Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bush and the surge and the status of the Iraq war

Republican Politics, American Style
Published September 27th 2007 in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

Here I sit on the 6th anniversary of the 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks contemplating yesterday’s testimony of General Petraeus and US Ambassador Crocker before Congress regarding the ongoing conflict in Iraq. After listening and considering their statements and responses to questions I am struck by several things that were said as well as some issues which were not discussed.
For one thing, it is a shame that it took almost four years to put these two men in a position to address the military and political problems which were the inevitable consequences of the Bush administration’s rash decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. General Petraeus has one of the brightest military minds in the US Armed Forces and is an expert in counter-insurgency tactics. Ambassador Crocker is a career Foreign Service officer with prior diplomatic experience serving in another Middle Eastern country torn apart by sectarian religious violence, Lebanon. I can not help but wonder how different the situation might be in Iraq today, had these men been given their current authority as recently as even 3 years ago.
Unfortunately I fear that (as has been the case repeatedly during the course of the Bush administration’s 2 terms in office) their current assignments have come too late to be able to affect the changes that will be necessary to stabilize the military and political situation in Iraq. Having said that, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker’s realistic assessment of the current state of affairs in Iraq does stand in stark contrast with President Bush’s Pollyanna-ish “Victory Strategy” of 2005, which apparently no longer exists. Neither man spoke of victory but instead unveiled a strategy designed to stabilize Iraq enough to allow a slow withdrawal of the additional 30,000 US troops Bush deployed in Iraq this past January, commencing this December and ending next summer.
Both men argued against any decision to reduce the US military’s troop levels in Iraq below the 130,000 point that existed last year before Bush deployed 30,000 more US troops as part of his “surge” strategy. Both Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus expressed concern that the military and security gains they have seen in and around Baghdad would be difficult to maintain if anything more than the “surge” troops were withdrawn. They said they would need until March to get a better sense of the political and security situation in Iraq and to assess the impact of a limited drawdown of “surge” forces. General Petraeus said that “Like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. . . . A premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.”
For the past several months, the president has pointed to the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker in urging Democrats and Republicans in Congress to wait until they have heard this assessment before deciding to try to force a change in Bush’s Iraq war strategy and the beginning of a withdrawal of US military forces. It is worth noting here that the Iraq war debate is no longer about whether to withdraw U.S. troops but rather is about how many troops to withdraw and how quickly to do it. However, based on General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker’s recommendations to Congress, for the immediate future we can expect little change in strategy or US troop strength in Iraq.
This is in spite of the fact that a substantial majority of American citizens and voters don’t believe that there is any workable solution for the problems that currently exist in Iraq and want US troops brought home. This is due to the fact that Democrats hold only a slim majority in the US Senate and are themselves divided between those who want to strike a bi-partisan compromise with disaffected Republican moderates and those liberal Democrats who continue to push their colleagues to take a harder line against the war.
The grim reality of US politics is that you need a 2/3rds majority in both houses of Congress to overturn a certain Presidential veto of any legislation designed to force a change in Iraq war strategy. The Democrats will have to forge a compromise on troop withdrawals in order to attract enough disaffected Republicans to their side to withstand a Bush veto if they hope to pass any such legislation.
Yet some liberal Democrats remain opposed to any compromises with some, like US Representative Lynn Woolsey of California, calling on Democratic Party activists to target “the moderate Democrats who are holding up the whole thing.” Woolsey is even endorsing primary challenges of such Democrats notwithstanding the fact that defeating them might also later weaken the Democratic majority in Congress. Because of these divisions within the Democratic Party I see little chance for an acceptable troop withdrawal compromise with Congressional Republicans until just before next year’s general elections if at all. Regardless it is now clear that Bush intends to keep troop strength in Iraq at the pre-surge level of 130,000 until he leaves office, which means it will fall to his successor to decide how many troops to withdraw and when to do so.
The assessments from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are probably the first honest ones provided by the Bush administration since the beginning of this reckless invasion of Iraq in 2003, yet are still overly optimistic in my opinion. General Petraeus in particular has a vested interest in continuing with the military strategy President Bush has been pursing since the end of the last year because it is largely based on his own recommendations. One can hardly expect a rigidly objective evaluation of whether or not this military strategy is truly working from the man who authored it.
While Ambassador Crocker’s assessment of the political situation in Iraq was fairly objective, I nonetheless see it as tinged with optimistic as well. I will explain why I believe both were a bit too optimistic in next week’s column.

