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Turns Out We’re Not Leaving Iraq After All

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It was a reminder of the bad old days.  But it was today in Baghdad. Big suicide bomb, coordinated attacks on rescuers, dozens dead and wounded, and the customary “bears all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation designed to ferment sectarian strife”.  It’s doubtful whether it had any effect on the tone of Robert Gates‘ interview on NPR this evening, but I’m sure the bombing was on the Secretary’s mind.

We’re not sure whether his boss is on board with this, although it seems likely, but Gates might have given us a little glimpse of reality during the interview. In response to a question about differences between him and the President on a final departure date for our troops from Iraq, Gates was less than convincing about the finality of that. From the NPR report. (My italics)

With regard to Iraq, Gates noted that under the Status of Forces agreement, all U.S. troops will be out by the end of 2011. Gates says he’s on the same page as Obama with the withdrawal and, barring a new agreement with the Iraqis, there will be zero troops in Iraq by that time. But he also speculates that the Iraqis could ask for logistical and intelligence support.

“The president’s statement is absolutely clear and it conforms to our current commitments, that is, according to the agreements we have signed, we will have everyone out of Iraq by the end of 2011,” Gates said. “And unless something changes, that is exactly what will happen. …[A change] would have to be at the Iraqis’ initiative. And the president will have to determine whether or not he wants to do that.”

“Logistical and Intelligence” support might well be a good cover-phrase for something a little more, shall we say, effective. In other words a new agreement ‘at the Iraqis initiative’ to guarantee some “we need your firepower because we’re getting our asses kicked” type support. Obama suspects that Al Qaeda is just waiting for us to shut the door after us before going all out again, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the President could make a judgment that keeping a few brigades on base for selective “logistical and intelligence support” might just be the insurance policy we need.

There’s been an awful lot of talk about the President’s philosophy. Nobody seems to know what it is. The reason is simple. His philosophy is the absence of a philosophy. Pragmatism.

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Written by coolrebel

March 10, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Can you Spell Power Vacuum? The US Can’t leave Iraq.

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Obama’s speech at Camp LeJeune today made official what we’ve known for a while, that the combat mission in Iraq is over. Perhaps that explains why the response to what should have been a historical announcement seemed strangely muted. There are many other possible explanations too, ranging from the little matter of a massive economic crisis, to the existing de facto end of hostilities in Iraq, to the fact that just maybe, there’s a sense out there that it’s a mistake to go.

Obama’s decision to bring our major combat brigades home by the end of August 2010, and the remainder of the training and counter-insurgency force by 2011 is not a cause for celebration, even among those vehement in their opposition to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The reason is simple. If, as the President has pledged, all US forces are withdrawn from Iraq in 2011 we’ll be leaving an unpredictable power vacuum that we will have no ability to deal with – if as is possible, a new sectarian crisis breaks out. I’m certain that Obama’s National Security Team did their due diligence and got as much intelligence to support the case for continued stability in Iraq as possible, but forecasts are just another word for hopes. And in the Middle East, banking on hope is a very bad idea.

The Sadrists have taken a beating recently, and extremism appears to be on the defensive, but without the firepower and financial largesse of the United States, it’s not much of a stretch to see the radicals making a comeback in both Baghdad and Basra, and the Kurds finally pulling clear of a weak central Iraqi state to form the rump of a new Kurdistan, with all the international repercussions that would entail with Turkey, and other neighboring states. The Iraqi Government is incompetent, corrupt and weak. New elections won’t change that. Their army is poorly trained and lacks organization, motivation and firepower. The Iraqi economy remains a shambles, and the worldwide recession will do Baghdad no favors. Most important of all, the Sunni Awakening will be relying on bankroll from a Shiite government to keep the lid on Al Qaeda. That relationship is hardly made in heaven.

Overall, the bad guys are a patient bunch. There’s no reason why they won’t just wait us out. Reigniting the sectarian crisis shouldn’t be too difficult after we’ve gone. After all, the Shiites have essentially driven the Sunnis out, and won the Civil war, so the thirst for revenge is clearly there. Sharing oil revenues has gone ver quiet, as has de-baathification, and as for the religious extremists, it’s not in their nature to simply give up. They’ll be back for more.

But we won’t. Once they leave Iraq, our forces are not going back. The US strike force will be retraining and regrouping back home for a renewed campaign in Afghanistan. And Iraq will be left to it’s own devices.

