Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My views and a friend's on what we should do in Iraq

Below is a dialogue I had with a friend of mine about Obama's views on Iraq and what we should do there.  He is an Army officer and had personal experience with our peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and the ethnic cleansing that took place there AFTER we arrived.  A REALLY interesting perspective from someone with on-the-ground experience.  As you'll see below, he's in favor of doing whatever it takes to win (and agrees that 20,000 troops is a joke), but absent that, agrees with the partition idea. 
My friend's first email (in response to my email in which I explained why I am supporting Obama for President):
Hi Whitney....  very interesting.  Now I can honestly say that I have a good snapshot of the personality which I think is important in sizing up our President.  This factor has been huge in how Bush's policies and decisions have evolved.  I am still not sure who it is I intend to vote for, so count me as one of those 10% -- my lifetime record is about split on which party. 
One thing I'll share.  Obama sounds a lot like many of us Army officers who are just a notch or two beneath the more senior guys.  When Iraq plans were building up, I think that most of us were cautious at best and perhaps horrified at worst.  No one I know in my paygrade was very enthusiastic about Iraq -- we know full well that no plan survives the first bullet, that toppling a regime means an aftermath, and even before we went the Army was already close to burnout.  Remember it was an aircraft carrier with the stupid "Mission Accomplished" sign -- sail away Navy.  
Since then we've seen peers get killed, and as I write I have colleagues in Iraq on their third one-year+ tour.  It is absolutely RIPPING families and marriages to shreds.  We're doing stuff we were never prepared to do.  A good friend of mine is involved with the "Rebuilding the Iraqi Interior Ministry" and to quote him, "I don't know what the heck I'm doing, have no experience in this stuff, so I'll read a book or two and figure it out."  He's in that precarious position because the rest of American government has failed miserably in Iraq.  It's hard to succeed when you can't even get your people over there.  So that lovely little mission falls to the Army too!  (It should be State Dept). 
Now Army tours are 15 months minimum...this is more than double the current tour for a Marine and is four times the tour length of a typical European soldier -- and yet our guys go back again and again and again....our reenlistment rates are through the roof.  Why?  Because, to a man, once the first bullet goes down range it's now our job to win.  All doubts and cautions become secondary considerations.  The decision was made.... and we'll do whatever it takes to win.  Losing is anathema - an unthinkable prospect, which if it happens in my opinion is what will REALLY break the Army and USMC.  Now it's the military who all look gung-ho and pro war but it's got that huge caveat -- only after the country and our politicians send us.  No one will find a more reluctant institution prior to war.  If we lose this I see a huge hit to the morale of our officer corps and a mass exodus from service.  Feeling betrayed, I think that most will have that "Fool me once, shame on you...Fool me twice, shame on me." 
In the excerpts your sent about Obama's views on the way, I was actually a bit surprised in his war commentary and stand encouraged.  I don't get the impression that he wants to pull pitch at the expense of a humiliating defeat.  Bush's idea or not, now it's the country's war and realism dictates that the country finish this, with honor if nothing else.  If Obama realizes the stakes of an American defeat (whether it be military or political) and that the stakes are absolutely massive, then I will most certainly give him a second and third look.  At the moment, I share the view of most of my Army friends -- we're absolutely disgusted and enraged with our political class, no matter which party.  We need hope.  If a populist like Edwards or Buchanan ever get power, I'm taking a flying leap!!  Thanks again.
My reply:
I really enjoyed your comments, but need more clarification about the end part.  I too am sickened at the prospect of defeat and the resulting humiliation, loss of morale, etc.  But what do these brave men and women you're describing think should be done now to achieve victory (or at least a somewhat graceful exit)?
I've come to the conclusion that we've already lost, yet a lot of people are refusing to see what's increasingly obvious to me.  It's like what Munger said at the last BRK meeting: if you jump out of a window on the 40th floor, when you pass the guy in the window on the 20th floor, he thinks you look OK, but you still have a SERIOUS problem. 
