Thursday, June 21, 2007

New Iraq Strategy Under Ten Words

(responding to an interview with Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks, author of FIASCO, on NPR's "Fresh Air" two days ago; plus Robert Dallek's book NIXON AND KISSINGER; with additional info from Lawrence Kaplan's editorial in THE NEW REPUBLIC ON LINE and an article posted November 30, 2006, by UPI news analyst Martin Sieff.)

"Bottom line: Right people, right strategy, too little, too late."

That's what an American general in Iraq told Thomas Ricks during his latest visit there.

The new strategy, called a "surge" in the media, might better be called "swimming with the people." That's a quote from Chairman Mao's book on how to be an insurgent -- "Insurgents swim with the people," blending in, giving them what they need, making alliances. With additional troop force deployed there, General Petraeus has enacted on a large scale that same strategy, which served him well in the areas he commanded in Iraq in 2005. Troops are stationed in neighborhoods instead of on far bases. While this increases their vulnerability in the short run, they learn quickly "what normal looks like" according to Ricks, and they share the neighbors' interest in stability and safety, and can get the cooperation of the people 24/7 in a way they could not when they sped in from afar and patrolled behind armor a couple hours a day.

It's working. According to Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic (on line), "Already, attacks and executions in the capital have (depending on the source) declined by one-half to one-third." I've read in other sources that our troops are also getting cooperation with tribal leaders sick of Al Qaeda outsiders.

But Ricks, speaking in the interview aired Tuesday, saw clouds in these silver linings. The Sunni tribal leaders who have opposed our forces may be cooperating because they see that as a way to get some of the training and weapons that we've been giving their Shiite adversaries. In other words, they're gearing up for the all-out civil war that will follow if US soldiers withdraw immediately.

Ricks points out, by the way, that, if we began to pull out now, running convoys to waiting ships and bases in Kuwait at a rate of 30 convoys a day, our forces would still be in Iraq ten months from now -- that's how much equipment, etc. we have there. "And who's going to protect those convoys when it becomes clear to our enemies that we're leaving?" Aside from that, Ricks imagines Iraq's territory hardening into three armed camps (Kurds, Shiia, Sunnis) fighting each other as proxies for Saudis, Syrians, and Iranians -- with Turkey having its own interest in putting down Kurds. Democratic Presidential hopeful Bill Richardson scored points against Hillary by promising to get our boys out immediately, while she anticipates troops being stationed in Iraq for at least another ten years. She's reasonable; he's pandering. But even she said, "We've kicked out Saddam, we've given them a constitution, and they" can't get their act together - so we should get out.

While all this is happening, I've been reading Robert Dallek's book NIXON AND KISSINGER, and Nixon's struggle to make "Vietnamization" work seems so familiar. What is our policy now, except a long-drawn-out version of our helicopter taking off from the rooftop of our embassy in Saigon? "So long! Take care!" In Nixon's many attempts to get North Vietnam's agreement to withdraw -- later settling for a promise to stop attacking -- he knew (tapes and transcripts show him saying as early as 1968, during his campaign) that the enemy had already won and had no incentive to make any concessions. They had only to outlast America's will to keep troops there. Within days of the final peace agreement in January 1973, North Vietnamese forces were attacking our "Vietnamized" defenses all across South Vietnam.

Kaplan compares Petraeus to Creighton Abrams ( a name that has not popped up in Dallek's book, yet - I've never heard of Abrams). Kaplan quotes a recent article about Abrams by retired colonel Stuart Herrington,
"having wasted more than three years (until 1968) pursuing a flawed strategy, the Pentagon lost the support of the American population, and was not given the time to get it right, even when it was clear that General Creighton Abrams' pacification and Vietnamization approach might have worked."

Success is even less likely in Iraq. Kaplan point outs that South Vietnam at least had an army and a functioning government. Sieff's UPI analysis of the President's new strategy document back in November includes facetious admiration of the President's stated long - term goal of an Iraq
"peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism." Sieff comments:

That goal is an exceptionally ambitious one, especially as even in the 36 years of Iraqi national independence before Saddam Hussein and his fellow Baathists established the second Baathist Republic in 1968, Iraq was never "peaceful, united, stable and secure."

His article also includes a handy summary of Iraq's history in the 20th century, pre-Saddam:

The British Empire ran Iraq directly as a Mandate of the League of Nations for 14 years, after World War I until 1932, and painstakingly built up and trained the Iraqi army during that time. But within nine years of independence, this same army had rebelled against both the democratically elected government and the British interest in Iraq twice, in 1936 and 1941, successfully toppling the government in both cases.

On the second occasion, in 1941, the Iraqi army sought immediately to join Britain's mortal enemy, Nazi Germany, and was only preventing from doing so by a hastily organized British military invasion and re-conquest of the country launched, ironically enough, from Jerusalem in Palestine, which was then still under British control.

Eventually in 1958, the Iraqi Army succeeded in toppling the British-supported constitutional government and slaughtered the entire Hashemite royal family of Iraq. Both moves proved immensely popular among the Iraqi people at the time.

So when General Petraeus testifies to Congress in September, will he say that the new strategy is working, or not? Ricks says the top brass are sick of arguing over whether the war should have started in the first place, and sick of all discussions of the war being framed as a referendum on President Bush. Rather, Petraeus will lay out what has been achieved, what leaving would look like, and will ask, "Now, you tell us what you want us to do."

The best option of all is somehow to achieve what Bush had in mind from the first, and the best strategy seems to be in place now. But, so long as all our efforts are seen to be cover for our exit - as Nixon's elusive "peace with honor" was (Dallek quotes him saying, as early as 1969, "But what the hell does that mean? It doesn't mean anything!") - it really is too little, too late.

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