Friday, January 05, 2007

Blindly forward in Iraq

By any yardstick imaginable, 2006 did not end well for Iraq and its people. Even the execution, in extremis, of Saddam Hussein mere days after his sentencing didn’t bring the sense of catharsis that his executioners might have wished for. In fact, the hanging of the former president — in the spirit of the age caught on film and distributed via the Internet around the globe — may not have achieved more than bring satisfaction to his long-time enemies in the Shiite camp and to exacerbate the already gaping divide between the country’s — and the region’s — Sunnis and Shiites. After all, vengeance rarely, if ever, manages to bring the sweet taste that the perpetrator had sought while planning his actions.

As for the US, whether its ambassador in Baghdad requested, as the US claims, that the execution be postponed or not, it, too, comes out the loser, as the perception will always be that American hands were behind the hanging in yet another attempt to humiliate Islam and its people. Saddam’s ultimate downfall may have brought a modicum of celebration in Washington, London and Jerusalem, but it certainly hasn’t cleared the path to victory in Iraq. For all intents and purposes, the images of Saddam’s execution will have made matters worse.

More than ever, the so-called Coalition forces in Iraq will be looking for an exit strategy, as the body count in Iraqi lives — established at somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 for 2006 — and now 3,000 for US soldiers, keeps increasing. Many had placed their hopes in the findings of the Iraq Study Group Report, a multi-month, much-lauded effort to look at the facts on the ground and establish a new strategy which in the end would allow for most US forces to depart the embattled country.

The report — published for public consumption last month by Vintage — will engender a necessary debate within society, and for the most part its findings are valuable. It is honest in assessing that the situation is deplorable and that victory (whatever the term signifies) is by no means a certainty. Gone is the hubris, the “can-do” attitude of the innocent Western agent sent abroad. Instead, the language of unwavering optimism which characterized the Bush administration’s view on Iraq in 2003 and 2004 has been replaced by the cautious “improve” and “no guarantee for success.” The report underscores the cold reality of the possibility of failure in Iraq, with dire consequences not only for the US but the region as well. The clear-eyed assessment of the situation in Iraq is the most valuable contribution this report is likely to make. Whether it is heeded by decision-makers remains to be seen.

Where the report comes short is in the recommendations that it makes, not so much because the strategy proposed makes no sense but rather because it perpetuates the lack of definition that historically has caused so much headaches to occupying powers facing an insurgency. Part of the new strategy involves giving the responsibility for security to Iraqi forces, with US forces providing training, weapons and, when needed, support. All in all, however, US soldiers are no longer to play a primary role in providing security to Iraqis. Moreover, the US would use a system of sticks and carrots whereby a failure on Iraq’s part to reach certain milestones and demonstrate that it is acting could result in a US pullout regardless of whether the country has been stabilized or not.

The report then says that US troops should move away from a policing role in Iraq and “fight al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in Iraq using special operations teams.” (p. 72). Therein lies the major flaw in the strategy: the report does not provide definitions for what constitutes mere criminality, sectarian conflict, insurgency, guerrilla and terrorism, or what, for that matter, distinguishes al-Qaeda in Iraq from the Sunni-backed insurgency. What constitutes a terrorist act? Which definition will be adopted — the Israeli one, in which every single act of resistance is “terrorism,” or one that solely focuses on attacks on civilians? Granted, there is no way to clearly define violent activities in a place like Iraq. But by failing to even attempt to provide distinctions and thereby give focus to US military activities, US forces will be caught doing the very same thing they have been doing for years, a situation with thus annuls any benefit that might have arisen from a change in strategy.

A lack of definitions for fundamental terms — terrorism, insurgency — will hound US and other forces in Iraq for years to come, regardless of whether the recommendations made in the Iraq Study Group Report are followed or not. In the meantime, countless Iraqis will continue to suffer and see their world continue on the path to collapse. If the situation perdures — and if the conflict, as it very well might, turns into a regional conflagration — some might even begin to wish a return to life under Saddam, the deposed tyrant who we are told was the very reason the US invaded Iraq and whose execution last week failed to bring the sense of achievement, of finality, that the architects of the war surely had hoped for.

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