September 26, 2007
As the Surge SucceedsBy J.R. Dunn
One of the benefits of Petraeus-Crocker hearings is the way they've cleared up the miasma of defeatism and futility that settled over the topic of Iraq since the beginning of this year. Much of this was produced by MoveOn, the media, and advantage-hunting Democratic pols, but it was also implicit in a lot of commentary from the war's supporters as well. (e.g., the habit of ending each announcement of good news with some line such as, "of course, there's a long way to go" or "we've still got a hard road ahead". This solecism is common among everyone from W on down, and amounts to jabbing a nail in your own tire.)
The danger with chronic pessimism is that it often acts as self-fulfilling prophecy. Such attitudes are not neutral factors. Whereas optimism, justified or not, may well carry you though despite the facts of a situation, an overly bleak assessment by its very nature induces hesitation, second thoughts, and timidity. The war's opponents in the political and media spheres are well aware of this.
So it's a good thing that Petraeus and Crocker blew it away. And the vote against James Webb's sneaky little attempt to shut down the war by "supporting the troops" put the cap on the Democrat's "defeat in ‘07" campaign, so we can step back to get a clearer picture of what is occurring in Iraq (and the Middle East at large) and what we can expect in the near future.
There are times when optimism is realism. The past few months encompassed one of those occasions. As the surge was unfolding, analyses were overcautious at best, and all of them were wrong. War is the realm of surprise, and guerilla war above all. Something could happen tomorrow to overthrow anyone's insights and predictions. This is precisely what occurred with the surge, which upset the calculations of the Jihadis, the Dems, and this country's chattering classes.
So with that in mind, we will attempt an analysis that strives for both optimism and realism, based on a serious appraisal of the war's progress up until now. (Anyone who cannot live without pessimism will find it here, in as deeply considered and well-written a fashion as you are ever likely to see.)
The Surge Strategy
The debate over the surge has revealed that critics had no understanding what a strategy actually is. They took the surge as representing merely an increase in troop levels, paying no attention to the fact that the new battalions were intended to support an entirely reworked strategic concept. Rather than the "light-footprint" Rumsfeld-Casey strategy, the surge embodied a proactive counterinsurgency strategy designed to overmatch the Jihadis on their own ground and destroy them in detail.
Convinced of inevitable failure, the critics chose to attack the motives and intentions behind the surge. They were completely befuddled by the late summer's successes, and unable to present any serious objections. The surge was a two-sided strategy that routed not only the Jihadis but domestic opponents as well.
In a real sense, the sole adequate judge of a strategy is the enemy. Can it be countered? By what means? How much effort would it require? How much time? How many casualties?
A masterly strategy is one in which there is not only no easy countermove, but one in which every such attempt gets the enemy deeper into trouble. The real-world equivalent of a checkmate, in which any move puts the king in jeopardy. (This type of strategy was what Sun Tzu was thinking of when he spoke of the situation where the alternatives were so unpalatable that an enemy would prefer to surrender: "True mastery in war is not to win a battle. True mastery in war is not to fight at all.")
It's too early to say whether the surge is a masterly strategy. But it is a very good one. Petreaus took his time preparing his battlefield so that when all the pieces fell into place, the Jihadis would have no alternative but to run -- with nowhere to run to. A guerilla force must have a sanctuary, a secure area in which to rest and refit. The surge, assisted by the sheiks of Anbar and Diyala, has denied this to the Jihadis.
As a result, we have a rollup, in which Jihadi units with no place to hide are confronted and destroyed by superior Coalition forces.
The results would speak for themselves if they were adequately covered by the legacy media. General Petreaus told Congress that Al-Queda is losing up to 1,500 men a week. At least five and perhaps more district leaders have been captured or killed and not replaced. Attacks in Baghdad have fallen to half their level at the beginning of the surge. According to Gen. Ray Odierno, Al-Queda forces are starting to flee the country.
The Enemy Response
And the Jihadi response? A single effort -- the assassination of sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi. (Media reports have attempted to portray the bombing of the Yazidi village of Qahataniya on August 15, in which perhaps as many as 500 villagers were killed, as a serious blow to the surge strategy. But in fact, it was a revenge strike for the "honor killing" of a Yazidi girl who became involved with a Muslim. It may well be that the Jihadis diverted resources intended for another attack to the village -- four truck bombs does seem to be overkill.)
That is all, over a period of eight months. Since February, there has been no other sign of a riposte. (Recent threats by Al-Queda to begin targeting U.S. troops remain merely that -- unfulfilled threats.) Clearly, the Jihadis have no idea how to meet the surge. They are simply setting bombs and killing bystanders with no evident goal or plan on how to reach it.
While claims have been made that the Jihadis have gone to ground until the surge ends, ready to sweep back in as soon as U.S. troops depart, this may not be good enough. Through misconduct and brutality the Jihadis have made themselves extraordinarily unwelcome - an attempt to return to the villages will likely be greeted with guns and calls for Coalition air power.
