How can anyone keep a straight face and call this a strategy?


America’s illusory strategy in Iraq

Future historians of how Iraq was lost will, of course, alight on the memoirs and the memos of those who drove the policy, measuring declaration against execution, ambition against outcome. They will savour the solipsism of a Paul Bremer, the US viceroy whose disbandment of the Iraqi army left 400,000 men destitute and bitter, but armed, trained and prey to the insurgency then taking shape – but whose memoir paints him as a MacArthur of Mesopotamia.

They will be awed by the arrogance and fecklessness of a Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary and theorist of known unknowns, who summed up the descent into anarchy and looting in the hours after Baghdad fell (when, very possibly, Iraq was lost) – “Stuff happens”.

But their research will be greatly assisted by the diligence of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, which keeps on unearthing the bottomless depths of incompetence behind the Bush administration’s misconceived adventure in Iraq.

This week, the GAO reported that the Pentagon cannot account for 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols supposedly supplied to Iraqi security forces – adding to well-founded suspicions that insurgents are using US-supplied arms to attack American and British troops.

This discovery might be considered the mother of all known unknowns, were it not that in March this year the GAO published a drily damning report on the coalition’s failure to secure scores upon scores of arms dumps abandoned by the Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion – and that by October last year it had still failed to secure this giant toolbox that keeps the daily slaughter going in Iraq.

That carnage continues, barely moderated by the “surge” of troops that this week raised US forces to their peak level in Iraq of 162,000 – a last heave that looks destined to be the prelude to withdrawal.

As a policy it is hard to see how any surge can fix an Iraq so traumatised by tyranny and war and then broken by invasion and occupation. It takes place as an already indecipherable ethnic and sectarian patchwork is being pulled bloodily to pieces. Iraq has reached advanced societal breakdown. Ethnic cleansing proceeds regionally, through neighbourhoods, even street by street.

There has been a mass exodus of teachers and doctors, civil servants and entrepreneurs, a haemorrhage of Iraq’s future. Nearly 4m Iraqis have been uprooted by this cataclysm. Instead of bringing democracy to Iraq and the Arabs, the 2003 invasion has scattered Iraqis across the Middle East – as well as creating laboratory conditions for the urban warfare urged on jihadis by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s strategist. The time to have surged is long since past.

Politically, there are no institutions, there is no national narrative. Ministries are sectarian booty and factional bastions. The interior ministry, headquarters for several death squads, is, according to the Los Angeles Times, partitioned into factional fiefs on each of its 11 floors – with the seventh floor split between the armed wings of two US-allied groups.

Two ostensibly benign by-products of the US invading Iraq were: the empowerment of the Shia majority there, giving the sect, a dispossessed minority within Islam, rights denied for centuries; and the welcome panic of an ossified Sunni Arab order based on a toxic mix of despotism and social inequity that incubated extremism. But Iraq’s Shia politicians seem unwilling to put state above sect. Such is the Sunni, jihadi-abetted backlash, and the intra-Shia fight over the spoils, that the Shia have not so much come into their inheritance as entered a new circle of hell.

The Shia-led government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has ceased to pursue even a communalist agenda, preferring the narrower sectarian interest of his faction of the Da’wa party. With the withdrawal of 17 of 38 members of Mr Maliki’s cabinet – including all the Sunnis and two big Shia factions – government has for most practical purposes ceased.

To believe any policy might work in these circumstances – let alone a slow-motion surge – requires heroic optimism. Some of that was placed in Gen David Petraeus, US commander in Iraq. At least until this week.

It turns out those Kalashnikovs went missing on his previous watch, as trainer-in-chief of the still barely existent Iraqi army. Gen Petraeus, a student of counterinsurgency with a PhD from Princeton and a gift for PR, had been lionised for his command of the 101st Airborne division in 2003-04, and especially his “hearts and minds” campaign in the north. After his withdrawal, however, two-thirds of Mosul’s security forces defected to the insurgency and the rest went down like fairground ducks. His forces appear not to have noticed, moreover, that Saudi-inspired jihadis had established a bridgehead in Mosul before the war had even started.

But US commanders seem to have no trouble detecting the hand of Tehran everywhere. This largely evidence-free blaming of serial setbacks on Iranian forces is a bad case of denial. First, the insurgency is overwhelmingly Iraqi and Sunni, built around a new generation of jihadis created by the US invasion. Second, to the extent foreign fighters are involved these have come mostly from US-allied and Sunni Saudi Arabia, not Shia Iran. Third, the lethal roadside bombs with shaped charges that US officials have coated with a spurious veneer of sophistication to prove Iranian provenance are mostly made by Iraqi army-trained engineers – from high explosive looted from those unsecured arms dumps.

Shia Iran has backed a lot of horses in Iraq. If it wished to bring what remains of the country down around US ears it could. It has not done so. The plain fact is that Tehran’s main clients in Iraq are the same as Washington’s: Mr Maliki’s Da’wa and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq led by Abdelaziz al-Hakim. Iran has bet less on the unpredictable Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, which has, in any case, largely stood aside during the present troop surge.

So, in sum. Having upturned the Sunni order in Iraq and the Arab world, and hugely enlarged the Shia Islamist power emanating from Iran, the US finds itself dependent on Tehran-aligned forces in Baghdad, yet unable to dismantle the Sunni jihadistan it has created in central and western Iraq. Ignoring its Iraqi allies it is arming Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda. And, by selling them arms rather than settling Palestine it is trying to put together an Arab Sunni alliance (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) with Israel against Iran. All clear? How can anyone keep a straight face and call this a strategy?

J.K.

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