America can not afford to take that chance. Our entry into Iraq in 2003 was a grevious error, but it’s a reality. We’re there, and we can’t take the chance of leaving any time soon. Simply put, the United States needs to set up permanent strike bases outside Baghdad, to the South and to the West. US bases can be made almost invisible, and pretty soon, they’d become part of the furniture. But we need a strong military presence there so we can keep the various rival elements (including Iranian influence) in Iraq as honest as we can. While our day-to-day combat operations (or as they were for the majority of the war police operations) must cease, our counter-insurgency, training and combat support operations for the Iraqi Army must continue. They need our air support, our special forces, and at least one or two strike brigades to give their major operations teeth, cohesion, confidence and leadership.

US forces remaining in Iraq after 2011 would be a deeply unpopular move. But Obama needs to reconsider, and stall their final departure. We can’t afford to risk being unable to control the power vacuum once our guys are stateside. It would be bad for our new image in the world and disastrous for our strategic position in the region.

Written by coolrebel

February 27, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Nobody Fights in Afghanistan and Wins.

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From a superficial perspective, the idea of diverting US forces to Afghanistan as we draw down troops in Iraq seems like a good idea. But Afghanistan is a deeply inhospitable, corrupt, backward, and highly unstable failed state with an almost feudal social structure. It’s been resisting modernity and foreign control for millenia.

Before we do anything we need to make a strategic decision about our goals. It’s clear that the Taliban must go, but forget democracy, stability is just fine. It’s equally clear that increasing US ground forces by a few combat brigades will not do the job. The war would slog on for many years at great cost in lives and treasure. The Kush would be a graveyard for our grunts. There has to be another way. And there is.

There are two connected ways to beat the Taliban. We need both to win.

The first lies in economics of the Taliban.

The Taliban are really drug traffickers with a mission from God. They rely on weapons and recruits paid for by opium money. No opium. No money. No money. No recruits. No recruits. No power. All we have to do is to bribe the opium farmers not to plant the poppies. Over time we have to make the farmers very, very rich (in Afghan terms).  Of course we’d need to make sure we weren’t being played, but if there’s enough cash in it for the farmers, and we’re able to keep them honest, they’ll become a force we can rely on – just like the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. Afghans are fierce fighters and when there’s money at stake – watch out. Supporting this with a US or WFP strategy to improve agriculture will be very useful. We’ll need Special Forces teams on the ground doling out the money, and ground troops to verify, patrol and protect the farms, but the total investment will be a fraction of the costs planned.

The second part of the solution lies in cutting the Taliban off from their outside suppliers.

These are primarily Iran, Pakistan’s ISI, and other sources of Finance from the underbelly of the Saudi establishment for example. In the case of Iran, weakening their ties to the Taliban will be a part of a US diplomatic offensive to build a new rapprochement with Iran. We won’t have to ask them to choke off Taliban support. If Iran and the US get along (which they should) it will happen automatically. As for Pakistan, we have to help the Civilian government get out from under the heel of the Pakistani Army and ISI. The best way is to support the army not castigate it. After all it’s the first line of defense in Pakistan. There’s nothing a third world army likes more than US training and support. It will buy their loyalty and give the civilian government the breathing rooom it needs to make inroads against the Pakistani Taliban. Finally, Saudi we should put pressure on our Saudi “friends” to stop exporting Wahabbiism. And now we’re planning to go it alone on energy, we have some leverage to get them to do our bidding.

The end result could be that Afghanistant goes back to being a distant and dusty backwater with no strategic role to play. The world would be an awful lot safer.

Written by coolrebel

January 27, 2009 at 6:14 am

Obama and Iraq – Now Comes The Hard Part.

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04/24/95_15.58_SAIGONViet Nam

saigon 1975. will it be different when we leave Iraq?

Ivan Watson, NPR’s Baghdad Correspondent was the target of an assassination attempt today when he and his team were nearly killed by a car bomb. And in recent weeks there has clearly been a spike in violence in Iraq. Let nobody say that the situation that war-torn country is anything close to peaceful.

And yet the next President is going to withdraw our troops. Not in victory, or in defeat, but ‘believing’ and ‘hoping’ that peace will break out when we’re gone. That’s a bet many wouldn’t make.

Obama staked his early rise to prominence on a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, and superficially, facts on the ground seem to bear him out. He’s committed to a “safe and responsible” withdrawal of US troops around sixteen months from taking office. He has the support of the Maliki government, and the vast majority of the Iraqi people want us gone. The Status of Forces agreement which mandates our withdrawal by the end of 2001 also provides us with some political cover too.

