Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Battle within the War

Reuel Marc Gerecht is by far my superior in terms of experience, access to information and probably analytical ability. In the Weekly Standard, Gerecht rejects the notion of awaiting the availability of Iraqi forces before crushing -- yes, crushing -- the Sunni insurgents, and he is well worth listening to.

There is a decent chance that the tactics now in use in Iraq will produce the opposite of what is intended: The insurrection in the Sunni triangle will deepen, and the clerical rebel Moktada al-Sadr and his Sadriyyin followers may well roll forth again, with even more force, from their Baghdad Shiite stronghold. Many American officials certainly hope, and appear to believe, that the "gradualist" course now chosen will eventually win the day: If U.S. forces abstain from the siege-and-conquest of truly difficult insurgent towns in the Sunni triangle in favor of behind-the-scenes, Iraqi-led negotiations backed by CIA largesse, aerial bombardment, quick ground assaults, and the gradual deployment of more Iraqi paramilitary and police units, an inglorious but lasting victory will follow. Yet the administration may well be setting itself up for a perfect storm of Arab Sunni intransigence, fundamentalism, and betrayal. The White House should take little comfort in knowing that Kerry's ideas are even worse. Kerry's plan, when not surreal--the French and the Germans, who tried to ease sanctions on Saddam Hussein, and who opposed the war on nationalist, internationalist, European, pacifist, and capitalist principles, have little desire to aid America now--is unsound, precisely because it repeats and amplifies the bad counterinsurgency ideas of the Bush administration.

He believes gradualist tactics will fail because they convey a feeling of weakness to a culture which respects strength above all. Gerecht maintains that the core of the Sunni insurgency no longer consists of Ba'athists, but Sunni fundamentalists -- a fundamentalism that grew irresistibly even under the Saddam regime -- yet who remain Sunni all the same, with dreams of regaining their formerly pre-eminent position. And their dreams have been rekindled by an advance before an America that has yielded on every important psychological point.

How does it look when the Americans hunker down in their heavily armored vehicles while the Iraqi security forces voyage out in easily obliterated pick-up trucks? The Iraqis are getting pummeled much worse than we are. For whom does this inspire confidence? For whom fear? And the worst is still to come. ...

The growing range and boldness of the guerrilla-cum-terrorist actions suggests something more vigorous and young than the remnants of the Baath. Sunni militants are unquestionably men of hope, who believe fervently that they can drive the Americans out and create another Sunni-dominated state. And the Americans have certainly given them cause to cheer. The "gradualist" approach of the Bush administration has been a gift. The American retreat at Falluja was an enormous fillip to their pride and self-confidence. As the militants have grown stronger, U.S. soldiers have increasingly withdrawn from Iraqi streets. While the Americans have wanted to seem less provocative to the Iraqi people, they have certainly sent a different image to the holy warriors and ex-Baathists. Washington forgot historical rule number one about getting enemies to surrender and acquiesce: You must first beat them. They must see clearly that they have no hope. In a Middle Eastern context, your hayba, the awe that comes with indomitable power, must overwhelm them. This has not happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam.

In this analysis, Americans have a choice between two programs in Iraq: the "surreal" plans of John Kerry, which are certain to fail and the overcautious, hypersensitive policies of George Bush, which are only likely to fail. Gerecht does not only base his reservations upon general principles but also on practical objections. How likely, he asks, is Iraqization to succeed? He raises the counterintelligence nightmare: inducting the fox into the chicken coop.

When I have spoken to military, military intelligence, and CIA officers about who is being recruited into the new Iraqi army, paramilitary units, and police, I have not been persuaded that much due diligence is being performed. Has anyone connected the dots between the families, communities, and towns that have provided the Sunni volunteers for these new forces and the families, communities, and towns that are producing the Sunni militants? Hundreds of Americans and ironclad loyal Iraqis are needed for this task of vetting.

He argues that only an outright conquest of Iraq by boosting troop numbers and sweeping house to house across all the insurgent strongholds in the Sunni triangle will work. Only this will recover our hayba, starting with Fallujah. But because he believes this is impossible before the November elections, the matter must be left to fester unresolved, with no true champion of victory on the horizon. (When the true effect of the clearing operations now underway in the Sunni triangle, beginning with Samarra, can be discerned, we can properly judge this assessment.) His most scathing paragraph is a indictment of both party's positions, which cheats the voter of a clear, winning choice.

The administration and the country would certainly be better off if the Kerry campaign and the Democratic party would outflank the White House from the right on Iraq--to attack the NSC, the Pentagon, and the State Department for their lack of aggressiveness, for the continuing "Falluja syndrome" that still undermines operations in the Sunni triangle. But confronted with essentially a Howard Dean/Edward Kennedy critique--the second Gulf War was a mistake (as was the first), conceived through intelligence incompetence or manipulation, and destined to be a sandy Indochina--the administration will surely be less inclined to judge itself harshly. It seems unlikely that this left-wing stratagem will work in November, if for no other reason than that 1,000-plus combat deaths are too few, even with the media daily pounding George Bush with bad news from the Middle East, for Americans to dump the president and his patriotic call to stand our ground. But the Kerry-Holbrooke assessment will likely define the Democratic party's response to Iraq even after a defeat of the senator in November, further diminishing the necessary pressure on the Bush administration to undertake the ugly counterinsurgency campaign it's been avoiding.

Absent from this calculus of course, is Iran. The looming, imminent shadow of the Islamic militant nuclear bomb does not enter into the Sunni insurgency directly but permeates every circumstance surrounding it. Subtracted from this scenario too is the effect of a Kerry victory in November, which if realized, would transform even these criticized Bush administration efforts into a Paradise Lost. These two threads provide the basis for my own critique. If the Sunni insurgency is not being beaten down optimally it is because it is not by itself very important. Their ability to inflict American loss and threaten strategic danger is too limited to force "the NSC, the Pentagon, and the State Department" out of the business-as-usual mode and Gerecht says as much. If America could have safely ignored Saddam, who controlled a whole country, as nearly the entire Left and some conservatives have argued, why is it important who owns a few towns along the Tigris river? If one could abide the first, surely one could tolerate the second. The problem, ironically, is that the Sunnis cannot sting America enough to make it want to win. That condition would be self-limiting in isolation. But it is not in isolation.

While the Sunni insurgency is not an intrinsically large problem and Falluja something that can be recovered with ease; an Iranian bomb or a Kerry victory are situations from which no recovery may be possible. Therefore the necessary (but not sufficient) condition for victory, not just in the Sunni triangle, may be a non-nuclear Iran and the election of a President at least partially committed to victory against terror. We can only say 'faster please' when the car is not in reverse. But as Gerecht implies, we will have to wait until November to see if we have any car left at all or whether Iraq will be the future scene of "My Cambodian Christmas in Baghdad".