannot be distinguished from other Iraqis. Some will be captured. Many might be captured. But all of them cannot be captured and therefore no effective allied force can be created in Iraq. This was the center of gravity of the problem in Vietnam, the problem that destroyed Vietnamization. It is the center of gravity of the problem in Iraq.

If Friedman is correct, then the public objective of training an Iraqi army adequate to defeat the insurgency cannot be achieved. Is this a reason to despair? Friedman says that it represents an unnecessary defeat that amounts to a battle lost in a long war, but that the strategic benefits of the Iraq war remain and that the exercise has still been worthwhile. But where do we go from here in Iraq?
[The Bush Administration should] recognize these facts:

1. The United States cannot re-engineer Iraq because the guerrillas will infiltrate every institution it creates.

2. That the United States by itself lacks the intelligence capabilities to fight an effective counterinsurgency.

3. That exposing U.S. forces to security responsibilities in this environment generates casualties without bringing the United States closer to the goal.

4. That the strain on the U.S. force is undermining its ability to react to opportunities and threats in the rest of the region.

And that, therefore, this phase of the Iraq campaign must be halted as soon as possible.

This does not mean strategic defeat -- unless the strategic goal is the current inflated one of creating a democratic Iraq. Under the original strategic goal of changing the behavior of other countries in the region, the United States has already obtained strategic success. Indeed, to the extent that the United States is being drained and exhausted in Iraq, the strategic goal is actually being undermined.

We assert two principles:

1. The internal governance -- or non-governance -- of Iraq is neither a fundamental American national interest nor is it something that can be shaped by the United States even if it were a national interest.

2. The United States does require a major presence in Iraq because of that country's strategic position in the region.

It is altogether possible for the United States to accept the first principle yet pursue the second. The geography of Iraq -- the distribution of the population -- is such that the United States can maintain a major presence in Iraq without, for the most part, being based in the populated regions and therefore without being responsible for the security of Iraq -- let alone responsible its form of government.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces west and south of the Euphrates and in an arc north to the Turkish border and into Kurdistan would provide the United States with the same leverage in the region, without the unsustainable cost of the guerrilla war. The Saudis, Syrians and Iranians would still have U.S. forces on their borders, this time not diluted by a hopeless pacification program....

Certainly, it would have been nice for the United States if it had been able to dominate Iraq thoroughly. Somewhere between "the U.S. blew it" and "there was never a chance" that possibility is gone. It would have been nice if the United States had never tried to control the situation, because now the U.S. is going to have to accept a defeat, which will destabilize the region psychologically for a while. But what is is, and the facts speak for themselves.

We are not Walter Cronkite, and we are not saying that the war is lost. The war is with the jihadists around the world; Iraq was just one campaign, and the occupation of the Sunnis was just one phase of that campaign. That phase has been lost. The administration has allowed that phase to become the war as a whole in the public mind. That was a very bad move, but the administration is just going to have to bite the bullet and do the hard, painful and embarrassing work of cutting losses and getting on with the war.

Will President Bush have the courage to cut our losses now that the election is over? Friedman has some advice:
If Bush has trouble doing this, he should conjure up Lyndon Johnson's ghost, wandering restlessly in the White House, and imagine how Johnson would have been remembered if he had told Robert McNamara to get lost in 1966.

I have long believed in the possibility of an Iraq with a fairly representative government. Friedman thinks I'm wrong. If we are to accept Friedman's argument, Iraqis will have to fight a war among themselves and emerge with its own governing institutions only after that crisis. That would certainly not be a surprising result. Most states -- virtually all -- define their borders and their institutions by war, and Iraq will probably be no different.

The broader question is whether Friedman's diagnosis and prescription are correct? Should we stay the course and hope that Iraqization can succeed when Vietnamization did not, or withdraw from the civil struggle into our bases in the periphery? If Bush were to follow Friedman's advice, how tenable would those bases be over a period of years? Would a withdrawal into peripheral bases improve or diminish our capacity to coerce Iraq's border states?

These are the questions Bush must answer in 2005.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 06, 12:15:00 AM:

"But it's over in Iraq. It's finished. What we're going to see this year is the beginning of the endgame, which is how do we get Americans out without losing face and ultimately - I should say faith as well - and ultimately, how do you start negotiation with the insurgents. I mean, that doesn't mean that some American colonel is going to sit down with Zarqawi, though I wouldn't put it past the realm of possibility. It means that we're going to have in effect an understanding between the insurgents and the United States forces that the project has failed, that at some point the powers behind the insurgency or the resistance or the terrorists or whatever you would like to call them, will move into place to control the country and they probably will. In the meantime, I fear the Western powers will go on trying to promote the idea of civil war as an alternative to their occupation and oppression and I hope very much that that won't work. As I said to you before, Iraq has never had a civil war. Iraqis don't want a civil war. The only people who fear or talk about civil war are the Americans and British."

