Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Last week, the terrorists scored a temporary win by bombing the Golden Mosque in Samarra. Retaliatory attacks pocked Iraq's urban landscapes, providing striking TV images. Starved for headlines, the global media declared a civil war.
But the Iraqis didn't sign up. Yes, there was "unrest." And a daytime curfew was imposed. But after an initial spate of bickering, Iraq's key leaders came together — as they could not have done under Saddam — to calm the situation.
More deaths and dangers lie ahead. Poor decisions made three years ago in Washington mean that we travel Baghdad's streets well-armed today. We never had enough troops at the bottom or sufficient integrity at the top. Now no honest voice would claim that America "owns" Iraq.
But that's less and less relevant. Ownership rightfully belongs to the Iraqis, and we've always believed that. Slowly but steadily, the better souls are taking responsibility for their own country. Setbacks frustrate us — but frustrate Iraqis even more.
Worried that we'll abandon them (a fear based on recent American history), many Iraqis sit on the fence in public. But they do not support the terrorists or insurgents. They want better lives, not more bombs.
What's most notable about the sectarian disturbances of the past week is what didn't happen: Extremists on both sides had a bash in the streets, but the general population didn't turn out. Iraqi security forces responded more effectively than they could have done even six months ago. Our own troops intervened, but at a lower pitch than in the past.
To the chagrin of the press, the country's leaders continue to muddle through. That may not sound inspiring, but it should. Well-intentioned men and women from each of the country's major constituencies are trying to find a formula for a new Iraq that works....
The situation in Iraq is far less rosy than our pigheaded ideologues promised. But, in this imperfect world, even the best results are flawed. Given the complexity of Iraq's human composition and its gore-soaked history, we should be astonished that the country's moving forward at all....
Yet, in their way, the Iraqis have more confidence than we do. Collectively and individually, they're struggling to find their place in a new order whose shape has yet to be settled. The country's future remains undecided — as it will for years to come.
Here in Baghdad, I stand by my position of three years past: We won't know the true results of our engagement in Iraq for at least a decade. And the Iraqis, not us, will decide the outcome.
Meanwhile, Iraq is moving forward. The process may be stronger than our disappointed initial expectations allow us to see. The real story of the tumult of the past week is that it didn't spread and didn't completely derail the painful process of forming a new government. Zarqawi didn't win.
If we're frustrated, the terrorists must be far more disappointed. What you really saw over the past several days was passive resistance to fanaticism. Despite old hatreds, the people spoke by refusing to succumb to calls for violence. Iraq could still break into bits, but we just witnessed an unsung moral victory.
Recognizing that there are bitter divisions over whether Iraq was a legitimate extension of the wider war, almost nobody disagrees that it is part of that war now. Commentators tend to obsess about the impact of present-day events on the future of Iraq and the politics of Coalition democracies, but the most important effects are on the wider war against al Qaeda and its ideological allies. When we look at Iraq through that lens, we see an entirely different debate. The clear majority in the West argue that the war in Iraq is enormously beneficial to the jihad. A small, besieged minority -- of which I am a member -- believe that Iraq is to al Qaeda as Kursk was to Germany, or Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union: a strategic ambush. Even as the war has clearly deepened anti-Americanism in the region, perhaps irredeemably so, as Peters argues it has also polarized millions of Arabs and other Muslims against the jihad. This polarization is the necessary first step to victory against the jihadi ideology.
Jihadism will not be defeated and the terrorist threat to the West ended until the ideology that underlies it is discredited among Arabs and Muslims. Why? Because only Arabs and Muslims can win this war, which is first and foremost a massive civil insurgency within Islam. If love of America were a prerequisite to that result, we would be in a lot of trouble in the wider war. However, as I have argued many times before, the crucial prerequisite is not that we win hearts, but that the jihad, by its actions and failures, makes enemies. As this happens, as the Arab and Muslim world realizes that the jihadis offer only death and despair notwithstanding their soaring rhetoric, more Arabs and Muslims will supply the intelligence and make the sacrifices necessary to defeat al Qaeda and its allies in the streets and finally in the caves.
The great opponents of the Iraq war, including many liberal hawks who have now "returned," argue that al Qaeda has leveraged the Iraq war into waves of new volunteers and huge new resources. However, this almost certainly true but exquisitely unidimensional fact is of little use in describing the wider jihad's strategic condition. The armed forces and military industrial capacity of Germany were almost certainly larger at the end of 1942 than at the end of 1941, but that did not mean that its position had improved. So it is with al Qaeda.
