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Causes, options, blame and dangers in newest war


As the political situation in Iraq deteriorated rapidly this week, it became difficult to sort out the how’s and why’s; today we offer four voices from varying points of view on the situation — which, while fast-changing, has old roots.

Like Vietnam, over and over again.

From Leslie H. Gelb, in the Daily Beast.

When the jihadis took over the city of Mosul and began their march towards Baghdad, Washington was of course shocked. But officials, legislators, and policy experts in that fair city should not have been shocked. What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out — and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now.

And before the U.S. government starts to do the next dumb thing again, namely provide fighter aircraft and drone attacks and heaven knows what else, it should stop and think for a change. If America comes to the rescue of this Iraqi government, then this Iraqi government, like so many of the others we’ve fought and died for, will do nothing. It will simply assume that we’ll take over, that we’ll do the job. And when things go wrong, and they certainly will, this cherished government that we’re helping will blame only America. Don’t think for a moment it will be otherwise. Don’t think for a moment that the generals and hawks who want to dispatch American fighters and drones to the rescue know any better today than they’ve known for 50 years.

Sure, I’m in favor of helping governments against these militant, crazy and dangerous jihadis. But first and foremost and lastly, it’s got to be their fight, not ours. As soon as the burden falls on the United States, our “best friends” do little or nothing and we lose. If they start fighting hard, and we’ll know it when we see it, there will be no mistaking it. Then the military and other aid we provide will mean something.

We helped the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to field an Iraqi army that was the 20th-largest in the world … (and when) the jihadis started firing, and the Iraqi security forces took off their uniforms, gave up their weapons and started running. All this after a decade of Americans fighting and dying and training and equipping them at the cost to the United States of well over a trillion dollars.

So what’s the problem? The problem is not that these Iraqis weren’t well trained and equipped, it was they did not have a government worth fighting for. The Maliki government is Shiite, exclusionary and anti-Sunni. It is corrupt and inefficient. In sum, like most of these great freedom-fighting governments we’ve backed over the decades — corrupt and inefficient. And certainly non-inclusive in its politics, certainly not welcoming of potential opponents, certainly ill-disposed to give non-Shiites a legitimate share of power. So the Iraqi troops throw down their arms and run away.

No amount of U.S. air and drone attacks will alter this situation. This kind of outcome was inevitable for Iraq given the political lay of the land in that country. It is almost certainly what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. There too, we’ve fought and died, equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops. The Kabul government is a corrupt mess not worth fighting for. There too, Americans should not be surprised if the Taliban soon regains the offensive and Afghan troops take off their uniforms, lay down their arms and run. Remember Vietnam? The South Vietnamese had a million and a half men under arms and despite the unconscionable Congressional cutoff of future aid, these armed forces had plenty to fight with. But they gave up too. …

If our “good guys” can’t supply this motivation for themselves, Americans should have learned by now that we in our goodness and kindness and sacrifice cannot supply it for them. That’s the central lesson of warfare for more than half a century. That’s the essential moral Americans can’t seem to learn.

The administration must do something, but remember politics

From Nussaibah Younis, in the New York Times

The Obama administration must help the Iraqi government retake the city of Mosul from Islamists and stem their march toward Baghdad. But military aid will not be enough. For lasting success, the United States must compel Iraq’s divisive leadership to pursue government by reconciliation just as vigorously as it pursues battlefield victory.

We have learned the hard way that military counterinsurgencies that do not address political grievances always fail. Unless the Shiite-led Iraqi government adopts radical reforms that address the complaints of Iraq’s Sunni minority, an influx of American weapons will only add fuel to the fire consuming the country.

On Tuesday, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell to Islamist militants led by a breakaway group of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. That puts ISIS, a leading force in the Syrian civil war, dangerously close to its goal: establishing a militant Islamist ministate straddling the two most violent countries in the Middle East. The United States simply cannot allow this, and the Obama administration is indeed responding by pouring military aid into Iraq.

The scope of the militants’ victory shows how desperate the situation is. When ISIS fighters swept into Mosul, a largely Sunni city, they faced virtually no resistance; the armed forces in and around the city shed their uniforms and fled. An estimated 500,000 residents also fled. … The United States must compel the Iraqi Army to adopt a sensitive, population-centered approach to reversing the militants’ conquests. If the Iraqi Army sends Shiite militant groups or Kurdish forces to the heart of Sunni-dominated Mosul, or if it carpet-bombs the city and arbitrarily arrests or kills groups, it will alienate the hearts and minds essential to winning this battle.

Even now, on the brink of a breakup of Iraq, the United States has an opportunity to stem the appalling growth of extremist militancy at the heart of the Arab world — but only if it remembers that wars of counterinsurgency must defuse political grievances.

