Making Sense of Our Iraqi Disaster


The single most basic fallacy underlying the present American catastrophe in Iraq is the belief that the U.S. can somehow solve that country’s problems, however extreme and intractable they may seem; that, in short, we are part of the solution in Iraq, not part of the problem. Once you’re thinking that way, it’s always a matter of setting the latest incorrect or inept tactics right, or of changing a policy that has been incompetently put into operation by unprepared administrators wielding too few resources too poorly.

But the belief in the power of the United States to solve problems for others — by force — reflects a deep-seated imperial mind-set that exists not just in the Bush administration, but among its mainstream critics as well. You can see it everywhere, if you care to look. You can note it in the way, as things continue to devolve in Iraq, the military and its various internal critics have been bobbing and weaving from one set of counterproductive counterinsurgency tactics to another (each time claiming that the previous set had somehow overlooked basic insurgency doctrine or the lessons of Vietnam). The latest of these is a modified version of the old (failed) Vietnam “ink blot” strategy in which we pull troops back to Baghdad, a city now evidently in utter, violent disarray, to nail down at least some of the capital’s neighborhoods (while denuding troop strength in areas of Sunni Iraq where the insurgency rages).

Or consider the latest in Bush administration thinking. In a superb front-page New York Times piece last week, Bombs Aimed at G.I.’s in Iraq Are Increasing, reporters Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker offered impressive evidence that, since the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Sunni insurgency against the Americans and allied Iraqi forces has only heightened. Perhaps most striking were the final paragraphs of the piece, meant only for news junkies and buried deep inside the paper (reinforcing my sense that the imperial press can sometimes most profitably be read from back to front):

“Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq’s democratically elected government might not survive.

“‘Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy,’ said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

“‘Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect,’ the expert said, u2018but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.'”

White House spokesman Tony Snow was forced to deny this at a press briefing the next day, but it makes complete sense. This was, after all, the solution the elder Bush’s top officials looked to after the first Gulf War. They hoped a war-weakened Saddam would be overthrown by a Baathist strongman from within his own military, someone we could deal with — as we had with him in the 1980s. (Juan Cole speculates that this time around it would be “a Shiite ex-Baathist officer in the old Iraqi army who knew how to make people an offer they couldn’t refuse.”) Even in the unlikely event that it were possible to put such a plan into effect, it’s a given that it, too, would fail. That the Bush administration is looking for new solutions to the Iraqi conundrum, however, should be unsurprising.

So many situations in our world make a mockery of all attempts at prediction; and yet Iraq, since March 2003, has seemed otherwise. There is a terrible logic to the situation in that country, which has only worsened incrementally under three-plus years of American (and British) occupation. Whatever the promises, whatever the “turning points,” whatever the provisional good news offered at any moment, the situation in that country (and the region) only gets worse.

In this case, history should be our guide. As long as Americans believe that Iraq is some kind of imperial Rubik’s cube, where what’s at stake is hitting on just the right combination of tactics, plans, and political mix inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, as long as we believe that we are indeed part of the solution, not part of the problem, matters will only continue to worsen.

Michael Schwartz, a Tomdispatch regular, offers seven facts that help explain why the lethal brew our invasion let loose in that country will have no hope of “solution” under present conditions. Tom

7 Facts You Might Not Know about the Iraq War

By Michael Schwartz

With a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon holding, the ever-hotter war in Iraq is once again creeping back onto newspaper front pages and towards the top of the evening news. Before being fully immersed in daily reports of bomb blasts, sectarian violence, and casualties, however, it might be worth considering some of the just-under-the-radar-screen realities of the situation in that country. Here, then, is a little guide to understanding what is likely to be a flood of new Iraqi developments — a few enduring, but seldom commented upon, patterns central to the dynamics of the Iraq war, as well as to the fate of the American occupation and Iraqi society.

1. The Iraqi Government Is Little More Than a Group of “Talking Heads”

A minimally viable central government is built on at least three foundations: the coercive capacity to maintain order, an administrative apparatus that can deliver government services and directives to society, and the resources to manage these functions. The Iraqi government has none of these attributes — and no prospect of developing them. It has no coercive capacity. The national army we hear so much about is actually trained and commanded by the Americans, while the police forces are largely controlled by local governments and have few, if any, viable links to the central government in Baghdad. (Only the Special Forces, whose death-squad activities in the capital have lately been in the news, have any formal relationship with the elected government; and they have more enduring ties to the U.S. military that created them and the Shia militias who staffed them.)

