Various reflections on the war
As the Iraqi parliamentary elections are about to begin, it is appropriate to take stock of where we stand in the conflict. In this month's Atlantic Monthly, veteran defense reform advocate (and editor) James Fallows has a troubling article: "Why Iraq Has No Army." In it, he repeats familiar charges against the Bush administration for failing to plan for turning over control to the Iraqis, and for failing to give the matter of training the Iraqis the urgency it was due. Some of that criticism is no doubt valid, but he goes overboard in calling the decision to the disband Iraq's army after liberation a colossal mistake. The historical verdict on that will not be rendered until several years have passed, at least. He correctly notes that many newly-trained Iraqi troops attached to U.S. units just melted away during the battles in Fallujah and Mosul in 2004, but there have been a lot of improvements since then. His overall thrust is extremely pessimistic, but at least he concludes on a sound note: Either we make a multi-year commitment to stabilize Iraq, with all resources that are necessary, or we just back out and hope for the best.
Long wars are better
Common sense tells us that, when it comes to something as horrifying and repugnant as war, the quicker it's over the better. Well, perhaps not. In The New Republic, Harvard Prof. William J. Stuntz notes that "blitzkrieg" type campaigns leave the defeated country physically intact and lacking a sense of having been conquered. Clausewitz would probably agree. (via Donald Sensing)
Training takes time
Here is another good reason to be patient: Daniel Ingham writes "Comparing Apples & Oranges: Why The Training of Iraqi Security Forces is Taking So Long" at freerepublic.com (via Chris Green, who relates his own experiences in Marine boot camp, showing why NCOs are such a vital part of the military. Every American soldier is trained to take command of his squad if the leader is killed or incapacitated.)
Sectarianism in Iraq
One worrying trend as the campaign against the Sunni-Baathist insurgency continues is that many Iraqis are turning to a Shiite-based militia for their security, especially in Basra, which is occupied by British troops. These militias are loyal to fundamentalist mullahs who have close ties to Iran, and do not tolerate minority opinions. The question of how much they should be tolerated is a very delicate one. Harsh repression would only incite a nationalistic reaction among the Shiites and spur recruitment, while a passive posture would be a signal to extremists among them that they could grab even more power. Like puppies in training, the wisest course for the U.S.-led Coalition forces right now would be to keep those militias on a loose "leash," giving them a chance to let off steam, and yanking them back when they get out of hand. If support for the war in this country continues to erode as the Fall 2006 elections approach, there will be increasing pressure to turn the job of policing Iraq over to whoever is available to do the job. Ironically, we may have made Iraq safe for Iran-inspired Shiite extremism.
Strategy and politics
Last week, Daniel Drezner examines the domestic political strategy behind the recent White House document, National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. There's some truth to that, but given the fact that this conflict rests above all on national will, such a tack is appropriate.
Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) held a news conferece today (via C-SPAN), repeating his call for a quick "redeployment" of U.S. forces out of Iraq. Of course he repeated the old lines about the supposed untruthfulness of President Bush, but what struck me the most was when he said the United States does not go to war to spread democracy, it does so for its own national interests. Obviously, he is appealing to realists like me who tend to be skeptical about invoking values such as freedom or democracy when rationalizing foreign policy. What he does not acknowledge are the facts that 1) Encouraging a friendly government to take root in Iraq emphatically is in our national interest, and 2) That the situation there is a textbook case of our values and interests being in harmony. In other words, he posits a false dichotomy. On the plus side, he expressed confidence that the Iraqis would be able to deal with the terrorists after our troops leave, which makes one wonder why he considers our intervention there a "failure." I must say, the way he stumbled over his words suggest that he is quite ineffective as a spokesman for the anti-war cause. There is a case to be made that the Bush administration made a strategic error in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime (I disagree, of course), but Murtha is not the one to articulate such an argument. His confusion and contradictions about who the enemy is, and what the terrorists are aiming for, are very sad and even pathetic.
"Truth on the Ground"
In today's Washington Post, Major Ben Connable, USMC, tries to explain to skeptics why the war in Iraq really is heading toward victory, notwithstanding the continued carnage, and why U.S. troops need to stay there until Iraq's own government has firm control. He is about to begin his third tour in Iraq, and is very confident about the mission and his troops ability to carry it out. The crux of his piece is a direct rebuttal to Rep. Murtha:
The impression of Iraq as an unfathomable quagmire is false and dangerously misleading.
It is this false impression that has led us to a moment of national truth. The proponents of the quagmire vision argue that the very presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is the cause of the insurgency and that our withdrawal would give the Iraqis their only true chance for stability. Most military officers and NCOs with ground experience in Iraq know that this vision is patently false. Although the presence of U.S. forces certainly inflames sentiment and provides the insurgents with targets, the anti-coalition insurgency is mostly a symptom of the underlying conditions in Iraq. It may seem paradoxical, but only our presence can buffer the violence enough to allow for eventual stability.
Hopefully, this eminently sensible statement from a first-hand participant in the conflict will offset the gloom purveyed by those like Rep. Murtha.