Monday, July 23, 2007

How to Win in Iraq

That's the title of an article in "The American Conservative" magazine by William S. Lind, and he makes a hell of a lot of sense. Much of the article reflects ideas that I've written, but Mr. Lind is much more articulate than I am. So, of course, he'll be ignored.

The starting point, despite the disastrous course of the war to date, is to realize that the only possibilities for victory lie at the strategic level, not the tactical level. In part this is because we have botched the tactical level beyond redemption. While the efforts of General Petraeus and the Marines in Anbar province to apply classic counter-insurgency doctrine and protect the population instead of brutalizing it are laudatory, they come too late.

In larger part, we cannot win at the tactical level because this kind of war is not additive. You cannot win at the strategic level simply by accumulating tactical successes, as our Second-Generation, firepower/attrition-oriented military automatically assumes. The strategic level follows its own logic, and strategic victory requires a sound strategy. When, as is currently the case, we have no strategy, this fact works against us. If, however, we adopt a prudent strategy, it can work for us. Because a higher level of war trumps a lower, we can yet redeem our many tactical failures at the strategic level. In other words, we can still win.

Lind points out that a stable Iraq is possible, but a "pro-American, pro-Isreali" Iraq is not possible.

To devise a successful strategy, we must begin by defining what we mean by winning. The Bush administration, consistent with its record of military incompetence, continues to pursue the folly of maximalist objectives. It still defines victory as it did at the war’s outset: an Iraq that is an American satellite, friendly to Israel, happy to provide the U.S. with a limitless supply of oil and vast military bases from which American forces can dominate the region. None of these objectives are now attainable. None were ever attainable, no matter what our troops did. And as long as those objectives define victory, we are doomed to defeat.

Fortunately, another objective, the one that actually matters most, may, with luck and skill, still be achieved. That objective—restoring a state in what is now the stateless region of Mesopotamia—must become our new definition of victory.

Winning the war in Iraq therefore means seeing the re-creation of an Iraqi state. I say “seeing,” not “re-creating,” because our strategy, if it is to have a chance of success, must proceed from a realistic understanding of the situation in Iraq. We do not now have the power to re-create a state in Iraq, if we ever did. That is due in part to military failure, but it has more to do with a problem of legitimacy. As a foreign, Christian invader and occupier, we cannot create any legitimate institutions in Iraq. Quite the contrary: we have the reverse Midas touch. Any institution we create, or merely approve of and support, loses its legitimacy.

The need for diplomatic engagement with Iran is an important component.

The reason a strategy to win in Iraq must begin with a rapprochement with Iran is that any real Iraqi state is likely to be allied to Iran. Even the quisling al-Maliki government cowering in the Green Zone is close to Iran. A legitimate Iraqi government, which is virtually certain to be dominated by Iraq’s Shiites, will probably be much closer.

A restored Iraqi state that is allied with Iran will quickly roll up al-Qaeda and other non-state forces in Iraq, which is the victory we most require. But the world’s perception will still be that the United States was defeated because its main regional rival, Iran, will emerge much strengthened. If Iran and America are no longer enemies, that issue becomes moot.

A rapprochement with Iran may encourage Tehran to use its influence in Iraq to promote the revival of a state, but that is in Iran’s interest in any case once it is clear American troops are withdrawing. Conversely, until it is clear that America has given up its ambitions for large, permanent military bases in Iraq, Iran must continue to promote instability in its neighbor.

And he sees Moqtada al-Sadr much as I do, as a key to Iraq's future.

At present, the United States works to suppress any elements that challenge the al-Maliki government. We teeter on the verge of open war with the most prominent of those elements, Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. On the ground, al-Sadr is the leader most likely to restore an Iraqi state, and thanks to his steadfast opposition to the American occupation, he has legitimacy. While he may not have the support of a majority of Iraq’s Shiites, majorities do not make history. He is the leader of the Shiites who count, which is to say the young men willing to fight. Nor is al-Sadr merely a Shiite leader; he has kept open channels of communication to at least some of the Sunni insurgent groups—and perhaps channels not of communication only. Some of the Sunni insurgents clearly have benefited from Iranian support, which may have come through al-Sadr. Of late, al-Sadr has taken care to restrain his followers
from revenge attacks against Sunnis, stressing Shiite-Sunni unity against the foreign occupier. He has had his eye on the brass ring, the supreme leadership position in a restored Iraqi state, from the beginning. Now he may see it as within reach.

Our new strategy would let him grab it. Under his leadership, or that of anyone else in Iraq with a shred of legitimacy, a restored Iraqi state will not be a friend of America. Given what we have done to that country, we can hardly expect it to be. But our new strategy has no such unattainable objective. Its objective is solely the restoration of a real state, and that al-Sadr may be able to accomplish. If he can, we will have little to complain about in terms of his toleration of al-Qaeda or other Fourth Generation elements. Nor will his close relationship with Iran be a problem, given that we will no longer regard Iran as an enemy.

Also, the need to withdraw American troops as quickly as is safely possible.

The third and final element of a strategy for winning in Iraq is to withdraw all American forces as rapidly as possible, which means within 12-18 months. That is the only way we can create the space necessary for al-Sadr or someone else to re-create an Iraqi state. If we remain and work against him, a dicey task becomes that much harder, undermining both him and our strategic goal. And if we work for him, he loses legitimacy, the sine qua non for re-creating a state in Iraq.

In this strategy, our withdrawal is not that of a defeated army. It is a strategic withdrawal—a necessary part of our strategy. That distinction is a critical for our prestige in the world, for the future health of America’s Armed Forces, and for our domestic politics, which could be roiled beyond what any conservative would desire by a vast military defeat.

If our new strategy works and our withdrawal is followed by the restoration of a real Iraqi state, we will have learned our lesson about wars of choice, but avoided a catastrophe. If it fails and Mesopotamia remains a stateless region, Iraq is no worse off than it is now, and our troops will be safely out of the mess.

It's rare that I find a conservative that I agree with, but Mr. Lind is such a rarity. Of course, he's not optimistic.
There is no chance the Bush administration, locked in a Totentanz with its dreams of world empire, will adopt this strategy. But the presidential debate season has already begun, and a bevy of candidates in both parties are looking around for something, anything that might get us out of the Iraqi morass without accepting defeat. If just one of them picks up on it, those yawningly dull debates might get a lot more

Well worth reading, even though it's not what is going to happen.
Added: I've read several other blogs deriding Lind's article because 1. he's right-wing and 2. it's not going to happen. Both are true, but I don't think it refutes the basic common sense that Mr. Lind expresses.

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