Bush Deliberations: Need for Political Track in Counter-Insurgency
Paul Bremer says he hopes Bush’s cabinet summit will develop an effective military plan for defeating the insurgency in Iraq. Bremer came to Iraq saying appalling things like “we will go on imposing our will on this country” or words to that effect, and appears to have learned nothing.
Counter-insurgency is tough. The best the hawks can usually do is cite the British in their colony of Malaya in the 1950s, when they curbed a communist movement. But 1960 was a long time ago. And, the British still got kicked out of Malaysia as a colonial power. And, the British had been there over a century, and had all kinds of linguistic and cultural knowledge. And, Communism mainly appealed to the Chinese minority, 1/3 of the coutnry.
Contemporary counter-insurgency requires not just a military plan but a successful political track, of negotiating with guerrilla leaders and bringing them in from the cold. That is what the US has never developed, and there are structural reasons for which it is difficult. A lot of the guerrilla leaders are Baathists or ex-Baathists, and served in the Iraqi military in ways that make them anathema to the Kurds and the Shiites. So it is very difficult for the US to buck its main allies and try to make up with the Baathis. And what could the US offer the Sunni Arab religious revivalists? The prospect of living under a government dominated by Shiite fundamentalists and Kurdish warlords, which they see as a puppet government of the United States? How could they live with that?
So, Mr. Bremer, the problem is not a military one. The US already has overwhelming fire power. The problem is a political one. And it is not a political problem even the best and brightest will easily resolve.
The Sunni Arabs of Iraq are opposed to the US presence almost to a person. They are 5 or 6 million strong, and probably have 60,000 or so fighters if we count weekend warriors (I know this is higher than US military estimates, but if US military estimates were correct there would not still be an insurgency. The US military tends to grossly underestimate the enemy; one general in spring of 2004 said he thought the Mahdi Army only had 1,000 fighters.) The Sunnis have the best educated managers in their ranks, the best trained strategicians and tacticians, and they probably know where tens or hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions are still hidden. They make enormous sums of money through petroleum and other smuggling, and can easily get big money from hard line Sunni Gulf millionaires. Moreover, the US cannot militarily concentrate all its forces on the Sunni Arab areas, since there is a (Shiite) Mahdi Army low-intensity guerrilla effort in Maysan Province in the South, and Sadr City can’t be all that stable either.
The US simply does not and never will have enough fighting troops in Iraq to impose a purely military solution on the guerrilla movements. It must find a political solution. but that in turn would require the kind of willingness to compromise and approach national reconciliation coolly that the Shiites and the Kurds have so far vehemently rejected. The US is as hobbled by its allies as by its foes, in making a settlement.