- The Mire of Death, Lies and Atrocities: Robert Fisk Looks Back at 2004

By Blogger Sluggo, at Thu Jan 06, 10:37:00 AM:

Very interesting. I'll have to scoot over to read the Friedman post.

He raises an number of sobering issues. I think his analyses are pretty solid, but his premises are flawed. Especially number one.

To say that the form of polity in Iraq is not a U.S. interest is to take the most dangerous arrow out of our quiver. Every shard of the 'resistance' has their agenda, of course, but the thing that they have in common is that democracy is what they fear most. If it works, they're gone. Of course the issue is, can it work. I didn't see any evidence or argument in the sections of Friedman's post you quoted that it can't. It is a matter of policy of the domestic opponants that it can't. It's a difficult thing to argue since there really is no precedent. But aside from defending ourselves, isn't that what we're fighting *for*? This is where, for many people, policy becomes 'faith-based' as opposed to 'reality-based'. I guess that's true enough, but if we had as much faith in democracy as our enemies had in what they're fighting for we'd be in good shape.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 06, 12:03:00 PM:

Friedman, it should be remembered, has gone from analyst to critic and author. He is also no fan of the Bush Administration, so he has an axe.

Let's try another spin, and see what we think. Elections happen on January 30 and guess what? The Shiites win, convincingly. They have made a deal with the Kurds to share power, and the Sunnis (or some fragment) are out. The choose Civil War. Ya think maybe after they've been democratically elected, and therefore have legitimacy, they won't start exacting a little Sunni revenge? Hard to say in that context the Sunnis won anything. I think that's just a bunch of baloney. The Sunnis have lost it all, period. They went from being dominators and rich to being the guys in ratholes trying to survive. Hardly a victory. And we're polite. Wait til the Shiites are in charge. Ya think their Attorney General writes some fancy torture memo to justify whispering in some terrorists ear? Yeah, the Sunnis won. Right. That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

After the elections, the US is shrinking its presence in the cities, subject to supporting the locals in their operations. And the Sunnis start enjoying a Shiite boot up the butt. About this Friedman is correct. How this adds up to a Vietnam-like loss is, well, preposterous.

Meanwhile, since the Shiites are in charge, Iran is happy and generally lays off helping the Sunnis. That's what this whole Iran bomb thing was about anyway...influencing the US in Iraq. And making sure Shiites are in charge. They still haven't figured out how to kill Sistani, which they'd like to do, because he doesn't think much of Iranian clerics. But this is still better than before.

Of course, there is still the matter of 150,000 American troops hanging out -- battle tested, victorious and very experienced. That's pretty scary stuff for the Iranians. If they weren't scared of us, they'd have run into Iraq already to try to overrun our guys. They didn't.

So, in my opinion, any analysis that says we've lost in Iraq is political BS. It bears no resemblance to any fact at all. Saddam is in jail. Shiites, non-Islamist fascists, will be in charge in an arrangement with Kurds, democratically elected on 1/30. Meanwhile, the terrorist shitbags are crawling around NOT killing American civilians HERE wondering how they wound up dealing with the world's best military ever. Maybe they really like to die AT HOME, NOT HERE. Well, we're helping them achieve ALOT of happiness.

And oh by the way, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we've lost fewer people than we lost in the WTC! In the first day of Okinawa! Pearl Harbor! On and on. Compare our military performance to US traffic fatalities, or murders or something.

And, and by another way, elections in Afghanistan???!!! With women voting!!! And Iraq???!!! Are you kidding me?

Anybody who says this won't be viewed in history as a most astounding victory is...gosh the words are so impolite.

So take Friedman with a grain of salt and use the noggin. And if something goes wrong, which it will because its war, we will fix it. It's the American way.  

By Blogger SeekerBlog.com, at Tue Mar 08, 12:09:00 AM:


Thanks heaps, mate for your comments on SeekerBlog.

We've posted a new piece on Friedman's thesis, and linked to your trackback:
SeekerBlog will take the contra on this one: we think George Friedman is wrong on this one, and George Bush is right.

Specifically that a functioning Iraqi democracy will emerge, and by 2015 will be a serious candidate for merging into the "Functioning Core".
Cheers, Steve  

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