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on October 4th 2007 in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

Last week I discussed General Petraeus and US Ambassador Crocker’s testimony before Congress, which while fairly accurate was also too optimistic in my opinion. Now I will attempt to explain my reasons for saying this.
As regards General Petraeus I want to begin by saying I have no questions regarding his honesty and the integrity of what he said about the current military situation in Iraq. Indeed, since the surge strategy first began to be implemented at the end of last year, civilian deaths are down 70 percent in Baghdad and deaths from sectarian violence have fallen by 55 percent. General Petraeus further noted that U.S. forces have killed or captured nearly 100 leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq and another 2,500 al Qaeda fighters since January. General Petraeus also pointed to a decrease in security incidents during eight of the past 12 weeks and an overall decline to the lowest levels seen since June of last year.
But the progress General Petraeus cited on the military and security fronts has not been the product of his counter-insurgency strategy as much as it has been the end result of a combination of luck and his own astuteness. At the beginning of this year, General Petraeus’ commanders in Anbar Province became aware that the tribal leaders, who had been fighting against US forces there, had grown unhappy with al Qaeda’s demands that, among other things, their fighters be allowed to marry these tribal leaders’ daughters. General Petraeus saw this strategic miscalculation by al Qaeda as an opportunity and took advantage of it by using lots of cash and weapons to help forge new alliances with these same tribal leaders in Anbar Province. The end result was that most of the al Qaeda leaders and their troops that were killed or captured in Iraq over the last 9 months were operating in Anbar Province, not Baghdad. Thus the military successes cited by General Petraeus in his defence of the surge strategy were due largely to the mistakes made by al Qaeda in Iraq, rather than the increase in US forces deployed there.
In January, when President Bush first announced his plans to deploy 20,000 to 30,000 more troops to Iraq, he emphasized that Baghdad was the key to creating a stable Iraq. By halting the violence in Baghdad the President said that “Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas.” But this is not what has actually happened thus far. While civilian deaths and violence are down in Baghdad, just as General Petraeus claims, much of the violence has actually shifted to others areas near or surrounding Baghdad. While the security in some Baghdad neighbourhoods has improved, others have seen increased threats to their safety when insurgents have then moved from more secure Baghdad neighbourhoods into areas with fewer American troops.
Some other neighbourhoods in Baghdad have seen a decrease in violence, not as the result of a surge in US troops, but as a consequence of sectarian purges which have killed or driven away as many as 35,000 Sunni and or Shiite residents. Lt. Col. Steven M. Miska, deputy commander of a US infantry brigade that is charged with controlling northwest Baghdad, describes it this way, “We’ve done everything we can militarily. I think we have essentially stalled the sectarian conflict (but) without addressing the underlying grievances.”
Thus after closely scrutinizing some of these other factors which are beyond the US military’s control, but which have also contributed to the recent improvements in security, I have concluded that General Petraeus’ optimism about the effectiveness of the surge strategy is based more on his hope that it will work than it is on the reality of the current military situation in Iraq. To his credit though, General Petraeus has also seen the handwriting on the wall as regards public and Congressional support for the current Iraq war strategy. That is why he offered to begin to make some token troop withdrawals from Iraq before the end of this year in the hope that doing so would buy more time for the current surge strategy. Based on the rather tepid response to his recommendations (that we wait until March before we begin to contemplate anything beyond some small symbolic reductions in troop strength) by both Republican and Democrats, it looks to me like he succeeded.
As for the political assessment by Ambassador Crocker, I thought this was very much on the mark, but I don’t see any foundation for his optimism that the political situation will improve at some point in the near future. The reason President Bush gave for increasing the number of troops in Iraq was to give the Iraqi government time to forge a compromise on legislation dealing with the distribution of oil revenues and ending prohibitions on government employment for Sunni officials who once belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. This has not happened, nor does it appear likely to happen any time soon.
The only political progress cited by Ambassador Crocker was a recent agreement by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to work more closely together, and the Shiite government’s grudging acceptance of the U.S. military's arming of former Sunni insurgent tribal leaders as part of their alliance with the US against al Qaeda forces in Anbar and Diyala Provinces. In other words, the hoped for political progress which was supposed to result from the surge strategy has been virtually non-existent.
Ambassador Crocker’s optimism was based on his belief that the budding bottom-up political dialogue which was occurring among some Sunni constituencies in Anbar Province would spread to other areas of the country and translate into reconciliation at the national level. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation among the Shiite majority is that we have been and continue to promote a top-down political dialogue. Regardless, I’m not sure the bottom-up strategy that is showing promise among the Sunnis in Anbar Province, will ever work with the Shiites at either the provincial or national level. So next week I will elaborate on what I believe the future will look like for the US in Iraq thru 2008.

