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Iraq ­ The Most
Important Questions

Terrell E. Arnold

The long-awaited reports of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Iraq played this week to very skeptical Washington, American and global audiences. The Washington Post summed up their first rounds as "an exercise in kicking the can down the road." That analogy is brutally apt, because in real life kids often kick the can until it becomes no longer recognizable as a container. As Petraeus and Crocker make their rounds in an effort to convince us that staying in Iraq is a good idea, Iraq looks more and more like the much-abused can. The New York times was no less critical, calling the reports "Empty Calories". The Post left its readers with what it called "the larger questions--what will be the future size and mission of the American footprint" in that country. However, the Iraq reality poses many serious and pressing questions, especially for the Iraqi people themselves.
Why are we there? Having riffled through a card-shuffling panoply of reasons, all of which have been abandoned or discredited, the Bush administration clings to them anyway. Finding no weapons of mass destruction or even any substantial military capabilities, the Bush team settled for just getting rid of Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, there are literally millions of people in the region- not all of them Iraqis-who think that was a poor idea.
Why do we stay? The superficial reason currently given is in two parts. One is to keep the Iraqi people from destroying themselves. As the Iraqis descend ever more deeply into civil war and self- destruction, that rationale becomes less and less credible. Since our troops constantly attack anybody who fights back against the American presence, we end up flitting from one side to another in the civil war, while that war itself shows little sign of abatement. The second leg of this rationale is to make Iraq free of terrorism. Since we have defined any Iraqi who resists the American occupation as a terrorist, Iraq has filled up with terrorists since Saddam was deposed. That our occupation and we are the ultimate terrorism generators in Iraq is presently beyond dispute.
How long will we stay? The typical Bush team response to this question has been somewhere between silence and a waffle. In their statements on Monday, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker continued the tradition, while suggesting that in mid 2008 force levels would be no less than pre-surge strength, meaning about 130,000 troops. In further statements on Tuesday, they asserted that the United States would have forces in Iraq for years to come. There were no hints that US officials discussed this plan with Iraqi leadership or sought the approval of the Iraqi people.
Who profits from the Iraq campaign? The first to profit from it is George Bush. That sounds odd, because his ratings are so low, but he has used the war to keep the national political system enslaved by the idea of military victory, rather conversely, by the fear of who would take political blame for military defeat. The broadband profiteers are the military industrial complex whose enterprises profit from a US military budget that is larger than all other countries military budgets combined. Within that spectrum is the American private security industry the principal firms of which, such as Blackwater, have grown fat on Iraq field support for US forces and civilian personnel. Private security enterprises now have capabilities that equal or exceed those of many national governments. Ultimately, the main beneficiary of the Iraq enterprise is Israel, because that country is able to maintain its military domination of the Arab countries under the umbrella of both US forces and US funding while steadily expelling the Palestinian people from their homeland.
How are Iraqis reacting? Because of the American/Coalition presence and the violence sustained around it, Iraqi demographics are shifting. Estimates initiated by the British medical journal Lancet suggest that a million Iraqis have died because of the war. Because of deaths and departures, more and more Baghdad neighborhoods are becoming Shia as the Sunni seek sanctuary elsewhere. More widely, however, Iraqis are simply packing up and leaving their neighborhoods or leaving the country. Iraqi security concerns have deepened in 2007; as an ABC News/BBC survey found, six in ten Iraqis think security in the country has worsened since the surge, while only one in ten sees some improvement.
Where does al Qaida fit? Before the US/Coalition invasion, Iraq experienced little to no terrorism. Even though the Bush team clings stubbornly to a contrary view, Saddam was not associated with al Qaida, and he suppressed rigorously all violence in Iraq except that perpetrated by his forces to keep the factions in line. The so-called "Iraqi" al Qaida sprang up essentially to combat the American occupation; it is an Iraqi insurgency, and its affiliation with Osama bin Laden's group is incidental. Especially in Anbar and nearby provinces, US forces have attacked al Qaida vigorously without destroying it. Qualified experts predict, however, that the moment the US withdraws al Qaida will decline and disappear. In effect, al Qaida Iraq is a mirror image of the American occupation.
Isn't Iraq the central front in the War on Terrorism? As its house of cards collapsed, the Bush team, actually a few neocon ideologues, invented the idea of moving the War to Iraq. The Bush administration accomplished this through a jerky process of translation: /Anybody who resists our forces in any country is a terrorist. Iraqis are resisting our presence in Iraq. They are terrorists. We will move the War on Terrorism to combat them./ The team will not explain this rationale, and Americans in general will never know the difference. As Iraqi resistance intensified, international media generally referred to it as an insurgency, an entirely reasonable Iraqi response to occupation. Thus, if al Qaida had not appeared on its own-and some people dispute that it did- somebody had to invent it. In the administration lexicon, al Qaida and the War on Terrorism are twinned.
