Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Fruits of War

Dahr Jamail’s interviews with refugees from Falluja now living in a Baghdad tent camp are chilling. The refugees describe wanton, almost systematic attacks on civilians. At best, non-combatants are caught by murderous American firepower. More troubling, they describe refugees displaying white flags shot dead by US soldiers. Contrast this with reporters’ descriptions of an empty city and cautious, professional American troops. "We're the good guys. We are Americans. We are fighting a gentleman's war here -- because we don't behead people, we don't come down to the same level of the people we're combating...,” says one US commander. I want to believe him. But I cannot ignore Falluja’s refugees either

From this distance, it’s hard to tell what is happening. The refugee stories may be exaggerations but I doubt if they are completely without foundation. Jamail's photographs of wounded civilians bear out at least part of the stories. Whatever the actual combination of fact and exaggeration, these people have lost homes and family to what they consider an unjust occupation, an unjustified assault on their city. In a society where feuds and grudges last generations, the United States has created an implacable foe in the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. Even if they cannot defeat the US outright, the Sunnis will be a constant source of instability and unrest. Welcome to the Quagmire.

In effect the US has taken sides in a civil war. The Shi’as and the Kurds are relatively quiet, hoping that the January elections will work to their advantage. The biggest obstacle to Shi’a and Kurd objectives is Sunni resistance to their loss of power with the fall of the Ba’athist dictatorship. The Shi’as and Kurds fear Sunni interference in their plans for post-Saddam Iraq and, in the absence of the US, would have to face the Sunnis themselves. Instead, American forces are doing the job for the Kurds and Shi’as. Sweet deal for them. (This interpretation is from Karen Kwiatkowski. It makes much sense to me.)

The dynamics of the Sunni-Shi’a-Kurd rivalry are complex and longstanding but in its simplest terms, it has to do with autonomy and payback. Shi’as and Kurds have long chafed at domination by a Sunni minority controlling the government. Not only do they see an opportunity to end a 80 years of (often brutal) oppression but also a chance for payback. In one sense, the destruction of Falluja is the return on Saddam Hussein’s destruction of Shi’a and Kurd cities, neighborhoods and the murder of many of their people.

But violence begets violence and the outraged Sunnis of Iraq, most of whom were not part of the Ba’athist dictatorship, will remember the death and destruction wrought by the Americans with the consent of the interim government under a Shi’a prime minister. The Sunnis will seek revenge and their intransigence will remain a festering wound for years to come, even if America “defeats” the insurgency. Unless American troops remain for the long term, the new Iraq will be unstable, with armed conflict likely to reappear at any time.

Of course, long term American presence in Iraq is just what BushCheney are looking for. As long as this goal can be had at an acceptable cost, they will pursue it. And so far, Americans have accepted the costs, albeit with reservations. Short of calling a cease fire and stand down, American policy has little option but to continue the war against the Sunni insurgents. If BushCheney are successful, they will have their bases, at least for while, and can turn their attention to Iran, a turn unlikely to be welcomed by America’s Shi’a hosts in southern Iraq. As the CIA reported in its assessment of likely outcomes in Iraq, the best case scenario is for continuing instability and conflict through next year. Worst case is civil war but that’s already taking place with active American participation, so maybe American forces will have only the remaining hard core Sunnis to contend with in 2005. But Americans will still fight and die in Iraq. So will Iraqis.

Current events in Iraq are nowhere close to the BushCheney pre-invasion scenario of a new government in place and most American forces returning home at the end of 2004. But I don’t believe that was ever really their plan; it was only to convince Americans to support their pre-emptive war. Now their long term plans are taking shape as “military necessity”, with the uncertain, reluctant support of the American people.

We can get fooled again. And again. And again. For how long?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Choosing to Kill

All these months watching the War on Iraq unfold, reading the ideas and concepts contested between the US, other western democracies, Iraqi insurgents of various strips and radical Muslims, learning mid-east history and pondering the nature of war leads me to an inescapable conclusion: beliefs and actions are defined by the willingness to kill. At some point, individuals and nations decide that their well-being is best served by taking the lives of others. Along with that decision is the willingness to risk one’s own life or supporters’ lives in pursuit of that well-being. Usually this decision is wrapped in patriotic, religious or national necessity but it really comes down to a stark reality. “I cannot tolerate your existence/actions, therefore, I must kill you.” Sometimes the killing may be inadvertent–civilian casualties, collateral damage. Unintended actions with the same result: you die by my hand.

Militant Islam provides the most dramatic example of the choice to kill. Suicide bombers explode airplanes in high rise buildings. They attack American embassies and military installations. They kill Spanish commuters and Moroccan diners. Their version of Islam cannot coexist with non-believers so they will kill all who do not accept their teachings and beliefs. These killers have obviously decided that they will be better off if all the non-believers are dead. Their religion commands it and rewards it.

America, on the other hand, kills in retaliation for these attacks or because we fear some future attack or other intolerable threat. We cannot tolerate our attackers’ actions and the beliefs that motivate them so we destroy them before they can attack. The US invaded Afghanistan to destroy the organization behind the 9-11 attacks and the regime that supported them. Our actions were firmly grounded in the concepts of self-defense and just war that have been canons of Western thought for centuries. The near universal international support for those actions attests to their validity. America killed for good reason and without good alternatives.

But America also attacked Iraq. The lies and distortions about the threat posed by Iraq will forever plague our presence there. BushCheney justified their decision to kill Iraqis as upholding international standards of behavior in pursuit of American security. The claims were spurious in March 2003; they are largely discredited now. But the killing continues. American forces have killed at least 15,000 Iraqi non-combatants and untold numbers of insurgent fighters. Yet America is no more secure now for all the effort poured into our war there. The deaths of US and coalition troops, Iraqis and the destruction rained upon their nation has made America more, not less vulnerable to attack. American credibility and reputation have been severely compromised.

But our actions in Iraq have provoked an inevitable reaction. One that we were not prepared for. Iraqi insurgents and Islamic militants, joined by aggrieved relatives of the dead, have decided that they must kill Americans in order to achieve their goals, whether it be Iraq free Iraq of foreign and infidel control or simple dominance over regions and populatons. In response, US forces have little choice but to kill the insurgents and fighters first. We are locked into a spiral of death with our foes that will be largely determined by the each side’s staying power. If the insurgents are motivated, well organized and clever, they can outlast us, just as the Algerians did against the French and the Vietnamese did against us. Foreign occupiers always lose in the long run, which is usually much longer than the occupier ever imagined.

As the killing continues, BushCheny claim that America just needs to show determination and willingness and will soon see the fruits of our resolve and sacrifice: a democratic Iraq. But their only real hope of success is to quickly overwhelm the opposition and destroy them along with their weapons, finances and logistics. That was their game plan when they invaded Iraq; they knew Americans would not support an indefinite war, especially when its contribution to national security was iffy at best. BushCheney promised a short, limited war after which grateful Iraqis would create a buoyant, vibrant democracy and American troops would start coming home in the fall of 2004. That dream is long shattered and our ability to achieve that lofty goal lessens daily.

So Americans continue to kill Iraqi insurgents and civilians. Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters continue to kill Americans, foreigners, Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians. The beat goes on until one side or the other collapses or decides that their interests are better served by not killing. In the meantime, Death reigns supreme and blood stains the hands of all killers in Iraq.

The world should not be this way.

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...