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Bush's Iraq Strategy for 2007
A fter all the study groups and reports, an electoral repudiation of a failed war, months of deliberation, and hundreds of thousands dead, the Bush administration policy debate boils down to this: choosing between genocide against Sunni Arabs—a strategy known as the “80 percent solution”—or fomenting a second civil war, this one a Shia-on-Shia death match. Or perhaps both.
The new White House strategy begins with the “surge” option. To try to fend off defeat, the Bush administration has decided to send up to 30,000 more troops. The criticism of this, from the media to the military to politicians, is that Bush has not tied any military escalation to a broader political strategy (see the New York Times December 21 editorial, “Rudderless in Iraq”).
In the case of the media, they have ignored their own reporting. The Bush administration has a strategy that has been in the works for months, even if it is muddled and mad. The secret memo from National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, published by the New York Times in November, reveals that the White House is trying to isolate Muqtada al-Sadr, a pillar of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. As Hadley explains, the Bush administration wants to reshuffle Maliki’s coalition so he no longer needs the support of 30 assembly members loyal to Sadr. Afraid this might cause Iraqi security forces to fracture and lead “to major Shia disturbances in southern Iraq,” Hadley recommends that the United States “provide Maliki with additional forces of some kind,” the rationale for the surge.
Hadley wrote this memo on November 8 and the plan is now being put into play. On the one hand is the political component: Sadr’s forces shut out in the National Assembly; on the other the U.S. military would try to wipe out Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. There is also talk of an economic component, a jobs program to give the legions of unemployed something to do other than attack Americans, but it smacks of too little, too late after the reconstruction debacle.
Joining in the political and military campaigns against the Sadrists would be a Shia party that has an alliance of convenience with the Bush administration, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its militia, the Badr Brigade. This is where the prospect of a second civil war becomes very real. The Bush strategy is to foment an intra-Shia conflict to try to regain the upper hand. As both the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army are enmeshed with various Iraqi police forces, the security forces would splinter, leading to Shia-on-Shia warfare throughout southern Iraq.
Because SCIRI has been scheming to form a Shia “super-region” in southern Iraq, the combination of political and military infighting among the Shia could deliver a death blow to the country. It would split into three warring ethnic regions, sparking a regional conflagration as neighboring states move in to stake their claims and exert influence.
Only a few observers have picked up on this possibility and the
terrifying consequences. No shrinking violet, Reuel Marc Gerecht,
an ex-CIA officer and resident fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute, warned in a December 21
New York Times
“Any violent struggle between the Mahdi Army and Supreme Council
could provoke anarchy throughout the entire Arab Shiite zone, including
Iraq’s holy cities and the oil-rich south. As bad as things
seem now, such Shiite strife could impoverish all of Arab Iraq,
dropping the non-Kurdish regions to an Afghan-like subsistence level.
In such a situation, we would likely see the hyper-radicalization
of the Shiites, who have already become more militant owing to the
tenacity and barbarism of the Sunni insurgency. In addition, whatever
fraternal and nationalist bonds remain among moderate Sunni and
Shiite Arabs would probably disappear in a Shiite-versus-Shiite
This fighting has already started. U.S. forces have stepped up their attacks on the Mahdi Army since the summer, while during the same period major clashes between Badr and Mahdi militias have taken place in at least three cities in southern Iraq. In a number of instances, U.S. forces have joined Badr units in battles against the Sadrists. Formalizing these intertwined conflicts as White House policy would ensure that the skirmishes become all-out war.
Before discussing U.S. strategy and its relation to the growing warfare between the two Shia militias in greater detail, it’s important to understand first the political dynamics of the surge option and why it is destined to fail.
T he Bush administration settled on the surge option not to prevent defeat on the military battlefield of Iraq—the war has long been lost—but defeat on the political battlefield at home. Bush kicked the Iraq Study Group to the curb, but its report did have one effect: it made the status quo politically untenable. The White House can no longer “stay the course.” It must appear to be doing something different. Therefore, as the Los Angeles Times explains, “America must either increase the force—gambling that the military can impose a measure of security on Iraq—or else begin to withdraw its forces.”
