Blunders and Opportunities

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As the chorus saying "sweeps are useless" grows, inside as well as outside the military, the U.S. military in Iraq continues its sweeps. The latest Iraqi city to get swept is Tal Afar. Predictably, the Iraqi guerillas did what they should and got out, escaping through exactly the sort of tunnel system John Poole describes in his excellent books. We stand holding an empty bag, in a city whose population we have thoroughly alienated.

This time, though, there was a difference. The American Commando Supremo made sure the "Iraqi Army" took the lead. What that actually meant was that the invasion of Tal Afar, a city populated by Turkmen, was led by Kurdish pesh merga militiamen. The September 13 Washington Post reports,

As in the past several days, Iraqi soldiers drawn primarily from the Kurdish pesh merga militia led the operation . . .

Just after 7 a.m., they streamed into the adjoining neighborhoods of Hassan Koy and Uruba, taking every military-age man into custody at a makeshift pen established by U.S. forces . . .

U.S. commanders have praised the performance of the Kurdish forces during the operation, while privately expressing concern that their tactics sometimes verge on being heavy-handed. The pesh merga supports Kurdish rebels fighting the government of neighboring Turkey . . .

Hello? Did anyone in the higher ranks of the U.S. military ever hear the term "cultural intelligence?" Using Kurds against a Turkish city is like turning Hutus loose on Tutsis or the IRA on Orangemen. We can now add a Kurd vs. Turkmen civil war to the one already underway between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites.

Nor does the damage stop at the Iraqi border. I would bet dinars to dollars that the Kurdish assault on Tal Afar has been the front-page story in every newspaper in Turkey for days. Worse, the whole Turkish population has seen the U.S. military hold the Kurds’ coat for them while they kick the crap out of fellow Turks. The Post reported that, "Some of the American soldiers taunted the detainees by asking them, u2018Can you say Abu Ghraib?’" So much for winning at the moral level.

Fortunately, war is often a contest in blunders, and the other side has made one too, also at the moral level. As Iraqi Sunnis register in droves to vote against the new draft constitution, al Qaeda in Iraq announced that it would target anyone who takes part in the voting.

Here once again is a golden opportunity for us to do the one thing that might allow us to avoid total defeat in Iraq, namely split the Baathist resistance from the Islamic resistance. The Baath is still strong enough among the Sunnis that could probably clean up al Qaeda in short order. At present, unfortunately, our policies push the two together, despite the fact that they hate each other’s guts.

We need a deal with the Baath, and the Baath might be open to a deal with us. They need us to stop targeting them while they go after al Qaeda, and they need our help on the political level (the draft constitution outlaws them).

Can anyone in Washington or Baghdad’s Emerald City see this opportunity? Are we talking with the Baathist resistance? Or is both our political and military leadership so locked in to a failed strategy that opportunities for political maneuver are meaningless?

Perhaps Clausewitz’s most central point is that war and politics are always intermixed. We cannot win the war in Iraq. But just as war may come when politics fails, so politics must take the lead when a war is being lost. It is time to open negotiations with some of our Sunni opponents, and al Qaeda’s blunder gives us the opening we need.

Note: I spent yesterday in a series of meetings with the Marine Corps at Quantico, at both the school and headquarters level, and came away with a strong impression that Marines are moving to re-establish the intellectual ascendancy they enjoyed from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. The Corps lost the bubble in the mid-90s when it shifted its focus to programs and budgets. It now appears to grasp that Fourth Generation war is dominated by ideas, not equipment. The talent is clearly there, if the Corps’ senior leadership will act to turn it loose. I think that may soon happen. If it does, the results could make a real difference, not only for the Marine Corps but for the country.

William Lind [send him mail] is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Lind, writing in his personal capacity.

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