Monday, December 10, 2007

The Hole in the Dike

Stephen Biddle says that the hole in the dike has been bandaged up very nicely -- but we need to keep our hand pressed over it indefinitely, or else the bandage will come off and the water will come flooding through:

Last month I returned from my second trip to Iraq this year. Like many observers, I was struck by the changes since the spring. Baghdad neighborhoods that were no-go zones in March are coming back to life. Parts of Diyala province that were too dangerous to visit then are now secure. Patrols in Fallujah that would have been ambushed a year ago are met by kids mugging for photos from Marines who carry lollipops along with their rifles. Iraq is still a war zone, but the trends are turning positive.

What does this mean? Is it an illusion born of an unsustainable spike in U.S. troop levels? Is it a window of opportunity that Iraqi dithering will soon waste? Or is it a fundamental change that can allow us to start bringing our troops home?

The reduction in violence may prove to be fundamental -- a new phase in the war with a better chance for stability than we have seen in many years. But it may not offer much chance for deep or rapid U.S. troop drawdowns. If we are not prepared to stay in large numbers for a long time, the gains of recent months could easily be reversed.

The Iraq conflict is a communal civil war. Classically, ending a civil war has two chief requirements: First, a cease-fire must be negotiated. This cease-fire must then be enforced by outside peacekeepers. The whole reason for civil warfare is that the locals do not trust each other.
An outside peacekeeping role is thus critical to success, by punishing violators and building confidence that others can safely stand down. The troop counts normally sought for peacekeeping are not much lower than those for counterinsurgency war fighting, at least in the early years, and a meaningful outside presence can be needed for a generation. Many hope that the Iraqi cease-fires can be enforced via positive inducements such as government salaries for CLCs. But the record of such deals elsewhere suggests that more may be needed -- for years to come.

For now, the only plausible candidate for this peacekeeping role is the United States. No one else can be expected to step in until and unless the war is clearly over. Yet pressure for a deep drawdown in U.S. forces is growing. War opponents would cut our losses; many war supporters hope the declining violence translates into safe U.S. troop reductions. Some reduction is unavoidable: We cannot maintain today's operating tempo without breaking the military. But if we are to maintain the gains of the past year, we must retain enough troops to enforce a system of local cease-fires as peacekeepers.

Biddle does not explain how the U.S. staying to "enforce cease-fires" is going to result in a situation where cease-fires don't have to be enforced anymore. "Enforcing cease-fires" is not going to bring the political reconciliation that to date has not happened, in spite of the fact that the supposed precondition for said reconciliation -- an end to or sharp reduction in the violence -- has supposedly been achieved. This is not a sign of success in Iraq; it's a sign of failure.

Oddly enough, there is another article, by Ned Parker in the Los Angeles Times, that serves as the needed retort to Biddle's fantasy-spinning. Iraq, Parker writes, is "calmer, but more divided":
The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country's civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country's bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq's disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

"Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation -- totally unplanned, of course -- with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone."

The capital's Green Zone mirrors the chaos outside. Once the base of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime, it is now the seat of Iraq's fractured and dysfunctional representative government. The U.S. troop buildup was intended to help Iraq's national leaders overcome differences and give them space to pass compromise measures to end the country's sectarian war, but lawmakers remain divided and continue to harbor suspicions about each other's motives.

In the summer, the country's Sunni Arab minority quit the coalition government, leaving Shiites and Kurds with a razor-thin majority in parliament. They appear unable to push forward any solution to the country's problems, whether a national oil law, a review of Iraq's new constitution or legislation defining the powers of provincial councils. All efforts to define relations between Baghdad and outlying regions are stalled.

"The absence of government in a lot of areas has allowed others to move in, whether militias or others," said an American diplomat, who like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

But, of course, that's why U.S. troops need to be in Iraq ad infinitum -- to "keep the peace" against the violence that moves in when there isn't any government.

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