Archive for April, 2006

Iraq Success Becomes Ever More Elusive

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

Three years after his invasion of Iraq, President Bush is well into his campaign to reestablish public support for his war in Iraq.  In his speeches and in his most recent press conference, he has been forceful and consistent in his stated conviction that everything is going well in Iraq and that we will win there.

For a number of reasons, there really isn’t much else he can do.  His nature does not make it easy for him to say that his plan for and execution of the Iraq war was anything more than ever so slightly flawed.  In the face of a string of obvious errors made after his declaration of victory, the president says that the required, minor course corrections have been made and we are now on track for victory.

Having solved all those problems, the Bush administration is left with the practical problem of getting out of Iraq. Whether or not the ongoing sectarian strife in Iraq constitutes “civil war”, the fact is that the basis for such conflict lies in age-old Iraqi animosities that have not changed for centuries and are highly unlikely to change simply because we want them to. Those Americans who want us out of Iraq today say that the presence of U.S. troops exacerbates the situation and that the situation will calm down once they are withdrawn. Others, Bush most emphatically included, believe that the simple presence of U.S. troops makes the outbreak of civil war less likely and that if we leave, Iraq will devolve into chaos. Who has the right crystal ball?

The final element in this situation is the likelihood that if Iraq slips into full civil war, that struggle will not be contained within Iraq.  Every fractious component in Iraq, Shia, Sunni, Kurd, secular and theocratic, has supporters outside the country.  If real civil war breaks out, it will be difficult if not impossible to keep those supporters out of the fray.  Thus, unchecked, civil war in Iraq could easily spread throughout the Middle East.

President Bush has essentially put all his eggs in one basket.  He says that success and our withdrawal from Iraq boil down to the creation of an efficient, trained and motivated Iraqi internal security apparatus – police and army – capable of controlling the country.  To do that, we have started training those cadres.  Because we understand the internal frictions that are an integral part of Iraq, we are making sure that all Iraq’s political, ethnic and religious elements are represented in these cadres.  That means that the police and army, by our own design, are made up of the same elements that are at the root of the broader national civil frictions.  What choice do we have?

The media have sporadically reported that individual groups in Iraq have purposefully set about to infiltrate the nascent army and police.  Often mentioned in this context is The Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, which has never played a peaceful role in Iraq.  One can be quite sure that all the other competing elements in Iraq are making sure they get their share of those jobs.  How else can they adequately represent their own narrow interests!

Add to this the fact that Al-Qaida in Iraq will do everything it can to create havoc and encourage civil war by constant attacks on all the various religious, ethnic and political elements in the country designed to set one against the other and the situation becomes even more complicated and problematical.

This situation points to the one flaw in President Bush’s final plan to extricate US troops from Iraq:  The security forces that he views as the key to Iraqi stability and to our withdrawal, are as factional and potentially fractious as the country at large.  It’s far from clear who commands the loyalty of those forces, the central government, which squabbles and shows little propensity to govern, or those actively hostile ethnic, religious and political elements that make up the country?  Just what will they do if a full-blown civil war really does break out?  History would say they probably will go back to their political, ethnic and religious roots, rather than the national government

The costs to America of this Iraq invasion and its aftermath have been monumental.  We have paid and continue to pay at an extraordinary rate in human casualties, national resources, internal political strife and international prestige and we are doing so based on what can only be called a gigantic gamble.

There has to be a reason for a rational country to undertake a venture like Iraq.  In the national interest, the plusses have to outweigh the minuses.  Yet, three years later, all the original causi belli have evaporated and we are left with this gigantic gamble. – for what?  We are certainly not improving our stance with radical Muslim terrorism.  Whatever happens in Iraq, will it outweigh what has been sacrificed?

The situation does not look promising.  Lacking sufficient original cause and relying on yet another questionable thesis – the oxymoron of a functioning Iraqi security force – the Bush administration faces extremely long odds. Only the most desperate gambler would put himself in such a position.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Lebanon and Iran and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives In Williston, Vermont.

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