How can we leave while civil war rages? In the estimate of virtually all observers, Iraq has been coming apart for many months. The occupation has become both a participant in that civil war and a cover for it. As noted earlier, occupying forces engage anybody who shoots at them, threatens them or explodes bombs in their vicinity. It is often impossible to tell whether a given challenge is part of the insurgency or part of the civil war. Figuring out how to capitalize on the American cover is an artful dodge of both the insurgents and the militant combatants. In essence, either the Americans are in the way and being shot at, or they are active contributors to the violence. There is no indication that Americans can correct this anomalous role by any move other than withdrawal.
What will help the Iraqi people? The Bush team constantly asserts that Iraq will come apart if we leave. As noted above, however, Iraq _is_ already coming apart. Out of a population of roughly 25 million at the beginning of the war, about five million people are dead, displaced or exiled. Internally, family, communal and tribal structures are collapsing. The prospect that anyone can correct those damages anytime soon is slim. Every day of additional occupation and combat contributes to this disaster. There obviously is no way to stop the accumulating problems without stopping the fighting. That will not happen until the American forces and their small cadre of allies leave. Non-military support from outsiders will be vital. Outsiders acceptable to the Iraqi people will be essential for any successful recovery.
Where do the neighbors fit? The Bush team constantly has argued that if Iraq fails it will take the neighbors with it. Logically, as the Bush argument goes, therefore, the United States should stay in Iraq to keep it from coming unglued and ungluing the whole region. At this moment, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and other countries face severe effects of the conflict in Iraq. Syria, for example, harbors more than a million Iraqis. The number in Jordan is smaller but not a simple matter for Amman. Turkey must deal with the swirling ambitions of the Kurds to recreate their ancient homeland. Iran must cope with complex clan, religious and historical linkages to the Shia majority of Iraqis. Saudi Arabia, at least some Saudis, feel impelled to help the embattled Sunni minority. By staying in Iraq, the United States only adds to the difficulty and the probable duration of those regional problems.
Are the neighbors involved in the conflict? The answer is yes, inevitably. The Americans tend to take that fact personally, but it is simply unavoidable. Regional involvements along ethnic and religious lines would occur no matter who invaded Iraq. That pattern has repeated itself numerous times over regional history. Regional governments have straightforward choices. They can look the other way while their nationals help ethnic, tribal or religious group members in the war zone. They can actively take a role in the conflict in order to control the trans-border consequences of it. In extremis, they can close their frontiers. Some combination of the first two is most likely, and the Bush team should have considered that prospect in mounting this engagement. The challenges for those regional governments are how to limit involvement, avoid exposure, confine domestic political effects, and contain damages, including diplomatic. Responses and results inevitably are imperfect.
What is in the conflict for Iran? From the beginning, the Bush team has tried to make Iran an active enemy in the Iraq conflict. An obvious Bush goal is to make Iran the fall guy for American failure. In his report, Ambassador Crocker issued a threatening appraisal. "Iran would be a winner if Iraq falls into chaos or civil war," he said. However, Iraq _is_ in chaos and civil war while under a combative military occupation. It is difficult to see how matters could be much worse. Iran's rewards for this are constant trans-border disturbances-including covert US operations, threatening rhetoric from the United States, occasional US taking of Iranian hostages, attempted entrapment by the United States Navy, and threats of attacks, including nuclear, by the US and Israel. The mix also includes active measures of the United States to use Iraqi dissidents in the US-designated international terrorist group MEK (the Iranian Mujahadeen-e-Khalq) to overthrow the Iranian government. If these are "rewards", one might ask the Ambassador what he would consider a liability.
How much capacity to influence does Iran have with Iraqi Shia? That presents a cloudy and, from an Iranian perspective, a probably unsatisfying picture. Iranian and Iraqi Shia have much in common, religiously and ethnically. However, Iraqi Shia are not all on the same side politically or religiously, and many Iran friendly Iraqi Shia do not want to be ruled by Iran. Conflicts among Iraqi Shia are very much a part of the present Iraqi mess, and the Iraqi Shia themselves have to mediate those conflicts. In part, these are internal Iraqi political power squabbles, and Iran cannot fix them. Neither can the US.