How do the jihadis earn these enemies that will one day, this generation or the next, defeat them? In two ways. First, the jihadis hurt their own credibility by adopting tactics that alienate Arabs and Muslims. The United States and its allies presented al Qaeda with an irresistable hard target when it occupied Iraq. Austin Bay made precisely this point two months before the invasion.1 When al Qaeda and its domestic Sunni allies failed to dent the hard target they had to choose between giving up on Iraq -- a decision that would have shattered their credibility -- or attacking softer targets. They started blowing up civilians, particularly Shiites, which decision polarized the insurgency and created millions of enemies of al Qaeda. They extended their war to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project survey taken before the attacks on Egypt and Jordan, support among Muslims for suicide bombing as a tactic and Osama bin Laden as a leader declined significantly between 2003 and July 2005, notwithstanding surging anti-Americanism during the same period. It is a safe bet that the jihad and its ideology is even less popular after the slaughter at Sharm al-Sheikh, Amman and the Golden Mosque.
Second, the jihadis create enemies by failing. Yes, al Qaeda was able to attract volunteers, money and arms to "defend" Iraq. Notwithstanding the ignominious failure of the optimistic scenarios peddled by the Bush administration before the war and in the early months of the occupation, the lingering imperfections of Iraqi democracy and the continuing low-grade war, it is far more likely than not that Iraq will sustain the most diverse and representative government in the Arab world (with the possible exception of Lebanon). More importantly, it does not matter if the Arab world believes that this result is in spite of America's efforts, rather than because of them. Indeed, al Qaeda will be all the more humiliated -- and its ideology that much more discredited among Muslims -- if Muslims believe that Iraqis alone defeated it in Iraq.
Chew on that, and report back in the comments.
1. Some of his subsidiary predictions have not come true -- yet, at least -- but Col. Bay is close to the military and has confirmed to me that our wisest soldiers recognized that Iraq was an ambush for al Qaeda even if it was not characterized as such by the administration in advance of the war. And why should it have been? Who tells the enemy where you are setting an ambush?
Yes, we certainly agree that Al Qaeda has squandered any opportunity to either be a popular movement inside the Islamic world or to establish a caliphate under its control. It can still murder but as a strategic threat it is finished.
But as we dicussed in December, the Iraq and Iran problems are merging into one integrated problem for the West.
And this in turn will cause the structure of the violence in Iraq to change. What was once a problem with Al Qaeda will become a struggle between a mostly secular Iraqi government and army versus the religious militias, many sponsored by Iran (see this post for more).
I saw a comment somewhere that Iraq was rapidly developing the best trained and most capable military in the region. Given America's stewardship of their military training, I am not surprised by this claim.
In the event the US chooses to arm Iraq, it is likely to become the counterweight to Iran's regional ambitions -- as it was intended by the west that Saddam would be.
The question is one of time. Armed with nuclear capability today, would Iran attack Iraq? If and when they are, will they do so then? How should the US/Iraq manage Iran today?
Iran will have profound military shortcomings -- but it will have mass and terrain on its side.
I continue to believe the White House is simply playing for time. It is the ambition of the US to have Iraq a stable ally in a conflict with Iraq. And furthermore, it is the correct ambition that Iraq will have stable relationships with its neighbors -- Saudi, Jordan and Syria. In the competition for relationships in the region, the Persians have a significant disadvantage -- they're not Arab, they're not Sunni, and they fought a war which killed 1mm Iraqis from 1981-1988. It would be safe to say that Saudi Arabia and Iraq both share historical hostility towards Iran.
It is true that the media is rooting for a civil war. It isn't quite that crass -- but they want the White House to be wrong above all. What they fail to appreciate is that there really can't be a balanced civil war per se...there can only eventuate a decimation of the Iraqi population. Shiite and Kurd restraint is the only thing that renders the concept of a civil war even modestly plausible. Remove that restraint, and you will not have a civil war, but a genocide, suggesting that generally, stability will prevail.
To analogize to Israel for a moment, if you analyze it, generally stability prevails there, with occasional gang warfare. Israel exercises restraint, thus doesn't annihilate the Palestinians. And the Palestinians can only suffer so much misery before the intifada becomes exhausted. Iraq is somewhat similar, though more violent given the recency of the sunni reversal there and the spectacular proliferation of weaponry and criminals (Saddam did release 100,000 prisoners into the population) before we turned him out.
Peters' report is good and balanced, given his distaste for the current SECDEF and more than occasional criticisms of our military strategy. His criticisms are legitimate, and they are actually quite simple--we should have put far more boots on the ground, in his judgment. His view, we then would have better controlled Iraq.
I actually disagree. I think we would have had similar control problems, and many more casualties simply for providing more targets. We didn't invade to occupy, we invaded to decapitate, stabilize and move out. I think a smaller force has allowed us to achieve that.
The American officers who come out of this war will probably be the most impressive group certainly since WWII. Extraordinary what they are accomplishing.