This does not mean there will be no further attacks, bombings, or deaths. A guerilla force has more heads than a hydra, and each one has to be killed, sometimes several times over. But the most important element in waging war is discovering and implementing a workable strategy. There is no denying that General Petreaus has accomplished exactly that.
There are two known methods by which guerillas can overcome a superior force: though the intervention of a third power, or by sheer attrition. The Vietnamese communists discovered that the third power need not be another state, but could take the form of the Democratic Party. This possibility has now been closed, at least for the present. As far as the second alternative goes, it is the Jihadis who are being attritted. No third possibility exists, and Al-Queda does not appear to be the organization capable of formulating one.
This leaves the problem of the Shi'ite militias. The difficulty here is that every time Shi'ite radicalism appears ready to die out from sheer unworthiness to live, someone comes along and performs CPR. This time it was Gordon Brown. The British decision to complicate matters through a withdrawal from Basra at the moment the Iraq situation was beginning to turn is far from the UK's finest hour.
But it's also far from fatal, because the militias are not al-Qaeda. They are best viewed as criminal gangs jockeying for control over a lucrative territory. Some are backed by the Iranians, some are not. The most effective (and cynical) approach to such a situation would be to back a powerful faction in wiping out the others, then move against the sole survivor. By that time, the people of southern Iraq may, like their equivalents in Anbar and Diyala, be so disgusted that they will willingly settle down under the protection of the government. The Arabs are past masters at this kind of thing; it might as well be left to them.
We can't overlook the fact that we also have an ally in this matter - Moqtada al-Sadr, who can be relied on to do the stupidest thing imaginable at the exact worst time. If various guardian angels (mostly brother Shi'ites, but very likely some Westerners too) hadn't been watching over him, he'd have fallen under a bus long ago. His current six-month hiatus suggests that he is nowhere near as strong as many have taken him to be.
And let's keep in mind that there is no reason the surge can't be extended to Basra if necessary. The militias wouldn't hold out any better than Al-Queda. They would probably break considerably sooner. Gangsters are like that.
The Iraqi Nation
Iraq appears to be in the process of becoming a federal state, as it should have been in the first place. Our State Department prefers states with strong central governments (while demanding the most stratospheric levels of individual freedom - a contradiction I don't believe has ever been adequately explained). Iraq is no exception
The peculiarity here is that the two most stable governments on earth -- the U.S. and Switzerland -- are both federal republics. One would think that examples of this caliber would be hard to ignore. But idealization of the centralized state appears to be an ideological phenomenon, in which the real world comes out second to theory, with contradictory evidence set aside right up until the moment the bus goes over the cliff.
The United States adapted the federal system to ease rivalries between the regions -- New England, the Mid-Atlantic States, the South, and the new frontier territories opening up beyond the Alleghenies and the Ohio River basin. Otherwise, conflicting demands and requirements might well have torn the new commonwealth to pieces (as they nearly did eighty years later), through secession, or even worse. (Vermont was an independent republic for nearly a decade due in large part to a territorial dispute with New York. The same could have occurred with other states.)
The benefits of the federal system can be expressed in the line "good fences make good neighbors". By placing legal and governmental distance between competing regions and populations, federalism eases friction and limits the potential for violence. Rather than a central government sending down directives, federalism requires consensus-building and compromise, practices which by their very nature tend to defuse conflicts and disenfranchise extremists on all sides.
Iraq is facing difficulties not at all dissimilar to those that challenged the infant U.S., if more severe by an order of magnitude. But even this may help ease the transition: the people of Iraq from top to bottom are terrified both of a return to the horrors of the Saddam regime and a continuation of the dislocations they are even now suffering. "The prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully." One way or another, not a single Iraqi has not faced the prospect of being hanged. We can assume their minds have been concentrated.
Though completely unmentioned by our diligent media, several breakthroughs in the logjam between the factions have occurred in recent weeks. The long-term ban against former Ba'athists has been overturned. Numerous Sunnis jailed on no charge have been released. The question of a fair disposition of oil income has been settled. And perhaps most important, Baghdad -- and by definition, the Shi'ite majority -- has agreed to considerable autonomy for the regions.
Iraq may well be in the process of settling into its most comfortable natural state. The wisest course is to do exactly what Ryan Crocker is doing - not interfere. (Crocker has lived and worked in the Middle East for decades, with an understanding of the Arab mentality that only such experience can provide.) This is an Iraqi matter and one that they must arrange among themselves.
One thing we need to keep in mind: this is the Middle East. Things are done slowly, deliberately, through many meetings and over many cups of tea. Nothing is more frustrating than to hear Western pols and reporters going on about how the Iraqis "can't get anything done". They are getting things done, on their own terms and according to their own schedule. To demand anything else would be to demand that they cease being Arabs. And that... Well, let's move on.
(The same can be said about recent outcries over corruption. This is a region where corruption is simply an aspect of government. A method of doing business sanctioned by the Successors and formalized by centuries of caliphs and sultans is not going to be overturned by any conceivable force of ombudsman and whistleblowers. We must learn when to look the other way when necessary.)
