07 January 2008

Lengthy Sunday Discussion of Iraq with my Friend A-Ro

(x-post at VetVoice here)

I got an email from an old friend, let's call him "A-Ro", since I'm not sure he wants his full name used. One thing that blogging has provided is the reunification with old friends and colleagues through curiosity of current foreign and defense policy. I suppose it's more interesting than Facebook entries celebrating me passing out drunk in various places. He had a lot of questions and his own thoughts, so I figure I would post them:

I would really appreciate learning your views on a few things. (If you've already addressed a lot of this in past blog posts, just point me toward those posts.) I basically want to take advantage of knowing someone who actually knows something about what's going on, who is a straight-shooter, and who is on the fair-minded right ( i.e. accepts that it is possible to ask questions about the war without actually wanting us to lose).

First, let me tell you briefly where I'm coming from. I am a, center-left kind of guy. I think a lot about and have clear views on domestic policy and some of the "at home" parts of the war on terror, but am still foggy on some of the foreign policy stuff--I basically have read Joseph Nye's book about soft power (and thought it is reasonable) and agree with Fareed Zakaria a lot. Other than that, I'm not sure about much to do with our military, our spies, and our diplomats. At the time I could not make up my mind about whether or not we should invade Iraq. Now I think we shouldn't have, but am not comfortable with the Richardson/Edwards "screw it, let's get out of here now" plan. I am glad that we're making progress on the ground now that we have Petraeus in charge.

Fareed Zakaria is one of my favorite editorialists. I've been following his stuff in Newsweek for years. As a guy in Iraq, I am quite glad that Petraeus and Odierno are in charge as well, since they know what they are doing and are honest about when things are going poorly. Security has gotten better due to a variety of factors, but the long-term security of Iraq will be dependent on the Iraqis themselves, not a lengthy US presence.

Okay, after that long preamble, here are my questions:

1) What are we trying to do?

I have read many justifications for our continued involvement in Iraq. I'm trying to understand the relative importance of these various goals. How important are the ones I list below, on their own and compared to each other? Have I left any off? Have I expressed some of them in a particularly unhelpful way? I think these are goals I've heard real people express, but I haven't taken the time to find citations for each. I will try to do so if you call bullshit on any of them.

A-Ro, I'll try to categorize the goals you highlighted as best I can. The short answer is that the current Operation Iraqi Freedom strategy is to provide security for the Iraqi population from enemies foreign and domestic and to assist them in developing their democratic institutions and infrastructure.

a) This is a nation building thing. We are working toward an Iraq that is stable enough that we can leave without it collapsing. We can't just leave and let a million people get killed or displaced by a positive feedback loop of ethnic violence. (implication: we're in it for 10+ years and we know it).

Yes, nation-building is going on. We are assisting Iraqis develop their civil and military institutions so that the place doesn't become Iran part II or an Al-Qaeda caliphate. The State Dept. and various NGOs are working on improving the Iraqi ministries to carry out effective central government with Rule of Law, while simultaneously employing the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Baghdad and the outlying provinces to assist in getting local government and infrastructure working properly.

The reason we have to do all this is that the infrastructure sucked when we got here in 2003, and Paul Bremer and the CPA back in 2003/2004 enacted the policy of de-baathification. This pretty much turned anyone who had any competence in running a centralized government into an exile or insurgent. A terrible, terrible mistake with vast unintended consequences.

b) This is a GWOT thing. We are fighting the enemy there so we won't have to do it at home, distracting Al Qaida and causing them to divert resources, etc. (implication: we stay until AQI/AQM is defeated, even if Iraq sets up a stable state in the mean time.)

Defeating AQI is priority #1. Most of their leadership is foreigners and they are being eliminated in Iraq. They are a small group of religious fanatics, but their campaign of violence (primarily against other Iraqis in the form of car bombs, suicide vests, etc.) can accelerate lethal sectarian violence in the unstable country of Iraq. This was evident by the rapid increase in ethno-sectarian violence following the Samarra Mosque bombing in February 2006.

