Monday, November 10, 2008

Iraq War: Back on the front page

At least it was on Sunday's Washington Post, right there on A-1: Self-Sufficiency Still Eludes Domestic Security Forces by Mary Beth Sheridan and Ernesto LondoƱo 11/09/08.

The White House was successful in getting the war off the front page on most days. The Surge definitely accomplished that. But now that the election is over and it's soon to be President Obama's problem, I expect to see a lot more page 1 stories. Military officers who want to impede the withdrawal in some way, outgoing Bush officials and others can now be expected to leak their concerns about how badly things are going.

The stab in the back: First World War, German edition

And the Republicans will be doing everything they can to hang the failure of their merry Mesopotamian adventure on Obama and the Democrats. So they now have an incentive to highlight the bad news that they've been calling war critics unpatriotic for years now for having been paying attention to all along. I guess if your definition of "patriotism" is "supports the Republican Party", that's perfectly consistent.

On the other side, Democratic officials may feel some need to stress that proverbial good news as a way to reassure the public in the face of Republican criticism that they aren't being reckless and irresponsible in the withdrawal.

It's a temptation I hope they can resist for the most part. The war has been going for what will be six years in March. And as the Post article points out, the goals for training enough Iraqi police keeps receding into the distance like a desert mirage. (Although they don't quite put it that way.)

It's clear now that there's little reason to be concerned about an "Al Qa'ida" (Salafi extremist) takeover in Iraq. There is virtually no constituency for it. And the Sunnis have shown they will eliminate those who try. That's one of the keys to the alleged success of The Surge.

But there is a strong likelihood of the resumption of civil war after we leave, or even while we're withdrawing. So happy talk from the new administration about how good conditions have become in Iraq would wind up being counter-productive. And those like Juan Cole who actually know something about Iraq seem to think a blowup over the oil supplies of Kirkuk is virtually inevitable, and probably sooner rather than later.

None of that changes what the US needs to do: get US troops out on a rapid schedule - I would prefer one year rather than the 16 months Obama has talked about - and organize a diplomatic offensive like the one the "Hamilton-Baker" Iraq Study Group called for to prevent an all-out regional war from breaking out as the US withdraws.

The Democrats and war critics generally also need to pay close attention to how the stab-in-the-back narrative unfolds as we withdraw from Iraq. At this point, we can see how the narrative runs up until now. Things were going badly from 2003-6, though the Republicans attacked anyone who was saying that at the time in the nastiest ways, insisting that we were piling up victory after victory and soon the capital-v Victory would come. Then the legendary General Petraeus came in and did The Surge and everything was really, really wonderful this time.

And we know the end of the narrative: the war was almost won - why, Sarah Palin said so herself! - and then the Democrats came in and surrender to the Enemy. What we don't know yet are the details of the intermediate steps in the narrative.

The prevalence of the stab-in-the-back narrative among the officer corps and in Republican mythology about the Vietnam War has done a great deal of harm. It affected military assumptions in ways that contributed to the fiascoes in Iraq and also Afghanistan. And it had seriously poisonous political effects.

War critics need to do what we can to deconstruct the new stab-in-the-back narrative as it's in the process of being created. That process has been well underway since early 2005 already. The legend of The Surge has become a major part of it now.

The Post article gives some glimpses of how flawed the Legend of The Surge really is. For instance:

The blast walls around Kadhem's station stand as symbols of continuing U.S. efforts to strengthen the Iraqi security forces so they can keep order by themselves. The U.S. government has spent more than $20 billion on building a new Iraqi military and police force, and both sides report considerable progress. But the Iraqi units still depend heavily on Americans for training, logistics and other assistance. [my emphasis]
For all the talk of Petraeus' innovative counterinsurgency brilliance, in fact the Iraqi security forces are still largely sectarian militias with uniforms. The American training of the Iraqi forces, to the extent that it's taught them how to be more than sectarian death squads, has left them so that they are still dependent on US forces for logistics, continued training, transport and weaponry.

Here's another hint:

But the national police, with about 42,000 officers, are still well short of the projected goal of about 100,000 and cannot yet cover the country. They do not operate in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and have failed to reach an agreement to absorb the Kurdish police force, U.S. and Iraqi officials say. Iraq also has tens of thousands of local police officers.

"We don't have air cover to help us to implement our missions. We need more transportation. We need arms. All these things right now are covered by the coalition forces," the chief of the national police, Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, said in an interview.
The Iraqi security forces training sounds an awful lot like the training of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). They are trained to rely heavily on American air power. And they don't have their own air power.

In fact, the country has virtually no air force. How does a country surrounded by potential foes defend its borders with no air force? That was part of the open secret all along. Cheney and Bush expected US forces to stay indefinitely. McCain was ready to leave them there for 10,000 years, as he once said. They basically expected that the US would handle any actual external defence needed.

Read realistically, the Post article illustrates once again what a complete disaster Cheney and Bush created with this totally unnecessary war in Iraq.

But politically, the Republicans now have an incentive to spin reports like this as reasons why leaving in 16 months would be a terrible idea. And that will eventually become part of their new stab-in-the-back narrative.

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