Attempts by the State Department (or even worse, the CIA) to set up and manipulate governments have been universally catastrophic. Someday a useful history will be written, though probably not in our time. But it's a damn good thing Foggy Bottom didn't get its hands on Central Europe after the Cold War.
The failure of the centralized state in Iraq is not a setback. It's an opportunity.
A major complaint about the war, particularly among so-called "realists", involves the claim that overthrowing Saddam "destabilized" the Middle East. Apart from the strange premise that a region including countries run by the mullahs, the Assads, and Saddam Hussein can be in any way considered "stable", we have the question of what stability is for. If its purpose was to provide a setting for the crimes committed by Saddam, Hafez Assad, Khomeini, and their associates, then we are better off without it.
Make no mistake: the Middle East is a better place, with a brighter future, now that Saddam is gone. (Not to mention the earth, the Solar System, and this spiral arm of the galaxy.)
Even severe critics of the Iraq war, such as Edward N. Luttwak (who by himself gives the lie to the "neoconservative" myth of the war's origins), acknowledge that the war has opened up an entirely new array of geopolitical possibilities, many of which are not at all detrimental to American interests.
At the moment, something is happening vis-a-vis the Syria-Iran axis. It is not yet clear what. The September 9 raid by the Israeli Air Defense Force on Dayr az-Zawr, a Syrian target widely suggested to have been a nuclear site, may well have been an epochal event, if half of what is being said about it is true. At the very least, it was a poke in the eye for Syria, Iran, and North Korea (and how often do we get to do that?).
Curious Silence: The Media
There are several mysteries surrounding this incident. The first, and most minor, involves the media coverage. We've grown used to reporters fumbling the ball over crucial events and stories that they simply don't understand (a field that grows larger with each journalism school graduating class), but this is something else. The Israelis raid what may well have been a nuclear weapons site and they just don't cover it? This represents new horizons in obtuseness.
(One element suggesting that it was a nuclear site -- or something of equivalent importance --lies in the fact that much of the Syrian air defense system, one of the most advanced in the world, was shut down by unknown means without a missile being fired. Revelation of this capability short of open war means that the Israelis considered the raid to be a matter of the highest seriousness.)
The second mystery involves the Syrian response -- there wasn't one. The Syrian government, which can be depended on to howl like a banshee every time an Israeli comes within ten feet of the border, has said next to nothing. One low-key complaint about a flight of Israeli F-15s being "chased back" across the border after "dropping their fuel tanks". Very odd, particularly for those of us who recall the endless caterwauling that greeted the 1981 raid on Osirak, which went on for weeks, and was joined by a number of shameless Western governments.
And what about the Iranians? It's well established in international relations that an attack on a client is an attack on the sponsor. Syria is a client of Iran. So the Iranians should be screaming their heads off, putting their forces on full alert, and threatening to rend heaven and earth in twain. But they're doing no such thing. Instead, after a short display of missile rattling no more intense than what we get from them at least once a week, Ahmadinejad headed for New York City to visit to the Columbia University, UN, and acted almost oddly subdued in the process. The man who threatens to unleash the apocalypse in response to a hangnail has so far not raised his voice or issued threats, even when making absurd claims.
Our enemies are suddenly afraid. Why is that? Could it be yet another result of the surge? Could sudden progress in Iraq have triggered second thoughts in the people who have tried to profit from our troubles? Spillover effects are by no means rare with successful strategies -- in fact, they could be said to be an expected byproduct.
Assad and the mullahs basically had one play: keep the Iraq pot boiling fiercely enough to require full attention, while waiting out W's last term in hopes of getting somebody pusillanimous, corrupt, or incompetent in the oval office. The surge has pulled the rug out from under this policy. Over the weekend Hillary refused to pledge troop withdrawal if she wins the presidency. With Al-Qaeda on the run and restless Sunni tribes being reconciled, the sole forces keeping the fire blazing are meddling third parties. Having come this far, why would the Coalition stop?
We have a President who delights in throwing curve balls -- unleashing surprises that make for the greatest possible amount of confusion among his enemies. Sometimes they fail (Harriet Miers), more often they work magnificently. We're currently seeing the results of one such move -- the surge itself. Could there be a similar play on the agenda? A kind of "surge 2" -- a megasurge that would do for the Persian Gulf region at large what has already been accomplished in Iraq? Perhaps Assad and the Mullahs are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Perhaps they think (with some evidence to back them up) that there's something else coming, and they simply don't know how to react.
Are things suddenly going to start going wrong for Syria and Iran? Will they start losing bases and installations that they value? Will there be mysterious and destructive episodes occurring on their borders? Will the de facto alliance with the Jihadis and Shi'ite radicals, convenient for so long, suddenly become a liability?
The critics of surge looked at it as an end-game, something of a last-ditch effort. No one ever considered that it might represent a new beginning. The ball is now in our court. We have one more chance to shake the Middle East out of its medievalism into something more acceptable to 21st century global civilization.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker. For twelve years he was editor of the International Military Encyclopedia.