I think this war was winnable -- I supported it initially, but obviously would not have had I known how badly this administration would bungle it.  You and your brave colleagues (and the entire country) have been betrayed by the incompetent ideologues in this administration.  Our troops are now caught in the crossfire of a huge civil war and nothing short a hundreds of thousands of more troops could possibly stabilize the situation.  Putting 20,000 more troops in is a total joke. 
Right now, we need to be very hard headed about the situation we're in and how we can best look after our national interests.  Continuing to pour more money and troops into a losing cause when, say, we could use those resources to stabilize Afghanistan, which is trending badly, but is still reversible, makes infinitely more sense. 
Just because we've lost doesn't mean we should pull out tomorrow, however.  There are different ways of losing -- losing with some modicum of decency and honor vs. a total disgrace (think of the helicopters on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon...).  We need to tell the Iraqis that we're leaving, set a date (about a year?) and offer to help in any way we can so that when we leave, there's some chance of avoiding a total bloodbath. 
I think that, given the ancient hatreds that have been unleashed, there can be no reconciliation among the Kurds, Shites and the Sunnis -- they must be separated and left to govern themselves or else they will just slaughter each other.  Thus, splitting the country into three, with some agreement to share the oil revenues, makes the most sense to me -- and I'd be happy to support the U.S. leading a UN peacekeeping operation to maintain the borders among these regions.
His reply:
Thanks.  Damned if we do, damned if we don't.  Ah yes...partition.... more on that below....  You raise the CORE issue here.  The central question for us Americans is whether or not our core value of multi-culturalism or a multi-ethnic society is the only outcome acceptable to us.  Is it?  If forced to leave that as the end state, then my preferred solution would be an infusion of 200,000 more troops -- whatever it takes -- and a serious use of force to impose our will.  I know that sounds harsh but war is harsh...  Doing nothing or half-assing it is harsh as well.  No matter what, people are going to get killed and maimed with ruined lives.  Stability is the only hope. 
So where does that leave us?  Well, the active duty Army is way too small to do that of course.   Anything close to that is just not going to happen.  You're right....20,000 is a joke.  That's only five more combat brigades give or take.  I come from school of philosophical thought which is to, as Munger says, bet rarely but when you do, bet huge.  It's no different in warfare than in investing or horse racing.  If you're going to go you go with overwhelming power to crush all comers.  The fatal flaw of Rumsfeld was to go for efficient.  In my philosophical school we'd go for EFFECTIVE.  If you can't be effective then you just don't go. 
So here we are.... the most powerful nation on earth has a neutered Army and Marine Corps, about half the size each needs to be due to drastic cutbacks after 9/11... underfunded...undermanned...underequipped....exhausted... and unable to impose our will.  As a chairperson in the DNC said, "Iraq is all over but for the dying."  Our only way out leaves us only a series of messy options.  But reality is what it is.  So now, with 20,000 additional troops, what are we going to do?  To start, you can't "win" if the govt. has a parallel power structure (the Mahdi Army).  If we're going to win the traditional way and try to impose liberal democratic government and a multi-cultural state then we MUST destroy that army's ability to disrupt and blackmail the Shia-dominant elected govt.  As a military guy, if the President said that this multicultural state was the only end state acceptable to us, then you have no choice but to throw your weight behind that elected government (Shia though that it is).  I'd cordon off Sadr City....ask all the women and kids to leave, I'd stop the men at the checkpoints and turn them back, and then begin dictating harsh terms...  I'd cut off water and electricity....  I'd only go in and do house-to-house as an absolute last resort.  I would try to starve them into submition. 
But time is against us.  In our precarious situation we can't sit forever waiting them out so we just might have to fight our way in.  If you have to fight, then you have to be brutal in order to psychologically obliterate their spirit to resist (recall that Saddam did much the same).  We had to do it that way in Fallujah when we went after the Arab terrorist quadrant that had imposed Sharia Law on the southeast part of the city but got most all of the women and kids out, thank god.  And, to be blunt, recall as well that Fallujah had a  basic "revenge motive" for us as well after four Americans were mutilated and dragged through the streets.  That is one way and I would bet a paycheck that this is what we'll end up having to do.  But I put odds at less than 50/50 that even if you successfully crush the Mahdi Army that we walk away the "victor" in the sense that we have a stable elected government and vibrant multicultural society. Why?

