Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Surging ahead: The trade of one war for another

On cable news recently an emissary from the McCain campaign derided Barack Obama for not supporting the surge of troops in Iraq, which has been a success, he said. The spokesperson for the Obama campaign made no protest. That the surge "worked" has now become conventional wisdom and a bedrock of the media's narrative on Iraq. Maybe it's just as well that the Obama spokesperson didn't try to inject reality into the debate. But a darker possibility is that she believed it herself.

Even more incredibly, many newspaper readers were treated last week to an analysis by AP writers Robert Burns and Robert H. Reid bearing the title "Analysis: US now winning Iraq war that seemed lost." Of course, the U.S. won the Iraq War years ago. It was the occupation that seemed lost. Burns and Reid write

Systematic sectarian killings have all but ended in the capital, in large part because of tight security and a strategy of walling off neighborhoods purged of minorities in 2006.

Put another way, the U.S. confirmed the Shia's expulsion of Sunnis from Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad by policing the sanitized zones and building walls to enforce the segregation.

Scattered battles go on, especially against al-Qaida holdouts north of Baghdad. But organized resistance, with the steady drumbeat of bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and ambushes that once rocked the capital daily, has all but ceased.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the AP on Thursday that the insurgency as a whole has withered to the point where it is no longer a threat to Iraq's future.

The day after this analysis appeared we read that

Three blasts in Baghdad killed at least 28 Shia Muslim pilgrims heading for the city's Kadhimiya shrine.

The attacks, which wounded about 90 people, were carried out by women suicide bombers, police said.

If a similar attack had occurred within the U.S., I doubt that Ambassador Crocker would be declaring that "the insurgency is no longer a threat to our future."

That said, what is indisputably true is that violence in Iraq has lessened. I won't attempt to reanalyze the factors contributing to this since Brian Downing did an excellent job of it last week in Asia Times. But the important point is that if the "surge strategy" is viewed as the cause of this happy development, we will naturally want to attempt it elsewhere—and most immediately in Afghanistan, as Barack Obama seems to be proposing.

Downing concludes

... the impact of the "surge" on reducing violence is greatly inflated in Washington and the Green Zone in Baghdad alike. Similarly, much of the American public subscribes to this attractive story line, resonant as it is with popular views of the resourcefulness and determination of their military....

A likely though possibly harmful consequence of this is that Petraeus, on becoming commander of the US Central Command this autumn, will confidently use the "surge" play book in Afghanistan, where the important if not decisive attendant dynamics might not be present.

Other analysts have issued similar warnings. Immanuel Wallerstein warns

... [Obama] has always argued that the United States should do more in Afghanistan. This explicitly includes sending 10,000 more troops as soon as possible. He does not seem to think that the war there is somehow dumb. He does seem to think that the United States can "win" that war - with more troops and with more assistance from NATO. Once president, he may be in for a rude surprise.

And the anonymous pundits at Swoop report

US officials caution against believing that increased attention to Afghanistan will bring short-term security gains there. “There’s no quick fix in Afghanistan,” a Pentagon official commented to us. Commentators warn that Washington still lacks a coherent understanding of the region's cultural and political geography. This deficit applies equally to Obama's advisors as it does to the current Administration.

Meanwhile, Obama, who is anxious to demonstrate that he's as ferocious a warrior as McCain, appears to be proving his militaristic side by focusing on Afghanistan—

An Obama foreign policy adviser told us: “Shifting to Afghanistan makes political sense for us. But we know that we must limit expectations of success. We do not want Afghanistan to become Obama’s war.”

Unfortunately Afghanistan does look to be "Obama's war" with a "surge" as the strategy. Does no one remember Vietnam, where the utility of the surge received its greatest test?

Meanwhile the "Islamist threat" remains not in Iraq, not in Iran, not in Afghanistan but where it has always been—in Pakistan, which is inconvenient to say the least. The war in Afghanistan is taking the shape of a proxy war between the U.S. and Pakistan. Such wars can go on for a very long time.

Related posts
The Butler Report and "AQ Khan" (7/16/04)
Training the Iraqis: A contrary view (7/19/07)


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