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Saturday | June 14, 2003

McKiernan's dilemma

by Steve Gilliard

First of two parts

Lt. Gen David McKiernan faces a problem as old as Iraq: how to keep the tribes and various factions under control.

His methods have involved sweeps and nightly patrols in a war which may go on as long as Americans are in Iraq.

The White House and Defense Department are using loaded words like terrorists and Baathists, which may sound nice on Fox News, but does little to explain how complex the politics of Iraq are.

One must keep in mind Saddam used a complex series of bribes and a secret police establishment to work his magic. He rarely acted overtly, except when needed. But even he couldn't prevent a full-scale Shia uprising and many of the secret dead come from that period.

The US faces a grim series of realities and some military choices .

* We have no allies in Iraq.

Bremer forced Chalabi to disband his gang, the Free Iraqi Forces, and that was the people we trained. There is no one natural constituancy which the US can draw police, soldiers, administrators. The Kurds mistrust us a great deal, the Shia have never forgiven us for calling on them to rise and then abandoning them in 1991. There is no ruling class we can appoint. The Shia clerics would like us to appoint them as the ruling class, but their plans have a lot to do with creating the Islamic Republic of Iraq than any kind of pro-Israeli democracy in the PNAC fantasies.

* It's not just the Baathists

I would hope Centcom is selling that for US media and actually not believing that the baathists are waging this war. Saddam was hated. Sure, there are some guys who might come around and say "Saddam is alive, you better help us", but they couldn't survive long if they didn't have wide popular support across Iraq. Which is to say that if these guys weren't some kind of vanguard, the Shia and Sunni tribal chiefs would hunt them down on their own. The Shia are not going to let Saddam return and now that everyone has the same weapons, it's the Shia, with the 15,000 man Badr Brigade, who have the edge.

Let's be clear, the Shia are not a single group. There are many different factions, but the the three leading one are the son of the murdered Ayatollah Sadr, who seems to be taking the hardest line, the followers of Ayatollah Sistani, who seem to want to avoid a conflict with the US while quietly assuming power, and the SCIRI, led by Ayatollah Al-Hakim, who have played ball with the west, but seems to have the most men on the ground and the most organization. They are taking a clever middle ground, by refusing to accept US rule, but keeping the lines of communication open.

But at the same time, you don't hear reports of internecine warfare between Shia militia and these "Baathists". They are being allowed to operate across the country and conduct attacks. If the Shia were truly concerned about Saddam, they would not tolerate this. They would either work with the Americans in a temporary alliance, or handle it on their own. Instead, they wait and watch and let Arab "volunteers" and Sunnis catch the bullets and the heat from the US. The Kurds have also been reluctant to deal with these people as well. There's a reason for that.

They can only exist in a permissive environment.

The Shia are digging up their murdered dead and they are armed and organized. If they accepted the US occupation, do you think former Baathists could set ambushes, kill Americans in daylight and fade away into anonymity without US troops being tipped accurately as to where they're hiding? Or facing attacks?

The war is taking place in largely Sunni areas, but if the resistance is nationwide, 80 percent of Iraq is Kurd and Shia. Nationwide means, at least, a lot of closed mouths and shut eyes.

* We are isolated

We've created a situation where there is a near total mistrust of the US and it's allies. We don't speak the language or understand the people and every act we take is one which will be misunderstood. Bursting through homes to look for weapons is a braindead idea. The weapons are hidden. The US has no ability to surprise anyone. Their vehicles make noise. They aren't quietly popping up in such an urbanized country. The minute they start their engines, they're tagged.

Americans may think Iraq is some desert with a few towns. Nope. The average Iraq city has hundreds of thousands of people. Baghdad has anywhere from 7 to 14 million people. These "towns' you're reading about.....think Norfolk or Buffalo when you hear them. A place like Najaf has as many people as Atlanta, Kut, think Las Vegas. We are talking about cities with 200-400,000+ people in them. Baghdad is as big as LA, Chicago and Houston combined in terms of population. And remember, they may be larger because Saddam didn't have a recent accurate census.

In this, 160,000 US troops are supposed to bring order with almost no local cooperation.

Do you think five infantry divisions could control LA, much less California?

The Consequences of Rumsfeld's Mouth

As it stands, the US force is shy half of what is truly needed to provide security for Iraq. If you take Gen. Shinseki's assessments as valid, that a force of hundreds of thousands would be needed to stabilize Iraq, we have nothing like the men we need and they are at their peak. The US force will get smaller over time because enlistments will end, units will have to be pulled out.

None of our allies are going to send their troops into an active war not approved by the UN. You can use 1441 all you want, but there is no European parliament which is going to send units to fight in Iraq. We're not talking peacekeeping here, but the early stages of a full-bore insurgency. And given the Congo and the EU/UN's offer of peacekeepers in Gaza and the West Bank, there is scant ability to send even 10,000 troops from France, Germany, Pakistan or Australia to Iraq. The US has never been less popular in South Korea, so they're out. No Arab country will send troops to police Iraq under US command.

What will we get? Ukrainians, poorly trained conscripts with a healthy dose of racism towards muslims? Poles, who's spirit is good, but training is questionable. Can they operate in such an alien enviroment effectively? The Dutch may come to serve with the British. And they all expect peacelkeeping duties, not search and destroy missions.

All of the usual sources of troops either have other committments or come from countries where joining us in Iraq is simply political suicide. Even the British cannot maintain the 1st Armored Division in Iraq for long.

So what does McKiernan face this summer?

1) The policy of dispersing US units is setting them up for ambush. Which is why the needs of security and needs for military action are smacking into each other. We need to secure Iraq, but if we do, we diminish the local combat power and provide ample targets. No wave of paramilitary police or foreign support is coming any time soon.

2)The resitance has the tacit support of Iraqi society. They may not be killing Americans themselves, but they are, at best, tolerant of these groups, at worse, banking on their success before tossing in with them. Because the US lacks Arabic language skills and a sense they are guests in Iraq, they alienate potential helpers. Every Iraqi is suspect and the Iraqis are fast coming to see us in the same way.

3) Unhappy reservists and a shaky 3ID. They have been out there for long time and expected to go home. Instead, they get a summer in the sun, with the hatred of every Iraqi they see following them. No relaxation, no cute Iraqi girlfriends, nothing but heat and hatred. How long can they go before they take their plight out on some Iraqi village or get so tired and sloppy, the guerrillas take out an entire patrol which just tried to cut themselves a break.

4) No large scale relief from coalition forces. Most of the countries asked have refused point blank, starting with the Canadians.

The only question is if the US can prevent the resistance from growing with their current operations and create some breathing room for Bremer to work with.

Posted June 14, 2003 01:11 AM | Comments (77)


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