Administratively, the Iraqi government has no existence outside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone — and little presence within it. Whatever local apparatus exists elsewhere in the country is led by local leaders, usually with little or no loyalty to the central government and not dependent on it for resources it doesn’t, in any case, possess. In Baghdad itself, this is clearly illustrated in the vast Shiite slum of Sadr city, controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and his elaborate network of political clerics. (Even U.S. occupation forces enter that enormous swath of the capital only in large brigades, braced for significant firefights.) In the major city of the Shia south, Basra, local clerics lead a government that alternately ignores and defies the central government on all policy issues from oil to women’s rights; in Sunni cities like Tal Afar and Ramadi, where major battles with the Americans alternate with insurgent control, the government simply has no presence whatsoever. In Kurdistan in the north, the Kurdish leadership maintains full control of all local governments.

As for resources, with 85% of the country’s revenues deriving from oil, all you really need to know is that oil-rich Iraq is also suffering from an “acute fuel shortage” (including soaring prices, all-night lines at gas stations, and a deal to get help from neighboring Syria which itself has minimal refining capacity). The almost helpless Iraqi government has had little choice but to accept the dictates of American advisors and of the International Monetary Fund about exactly how what energy resources exist will be used. Paying off Saddam-era debt, reparations to Kuwait from the Gulf War of 1990, and the needs of the U.S.-controlled national army have had first claim. With what remains so meager that it cannot sustain a viable administrative apparatus in Baghdad, let alone the rest of the country, there is barely enough to spare for the government leadership to line their own pockets.

2. There Is No Iraqi Army

The “Iraqi Army” is a misnomer. The government’s military consists of Iraqi units integrated into the U.S.-commanded occupation army. These units rely on the Americans for intelligence, logistics, and — lacking almost all heavy weaponry themselves — artillery, tanks, and any kind of airpower. (The Iraqi “Air Force” typically consists of fewer then 10 planes with no combat capability.) The government has no real control over either personnel or strategy.

We can see this clearly in a recent operation in Sadr City, conducted (as news reports tell us) by “Iraqi troops and US advisors” and backed up by U.S. artillery and air power. It was one of an ongoing series of attempts to undermine the Sadrists and their Mahdi army, who have governed the area since the fall of Saddam. The day after the assault, Iraqi premier Nouri Kamel al-Maliki complained about the tactics used, which he labeled “unjustified,” and about the fact that neither he, nor his government, was included in the decision-making leading up to the assault. As he put it to an Agence France-Presse, “I reiterate my rejection to [sic] such an operation and it should not be executed without my consent. This particular operation did not have my approval.”

This happened because the U.S. has functionally expanded its own forces in Iraq by integrating local Iraqi units into its command structure, while essentially depriving the central government of any army it could use purely for its own purposes. Iraqi units have their own officers, but they always operate with American advisers. As American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad put it, “We’ll ultimately help them become independent.” (Don’t hold your breath.)

3. The Recent Decline in American Casualties Is Not a Result of Less Fighting (and Anyway, It’s Probably Ending)

At the beginning of August, the press carried reports of a significant decline in U.S. casualties, punctuated with announcements from American officials that the military situation was improving. The figures (compiled by the Brookings Institute) do show a decline in U.S. military deaths (76 in April, 69 in May, 63 in June, and then only 48 in July). But these were offset by dramatic increases in Iraqi military fatalities, which almost doubled in July as the U.S. sent larger numbers of Iraqi units into battle, and as undermanned American units were redeployed from al-Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, to civil-war-torn Baghdad in preparation for a big push to recapture various out-of-control neighborhoods in the capital.

More important, when it comes to long-term U.S. casualties, the trends are not good. In recent months, U.S. units had been pulled off the streets of the capital. But the Iraqi Army units that replaced them proved incapable of controlling Baghdad in even minimal ways. So, in addition to fighting the Sunni insurgency, American troops are now back on the streets of Baghdad in the midst of a swirling civil war with U.S. casualties likely to rise. In recent months, there has also been an escalation of the fighting between American forces and the insurgency, independent of the sectarian fighting that now dominates the headlines.

As a consequence, the U.S. has actually increased its troop levels in Iraq (by delaying the return of some units, sending others back to Iraq early, and sending in some troops previously held in reserve in Kuwait). The number of battles (large and small) between occupation troops and the Iraqi resistance has increased from about 70 a day to about 90 a day; and the number of resistance fighters estimated by U.S. officials has held steady at about 20,000. The number of IEDs placed — the principle weapon targeted at occupation troops (including Iraqi units) — has been rising steadily since the spring.

The effort by Sunni guerrillas to expel the American army and its allies is more widespread and energetic than at any time since the fall of the Hussein regime.