Defeating Shiite "Special Groups" or rogue militias is priority #2. These guys are engaged in various criminal enterprises that you would see in other unstable countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia which involve smuggling, kidnapping, political assassinations, and targeting coalition forces. There was some serious problems with training and weapons coming from Iran the past year, but it appears that has ceased, which is a tremendous diplomatic victory for Iraq and the US. Speaking as a guy out of uniform (as I always do), I'm a little disappointed with the neo-cons since they have not done much to acknowledge this. Why would anyone want a war with Iran? There must be something going on behind the curtain that I don't know about...

c) This is a symbolism thing. Now that we're there, we have to stay (doing as much good as we can in the mean time) until we can find a way to get out without appearing to have been defeated by Al Qaida. (implication: it's better to "win" by keeping 100k+ troops there for 20 years (I don't know what the actual numbers would be) than to "lose" by cutting our losses and focusing on redeploying to Afghanistan and rebuilding our military.)

I guess it's symbolic. But the entire "War on Terror" has been so muddled by the Bush administration that I'm confused what strategic message we are trying to send. The only thing I can say for sure is that it has been tremendously costly in both American lives and taxpayer dollars. I really hope that people get elected that will have a strong message on how to defeat terrorism, but as a military guy, I simply follow orders.

d) This is a visionary thing. We are helping democracy take root in the Arab world. (implication: Iraq just happened to be our first opportunity to do this because of Hussein's defiance of the UN WMD inspections regime. We will be there until Iraq looks like post-war Germany or Japan, possibly 100k+ troops for 20 years)

The whole democracy thing was way too idealistic and way too short-sighted. Winston Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time." I'm inclined to agree with him. The Bush Administration used the promise of democracy as a selling point to justify invasion of Iraq in 2003. I'm more in favor of the more modest and practical goals that are currently in place of defeating extremists and getting the lights on in Iraq.

e) This is a cognitive dissonance thing. (Warning--this one is possibly stupid or insulting or something--I ask it because I fear it is a factor for some people. I do not believe it's any one's sole motivation, and I know no one has said this is their view) We stay because people have trouble accepting that our soldiers are risking and losing their lives for something that isn't worth it, so we pretend it's worth it to make everyone feel better. (implication: the civilian leadership is buying time until it can blame our "defeat" by pull-out (see (c)) on the new Democratic president. Meanwhile, the military makes the best of the mission it's been given, doing the most good it can while it is asked to be in Iraq.)

Hmm, an interesting point A-Ro. But my whole beef with conspiracy theory and the 9/11 truth movement, and everything else you see in the wild n' weird blogosphere is that no one in politics is that smart or intelligent to pull off this kind of ruse. I think everyone is too worried about covering their own ass and getting re-elected.

f) This is a blood for oil thing. Just kidding. If all we wanted was oil, all we had to do was lift the sanctions and let Hussein sell it to us!

Yeah, if this was about making profits, I'd say this was the worst business idea since the Edsel. But I have my own personal bias on this, since I think that the folks who raised their right hand, and fought and died in Iraq did not do so to help some other rich plutocrats make a buck. The thought of it is very depressing, but you can see an angry veteran talk about it here. I don't think that's the only thing going on in Iraq, but I do concede that it was on people's mind or buried in their subconscious (not everyone, but some people in positions of power).

2) Even if these are worthy goals, there are lots of countries we could occupy to further these goals. Why Iraq, and why now?

I will illustrate what I mean by a posing a hypothetical: If Hussein had died or was deposed a year before we invaded, and the Baathists vs. the Shia majority civil war started happening, would (or should) we have invaded? If we wouldn't have invaded in that situation, why are we there now? Is it because of the idea Powell expressed when he said "we broke it, we own it?" It can't be because Al Qaida is there--Al Qaida wasn't there when we first invaded if I'm not mistaken. Or would we still have invaded after all, and if so, does that mean we would occupy Pakistan and Saudi Arabia if their regimes collapsed without our causing it?

