The Thinker

Our Coming Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan

The United States will not prevail in Iraq, and likely won’t prevail in Afghanistan either. Both are noble endeavors to try to remake the world into a saner and more peaceful place, but both efforts are doomed to fail. The underlying reason that we will fail will be our inability to understand the complexity of both regions of the world. We acted out of instinct and prejudice instead of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently we will fail, and the failure will change the nature of our nation profoundly.

There is a power greater than our armies and navies, greater even than our nuclear weapons that we conveniently overlooked. This is the power of the human will. Whichever side in a conflict has more of it will eventually win the conflict. In truth our country does not have the stomach for a prolonged conflict in Iraq. Bush gambled it all on the expectation that a quick victory over Saddam would put Iraqis in a mood to accept American ideas and American values for a future state and that opposition to the occupation would either not materialize or be easily squashed. This is the fundamental flaw that in time will be understood to be the reason we lost, but which this administration plainly cannot see. It is blinded by its ideology.

The truth of course is that while most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam gone, they had no interest in being tutored and mentored by Americans in how to set up and run their own country. Iraq, of course, is the cradle of civilization. While America was thinly populated by natives, they were setting the standards for education and commerce for the rest of the world. Even today Iraq is in many ways at the forefront of the Muslim world. Compared to countries around it, it is teeming with educated and bright individuals. Women live lives markedly better and participate more in society in Iraq than those in other Muslim countries, including Kuwait.

Iraqis are not children who need to be tutored in how to run their own country. Somehow they managed to construct all those hospitals, power plants and schools by themselves. If their infrastructure is now a bit shabby, it is the result of more than a decade of sanctions and our war, not because they are incompetent of managing their own country. They are not emerging from some third world society. The literacy rate is 58% (vs. 10%-20% in Afghanistan). 93% of children attend primary schools. Per capita income is $2171 per year. By American standards this is not high, but for the region is it very respectable. For example Egypt’s per capita income is $1530 per year, and we have been subsidizing and “mentoring” Egypt for decades.

In short, the United States is acting in a very condescending manner toward the Iraqi people. This is building resentment that is translating into resistance against their occupation because Iraqis are a proud people and used to doing things by themselves. Moreover the United States is demanding that Iraq change its long established methods. As this Marketplace Report demonstrates, Iraqi businessmen are leery of our American style contractor-subcontractor system where they must pay to participate. It’s as if everyone there drives on the left and we are requiring them to drive on the right.

Imagine if we had a Saddam Hussein running our country for the last thirty years. We would probably be very grateful if Canada sent in its army to oust our oppressive leader. But it wouldn’t take very long before we’d say, “Thanks, we can take it from here.” According to an independent Zogby poll of the Iraqi people this is exactly what most Iraqis believe and want. Some of the findings include:

– Only two in five (39%) said that “democracy can work in Iraq,” while a majority (51%) agreed that “democracy is a Western way of doing things and will not work here.” Shiites – who suffered the most under Hussein and who make up the majority in Iraq – are more evenly split about democracy (45%-46%), while Sunnis are far less favorable.

– Asked about the kind of government that would be best for Iraq, half of all respondents (49%) said they preferred “a democracy with elected representatives guided by Sharia (Islamic law).” Twenty-four percent prefer an “Islamic state ruled by clerics based on Sharia.” Only one in five (21%) preferred a “secular democracy with elected representatives.”

Three out of five made it clear that they wanted Iraqis left alone to work out a government for themselves, while only one in three want the United States and Britain to “help make sure a fair government is set up.” Two out of three Iraqis – and seven in 10 Sunnis – want U.S. and British forces out of Iraq in a year.

What to expect in the future? It’s not too hard to figure out, but the longer our army occupies the country the more resistance against us will increase. This should not be surprising. Those who have a vested interest in having America out of Iraq have had time to network and to bring in the skills and arms needed to sap the morale of our Army. Not surprisingly a Stars and Stripes poll of our forces in Iraq found that half of our troops there describe their unit morale as low. As attacks increase expect these numbers to go up. 49% of those surveyed said it was unlikely they would remain in the military when their term of service ended.

The logical thing to do would be to declare victory and leave. Our mission was to defeat Saddam. We have done that. It might made sense to keep an air base in the Iraq regardless, just in case Saddam does try to make a come back. That way he could be quickly taken out again. The people of Iraq might well descend into internecine conflicts when we leave, but that is the likely scenario in any case. If a government there does not command the respect of those it governs, it will not work. And any government in place that is being overseen by the United States is unlikely to be supported by the Iraqi people. Read Riverbend’s blog for more background.

In Afghanistan we can hope that a new government with a new constitution will emerge, but the likelihood is that while one will be put in place it won’t work in the long term. Afghanistan is a country created by the British. It has no unique national identity. Rather it is a collection of ethnic and tribal areas. If it makes sense for these tribes to affiliate they will, but indications are that ethnicities will want to manage their own affairs and centralized government is unlikely to work in the long term. The Russians tried to occupy Afghanistan and failed spectacularly. If Communism can’t be made to work there, American style democracy is unlikely to work their either. All we can really do is try to strike at al Qaeda and Taliban elements where we can find them. But most of these elements are now in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; it is a safer place for terrorist at the moment and generally protected from our military forces.

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

It is a shame, but not surprising, that pretty much all the Democratic candidates except Dennis Kucinich say we have to stay the course in our war in Iraq, despite the obvious evidence that our strategies are fatally flawed. Yes, we should feel a natural obligation to finish what we started, but we should not blind ourselves to the reality that we are unlikely to be able to actually finish what we started. We need to limit our attacks on those who aided and abetted the September 11th attacks only. Anything else will be seen as more American imperialism and likely to inflame more hatred and bad feelings against us. In the end that is counterproductive to our national security.


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