The White House wants Americans to believe that it can still achieve victory in Iraq. At the same time, it is fixated on remaking the Middle East through war, so withdrawal is not an option. Of course, escalation is also a losing strategy, which is why the Pentagon opposed it fiercely. In turn, the Bush administration needed to defeat resistance in the Pentagon and Iraqi government as a precursor to the surge.
Knowing who holds all the big guns in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki rolled over the quickest, telling the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates “he would let U.S. generals decide whether there is a need for a ‘surge’ in U.S. troops.” So much for the sovereign government of Iraq.
While Bush has said that the generals in Iraq “will make the decisions as to how many troops we have there,” he is still “The Decider” and he’s decided to escalate the war. Showing that the ISG report and losing control of Congress hasn’t changed anything, Bush, Rice, Cheney, and their band of neo-cons alone will decide the fate of Iraq, the broader U.S. project, and the future of the Middle East.
Those generals who wouldn’t sign on to a military escalation have been ditched. General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and a vocal opponent of the surge option, is being eased into retirement. So is General George Casey, Jr., the top commander in Baghdad. He slapped down administration plans the week before Christmas by noting, “Additional troops have to be for a purpose,” then reversed course and backed the escalation, “eliminating one of the last remaining hurdles to proposals being considered by President Bush for a troop increase” ( LA Times , December 23, 2006). But it was too little to save his post. He’s being pushed out of Iraq in February or March, as opposed to next summer as planned, because Bush “sees a chance to bring in a new commander as he announces a new strategy” ( NYT , January 2, 2007).
The media are also playing their part, mostly ignoring the broader strategies and focusing on the modalities of the surge: how many more troops to deploy, what is their specific mission, how long can a surge be sustained. The extra troops could try to “blunt the Sunni-led insurgency” or “confront radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, perhaps by moving forces into Sadr City” or step up training of Iraqi security forces to take over the fight. Or all three, as Senator John McCain wants.
One reason military commanders have opposed adding troops is because the military is at the breaking point. Some want to cut the combat force in Iraq by one-third, according to retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who told the Army Times in November, “The Army, particularly the National Guard, is on the verge of breaking because the effort is vastly under-resourced and cannot be sustained for long.” Privately, military officials have derided the surge option. Commanders weren’t even considering such a move in November. The Washington Post explained “that a boost of 20,000 infantry troops—five or six brigades—would do little to change the nature of the insurgency or the sectarian strife.”
The extra troops would all be combat troops. Even though there are 140,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, only 50,000 are combat troops, amounting to 15 brigades. There is a tacit acknowledgement that the Pentagon thinks 50,000 more combat troops are required. But that possibility “is virtually off the table…mainly for logistics reasons.” Finding itself short of troops, the Bush administration is considering “deploying 20,000 additional American troops or more, at least temporarily…as a leading option” ( NYT , December 20, 2006). The fact that the numbers being discussed are far less than the military’s estimated need indicates why the surge is a political strategy, not a military one.
Even 50,000 more troops would be too few, however. The historical rule of thumb is a ratio of 50 civilians to 1 soldier in occupations, which General Eric Shinkesi, other officers, and many military analysts argued for prior to the war. Of course these numbers assumed a benign occupation as in post-war Japan or Kosovo. In the case of a counterinsurgency, leaving aside the civil war, then “the United States and its allies in Iraq would need at least 500,000 and perhaps more than 1 million troops, military experts say.”
Thus adding 20,000 troops would be a drop in Baghdad’s bucket, the locus of any surge. The troops would complement the current force of 15,000 U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Going by the historical yardstick, if the United States really wanted to secure the capital, a city of 6.5 million, it would probably require 200,000 to 300,000 troops—more than all U.S. and foreign troops already in Iraq.
Even going by the four-year-old Iraq War standards, the plan is severely inadequate. At the beginning of the occupation, in mid-May 2003, the U.S. had 25,000 troops in Baghdad, and Donald Rumsfeld had just dispatched an additional “15,000 troops from the 1st Armored Division and hundreds of military police” to Baghdad because of the poor security situation ( Washington Post , May 16 and 18, 2003).
