A new US strategy for victory in Iraq may be in the works
That the US is knee-deep trouble in Iraq is hardly in dispute. Few inside or outside the US contest that fact or doubt the reasons that led to it. And yet, some still argue that the whole thing is little more than correctable “mistakes” by a reckless administration. Others wonder if a face-saving exit is still possible. But at least a few maintain that a “strategic victory” is attainable in Iraq.
For a long time, the current US administration refused even to admit committing mistakes in Iraq. For a long time, it maintained that victory was around the corner. The admission that a real problem exists came hesitantly and late. It came only after the Baker-Hamilton Commission issued its well-known report last year. Even then, the current administration kept arguing that the problems it was facing in Iraq were no more than “snags” attributed to “tactical errors” that can be corrected and that a complete and unambiguous victory was not to be ruled out. In short, the US administration rejected the prognosis offered by the Commission and went on doing things its own way.
The commission said that the situation in Iraq would get worse unless a major policy change occurred. It reviewed a number of options, but ruled them all out because of concern for the US reputation and Iraq’s stability. Those options included: quick withdrawal from Iraq, maintaining the current policies with no change, increasing the number of troops, or dividing Iraq into three parts. After excluding those options, the report suggested a new policy based on two components. The first component was external, involving a “new diplomatic offensive” to rally international support and help Iraq.
The second component was internal, focusing on helping Iraq help itself. The commission made 78 recommendations, suggesting that the US launch a diplomatic offensive in an attempt to reassure the world that the US was not after Iraq’s oil and didn’t want to have military bases in that country against the wishes of its people.
It made two main conclusions. One was that the US couldn’t get out of the Iraqi morass without the help of others. The second was that the Middle East crises were interlinked, and the US needed to address all of them simultaneously. The report urged the current administration to build bridges with both Syria and Iran and make a renewed bid to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the US administration went for the exact opposite. Instead of gradually reducing its fighting troops and redeploying them outside turbulent Iraqi towns, the US administration decided to increase troops and send them into more battles inside turbulent areas in the hope of quashing or at least weakening the resistance.
Instead of courting Iran and Syria, the US administration decided to tighten sanctions against them and isolate them internationally. And instead of doing more to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, a matter that would have required serious pressures on Israel and attempts to unify the Palestinian position, the US administration decided to alienate Hamas and impose a stricter blockade on the Palestinian people. The US administration blocked all attempts to unify Palestinian factions and encouraged Israel to adopt hard-line and belligerent policies.
This approach, which hardly differed from earlier US policies, deepened the dilemma of the US administration. As a result, the security and military situation in Iraq got worse. And the Lebanon war last year didn’t, as some hoped, weaken “the axis of the extremists” in the region. On the contrary, Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Jihad emerged stronger, while pro- US forces looked hapless and lame. Consequently, the US administration found itself in a more awkward place than it was at the time the Baker-Hamilton Commission was issued two years ago. All the US administration did was waste time and money to no avail.
Because the US administration knows that time is running out, it has to do one of two things. Either it accepts defeat and pulls out immediately, which would damage the US standing as a superpower. Or it escalates the confrontation through an all-out attack on the “axis of the extremists.” The latter option cannot be ruled out, considering how rightwing and dogmatic this administration is and how inept is the man who leads it. The only problem is that this second option is too perilous, for the prospects of a decisive victory are nil in the long run.
Some members of the neoconservative US elite, who haven’t yet despaired of winning the war in Iraq, are now busy looking for a third option. Among the barrage of ideas that surfaced of late, the views of William S Lind are interesting. Lind is the director of the Centre for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He summed up his views on the Iraqi debacle in an article published 30 July in The American Conservative under the title, “How to win in Iraq”.
In that article, Lind notes that the US administration 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 US with a limitless supply of oil and vast military bases from which American forces can dominate the region. None of these objectives, he argues, are now attainable. Lind believes that the attempts to quell urban disturbances in Iraq are based on the wrong assumptions. He argues that the war can still be won on a strategic level, not through “small tactical gains.” Lind suggests that the new US strategy must employ what the British military theorist Basil Liddell-Hart called an “indirect approach.”
The threat facing the US is not coming from any state, but from a collection of groups using non-conventional methods commonly labelled “terrorism”, Lind argues. Such groups can only flourish in situations where governments are weak. He calls for a new strategy of three elements to win the war on a “strategic” level.
The first element is to engage Iran in a rapprochement, just as the US did with China in the early 1970s. At the time, China was creating more than one Vietnam in order to sap the US power. Likewise, the groups hostile to the US are trying to create more than one Iraq in order to baffle the Americans. Lind believes that it would be hard to undermine such groups without having a strong government in Iraq, which requires rapprochement with Iran. He admits that pro-Iranian Shiites may end up dominating the Iraqi government, but that should not be a problem so long as a strong Iraqi state evolves.
The second element of Lind’s strategy is to allow the Sadr group, which is popular in Iraqi streets, to achieve its full political potential. The US will have to pay a price for that, such as giving up the prospect of military bases in Iraq. So far, the US has been trying to suppress the Sadr group while favouring unpopular, pro-American groups. This approach, Lind says, has weakened successive governments and reduced their ability to control the situation on the ground. Lind admits there is no guarantee Al-Sadr would be able to form a strong Iraqi government, but the chance is worth taking. The US administration, he says, must allow Al-Sadr, or anyone who can, to establish a strong government in Iraq.
The third element of the strategy is to withdraw all US forces within 12-18 months. This move would provide enough time for Al-Sadr or other parties to put together a government. This wouldn’t be the withdrawal of a defeated army, Lind argues, but a step toward strategic victory. Withdrawal would be good for the army and for the US public, he argues.
The above strategy may exacerbate the Sunni- Shiite divisions not just in Iraq but across the region, but Lind is not worried about that. In fact, he believes those divisions might prove beneficial to the new US strategy in the region.
These are quite disturbing proposals. Lind’s ideas entail certain risks to the Arab world and Iran. Admittedly, Tehran may be temporarily pleased to see a friendly government in Iraq, but the cost may prove too high. The US is likely to use Shiite-Sunni divisions to turn Sunni Arab countries against Iran. The main beneficiary of Lind’s proposed strategy would be Israel and the US. The implications for the Sunnis and the Shiites are frightening. It seems that the US is heading toward a dual containment policy of both Shiite fundamentalism and Sunni Wahhabism. So perhaps this is time for Shias and Sunnis, as well as Arabs and Iranians, to sit together and talk.
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