One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The “surge” in Iraq continues to generate good news, at least in the American press. Today’s Cleveland Plain Dealer includes a typical story, in this case by Robert Burns of the Associated Press:

"The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working…

"The U.S. military, partnering in many cases with Iraqi forces, is now creating (a) security cushion – not everywhere, but in much of the north, the west and most important in key areas of Baghdad…

"The U.S. military has caught some momentum, thanks to the extra 30,000 troops – for a total of 159,000 on the ground – that Bush agreed to send as part of the new counterinsurgency strategy announced in January. The troops are interacting more with the local people and are protecting them more effectively."

To the degree the good news is true, it probably has more to do with the last sentence quoted above than with troop numbers. It may also reflect a large dose of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. Some of the decline in violence in Baghdad is due not to U.S. troops but to the fact that the Shi’ites have completed the ethnic cleansing of mixed Sunni-Shi’ite neighborhoods. A good portion of the improvement in Anbar province is a product of al-Qaeda blunders, which have alienated part of its base. While adoption of classic counterinsurgency techniques by U.S. forces is genuine good news, we should not assume events in Iraq are solely or even primarily a result of our actions. We are one player among many, and not always the most important.

It is also easy to forget the strategic measure of effectiveness, i.e., whether or not we see the re-emergence of a state in Iraq. Such American successes as are real stem largely from accepting the fact that there is no state and filling the void with local alliances. As Mr. Burns writes,

"Despite political setbacks, American commanders are clinging to a hope that stability might be built from the bottom up – with local groups joining or aiding U.S. efforts to root out extremists – rather than from the top down, where national leaders have failed to act."

That is what American commanders should do, because it is all they can do. But it is a step away from, not toward, a restored Iraqi state.

That strategic step backwards is accompanied by a large and dangerous operational step backwards, namely moving toward a war with Iraq’s Shi’ites. The August 6 Plain Dealer, in a story by AP’s Kim Gamel reported that

"Attacks against U.S. forces were down sharply last month nationwide, and military officials have expressed cautious optimism that a security crackdown is working. At the same time, the number of attacks launched by breakaway factions of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia has increased, said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, second-in-command.

"He did not provide a total number of militia attacks. But he said 73 percent of the attacks that wounded or killed U.S. troops last month in Baghdad were launched by Shi’ite militiamen, nearly double that figure six months earlier."

This is a danger sign that should engage the urgent attention of senior American commanders. If we replace a war against Iraqi Sunnis with a war against the Shi’ites, we will not only have suffered a serious, self-inflicted operational defeat, we will endanger our whole position in Iraq, since our supply lines mostly run through Shi’ite country.

I say such a defeat would be self-inflicted because Shi’ite attacks on Americans in Baghdad seem to be responses to American actions. In dealing with the Shi’ites, we appear to be doing what spurred the growth of the Sunni insurgency, i.e., raids, air strikes and a “kill or capture” policy directed against local Shi’ite leaders. Not only does this lead to retaliation, it also fractures Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army as he tries to avoid fighting us. Such fracturing works against, not for, the potential re-creation of an Iraqi state.

A return to practices we know are counterproductive in dealing with Iraq’s Shi’ites raises the question of motive. Are we so bloody stupid that at the same time we seem to have learned something about counterinsurgency against the Sunnis we are making the same old mistakes with the Shi’ites? Perhaps.

But perhaps something else is going on here. According to the story by Miss Gamel, General Odierno blamed not his own actions but Iran for the rise in Shi’ite attacks on Americans. Is a war with Iraq’s Shi’ites a prelude to war with Iran? For the sake of the army we have in Iraq and our strategic position in the region, let us hope not. Sometimes, sheer stupidity is the most reassuring explanation for our actions.

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Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.