How important is Syria? In addition to Iran, the US regularly accuses Syria of active meddling in the Iraq conflict. One of the oldest trade routes in history passes through Iran and Iraq to and through Damascus. Tribal mixes along that route are functions of time and place. Family ties and loyalties are deeply rooted. That these people would not help their friends, families and tribal connections in a conflict is virtually unthinkable. None of the borders involved has ever been closed, and sealing one of them would be a major enterprise. In any regional conflict situation, the attitudes of governments are likely to center on containment- which is achievable-rather than avoidance-which is simply unlikely. A small Shia minority rules Syria, but its immediate problem is that one out of every twenty people in the country is an Iraqi refugee. That may not be all bad, because the list includes many of Iraq's best and brightest, but it is a real problem for Damascus to provide food, shelter, health care, and eventually employment, to say nothing of law and order.
How important is the US military situation in Iraq? In his report, General Petraeus indicated that "the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met." He does not explain what those objectives are. General Petraeus states that: "The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources." One can reasonably ask, therefore, just what is the US military mission? What he describes is a matter between Iraqi ethnic, religious and sectarian groups, and how or why the US military should have a role in it is by no means clear. It is clear in any case that the US military presence in Iraq has opened and is sustaining a horrifying can of worms.
How real is the likelihood of regional chaos if the US withdraws? Ambassador Crocker asserts that US withdrawal or drastic curtailment of activities would result in failure. He says we all already understand what that means, but he does not tell us. He predicts human suffering well beyond what has already occurred in Iraq, the evaporation of "gains made against al Qaida," and the establishment of terrorist strongholds in the region for "regional and international operations." While he does not say so, such outcomes would require that regional governments collectively either fail or collude in the growth of terrorist activity. That is a judgment for which there is little evidence, and he presents none.
When will the US withdraw from Iraq? The subject of a complete US military withdrawal was not on the Petraeus/Crocker agenda. In addition to Crocker's predictions of long-term trouble if the US abandons Iraq or drastically curtails US efforts on behalf of Iraq, General Petraeus painted a picture for the future that prohibited any promises or plans respecting future US force levels beyond a possible drawdown to pre-surge levels in mid 2008. Neither mentioned the major US military bases in Iraq or the Embassy colossus that is growing on the Tigris in Baghdad. Silence on the status of those facilities is consistent with a plan to stay in Iraq. General Petraeus recommended to the Congress that the US forces in Iraq remain essentially in a combat role for the indefinite future-rather than move to a combat support role for Iraqi forces. He thus envisions a US presence in Iraq for the long run.
Is the US consulting the Iraqis about any of this? Such consultations, if any, do not show in the two reports. Judgments about US force levels and the timing or nature of changes are unilateral US decisions about which the Iraqis learn when their US counterparts are prepared to tell them. This US approach to the Iraqis has a minimum effect of perpetuating Iraqi dependence on US forces. It is now an American vassal state, and it will remain one as long as American forces remain in country. Meanwhile, US doubts about Iraqi readiness to assume combat and law enforcement roles appear to stand in the way of US decisions to change roles in Iraq.
What is the situation now? The most that one can say at this point is that US combat forces and their support are in Iraq for the indefinite future. What may happen, subject to conditions that develop over coming months, is that US forces in Iraq in mid 2008 will be back to about where they were in numbers at the beginning of 2007. In the meantime, work on the new US Embassy colossus and four, maybe five, US bases will be completed. It seems likely that the Iraqis know of those plans, but the fledgling Iraqi leadership under Nouri Al Maliki or any near future successor is likely to be too weak to object.
What lies in the Future? Recent Maliki comments suggest he would be happy to see US forces leave. Many other Iraqis reflect that view; thus, it is no surprise that the ABC/BBC survey shows most Iraqis are not opposed to insurgent attacks on US forces. In that respect, the next crisis in Iraq may be over the collision of Iraqi expectations with US intentions. As their history shows, the Iraqis have never been comfortable under occupation. It seems virtually certain that Iraqi nationalists will continue to resist such a prospect and that more Iraqis will join the effort. This suggests that conflict in Iraq will turn more toward insurgency and away from internecine warfare in the coming months. Such a prediction bodes ill for our troops. It strongly favors putting UN or other third country peacemakers in place and gracefully taking our leave as soon as possible.
How Americans take all this on board is a challenge. The first task is for the Bush administration to accept that the situation is thoroughly fouled up, and the responsibility for that lies with American leadership. Our country has the moral and ethical responsibility for putting things right in Iraq, but our leadership has questionable competence to do so. We must view the reports of the past few days in that light, and creditable readings do not come easily. Borrowing a thought from the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge-advice he gave for believing in a fairy tale, yesterday Senator Hillary Clinton suggested that to believe what we are hearing requires our "willing suspension of disbelief." Hopefully our leadership in both parties will aspire to a higher standard of truth.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at <mailto:wecanstopit@charter.net>wecanstopit@charter.net.


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