Thus, if 20,000 troops are added in 2007 to a Baghdad rife with a sophisticated insurgency and teeming with sectarian death squads, the troop level will still be less than the U.S. military deployment in the capital before the insurgency even began. Never mind about Al Anbar where a secret Marine report concluded last summer that the “United States has lost in Anbar.” The situation is so grim that the Marines need an extra division—more than 15,000 troops—in spite of 30,000 U.S. soldiers, marines, and sailors already there (the ratio of Iraqis to U.S. troops in Anbar is already under 50 to 1).
As for why the White House is “latching on to the surge idea,” the Joint Chiefs think it’s “because of limited alternatives.” They argue it will be counter-productive because “a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents, and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq.” As for Shia militias, they “may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn—then reemerge.”
The Pentagon is right to worry that an escalation will backfire. Since U.S. troops were deployed in August to the front lines in Baghdad, casualties have risen sharply to the highest level of the whole war. They’ve also failed to protect civilians, with massive ethnic cleansing reshaping Baghdad. Five or even ten more combat brigades won’t change the situation.
So why pursue a doomed strategy? Because withdrawal is the only other option. While withdrawal is the only way to keep Iraq intact—stripped of U.S. protection the Shia parties would have to reach a political solution with Sunni insurgents—the Bush administration would have to abandon its project to remake the Middle East. It would no longer have a large central base to pursue interventions against Iran or Syria. Kuwait, which has turned over the northern part of its country to the U.S. Army, would be of no use in this regard.
T hus, the next stage is escalation, which has been a constant of U.S. policy in Iraq. But it leaves the question, what will these extra troops do? Many plans have been put forth:
- Concentrate on fighting the Sunni-led insurgency. As mentioned, Anbar alone could swallow up all the extra troops with no evidence that they would have an effect. More than 40 percent of U.S. combat deaths take place in Anbar (see www. icasualties.org/oif), and more troops may just mean more targets. Even if pressured in Anbar, resistance groups could easily shift operations to Baghdad and at least four other provinces where insurgents have a strong base and wait out the surge.
- Deploy the troops in Baghdad neighborhoods to stop the ethnic cleansing. “American troops would take up new positions in 23 mixed Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods to better protect the population.” One problem, as Kosovo shows, is that troops would have to remain for a generation or longer to allow for sectarian divides to be bridged. A bigger problem is that by the time troops are deployed, the communal cleansing may be completed. At least ten mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have already been turned exclusively Shia at gunpoint.
- Step up training of Iraqi troops. This strategy has wide appeal, not because it will work, but because many Americans crave an honorable retreat. They believe that somehow sectarian, corrupt, ill-trained, poorly equipped Iraqi forces can defeat the insurgency and halt the civil war where the most powerful military ever has failed. Even if the Pentagon triples the advisors to 15,000, as the ISG recommends, it won’t matter. Some trainers say “that all the U.S. military is doing is training and arming Iraqis to fight a looming civil war,” such as in Diyala Province north of Baghdad. Others worry “that the training of the current Iraqi army—at U.S.-operated camps—is spreading skills that are turned against U.S. forces.” The spread of sniper tactics among insurgents accounts for much of the increase in U.S. casualties. Even if trained, most Iraqi troops desert. By one account “75% of Iraqi soldiers don’t show up for duty.” The root problem is that capable security forces depend upon a functional state and Iraq’s has no writ beyond the Green Zone.
- Crush the Mahdi Army. This is the likeliest option. While the Bush administration will probably try all the above, one of its policy constants is its desire to eliminate Sadr and his militia. Last spring, the White House blocked Ibrahim al-Jaafari from serving a second time as prime minister. Bush “doesn’t want, doesn’t support, doesn’t accept” him as prime minister because he felt “Mr. Jaafari will do little to rein in Mr. Sadr” ( NYT , March 29 and 30, 2006). Maliki was then pushed into the role because he was “independent” of the various factions, that is, seen as willing to do U.S. bidding. The move backfired because Maliki still needed Sadr’s parliamentary bloc to rule.
A.K. Gupta is an editor of the Indypendent newspaper in New York. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq War to be published by Haymarket Press in 2008.
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