Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Mission WTF?

Juan Cole asks some hard questions about America’s mission in Iraq.

...What is the mission of the US military in Ramadi? I hope my readers will press their representatives in Congress and the executive branch to answer this question. What is the mission? When will it be accomplished?

At what point will the people of Ramadi wake up in the morning and say, 'We've changed our minds. We like the new government dominated by Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords. We're happy to host Western Occupation troops on our soil. We don't care if those troops are allied with the Israeli military, which is daily bombing our brethren in Gaza and killing them and keeping them down. We're changed persons. We're not going to bother to set any IEDs tonight and we've put away our sniping rifles.'

(You could substitute Tikrit, Samarra', Baquba, and other Sunni Arab cities for Ramadi).

[...] What is the military mission? I can't see a practical one. And if there is not a military mission that can reasonably be accomplished in a specified period of time, then keeping US troops in al-Anbar is a sort of murder. Because you know when they go out on patrol, a few of them each week are going to get blown up or shot down. Reliably. Each week. Steadily. It is monstrous to force them to play Russian roulette every day unless there is a clear mission that could thereby be accomplished. There is not.


That is why I think it is important to keep the focus on the question of the US purpose in occupying the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq. Every time you hear someone say that we have to keep the troops in Iraq, press that person to explain what the mission is exactly and how and when it will be accomplished.

If you ask me what the US military mission in Iraq is these days, I would describe it as Holding on to the Dream, the dream of power and dominance of the New American Century. The Iraq War is the spawn of American hubris and exceptionalism, a belief that what is good for America is good for the world. That dream is fast fading in Iraq. But, of course, BushCheney cannot admit the losses he has inflicted on Iraq and the US, so he will insist on “staying the course” even if he won’t use those words. He’s keeps pointing to a rosy future even as the present becomes more and more ghastly.

The Dream also includes power over oil, Iraq’s vast reserves to be specific. Under Saddam Hussein this strategic resource was beyond western corporate control and, therefore, could be used to the west’s disadvantage. The US invasion has kept much of Iraq’s oil from the market at various times since 2003, as does insurgent sabotage and Iraqi government corruption. In that respect, the US has achieved at least part of its mission in Iraq: Iraq’s oil can’t be used against western interests even if it’s not yet fully under corporate control.

Military bases are part of the Dream, too: force projection in a strategic region. We’re building 14 big bases in Iraq along with the worlds largest US embassy, all self-contained and hermetically sealed. From all indications on our side, the US will stay in Iraq; all that concrete and steel sinks us pretty heavily into the country. In BushCheney World, the Iraqis will make nice with each other, we will hole up in our impregnable bases and “project force” where needed in the region. That’s what he means by “ally in the war on terror”: bases. Unless, of course, a sovereign Iraqi government feels it can live without American guns in-country and follows the overwhelming Iraq preference that all foreign troops of leave their country, especially if those troops are pointed at fellow Arabs and Muslims.

Early on, our military mission included disabling and destroying Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I think that one was pretty well achieved even before we invaded. Democracy and freedom? Pretty iffy without security and political accommodation. Real security, even with American boots on the ground, has so far been unattainable in Iraq. After three and a half years, Iraqis still don’t “stand up so we can stand down”. When they do stand up–for their militias, clerics and insurgent leaders–they are shooting at us as well as other Iraqis. Our forces are caught in the crossfire of the civil war unleashed by our invasion. We can’t take sides; that would destroy any remaining legitimacy for the occupation. And our shifting preferences among Iraqi factions since 2003 leaves America as a not fully trustworthy partner for any Iraqi faction, especially now that they are consolidating power on their own.

Nothing I’ve heard about new policies, tactics or troop levels (I’m talking to you, John McMaverick) tells me that we will do anything different that will change this result. Keeping Iraq from descending into even more civil war is a worthwhile humanitarian goal but events have already demonstrated the limits of our military capability and strategy in this regard. Political accommodation and reconciliation among Iraqis is necessary to stop the civil war. That is beyond any military force to achieve and the policy maker–Iraqi and American–who should exercise the needed leadership have been unwilling and unable to do so.

When I think hard about it, I do not see any realistic mission for American forces in Iraq. Iraqis themselves have already demonstrated their ability to create and protect their own societies. The Mahdi Army earned the respect of many Shi’as in responding to the mass bombings in Sadr City. The Sunni insurgents have effectively organized large swaths of the country and operate freely in the capital. Iraqis are quite capable of defending themselves against fellow countrymen. It’s just that the results Iraqi initiative and accommodation are unlikely at this point to look good for the US or the war’s architects. At this point, US military forces have no realistically achievable mission. That may have been possible early in the occupation (I’m doubtful) but willful ignorance, blind assumptions and incompetence doomed any chance for success. Nothing short of a major intervention and full US occupation of Iraq has even a remote likelihood of changing the situation and I don’t believe the US could maintain the necessary higher level of occupation for long. Continued military occupation is just a cover for a hoped-for result that will not materialize.

Let the Iraqis sort it out. That’s my plan. I know it sounds heartless to leave innocent Iraqis at risk of violence from their countrymen but it’s their nation, their resources and their history. Only Iraqis can create a lasting political arrangement in an environment of contested nationalism, religious conflict, tribal loyalties and many old scores to settle. America opened that box when we took out Saddam Hussein and have shown ourselves to be hopelessly inept in dealing with the consequences of that action. I hope and pray that Iraqis will figure it out rather than fight, which seems to be the preferred mode for all sides these days. But in the end the US is the Foreign Occupier, the Invader Infidel who has little to offer but force and firepower. Three and a half years of keeping the violence at bay has only resulted in increasing violence and no willingness to compromise.

My first step would call for a cease-fire among all factions, including US military units and proceed from there to withdrawing US and other Coalition forces into larger bases to prepare for redeployment. Removing troops does not mean abandoning Iraq, though. The US has owes a massive debt to the Iraqi nation and we are honor bound to help them rebuild. But the building will be their task, it’s their home. Regional security and terrorism will no doubt be issues in post-occupation Iraq but such issues are best addressed cooperatively with other nations in the region. I would also leave military and some logistical support to back up central government forces while Iraqi leaders come to terms with each other. If the central government cannot resolve the political differences peacefully, no amount of additional American military might will enable it to survive.

That’s how I would explain the mission these days. It’s risky. It’s dangerous. More people will die. Anybody got something different? Anything with hope that is more than wishful fantasy?


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