Iraq: what now?

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is very much in the news, since a Sunni fundamentalist army called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) now occupies most of Western Iraq, not to mention portions of Syria. Recently it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and is now threatening Baghdad itself. The Iraqi Army doesn’t much resemble an army, as it is retreating quickly from combat. Many are concerned that ISIS will capture Baghdad and create a state in fact, not just in name. Life in this fundamentalist Sunni state is likely to be quite fundamental, as in crazy Muslim fundamentalist. Some here in the United States worry that this new state will sponsor international terrorism and bring it to the United States.

In that unfortunate event, well, mission accomplished I guess, since it is principally these same neoconservatives that pushed us to invade Iraq in the first place. (I predicted the debacle from all this back in 2003, as posts like this will attest.) We let this genie out of the bottle. Naturally many of these same neoconservatives are now arguing that we need to put U.S. troops back into Iraq to clean up this mess. Some are castigating President Obama for removing our residual troops in Iraq in the first place.

These people are great at selective memory, such as forgetting that they believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. More to the point though, if they are going to wag their fingers, they might want to wag them at Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who adamantly insisted that all our residual troops had to go since our presence was causing instability and he had a handle on the security situation. More selective memory: it was President Bush who before he left office set 2011 as the date when all our troops would come home. Yeah, whatever, it’s all Obama’s fault.

To his credit, President Obama has already said that U.S. troops will not be going back into Iraq. He has not ruled out other military options to assist the Iraqi government. Airstrikes are one option that Obama is seriously considering. It’s possible airstrikes might stop the advance of ISIS troops, but in the end this is a lost cause. That’s because, as I pointed out in 2006, Iraq is a nation is name only. (I noticed this post has been getting significant hits these last few days.) The Kurds have pretty much declared their own country, but cling to the political fiction that they are a semi-autonomous part of Iraq, mainly because it is easier to be ignored this way. No matter, al-Maliki has no time for the Kurds, who aren’t attacking him and simply want to be left alone. ISIS is his real problem.

The truth is Iraq has mostly always been a state in name only. Created by the British after World War One under a League of Nations mandate, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the British got tired of managing the place and let it run itself. The Ba’ath Party, managed to create a fractured state glued together mostly through tyranny. Its principle despot and tyrant of course was Saddam Hussein, who we imagined was training terrorists and creating stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons to lob at us. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein simply proved what historians already knew: Iraq wasn’t much of an autonomous country.

Curiously, we now seem to be sort of aligned with our enemy Iran at the moment, which is sending advisors to help in the battle against ISIS. Who knows how this will all play out, but if ISIS is smart it will control the Sunni parts of Iraq and stop there. This is because ultimately they have a losing hand trying to make Shi’ites in eastern Iraq follow their version of Islamic law. So most likely after many more battles Iraq will cease to exist as a country, unless the eastern and Shi’ite part of the country decides to go by that name.

There is no point in investing more money and blood to try to change these ethnic and religious dynamics. It’s as futile as building dykes and seawalls will prove to be to stop sea level rise due to climate change. What the United States can and should do is work to isolate whatever new nation emerges. To think though that through military force, or intelligence, or smart bombs we can really change the situation is delusional. Naturally, the neoconservatives promoting these insane ideas are as delusional today as they were eleven years ago when they started this whole mess. Regardless, something like this was bound to happen eventually. The United States turned out to be the catalyst of change, but at some point the Ba’ath Party would have lost control of Iraq anyhow, and something resembling these current problems would have arisen.

My belief is that another Islamic state in this area is inevitable. I also believe the fastest way to get rid of it is to let it come to fruition. I’m not saying the United States should actively help it happen, but that over time this state will go through a political process anyhow, much like Iran’s, most likely. With a few weird exceptions like North Korea or Zimbabwe, oppressive states don’t tend to have much staying power. Today in Iran, pretty much every house that can afford it has a satellite dish picking up illegal channels. The modern world is out there. Attempts to try to repress it won’t work forever. Resistance will eventually build from within and something more progressive will emerge. We can indirectly or covertly assist this process, but we should not risk life or limb to do so.

The truth is that the fundamentalist Islamic revolution sweeping much of the Muslim World is a Muslim problem. Yes, there is some remote possibility that it will result in real danger to our actual national security, which is not our “status” in the world but danger to our homeland and the economic order of the world. Many lives will be lost in these Islamic countries, and huge numbers of people in these countries will be traumatized and/or displaced. I obviously don’t like that this is happening and will continue happening, but I don’t think it can be stopped by external agents like us. I would argue that Israel’s national security is actually enhanced by these conflicts, providing they don’t spill over into Israel itself. Muslims killing Muslims have no time to kill Jews.

The 21st century is likely to be very messy. Most likely we will be occupied by problems closer to home: displacement due to sea level rise due to global change, not to mention the chronic problem of displaced and oppressed people coming into the United States, such as the heartbreaking influx of unaccompanied children escaping kidnapping and death in unstable countries in Central America. Arguably, simply keeping our nation together will be a huge challenge. Red America seems increasingly antagonized by Blue America and visa versa, and there are many in Red America anxious to start a new civil war.

We are fulfilling the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. We sure don’t have to make it more interesting, however, which is why we need to stay as disengaged in Iraq as possible and let this sad sectarian and religious conflict play itself out.

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The Thinker by Rodin

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] 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.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.