4. Most Iraqi Cities Have Active and Often Viable Local Governments

Neither the Iraqi government, nor the American-led occupation has a significant presence in most parts of Iraq. This is well-publicized in the three Kurdish provinces, which are ruled by a stable Kurdish government without any outside presence; less so in Shia urban areas where various religio-political groups — notably the Sadrists, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Da’wa, and Fadhila — vie for local control, and then organize cities and towns around their own political and religious platforms. While there is often violent friction among these groups — particularly when the contest for control of an area is undecided — most cities and towns are largely peaceful as local governments and local populations struggle to provide city services without a viable national economy.

This situation also holds true in the Sunni areas, except when the occupation is actively trying to pacify them. When there is no fighting, local governments dominated by the religious and tribal leaders of the resistance establish the laws and maintain a kind of order, relying for law enforcement on guerrilla fighters and militia members.

All these governments — Kurdish, Shia and Sunni — have shown themselves capable of maintaining (often fundamentalist) law and (often quite harsh) order, with little crime and little resistance from the local population. Though often severely limited by the lack of resources from a paralyzed national economy and a bankrupt national government, they do collect the garbage, direct traffic, suppress the local criminal element, and perform many of the other duties expected of local governments.

5. Outside Baghdad, Violence Arrives with the Occupation Army

The portrait of chaos across Iraq that our news generally offers us is a genuine half-truth. Certainly, Baghdad has been plunged into massive and worsening disarray as both the war against the Americans and the civil war have come to be concentrated there, and as the terrifying process of ethnic cleansing has hit neighborhood after neighborhood, and is now beginning to seep into the environs of the capital.

However, outside Baghdad (with the exception of the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, where historic friction among Kurd, Sunni, and Turkman has created a different version of sectarian violence), Iraqi cities tend to be reasonably ethnically homogeneous and to have at least quasi-stable governments. The real violence often only arrives when the occupation military makes its periodic sweeps aimed at recapturing cities where it has lost all authority and even presence.

This deadly pattern of escalating violence is regularly triggered by those dreaded sweeps, involving brutal, destructive, and sometimes lethal home invasions aimed at capturing or killing suspected insurgents or their supporters. The insurgent response involves the emplacement of ever more sophisticated roadside bombs (known as IEDs) and sniper attacks, aimed at distracting or hampering the patrols. The ensuing firefights frequently involve the use of artillery, tanks, and air power in urban areas, demolishing homes and stores in a neighborhood, which only adds to the bitter resistance and increasing the support for the insurgency.

These mini-wars can last between a few hours and, in Falluja, Ramadi, or other “centers of resistance,” a few weeks. They constitute the overwhelming preponderance of the fighting in Iraq. For any city, the results can be widespread death and devastation from which it can take months or years to recover. Yet these are still episodes punctuating a less violent, if increasingly more run-down normalcy.

6. There Is a Growing Resistance Movement in the Shia Areas of Iraq

Lately, the pattern of violence established in largely Sunni areas of Iraq has begun to spread to largely Shia cities, which had previously been insulated from the periodic devastation of American pacification attempts. This ended with growing Bush administration anxiety about economic, religious, and militia connections between local Shia governments and Iran, and with the growing power of the anti-American Sadrist movement, which had already fought two fierce battles with the U.S. in Najaf in 2004 and a number of times since then in Sadr City.

Symptomatic of this change is the increasing violence in Basra, the urban oil hub at the southern tip of the country, whose local government has long been dominated by various fundamentalist Shia political groups with strong ties to Iran. When the British military began a campaign to undermine the fundamentalists’ control of the police force there, two British military operatives were arrested, triggering a battle between British soldiers (supported by the Shia leadership of the Iraqi central government) and the local police (supported by local Shia leaders). This confrontation initiated a series of armed confrontations among the various contenders for power in Basra.

Similar confrontations have occurred in other localities, including Karbala, Najaf, Sadr City, and Maysan province. So far no general offensive to recapture any of these areas has been attempted, but Britain has recently been concentrating its troops outside Basra.

If the occupation decides to use military means to bring the Shia cities back into anything like an American orbit, full-scale battles may be looming in the near future that could begin to replicate the fighting in Sunni areas, including the use of IEDs, so far only sporadically employed in the south. If you think American (and British) troops are overextended now, dealing with internecine warfare and a minority Sunni insurgency, just imagine what a real Shiite insurgency would mean.

7. There Are Three Distinct Types of Terrorism in Iraq, All Directly or Indirectly Connected to the Occupation

Terrorism involves attacking civilians to force them to abandon their support for your enemy, or to drive them away from a coveted territory.

The original terrorists in Iraq were the military and civilian officials of the Bush administration — starting with their “shock and awe” bombing campaign that destroyed Iraqi infrastructure in order to “undermine civilian morale.” The American form of terrorism continued with the wholesale destruction of most of Falluja and parts of other Sunni cities, designed to pacify the “hot beds” of insurgency, while teaching the residents of those areas that, if they “harbor the insurgents,” they will surely “suffer the consequences.”