Obama ignored warning signs

From the editors of the National Review

Al-Qaida, the Obama administration has told us repeatedly, is on the path to defeat. Now it’s literally on the road to Baghdad.

This turn of events was a long time coming, and the Obama administration ignored all the incipient problems along the way, just as it has largely ignored this week’s events.

Violence has been on the rise in Iraq for over a year now, with ISIS playing a large role. The Iraqi army has also been politicized, co-opted, and misused — and therefore weakened — by Maliki. The army’s capabilities, and those of the Iraqi state, were also likely overestimated in the face of political pressures for the U.S. to cut its support and withdraw from the country. That retreat, of which President Obama still seems proud, left the Iraqi security forces to do a job for which they were not prepared.

All of the foregoing set the stage for this week’s blitzkrieg. The Iraqi state’s weakness, the conflict in Syria, and America’s general lack of interest in the region have created space for a transnational Islamist force, with an army and significant oil resources, to take cities and begin a march toward Baghdad.

Maliki needs help now, and the U.S. needs to give it to him. …

This is anathema to the Obama administration: It much prefers handwringing to intervention. But deliberation now (not unlike in Syria) will allow the Islamists to solidify their position and amplify their influence.

If the Obama administration doesn’t consider the risk of a transnational Islamist state, controlled by al-Qaida’s most brutal and, today, most deadly offshoot, worthy of an immediate response, we don’t know what would be.

ISIS has drawn much of the strength for its recent resurgence from the vacuum that’s opened up for jihadists in Syria. Al-Qaida groups there, in the absence of any Western influence, have become a magnet for foreign fighters, weapons, and financial resources, some of which they seem now to have turned to Iraq.

The lesson there is not just that dithering can be deadly. It’s also that Islamist terror is not easily defeated, and it knows no borders.

President Obama has celebrated his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraqi and Afghan territory as the way wars end in the 21st century — with a handover to a competent governing authority. But when we don’t take the time to build those authorities, and don’t support them after we depart their borders, the result can end up looking a lot more like the eighth century than the 21st.

This isn’t Obama’s fault; Iraq’s government lost itself

From Fareed Zakaria, in the Washington Post

It is becoming increasingly likely that Iraq has reached a turning point. The forces hostile to the government have grown stronger, better equipped and more organized. And having now secured arms, ammunition and hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from their takeover of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — they will build on these strengths. Inevitably, in Washington, the question has surfaced: Who lost Iraq?

Whenever the United States has asked this question — as it did with China in the 1950s or Vietnam in the 1970s — the most important point to remember is: The local rulers did. The Chinese nationalists and the South Vietnamese government were corrupt, inefficient and weak, unable to be inclusive and unwilling to fight with the dedication of their opponents. The same story is true of Iraq, only much more so. The first answer to the question is: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost Iraq.

The prime minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents. The insurgency the Maliki government faces today was utterly predictable because, in fact, it happened before. From 2003 onward, Iraq faced a Sunni insurgency that was finally tamped down by Gen. David Petraeus, who said explicitly at the time that the core element of his strategy was political, bringing Sunni tribes and militias into the fold. The surge’s success, he often noted, bought time for a real power-sharing deal in Iraq that would bring the Sunnis into the structure of the government.

A senior official closely involved with Iraq in the Bush administration told me, “Not only did Maliki not try to do broad power-sharing, he reneged on all the deals that had been made, stopped paying the Sunni tribes and militias, and started persecuting key Sunni officials.” Among those targeted were the vice president of Iraq and its finance minister.

But how did Maliki come to be prime minister of Iraq? He was the product of a series of momentous decisions made by the Bush administration. Having invaded Iraq with a small force — what the expert Tom Ricks called “the worst war plan in American history” — the administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed. These moves — to disband the army, dismantle the bureaucracy and purge Sunnis in general — might have been more The turmoil in the Middle East is often called a sectarian war. But really it is better described as “the Sunni revolt.” Across the region, from Iraq to Syria, one sees armed Sunni gangs that have decided to take on the non-Sunni forces that, in their view, oppress them. …

If the Bush administration deserves a fair share of blame for “losing Iraq,” what about the Obama administration and its decision to withdraw American forces from the country by the end of 2011? I would have preferred to see a small American force in Iraq to try to prevent the country’s collapse. But let’s remember why this force is not there. Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces offers. Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or halfheartedly and perhaps this is true. But here’s what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days when the U.S. withdrawal was being discussed: “It will not happen. Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.”

Washington is debating whether airstrikes or training forces would be more effective, but its real problem is much larger and is a decade in the making. In Iraq, it is defending the indefensible.


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