Dependable Erection

Thursday, May 17, 2007

More Iraq thoughts

I wrote a little earlier about a British think tank report which gave a perspective on Iraq not often seen in the US. The report is worth reading in its entirety. Here's the executive summary:
• Iraq has fractured into regional power bases. Political, security and economic power has devolved to local sectarian, ethnic or tribal political groupings. The Iraqi government is only one of several ‘state-like’ actors. The regionalization of Iraqi political life needs to be recognized as a defining feature of Iraq’s political structure.
• There is not ‘a’ civil war in Iraq, but many civil wars and insurgencies involving a number of communities and organizations struggling for power. The surge is not curbing the high level of violence, and improvements in security cannot happen in a matter of months.
• The conflicts have become internalized between Iraqis as the polarization of sectarian and ethnic identities reaches ever deeper into Iraqi society and causes the breakdown of social cohesion.
• Critical destabilizing issues will come to the fore in 2007–8. Federalism, the control of oil and control of disputed territories need to be resolved.
• Each of Iraq’s three major neighbouring states, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has different reasons for seeing the instability there continue, and each uses different methods to influence developments.
• These current harsh realities need to be accepted if new strategies are to have any chance of preventing the failure and collapse of Iraq. A political solution will require engagement with organizations possessing popular legitimacy and needs to be an Iraqi accommodation, rather than a regional or US-imposed approach.

This summary paints a picture of the war that is, i think, unlike any conflict the US has been involved in, certainly within my lifetime. But people have a tendency to view current affairs through a prism of past experience. For most of us, the unsuccessful war of our past is Vietnam, and that's what we see when we look at Iraq, whether we support or oppose the US government's position.

Bush supporters tend to try to pin the blame for the failure of the US military mission in Iraq on its domestic opponents. Not only is this the same analysis offered regarding Vietnam, Matt Yglesias shows us its historical antecedents in Germany following the first World War.

It shouldn't be necessary to even discredit this line of reasoning, but attempts like Ramirez' to blame the Congress are shown for the cheap propaganda they are by the Chatham House study.

But the Chatham House study points out as well the inadequacy of using the Vietnam War as an analogue for our struggles in Iraq from any perspective.

The US position in Vietnam was an attempt to establish an artificial state (South Vietnam) that had little to no indigenous support among the Vietnamese people. But the restoration of a unified state was supported, and the US position could never have been successful, regardless of the military resources committed.

How does this differ from Iraq?

Well, for starters, Iraq was a unified state before the US entered. We fractured it. And here's how Chatham House describes the current various conflicts:
• a struggle over the control of the state between
Shi’a and Sunnis, with Kurds involving themselves
as potential ‘king-makers’. The result of this is a
vicious Shi’a–Sunni civil war in Baghdad and its
environs in which the security institutions of the
Iraqi government are involved.
• a struggle for control over the design of the
state, and whether it will be unitary or federal. This
is bringing Kurds into direct confrontation with
Sunnis and supporters of Muqtada Sadr, and
causing conflict between Sadrists and other Shi’a
• a rapidly emerging conflict between Kurds and
non-Kurds in Kirkuk, which has every possibility of
being mirrored in Mosul.
• a Sunni–US conflict in the centre and north of the
• a Shi’a (Sadrist)–US/UK conflict in the centre and
south of the country.
• a Sunni–Sunni conflict in the governorates of
Anbar, Nineva and Diyala between tribal forces and
those associated with Al-Qaeda and other radical
Islamist movements.
• a conflict caused by the spreading and
strengthening of the Islamic State of Iraq in
Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, including rifts
between Al-Qaeda and home-grown Iraqi
movements such as Ansar al-Sunna.
• a Shi’a–Shi’a conflict in Najaf and Basra, mainly
between Sadrists and Badr forces.
• rampant criminality across the entire country.

There are no perfect analogies, but that sounds more like the conflict that the Soviets got themselves trapped in back in 1980 in Afghanistan.

Here's another thing to look at. Soviet casualties in Afghanistan during the length of the conflict. The Soviets lost about 6000 men in the first 4 years of fighting. You have to interpret the sick/wounded column in a way that makes sense. Ninety percent of the sick/wounded casualties were actually communicable diseases that spread through their forces. So, rather than nearly 150,000 wounded, drop a zero and think about 15,000 wounded in combat through the first 4 years of the Soviet/Afghanistan fighting.

US casualties in Iraq through 4+ years are nearly 3500 dead, and over 30,000 wounded. One thing to remember is that we have been told that many combat injuries that would have resulted in death in previous wars do not in Iraq. So it's not a stretch to say that US casualties in Iraq are not dissimilar to those suffered by the Soviets during their Afghanistan misadventure. And, according to, US casualties over the past 4 months are at the highest rate since the first days of the war.

Now, i want to revisit a quote i posted 10 days or so ago. This is from Major Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands US forces south of Baghdad:
“You got a thinking enemy out there,“ Lynch added. “As soon we do something to prove our capability, he does something to defeat our capability. It is a continual cycle.

It's worth remembering that the US military budget is about $10 billion/week, before the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are included. (The unwillingness of the Bush administration to include these wars in the budget is a problem of another rank.) The current supplemental request comes in at a bit over $2 billion/week. That "the enemy" is able to "defeat our capability" seemingly at will is something to keep thinking about.

And the reason why we need to think about is because of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Several players, including the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, were contributing arms and aid to anti-Soviet forces, who were by no means unified, not unlike the anti-US forces in Iraq. (One difference, however, is that no outside parties are open about ther materiel support for the Iraq insugency. If that should change, the entire dynamic changes as well.) In fact, one of the groups receiving support from the US and Pakistan would eventually become al-Qaeda, a fact which is often forgotten by American Republicans. Under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the US supported Afghani anti-Soviet forces to the tune of between $5 and $10 billion dollars, or about a billion per year.

That level of funding was sufficient to pretty much spell the demise of the Soviet Union, which could not maintain its Afghanistan adventure financially or politically. It could not, though, provide a stable unified Afghan government, until the Taliban moved in in 1994.

Lessons learned?




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