Thursday, September 18, 2008

Victory in Iraq? Not so much

“They create a desolation and call it ‘peace’” - Tacitus

US Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin last week accused Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama of failing to recognise the "coming victory in Iraq". What's the nature of this "victory" that Palin's talking about? Has the US finally won the Iraq War?

Not so much.

For the last few months its been taken as read by many in the political mainstream that the "surge" of extra US troops into Iraq "worked" in quelling the violence that had been reaching cataclysmic levels by late 2006. In fact, this is a vast over-simplification, if not a self-serving lie put about by the war's supporters. A number of other factors have contributed to bringing down the levels of daily killings (which still remain extraordinarily high). The “surge” is merely one of these, at best is possibly the least of them, and at worst has in some respects been a countervailing force.

The principal factors behind the decline in violence are:

1/ the unilateral ceasefire of Moqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation Shia militia;
2/ the decision made by nationalist Sunni insurgents, before the “surge” was conceived of, to concentrate their fire on the extremist "al-Qaeda" elements amongst them that had been responsible for the major attacks on Shia civilians; and
3/ the fact that the civil war in Baghdad has essentially played itself out, with Sunnis and Shia respectively expelled from mixed communities, the two groups divided, and no more 'sectarian cleansing' to be done (the outcome being a net win for the Shia forces).

Lets look at each of these in turn.

The Mahdi Army ceasefire may have been called with one eye on the coming influx of US troops, but it was still a unilateral decision. The fact is that Moqtada al Sadr continues to defy the US, five years after the occupiers set out to "kill or capture" him; as we saw in March when attempts to go after his Mahdi Army met with humiliating defeat. The US always wanted al-Sadr out of the way. By now, he's more powerful than ever. No US "victory" here.

Then there's the decision of Sunni nationalist insurgents to turn on al Qaeda, i.e. the foreign religious extremists who had come to Iraq to wage jihad both on the US and the Shia population. This has been hugely significant, and one cannot discount the effect of the US decision to stop fighting these nationalists guerrillas (who were always the bulk of the insurgency) and to pay them to concentrate on fighting and killing off al Qaeda. But the Sunni backlash against the religious extremists was not a US invention. It began as far back as 2005, and US backing for the movement was as much a pragmatic recognition that (a) it could not defeat the nationalist insurgency and (b) only those nationalists could defeat al Qaeda. Paying people to stop shooting at you and to instead fight some other people that you can't beat either is not in anyone's definition of "victory" as far as I'm aware.

And as for the third and possibly most important factor - the final Shia victory in the sectarian "Battle of Baghdad" which saw mixed neighbourhoods purged and thousands driven out of their homes - this is not merely a question of the US not being able to take credit for the relative peace that came after the civil war burnt itself out. No small amount of blame attaches to the US military itself for these gruesome events. As Michael Schwartz has argued in this indispensible analysis of the "surge" in Baghdad, US tactics may actually have facilitated the sectarian cleansing and effective Shia takeover. Either way, violence appears to have petered out in large part because one group of armed thugs achieved victory over the other, at massive cost to the civilian population, and not because the US stepped in as peacekeeper to enforce an early end to the fighting.

So the US mostly isn't fighting the Shia nationalists anymore because the Shia nationalists stood down of their own accord. It
mostly isn't fighting the Sunni nationalists any more because (a) its paying them to fight Al Qaeda instead (which they were already doing) and (b) it couldn't beat them anyway, so its had to learn to live with them. It isn't fighting Al Qaeda anymore because its paying the Sunni nationalists to do that for it, since it couldn't beat Al Qaeda itself. And the Sunni and Shia aren't fighting each other anymore (or are doing so a lot less) because that battle's (mostly) over (at least in Baghdad) and the Shia won. The case for saying that US "surge" has "worked" and that Washington can soon declare "victory" is, therefore, a little on the thin side.

What's also misguided is the related insinuation that the Iraq has become in some way peaceful. Iraq is still one of the most violent places in the world, with levels of daily killing equivalent to those of the Lebanese civil war. Last month at least 360 civilians were killed and more than 470 wounded in violence. Adjust that for the size of the total population and you’re talking about the equivalent of 800 plus British deaths and over a thousand injuries in political/military violence over 31 days. Imagine that occurring in a Soviet-occupied United Kingdom, while Kremlin leaders prattle on about "victory" and “success”. And remember that these are just the deaths that journalists and officials know about and are able to verify.

Yes, things aren't as bad in Iraq as they were in 2006. But the fact that the blood now washes up to your waist, as opposed to your neck, doesn't make Iraq something other than a bloodbath. Demanding that people accept some of the worst levels of violence on earth as some sort of good news story displays a pretty low regard for human life on Palin's part.

The people best placed to judge the success of US military strategy are those who have to live with it on a daily basis: the Iraqi public. They don't get interviewed at length by the major news networks, or write op-eds for the Washington Post, but their opinions are relevant nonetheless. By March 2008, when this poll was taken, it was already close to being conventional wisdom in the West that the "surge had worked". Clearly a lot of Iraqis hadn't received the memo.

The poll asks whether the “surge” has helped in the five areas where beneficial effects were promised: security where troop levels have increased, security in other areas, conditions for political dialogue, the ability of the Iraqi government to operate, and the pace of economic development. On each of those areas, the proportion of Iraqis saying the “surge” had been beneficial ranged between 21 and 36 per cent. Between 42 and 53 per cent said it has made things worse. The balance was made up by those saying it had made no difference. So in each area, between 63 and 79 per cent of Iraqis say the “surge” had made things worse or made no difference. That's between 63 and 70 per cent in the case of security and 79 per cent in the case of political reconciliation (the latter of which we're given to understand was the overall purpose of the “surge”).

Of course, the real aim of the “surge” was for the US to get Iraq properly under its control, not to perform an act of altruism or humanitarian relief work from which it has nothing to gain for itself, though that is exactly how the “surge” has been described, practically without exception, in our media and amongst our politicians. The question of whether it is for one country to forcibly place another country under its control, for its own purposes and against the wishes of majority of people in the latter country, is hardly one that should be ignored - though it has been. In any event, the “surge” appears to have failed in this respect. With the Iraqi government apparently now moving to reject the US demand for a permanent military presence and privileged access to oil reserves, the real reason for the 2003 invasion. What was supposed to be an US-client government in Baghdad now thumbs its nose at Washington and sidles up to, of all people, the Iranians. Do Palin and McCain really call that success, even on their own warped terms? Apparently dishonesty and greed now battle it out with rank stupidity for control of the United States government.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq devastated the country, driving well over 4 million Iraqis out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) and killing perhaps a million (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) according to the best estimates available. The refugees included many of Iraq's former professional classes, driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution. Those left behind fare little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. Nothing can erase the suffering that has taken place over the last five years, or return the hundreds of thousands of dead to their loved ones. This tsunami of grief was delivered to Iraq by an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying, that was aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power. To talk of "victory" in Iraq is obscene, as indeed is any reaction from anyone in Britain and America other than outright cringing shame.

Yet not only is it a commonly accepted truth, here and in the US, that the "surge has worked", but early backers of the “surge” are now lauded as wise sages of military and foreign policy. A little over a year ago John McCain's bid for the White House was seen as little more than the quixotic last gasp of a failed militarist, his approval rating for the Republican candidate languishing in the single digits. McCain's subsequent political resurrection rested almost entirely on the notion that "the surge worked", as he had doggedly insisted it would, and it is in many ways to this misapprehension that we can attribute the now present danger of a McCain-Palin Presidency from January 2009, with all the chilling prospects that raises for the United States and the world.

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