Thursday, November 30, 2006

Zakaria: Extricate Now from Sectarian Strife

The assumptions for the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq are probably violated by the emergence of sectarian violence, either entrenched but small or passing but escalating/large.


In his recent piece, Zakaria goes one step farther, suggesting that the appropriate re-make of that strategy is retrenchment in the form of exit.

I have a question about whether the U.S. can walk a middle line, without becoming truly hated for its efforts. Would it be possible to add more troops to stall the Sunni Insurgency and to strengthen the lawful constraints on the Shia government, either by fiat or by manipulating the levers of the government to keep the "extra-judicial" Sadrists 'contained' or 'constrained' under judicial enforcement. In other words, is there a way to position the effort so as to continue to fight for law-and-order, which is how the U.S. might garner credibility and where others can lose legitimacy?

A guarantee of the sanctity of the ballot box is another reason to argue for a continued U.S. presence. Perhaps that doesn't make sense in a full-blown civil war scenario, the upshot of which is the consolidation of the ballot box by violent means. Still, if the outcome is imperfect, the U.S. might have a role to play, rather than turn the whole course of events over to other parties.

One wonders if the Arab street might ever turn against further sectarian violence. It wasn't so long ago that there was great hand wringing that non-Muslims were going to destroy the ancient city of Baghdad (bombs), but what about the al-qa'ida, the sunni insurgency, and the reprisal militia destruction? Can that all be forgiven, without even a groan?


There are other political cards to play. Withdrawal is not the only way to incent Iraqi cooperation. It might be possible to suggest an end to a central government, for a period, on the grounds that it is not supplying any public goods (and violating its constitutional oath).

It might also be possible to curb Iran by threatening an independent Kurdish state, something that would be very dangerous to the Iranian Mullah oligarchy (of course, Turkey would have to be insiders to this threat).

Syria can be easily pressured too, in a true game of brinkmanship. If both Iraq and Lebanon fall into a broad-based civil war in the next 12 months, Syria will be at its weakest point in decades, maybe.


None of these are guranteed, but it does seem that there are political pressure points yet to be pressed. Perhaps President Bush doesn't have the mind for this kind of chess. He seems to prefer a business-like or Texan way of "looking people in the eye" and saying that they are "a man of peace" or "deserving of a chance".

In some ways, the CIC seems hampered by his or his general's willingness to 'think Big', not in ideological terms, but in practical terms of what might be required to tip the scales beyond mere capture and kill. I cannot help but think that there would be a sharp psychological impact, in the short run, if a massive force of 50,000+ troops marched into Baghdad (U.S. or otherwise). Declaration of martial law, a high-tech intelligence effort to find out who is in the city and where, and the holding of municipal elections, so that the Sunni can have another try at getting included in local councils and the political track can have a chance.

The temporary use of large-scale force can have some effects, like returning a temporary sense of normality, re-iterating that there are true political choices to be made (not just chaos/hopelessness to be submitted to). A large, mobile force could also be re-deployed for perimeter operations elsewhere, which are also a part of clear-hold-build, at various stages.


Separately, I have to say, with great sadness, however, that I've seen the first convincing evidence for the second of my own two conditions for prescribing a stand-aside strategy on the blog that Zakaria mentions, Model Iraq. (I don't say what they are, lest they become self-fulfilling).

On my own account, the campaign is on borrowed time, playing against the odds, as it were, for an outcome that will not involve substantially more violence. The only thing that prevents more conviction on this score is that I continue to feel that I don't have sufficient information about the whole situation.


Iraq is not Vietnam. There are reasons to believe that a full-scale civil war might be self-contained, but also reason to believe that it could draw in other partners, especially as part of the end-game. In other words, if the Shia start to "win", the temptation for neighbors will be to assist the Sunni, etc. The Yemeni civil war drew in outside participants, lasted seven years, and ended in a compromise as the parties realized that foreign offers of help weren't going to resolve the situation.

Update: Suadi Arabia signalling in strongest possible terms that it will not stand aside in a Iraqi Civil War precipitated despite or because of a U.S. withdrawal:

Because King Abdullah has been working to minimize sectarian tensions in Iraq and reconcile Sunni and Shiite communities, because he gave President Bush his word that he wouldn't meddle in Iraq (and because it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn't attack U.S. troops), these requests have all been refused. They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world's Sunni community (which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims), Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene.

Writing in the WaPo, the author is a Saudi insider.

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