Sometimes You are Just Screwed
Readers occasionally write me complaining that I do not offer any solutions to the problems in Iraq. Let me just step back from the daily train wreck news from the region to complain back that there aren’t any short-term, easy solutions to the problems in Iraq.
The US military cannot defeat the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement any time soon for so many reasons that they cannot all be listed.
The guerrillas have widespread popular support in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq, an area with some 4 million persons. Its cities and deserts offer plenty of cover for an unconventional war. Guerrilla movements can succeed if more than 40 percent of the local population supports them. While the guerrillas are a small proportion of Iraqis, they are very popular in the Sunni Arab areas. If you look at it as a regional war, they probably have 80 percent support in their region.
The guerrillas are mainly Iraqi Sunnis with an intelligence or military background, who know where secret weapons depots are containing some 250,000 tons of missing munitions, and who know how to use military strategy and tactics to good effect. They are well-funded and can easily get further funding from Gulf millionnaires any time they like.
The Iraqi guerrillas are given tactical support by foreign jihadi fighters. There are probably only a few hundred of them, but they are disproportionately willing to undertake very dangerous attacks, and to volunteer as suicide bombers.
There are simply too few US troops to fight the guerrillas. There are only about 70,000 US fighting troops in Iraq, they don’t have that much person-power superiority over the guerrillas. There are only 10,000 US troops for all of Anbar province, a center of the guerrilla movement with a population of 820,000. A high Iraqi official estimated that there are 40,000 active guerrillas and another 80,000 close supporters of them. The only real explanation for the successes of the guerrillas is that the US military has been consistently underestimating their numbers and abilities. There is no prospect of increasing the number of US troops in Iraq.
The guerillas have enormous advantages, of knowing the local clans and terrain and urban quarters, of knowing Arabic, and of being local Muslims who are sympathetic figures for other Muslims. American audiences often forget that the US troops in Iraq are mostly clueless about what is going on around them, and do not have the knowledge base or skills to conduct effective counter-insurgency. Moreover, as foreign, largely Christian occupiers of an Arab, Muslim, country, they are widely disliked and mistrusted outside Kurdistan.
US military tactics, of replying to attacks with massive force, have alienated ever more Sunni Arabs as time has gone on. Fallujah was initially quiet, until the US military fired on a local demonstration against the stationing of US troops at a school (parents worried about their children being harmed if there was an attack). Mosul was held up as a model region under Gen. Petraeus, but exploded into long-term instability in reaction to the November Fallujah campaign. The Americans have lost effective control everywhere in the Sunni Arab areas. Even a West Baghdad quarter like Adhamiyah is essentially a Baath republic. Fallujah is a shadow of its former self, with 2/3s of its buildings damaged and half its population still refugeees, and is kept from becoming a guerrilla base again only by draconian methods by US troops that make it “the world’s largest gated community.” The London Times reports that the city’s trade is still paralyzed.
So far the new pro-American Iraqi troops have not distinguished themselves against the guerrillas, and it will probably be at least 3-5 years before they can begin doing so, if ever. Insofar as the new army is disproportionately Shiite and Kurdish, it may simply never have the resources to penetrate the Sunni Arab center-north effectively. There is every reason to believe that the new Iraqi military is heavily infiltrated with sympathizers of the guerrillas.
The guerrilla tactic of fomenting civil war among Iraq’s ethnic communities, which met resistance for the first two years, is now bearing fruit. There is increasing evidence of Shiite murders of Sunni clerics and worshippers, and of Sunni attacks on Shiites, beyond the artificial efforts of the guerrillas themselves. Civil war and turbulence benefit the guerrillas, who gain cover for violent attacks, and who can offer themselves to the Iraqis as the only force capable of keeping order. AP reports an Iraqi official saying today that there is a civil war going on in the northern city of Telafar between Sunnis and Shiites. I doubt US television news is even mentioning it.
The political process in Iraq has been a huge disaster for the country. The Americans emphasized ethnicity in their appointments and set a precedent for ethnic politics that has deepened over time. The Shiite religious parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, won the January 30 elections. These are the parties least acceptable to the Sunni Arab heartland. The Sunni Arabs are largely absent in parliament, only have one important cabinet post, and only have two members in the 55-member constitutional drafting committee. Deep debaathification has led to thousands of Sunnis being fired from their jobs for simply having belonged to the Baath Party, regardless of whether they had ever done anything wrong. They so far have no reason to hope for a fair shake in the new Iraq. Political despair and the rise of Shiite death squads that target Sunnis are driving them into the arms of the guerrillas.
The quality of leadership in Washington is extremely bad. George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and outgoing Department of Defense officials Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, have turned in an astonishingly poor performance in Iraq. Their attempt to demonstrate US military might has turned into a showcase for US weakness in the face of Islamic and nationalist guerrillas, giving heart to al-Qaeda and other unconventional enemies of the United States.
If the US drew down its troop strength in Iraq too rapidly, the guerrillas would simply kill the new political class and stabilizing figures such as Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Although US forces have arguably done more harm than good in many Sunni Arab areas, they have prevented set-piece battles from being staged by ethnic militias, and they have prevented a number of attempted assassinations.
In an ideal world, the United States would relinquish Iraq to a United Nations military command, and the world would pony up the troops needed to establish order in the country in return for Iraqi good will in post-war contract bids. But that is not going to happen for many reasons. George W. Bush is a stubborn man and Iraq is his project, and he is not going to give up on it. And, by now the rest of the world knows what would await its troops in Iraq, and political leaders are not so stupid as to send their troops into a meat grinder.
Therefore, I conclude that the United States is stuck in Iraq for the medium term, and perhaps for the long term. The guerrilla war is likely to go on a decade to 15 years. Given the basic facts, of capable, trained and numerous guerrillas, public support for them from Sunnis, access to funding and munitions, increasing civil turmoil, and a relatively small and culturally poorly equipped US military force opposing them, led by a poorly informed and strategically clueless commander-in-chief who has made himself internationally unpopular, there is no near-term solution.
In the long run, say 15 years, the Iraqi Sunnis will probably do as the Lebanese Maronites did, and finally admit that they just cannot remain in control of the country and will have to compromise. That is, if there is still an Iraq at that point.