So what’s the problem? Simple. When we leave, there is simply no way we won’t be leaving a power vacuum in Iraq. The myriad of competing interests have been well documented. Everyone wants their piece of the place. Kurds just want a chunk to help them build Kurdistan, while the Sunnis want their power back, and the Shiites still want revenge on the Sunnis, and make sure they don’t get their hands on any oil power. Then we have the Jihadists, the Iranians, and the rest of the Arab world keeping a close eye on developments. Violence continues to bubble, and the opportunities for inciting sectarian violence seem wide open. And keeping everything from going totally haywire. Us. Until the end of 2001 that is.

Let’s talk about two word “safety” and “responsibly”. The safety of our troops is easy to ensure. Keep them on base and stop sending them on patrol. But ‘responsible’ withdrawal is another matter entirely. Assuming that what Obama means by withdrawal is minimizing the risk of a flare-up after we’re outta there, it’s simply impossible to predict the future in Iraq with any degree of certainty, but the signs don’t look good. Controlling the chaos of Iraqi factionalism without the help of a first-class policing, intelligence, and political system will be impossible. It also requires a vibrant economy, accountability, social harmony, common values, and control of borders. Iraqi’s score on all these. Zippo.

Redeveloping Iraq was an idea that we’ve essentially dropped. During the campaign Obama made a big deal about Iraq’s $80 billion dollar budget surplus that should be used for its own redevelopment. He knows the American people aren’t going to be bankrolling them anymore. Instead, we’re leaving it up to them, and that ain’t gonna work. Most of the money would disappear into the pockets of officialdom, and infrastructure projects would languish as they are now, with US protection. The Sunni Awakening is on the Iraqi Government payroll, but that could change, and with it would go their cooperation with the Shiite dominated government. So barring the rise of some kind of Iraqi Tito, and nobody that fits the bill seems to be in the neighborhood, the place will quite simply still be a potential tinderbox when we go.

When we leave, you can be sure the Iraqi factions will all behave and wish us bon voyage. They don’t want any last minute delays on our departure. It will be glorious (and very unlike our helicopter-bound theatrics in Saigon in 1975). The media will make a game attempt to paper over the cracks of our flawed strategy. One can just imagine the headlines. “Countdown to Departure From Iraq”, “Baghdad Waits for Last Americans To Leave”, “Leaving With Dignity”, “All Calm A Week After We’re Gone – Obama Declares Withdrawal A Success”. “US Gone For Three Months. All is Quiet”.

It might take a day, a week, a month, a year. But the following headlines are just as possible without our grunts to stem the bleeding. “Iraqi Electricity Grid Grinds to Halt”, “Sadr City Besieged By Iraqi Army”, “Karbala Pilgrims Targeted Again”, “Iraqi Army Retreats From Basra”, “Golden Mosque Is Hit Again”, “Maliki Escapes Assassination Attempt”. “Suicide Bomber kills 150 at Election Rally – Sunni Extremists Claim Responsibility”. “Iranian Influence Growing In Iraqi Government.” And the list of possibilities goes on and on.

The US forces will be gone. No more Green Zone. No more Petraeus. The Jihadists will declare victory, and more recruits could easily pour over the border to close the deal. Unemployment, intolerable now, will get worse, and that means that young men could take up arms as insurgents and be back at it. Without the US to rain on his parade, Sadr could rebuild and reinforce his power with Iranian help. And Iraq could once again be on fire.

And if it is, or even if its smouldering and needs a strong hand to intervene, are we going to send boys back? No way. The American People wouldn’t have it, and President Obama might as well hand the keys over to the GOP if he tried it. So instead we’ll just have to watch from the sidelines.

This highly unpalatable possibility will linger for a very long time. It’s a product of the utter stupidity of starting a war that could not be finished, but that mistake will soon recede into history. It will be Obama that faces the music. That is unjust, but his judgment on when we get out will be the defining moment of the American experience in Iraq.

Obama seems like a cautious man, a responsible man, but when it comes to Iraq, there is no way that his call for responsibility can alleviate the risk of departure caused by Bush’s utter lack of it.

Written by coolrebel

December 1, 2008 at 10:03 am

Redefining The War On Terror

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President Bush created the amorphous concept of the War On Terror partly as a semantic device for domestic consumption (them v us is a great seller in the heartland) and partly as a doctrinal approach to foreign affairs. But while neoconservatism is clearly discredited, there is one element of the broad sweep approach to Middle Eastern affairs that might be worth preserving – at least in military terms.