At this point in time, it is pretty tough to justify the reasons we invaded Iraq. The way I see it is that we are where we are and we can't let Iraq turn into a place of total unrest. From a military perspective, you just put your head down and keep on chugging away. Hopefully things'll get better and we can start some serious withdrawals of military forces this year and next. Yes, I agree with that simple Powell doctrine "You Break it, You own it". There was some evidence that now deceased Al-Qaeda thug Zarqawi was in Iraq in 2002, but I think the terrorist hotbeds in the middle east pre-OIF were Afghanistan, Pakistan, and our bizarre ally, Saudi Arabia. IMHO I think occupation of a country is a crummy and inefficient way to fight the War on Terror since it depletes massive resources and results in unnecessary loss of life. Afghanistan was an exception to this rule (since it was being run by terrorists pre-OEF), but I think we should consider a different approach that focuses on diplomacy, humanitarian aide, strategic messaging, and military assistance to moderate nations that are having trouble squashing terrorists in their own countries.

3) Is it worth it?

We're paying a high price for being in Iraq in terms of soldiers' lives, military readiness for other potential challenges, money, and soft power (in terms of the support of allies, and long-term Muslim world distrust). On the other hand, we're pursuing certain goals (addressed above), "showing strength" to countries thinking about messing with us, and gaining experience for a new generation of officers. From a cost-benefit analysis perspective, how confident can we be that Iraq will ever improve enough (or that we will reach other goals) to justify our sacrifice? More concretely, what is changing there that will make leaving later better than leaving sooner? Is it possible that the situation is screwed no matter what, so we may as well pull out now?

Iraq can get better and they have shown improvement in the capabilities of their security forces and local institutions. But their central government is still in the stink hole. Hopefully, this year the improved security situation will allow for the government to pass the much needed Hydro Carbon legislation. This will allow for foreign investment to come into Iraq, which will provide more money for reconstruction and job creation, which will in turn negate the appeal for Iraqis to commit acts of insurgency (I talked about it in this post here). We can understand that phenomenon by looking at our own country, when unemployment goes up, crime goes up too. But I agree with you that we can't be here forever. General Petraeus will be doing a March Assessment which will hopefully address the plan to leave Iraq militarily speaking, while leaving it in some sort of stable condition. I don't think it's a good idea to pull out hastily right now, since it will take a long time to do so (I've heard between 1-2 years), a phased withdrawal is the best exit strategy in my opinion. Is it all worth it? I throw that on the mercy of history's judgment. I have no clue anymore, and I just work here.

Thanks A-Ro, hope that answers your questions. Happy New Years!


Herschel Smith said...

Nice post. Very smart. I find myself in the position, probably like you do from the tenor of the article, where I generally opposed the invasion to begin with, similar to Michael Ledeen and Victor Davis Hanson. But then once the decision was made, I see us as having had abolutely no choice but to finish the COIN campaign and do it right. This was tough with the stupid decisions of Paul Bremer, but failure would mean that Sunni militants would have a home in Anbar and part of Baghdad, and Shi'a militants would have a home in the South, along with Iran, leaving us worse off than before it all started. Further, Iraq has actually become the proverbial fly paper for all manner of bad guys across the globe, and we have managed to capture of kill many thousands of men who would otherwise have waged jihad somewhere else.

A precipitous withdrawl would be an extremely bad choice, but staying too long would be equally bad because we will look like and eventually become occupiers. I see the end game coming many years down the road (perhaps ten), but with our presence being in the North with the Kurds who love us protecting the sovereignty of the country. Eventually, constabulary operations on the part of U.S. forces will cease, and this will be a good day - one that I have prayed for. My best to you.

LT Nixon said...

Thanks for the comment Herschel. Everyone should check out his blog, The Captain's Journal which is linked on the sidebar, very intelligent insight.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/07/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

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