You're right....let's talk partition.  There's that nasty issue of deep-rooted hatred between the tribes (which I think an appropriate term).  The three-tiered split as espoused by Biden has eminent appeal for me as well.  I've given that a lot of thought.  Some years ago I worked Balkans issues so had to study Bosnia and Kosovo and FYROM [Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] in depth.  My conclusion was that the only places with seeming permanent stability were those which had ethnic purity.  In Iraq I guess it's religious purity, but purity nonetheless -- and that just defiles everything it is we believe in America.  But Croatia, to use the largest example of ethnically pure, was stable and secure. 
The enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo were an unstable catastrophe -- constant disruption to the daily life.  And then we go in and seek to IMPOSE our will of liberal democracy.  Holbrooke had much to do with this and I thought him idiotic at the time...a dreamer from the Wilsonian leg of US foreign policy.  So that's the dilemma from hell: do you try to impose your democratic value system, or rather, do you leave your liberal democratic philosophy in the dirt and go with the nasty alternative of ethnically or culturally pure and go for what works?  Baghdad is a mish-mash of religious cultures in a place where religion defines who you are.
What's going to happen?  My personal opinion is that it will be the exact same thing that happened in Kosovo.... Whether we want it or not, the people will take matters into their own hands.

It may surprise you to learn that after we entered Kosovo, the Albanians (whom we were there to "protect from Serbs") took matters into their own hands.  In the middle of the night they'd enter Serb homes and slaughter families, they'd set land mines to blow up Serb farmers, snipers would pick off children...  It was brutal and unrelenting and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Not surprisingly, the Serbs began to leave and go north of the Ibar River.  Within three years, Kosovo had lost 90% of its Serb inhabitants and now it's just about ethnically pure south of the Ibar.  The city of Mitrovica is now the dividing line along the Ibar of where Serbia proper really begins, with Kosovo Albania to the south.  After we arrived -- and I stress, AFTER WE ARRIVED -- Kosovo was ethnically cleansed.  We unwittingly provided cover for the Albanians to do their dirty work and get their revenge.   The only issue left for Kosovo is the legal question of whether it becomes a separate state or remains part of "Serbia".  Yes, we still need a political process there as well or the conflict will continue.  Of course the great Serb war memorial from the Field of Crows is right smack in the middle of Kosovo -- it's hard to pick that up and move it.  There is ALWAYS an emotional show-stopping issue of some sort...

I see Iraq much the same: we're going to get our partition, one way or the other.  I say that reality will come from the bottom, not the top -- and the Sunni will LOSE.  There are many issues to work through and perhaps this is where America can insert her political influence (which we still have in abundance).  If we formalize this split, which is sure to happen anyway, how do you then split oil wealth, especially to people who reside where there's no oil?  Good question -- that's one issue, but the real danger of course is that the moderate Sunni states then see their buddies getting creamed and enter the fray.
As an example, in my mind Saudi Arabia has already begun to wage war on Iran.  I am convinced that Saudi Arabia is going to push the price of oil down as far as they possibly can in order to cut Iran off at the knees.  They know that the regime in Tehran is inherently unstable and will seek regime change with their most influential tool - oil - without a fight, by crippling the Iranian economy.  Saudi Arabia can do this due to their vast reserves of cash.  Iran spent theirs and has a far larger population to mollify...it could easily conflagrate.  It will be interesting to see... 
So there you have it -- in my mind, our dream of multi-cultural democracy is doomed to fail. Even if we get a stable government, there will be many nights of slaughter in the backrooms of Baghdad until partition is reality.  If we want to "win" I think we're going to have to swallow the bitter pill, violate our core values, reward the cleansing and go for a three-state solution. But alas, then prepare for the Turks to come marching down into "Kurdistan".  My experience inside Turkey is that they are paranoid beyond belief over the Kurds -- they HATE them and won't stand for a Kurdish state.  The Saudis and Jordanians and perhaps even Syrians will put the Sunni state on military steroids, the Iranians will back the Shia, and here we go again...  A real bitch of a choice -- but at least in this case the actors will be nation-state actors, something we're far more familiar with and more capable of asserting our real power and influence.
My final reply:
It sounds like we agree (because we both know there won't be another 100,000 troops, and I suspect even that wouldn't be enough).  And you're right about the Turks and Kurds -- that will be tricky to negotiate and it's where we could play a BIG, helpful role in a deal.
Same goes to try to head off more of the ethnic cleansing that's already well underway (under our watch, just as in Kosovo), and will really take off if we leave.  Thus, the key is to recognize the reality that these tribes simply can't live together BEFORE we leave, so we can help negotiate different areas for each tribe and provide some cover/protection as people move.  Will this happen?  Not a chance -- in part because it's so morally objectionable that we won't participate in it, EVEN IF the alternative is everyone killing one another.  So sad...


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