Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Iraq: failure, farce, hatred and hell

A string of mostly senseless occupation misjudgements soured the prospects for postwar Iraq.

Why did they get it so wrong? Fareed Zakaria, Kenneth Pollack and others blame a triumph of ideology over common sense and informed analysis. Donald Rumsfeld wanted to conduct a ‘transformationist’ experiment – applying the Republican small-government philosophy to the military by using a slimmed-down, light-footed force when far more troops were needed.

This dogmatism won the day in Washington because of poor relations between departments, exacerbated by negligent leadership from George Bush. A deeply dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus allowed an ideologue with the ear of the president to ignore the State Department’s careful research and detailed proposals, and to pretty much run the show with little accountability.

A striking illustration of this dynamic comes from an April 2003 conversation relayed to Bob Woodward by Colin Powell. Mark Danner, in a long and magisterial discussion of books by Woodward and two others on this subject, reproduces this:

“There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.
The president looked surprised.
‘That's not right,’ Rice said. ‘That's not right.’
Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. ‘Yes, it is,’ Powell insisted.
‘Wait a minute,’ Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side. ‘That doesn't sound right.’
Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. ‘That's right,’ she said. …
[Powell explained:] ‘You have to understand that when you have two chains of command and you don't have a common superior in the theater, it means that every little half-assed fight they have out there, if they can't work it out, comes out to one place to be resolved. And that's in the Pentagon. Not in the NSC or the State Department, but in the Pentagon.’

In Woodward's account, Rice… somehow manag[ed] to miss the fact that she and the National Security Council she headed had been cut out of decision-making on the Iraq war…”

The dysfunction was mirrored in Baghdad, as Paul Bremer moved in to take over the postwar administration from Jay Garner in May 2003, suddenly bringing new plans for the Iraqi army (again from Woodward via Danner):

“An American colonel and a number of CIA officers had been meeting regularly with Iraqi officers in order to reconstitute the army. They had lists of soldiers, had promised emergency payments. ‘The former Iraqi military,’ according to Garner, ‘was making more and more overtures, just waiting to come back in some form.’ Again, Garner rushed off to see Bremer:
‘We have always made plans to bring the army back,’ he insisted. This new plan was just coming out of the blue, subverting months of work.
‘Well, the plans have changed,’ Bremer replied. ‘The thought is that we don't want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army.’
‘Jerry [Bremer’s nickname], you can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.’
Again Bremer tells Garner that he has his orders. The discussion attains a certain unintended comedy when the proconsuls go on to discuss the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which Bremer has also announced he will abolish:
‘You can't get rid of the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said.
‘Why not?’
‘You just made a speech yesterday and told everybody how important the police force is.’
‘It is important.’
‘All the police are in the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said. ‘If you put this out, they'll all go home today.’
On hearing this bit of information, we are told, Bremer looked ‘surprised’…”

Was it unavoidable that these politicians, diplomats and administrators were going to follow the war by ripping up each other’s strategies and then undermining their own new plans by disregarding the facts on the ground? Hardly. (Tomorrow I’ll give another argument relating to why the current horror wasn’t always clearly bound to follow the war.)

Their failures were unnecessary – which makes them all the more culpable.

Nick Cohen has argued that the disgrace of the anti-war left wasn’t so much because of its opposition to the war as down to its subsequent refusal to support the efforts of Iraqis to rebuild their country in the face of violence from theocrats and Saddamites. (Whenever I hear the phrase ‘the Iraqi resistance’ I want to ask whether that means the Iraqis resisting democracy or the ones resisting terrorism.) Conversely, I’d suggest that the true disgrace of the Bush Administration – and Blair’s government, by peripheral extension – was not so much in their launching the war as in the negligent blundering that followed.

But – and I know this may be controversial – the Western leaders weren’t the only ones to blame.

Was the ‘insurgency’ (not a single movement but a variety of wildly differing groups) inevitable? I’ve already said that the unnecessary security vacuum helped the various militias breed, but was it a natural consequence of that? Let’s ask the expert.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s savage al-Qaeda in Iraq operation had little support even among Sunnis, but exerted a disproportionate influence on how things worked out. He explained his plan in a 2004 letter, describing Iraq’s Shia majority as “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion”, who follow “their Crusader masters” and “their tutors the Jews”. He observes:

“He who looks at the current situation [will] see the enemy’s haste to constitute the army and the police… This enemy, made up of the Shia filled out with Sunni agents, is the real danger that we face, for it is [made up of] our fellow countrymen, who know us inside and out. …
“I mean that targeting and hitting them in [their] religious, political, and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies… and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death…
“The solution that we see, and God the Exalted knows better, is for us to drag the Shia into the battle because this is the only way to prolong the fighting between us and the infidels. …
“Someone may say that, in this matter, we are being hasty and rash and leading the [Islamic] nation into a battle for which it is not ready, [a battle] that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled. This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation. The Shia have destroyed all those balances.”

Nice guy, no? Unfortunately, his plan was grimly effective. In a de facto tactical partnership with ex-Baathists who wanted to disrupt the reconstruction, these extremists advanced in fits and starts during 2004, and escalated their killing of Shia civilians through 2005. Reprisals happened, but were limited in scope; most Shia movements were involved to various degrees with the political process (and to the extent that they were violent, it was often one Shia faction against another – or against US/UK troops).

In February 2006, after the election results, the hugely symbolic al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra was bombed. Other such attacks followed, and Shia uprisings grew in scale. Zarqawi was killed that June, but by then the rival strategists in the “arena of sectarian war” had more momentum than the death of one figurehead could stop.

Marie Colvin reported last October that ethnic cleansing on both sides means that “Baghdad is on its way to becoming two cities, the west Sunni, the east and north Shi’ite.” She describes the system the Sunni death squads use:

“First they terrorise the area, shooting children selling ice or black-market petrol on the street. Then they go for the shops and businesses. …
“In the third stage, the Sunni militants go after the police, attacking checkpoints until they pull out. Then they target Shi’ite residents. ‘You wake up to a bullet in your garden. Or a note saying leave this area in 36 hours. After all the killings, you pack up and go,’ said another former resident, who knew of eight people killed near his home.”

She does not exempt Shia militias from blame, and nor does Peter Beaumont’s recent dispatch: “Both communities have retrenched in areas where they feel they are safe and which they can defend, sometimes with barricades and armed men. It is a process repeated across Iraq in an endless cycle of displacement…”

This wasn’t the inevitable, natural consequence of an ethnically and religiously disparate artificial country losing the strongman who held it all in check. It was the deliberate plan of fanatics that succeeded due to pointless negligence on the part of the occupation and to ‘community leaders’ who were happy to surf the wave of identity-based violence.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the reaction of the people who have had to live with this violence.

(This is the fourth in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fifth and sixth.)

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