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on October 11th 2007 in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

As I see it, the bottom line for the Bush administration’s current Iraq war strategy is that we have seen only the slightest and largely transitory progress there as a result of the increased US troop presence. Neither General Petraeus, nor Ambassador Crocker were able to reassure Congress or the American people that a continuation of these efforts would help forge a political compromise among the Sunni and Shiite sectarian factions. Yet even if there was some progress in the future, both men made it clear that the US would have to maintain a significant military presence in Iraq for many years to come.
A disgusted Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel, expressed the feelings of me as well as many others with four simple words questioning what purpose would be served by the continued presence of the remaining 130,000 US soldiers in Iraq (proposed by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker) when he asked “Buy time? …..For what?” Following some intense questioning by Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about the lack of political reconciliation, General Petraeus conceded that he would be “hard-pressed” to justify America’s presence in Iraq if there is no political progress in Iraq over the next year.
Noticeably absent from their testimony and questions by various congressional representatives was any mention of the 3 way Shiite gang battle for control of Iraq’s port city of Basra now that the British have begun to withdraw from this region. I should also note that neither General Petraeus nor Ambassador Crocker would answer questions about whether the military successes in Anbar Province and some areas of Baghdad could realistically be transferred into a broader agreement that would end the sectarian strife. Nor were they willing to provide any estimates of how many more years’ large numbers of American troops would be needed or when the training of Iraqi troops would be completed so that American troops could begin to assume a supporting role.
Personally, I question whether any number of months or alliances with moderate Sunnis or Shiites will bring Iraq any closer to the national reconciliation that President Bush told the American public would be spurred along by the surge strategy he began implementing in January. Even though General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were unwilling to estimate how many more years a US military presence would be required to ensure stability in Iraq, military and congressional sources say that contingency plans have already been formulated for the next 10 years.
Unfortunately these contingency plans are based on a hopeful view that there will be more progress on both the military and political fronts than has yet materialized in Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has in turn developed an estimate of the costs to implement these as yet unacknowledged contingency plans. They say the devil is in the details, but in this particular case a broad overview alone is enough to sober up even the most inebriated political or military strategist.
The US military believes that a continuation of President Bush’s current strategy will lead to a gradual drawdown (over a 5 year period) of US troops, beginning in the second half of next year, from the pre and post surge level of 130,000 to a new level of 75,000 soldiers combined in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2013. That 75,000 troop level would then be maintained for at least an additional five years thru fiscal year 2017.
The CBO estimates that the US has already spent an estimated 600 billion dollars, thru fiscal year 2008, on war costs directly related to President Bush’s reckless decision to invade Iraq. To continue to prolong this speculative campaign as part of President Bush’s ill-conceived “war on terror” the CBO says it will only cost American taxpayers an additional 958 billion dollars over the next 10 years.
What a deal. Only one and a half trillion dollars to defend the United States against a non-existent threat from a tin horn dictator who neither possessed any weapons of mass destruction, nor any capability to deliver them if he had actually had them. Better yet, the al Qaeda terrorist organization which did attack the United States has now doubled in size and been provided a training ground closer to their home lands where they can kill American soldiers more easily than they could have had those soldiers remained in the United States. Oh and did I mention we also let the leader of al Qaeda escape capture by redirecting military and intelligence resources away from Afghanistan in favour of hunting down Saddam Hussein and his henchmen in Iraq?
Why anyone would argue that the President’s “war on terror” and Iraq war strategies have been a failure is beyond me. As the President and his associates are quick to point out, there has not been another terror attack in the US since the 9/11 attacks six years ago. Of course why would al Qaeda want to attack the US when they can and have killed or wounded many more Americans in Iraq than they ever could have in the US?
Now I would like to close my evaluation of the future of the US in the Iraq war on a more serious note. Let’s face the facts. The Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq still fear each other. Whether you are at the top levels of the government or in the sizzling neighbourhoods of Baghdad, sectarian hatred is only being amplified rather than lessened. The political distrust is not just in the corridors of power within the Iraqi government but it is also evident in the streets. Here one can see there are few jobs; sporadic electricity supplies, widespread corruption and plenty of brand new memories of appalling murders perpetrated by both Sunni and Shiite extremists. The 3 way Shiite gang war currently underway in Basra is a precursor of what will eventually happen in Baghdad and other areas of the country where Sunnis and Shiites once lived in harmony.
While the Bush administration’s many foolish decisions have left Iraq in a mess and we do have a certain responsibility to try and fix it, I no longer believe we can salvage anything positive from this debacle. While we did light the fire, our continued presence in the region is only adding more fuel to it. As I see it, the only course left for the US is to withdraw and allow the fire to rage on until it finally exhausts its sectarian fuel. Only then will the US be in a position to play a truly constructive role in rebuilding a nation torn asunder by the policies and decisions of the current US administration.

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