At the individual level, this program of terror was continued through the invasions of, and demolishing of, homes (or, in some cases, parts of neighborhoods) where insurgents were believed to be hidden among a larger civilian population, thus spreading the “lesson” about “harboring terrorists” to everyone in the Sunni sections of the country. Generating a violent death rate of at least 18,000 per year, the American drumbeat of terror has contributed more than its share to the recently escalating civilian death toll, which reached a record 3,149 in the official count during July. It is unfortunately accurate to characterize the American occupation of Sunni Iraq as a reign of terror.

The Sunni terrorists like those led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have utilized the suicide car bomb to generate the most widely publicized violence in Iraq — hundreds of civilian casualties each month resulting from attacks on restaurants, markets, and mosques where large number of Shia congregate. At the beginning of the U.S. occupation, car bombs were nonexistent; they only became common when a tiny proportion of the Sunni resistance movement became convinced that the Shia were the main domestic support for the American occupation. (As far as we can tell, the vast majority of those fighting the Americans oppose such terrorists and have sometimes fought with them.) As al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote, these attacks were justified by “the treason of the Shia and their collusion with the Americans.” As if to prove him correct, the number of such attacks tripled to current levels of about 70 per month after the Shia-dominated Iraqi government supported the American devastation of Falluja in November 2004.

The Sunni terrorists work with the same terrorist logic that the Americans have applied in Iraq: Attacks on civilians are meant to terrify them into not supporting the enemy. There is a belief, of course, among the leadership of the Sunni terrorists that, ultimately, only the violent suppression or expulsion of the Shia is acceptable. But as Zawahiri himself stated, the “majority of Muslims don’t comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it.” So the practical justification for such terrorism lies in the more immediate association of the Shia with the hated occupation.

The final link in the terrorist chain can also be traced back to the occupation. In January of 2005, Newsweek broke the story that the U.S. was establishing (Shiite) “death squads” within the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, modeled after the assassination teams that the CIA had helped organize in El Salvador during the 1980s. These death squads were intended to assassinate activists and supporters of the Sunni resistance. Particularly after the bombing of the Golden Dome, an important Shia shrine in Samarra, in March 2006, they became a fixture in Baghdad, where thousands of corpses — virtually all Sunni men — have been found with signs of torture, including electric-drill holes, in their bodies and bullet holes in their heads. Here, again, the logic is the same: to use terror to stop the Sunni community from nurturing and harboring both the terrorist car bombers and the anti-American resistance fighters.

While there is disagreement about whether the Americans, the Shia-controlled Iraqi Ministry of Defense, or the Shia political parties should shoulder the most responsibility for loosing these death squads on Baghdad, one conclusion is indisputable: They have earned their place in the ignominious triumvirate of Iraqi terrorism.

One might say that the war has converted one of President Bush’s biggest lies into an unimaginably horrible truth: Iraq is now the epicenter of worldwide terrorism.

Where the 7 Facts Lead

With this terror triumvirate at the center of Iraqi society, we now enter the horrible era of ethnic cleansing, the logical extension of multidimensional terror.

When the U.S. toppled the Hussein regime, there was little sectarian sentiment outside of Kurdistan, which had longstanding nationalist ambitions. Even today, opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of Sunnis and Shia stand opposed to the idea of any further weakening of the central government and are not in favor of federation, no less dividing Iraq into three separate nations.

Nevertheless, ethnic cleansing by both Shia and Sunni has become the order of the day in many of the neighborhoods of Baghdad, replete with house burnings, physical assaults, torture, and murder, all directed against those who resist leaving their homes. These acts are aimed at creating religiously homogeneous neighborhoods.

This is a terrifying development that derives from the rising tide of terrorism. Sunnis believe that they must expel their Shia neighbors to stop them from giving the Shiite death squads the names of resistance fighters and their supporters. Shia believe that they must expel their Sunni neighbors to stop them from providing information and cover for car-bombing attacks. And, as the situation matures, militants on both sides come to embrace removal — period. As these actions escalate, feeding on each other, more and more individuals, caught in a vise of fear and bent on revenge, embrace the infernal logic of terrorism: that it is acceptable to punish everyone for the actions of a tiny minority.

There is still some hope for the Iraqis to recover their equilibrium. All the centripetal forces in Iraq derive from the American occupation, and might still be sufficiently reduced by an American departure followed by a viable reconstruction program embraced by the key elements inside of Iraq. But if the occupation continues, there will certainly come a point — perhaps already passed — when the collapse of government legitimacy, the destruction wrought by the war, and the horror of terrorist violence become self-sustaining. If that point is reached, all parties will enter a new territory with incalculable consequences.