Yesterday I spoke on a panel about Iraq to an audience of retired diplomats (DACOR), along with Christopher Kojm and Jim Planke (both of whom served on the Iraq Study Group). My basic point was simple, and reflected the same frustration which came out of my conversation with Tom Friedman that turned up in the Times last week. During the Petraeus-Crocker hearings six weeks ago, American public attention to Iraq peaked. Then the moment passed, and everyone pretty much stopped talking about Iraq once it became clear that Petraeus had given wavering Republicans the cover they needed. Fine - nobody really expected anything else. What bothers me more is what has happened since then. With the immediate domestic political moment past, the post-hearing period could have become a moment of real reflection about American strategy in Iraq. But it hasn't. Instead of reflection, we've gotten relaxation and a change of topic (along with the opening of the new front between Turkey and the Kurdish zone).
That's a shame. Because so much of the Iraq debate has now turned into exactly what we once promised to avoid: political arguments about body counts, while completely ignoring the political dimension which the Petraeus counter-insurgency manual recognized as so crucial. We need to stop falling into the trap of arguing about the momentary success or failure of tactics. 3 fewer US soldiers died last week than in a similar period last year - we've won! Iraqi insurgents launched 157 attacks last week compared to 163 in a similar period last year - they've lost! Even worse, it seems like the US is committing the cardinal sin of once again falling victim to our own propaganda, believing our own spin, and substituing domestic public opinion management for hard thought about where we're heading. The relatively uncritical approach to the good news narratives now coming out of Iraq is eerily reminiscent of so many earlier periods of "good news from Iraq". Forget Iran - even in the coverage of Iraq it's as if we've learned nothing from the last four years.
Body counts are only one small part of a much larger puzzle. What I want to know is not the day to day casualty trends, or good news stories from some carefully selected hamlet, or the latest assassination of an Awakening shaykh. I want to know: does the devolution to the local level make strategic sense, even if it reaps short-term tactical sense? Towards what endpoint are the tactics leading? Do we want to see a unified Iraq with a sustainable political accord - the official goal of American policy, as Undersecretary of State Nick Burns reminded the DACOR audience yesterday? If so, are American political and military tactics encouraging or discouraging such an outcome? Those are questions that we could be discussing in this moment of relative American political respite, but there's really not much of it (a moment of self-criticism here: I suppose I should give credit to the Biden partition/federalism resolution effort, even though I strongly disagreed with it, for at least trying to raise such issues.)
Maybe that's because there is no possible winning strategy anymore, just better or worse tactics leading nowhere in particular. I understand the logic of the bottom-up reconciliation strategy quite
well, thanks. I just see no evidence whatsoever that it is working:
whether public opinion surveys, continuing refugee flows, or sectarian and
confrontational political discourse. Yes, Ammar al-Hakim went to Ramadi, which is encouraging - but his mission failed... and if you look at what he was actually trying to sell to the Sunnis, you'd be less encouraged than some people have been by the atmospherics. Yes, Tareq al-Hashemi went to Sistani with his National Compact, but the Compact has gone nowhere. And so on. The national political level remains completely deadlocked, and the politicians seem to have lost whatever sense of urgency they felt back in August and September. And all of those politicians behave according to the logic of moral hazard that the US has created - since the Bush administration can't credibly threaten to escalate and won't threaten to withdraw, it has no leverage over any of them while protecting them from the consequences of their decisions. And even if those politicians did somehow magically come to agreement, their ability to deliver on any such agreement declines by the day.
I was surprised at the consensus on our panel yesterday (among three people who have never discussed the issue before, and from much of a very knowledgeable and experienced audience based on post-session conversations) about where Iraq was heading: towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.
As I've argued repeatedly, this is the most likely effect, intended or otherwise, of the Petraeus-Crocker tactics. The US is empowering local actors at the expense of the national level, while both communities are fragmenting at a remarkable rate. The Sunni side is divided among the various insurgency factions (their efforts at forming a Political Council notwithstanding), the various Awakenings (which are themselves internally divided, bickering over power and personalities), tribes and local leaders looking out for their own, and an al-Qaeda movement which peaked last fall when it launched its abortive and self-defeating bid for hegemony with its ill-fated Islamic State of Iraq project. On the Shia side, the UIA has fragmented, the Mahdi Army has fragmented (though reportedly Sadr has used the ceasefire period to try to sort things out), Badrists and Sadrists are fighting in the streeets, Sistani has lost influence and his aides are being murdered at an alarming rate, and as Jon Alterman has pointed out there are some 144 competing militias in Basra alone.
This kind of fragmentation might help the US in its tactical maneuvers at the local level, and buy local stability in the short term. But it is absolute anathema to any kind of national deal. As Jim Fearon, one of the leading political scientists working on civil wars, recently put it, "a power-sharing deal tends to hold only when every side is relatively cohesive. How can one party expect that another will live up to its obligations if it has no effective control over its own members?" It also deeply complicates any neat ideas about partition, of course, since there are no unified blocs to which one could easily devolve power.
Tactics working against strategy - that's been the concern I've been expressing for many months now. I haven't been reassured. Instead of getting sucked into debates over body counts, or clutching at whatever good or bad news crosses the headlines each morning, the national debate should be looking at the big picture. It isn't about how we are doing day to day - what are we trying to achieve?
Is a warlord state an acceptable or desirable destination for American policymakers? Whether such an outcome, if combined with a local Sunni power structure hostile to al-Qaeda, would pose a threat to American national interests is a debate worth having. It would certainly mean a major climbdown from initial American goals, but, then, a lot has happened over the last four years and it's quite clear that the US doesn't have the power to achieve its original goals. And it would hardly be optimal for Iraqis, since they would be condemned to live in a Hobbesian environment, and the refugee crisis would likely never be resolved. Should the US simply acknowledge the reality of the institutional and political environment it has created in Iraq, or maintain its current radical disconnect between its stated objectives and what it is actually doing?
Even if this is a conversation which nobody really seems eager to have right now, it beats having to have the same conversation two years from now, or five years from now, or twenty.
UPDATE: one of the commenters below brings up the point that the sheer magnitude of oil resources in Iraq makes control of Baghdad so valuable that an Afghan or Somali style warlordism is unlikely. That's a good point, which actually did come up in the DACOR panel discussion, made by Jim Planke I believe. The upshot is that the model for Iraq's future may most plausibly by Nigeria. So, as before it's worth thinking about whether a Nigeria outcome (as opposed to Somali or Lebanese or any other outcome) is compatible with US interests (and Iraqi aspirations) and worth the expenditure of US resources to achieve.