World War Two was massive and highly fluid conflict where troops were sent to where they were needed to achieve strategic goals. If we pursue this model a little further, we might be able to revise the dialogue that we’re currently having on how to deal with the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, both of which are in very different states of play right now.

General Petraeus is easily the most influential officer in the US military today. He has expressed his flexibility and realism since his arrival in Iraq. He knew full well that negotiating with the enemy, and using the power of the dollar was far more important in Iraq than another few US brigades on the ground. The “surge” was a neat political slogan, but it was not the decisive factor on the ground. Now – in his capacity as head of US Central Command, he represents the political cover that Obama needs to redefine the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as our relations with Iran and Pakistan.

Instead of seeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the tensions with Iran and Pakistan as separate conflicts, we need to see them as part of the same push for stability in the region. Quick response US forces should be able to move from one hotspot to another without political consideration. This concept has numerous political advantages for Obama, as well as being sound military strategy. Republicans are just waiting for Obama to pull out troops from Iraq only to witness a massive flare up of violence. The cries of ‘surrender’ will soon follow. But that can be prevented.

Firstly, we need to redeploy active duty forces from Europe to the Middle East Theatre, so that we never have to experience a dangerous shortfall in Iraq. Secondly, we need to focus on quick-response brigades, and fast moving Special Forces units to achieve our goals. Thirdly, we need to stop deluding ourselves that the Iraqi and Afghan forces will be able to handle their own security. That will only happen once the politics of the region are completely normalized (think Vietnam in the Nineties). Fourthly, we have to utilize technology to its fullest to tackle the enemy. More Predator Drones please. Fifthly, and most importantly, we have to use the power of the dollar. Every dollar spent on the ground buying off some warlord is worth way more than paying for another round of ammo that some poor grunt is going to spray around the empty streets.

Religion and tribal loyalties are always trumped by the dollar. It’s the reason why the Sunni Awakening worked in Anbar. It’s the reason why we can win in Afghanistan. As long as we stop looking at that war as modern – rather than what it really is – medieval, we can achieve stability. The warring factions can be bought. We have the money to buy them.

By coordinating our efforts on a command-wide basis, Petraeus and President Obama can begin to bring the various problems of the region under control. From the West, it goes like this.

  • Syria. It’s role is small. We need to encourage its entry into full negotiations with Israel, and promise economic support and removal from the terror list in return for serious progress in that regard.

  • The Iraqis want us gone, and Obama is inclined to agree. But what they really want is Americans off the streets. Which is fine, because that’s where they incur casualties. Keep US bases going outside Baghdad and in key strategic areas, and just watch. If there’s trouble – we act. It’s cheaper in lives and money, it’s politically more acceptable, and it frees up troops.

  • Iran. We need to change our whole approach here. Complete post to come on this, but on the military front recognizing that we cannot win a war there is key. It’s a highly nationalistic nation of 65m. Forget it. However, we should covertly try to locate their centrifuges any way we can. Useful bargaining tool for the future.

  • Afghanistan. Boost troop levels there by 2-3 full divisions. Use Afghan forces in Kabul and garrison US forces in the South at the sharp end. They should engage the Taliban without exposing themselves by getting too deep into their terrain. Rely on Special Forces to dole out the money and spread havoc in Taliban recruitment deep in their territory. Combine that with a nationwide program to pay farmers not to plant poppies and we choke off Taliban financial supplies. This should go hand in hand with cutting off their Arms and Volunteer routes.

  • Pakistan. Let’s recognize that the Islamists are just not that strong there. The support for Al Qaeda is far softer than we fear. We need to discredit and undermine the ISS, Pakistani Intelligence Services, marrying that to support for the democratically elected President and economic support. We should continue to range freely with Special Forces in the North West Territories but admit nothing to the Pakistani authorities. We know Bin Laden is in the hills. It’s really time we captured him as a propaganda coup.

The key to this process is seeing the various parts of the theatre as fluid. When there is a chance for decisive improvement in our strategic position on one front we move troops there. When we are weak in another area we channel forces there instead. It’s how wars are run.

Oh, and one more thing. We need a goal. Forget Demorcracy. We’re looking for Stability. That only comes with Security – both military and economic. We must provide both hand in hand. We can’t rely on indigenous forces and expect to leave. I hate to say it, but McCain was right – we might be there for decades to come. And it might be money and time well spent.

Written by coolrebel

November 7, 2008 at 7:38 am