Thursday, June 07, 2007

Chaotic war in Iraq; menacing choices. Where will it go from here?

I recently received a letter from one of our troops in Iraq. He described the mess there as a kind of chaos in which it is often hard to know who is on what side. Not a two sided war or even three or four sided war, but war of many sides against each other, when identities and agendas are quite unclear. Ideology in this setting is irrelevant. Here is a digest of what he said:

General Petraeus’s Field Manual on Counterinsurgency calls the war a mosaic of sides, with a constantly shifting mix of different parties, where the conflict is different from
province to province and town to town. But from what my friend has seen "mosaic war" sounds organized. What he sees is “total chaos.”

The Al Qaeda that they are supposed to be fighting against seems invisible, a ghost. Violence is everywhere but it is almost impossible to figure out who has done it. They can’t figure out who the insurgents are. Besides the so-called “foreign fighters” attacking our troops there are disenchanted Sunni Iraqis as well as even Iraqi security forces. Shiite militias are fighting Sunnis; and they are fighting each other. When the Iraqi Army and Police are involved, they can be fighting other Iraqis, our troops, or even each other. But then the Americans can’t tell if it's corrupt soldiers or police officers (corrupt meaning, I think, fighting for money) or if they are militias in stolen uniforms, or a mix of both.

He described a gunfight – or rather, a series of gunfights – in which several kinds of people were involved: invisible shooters [they never knew who they were]; an Iraqi Army platoon [whose behavior in battle was exemplary, even in one case heroic]; an Iraqi Military Integrated Training Team working with the Americans, whose behavior also seemed highly professional; his American platoon; an Apache gunship that was called in [which told them it was all friendly fire]; Iraqi Police who had entered the fray because they lived in the neighborhood but because they were at home they were dressed in street clothes. A civilian and an Iraq soldier were shot deliberately in front of them – that could not have been a mistake because he was in uniform, but who would it have been? That was not friendly fire.

What could we expect our troops to accomplish in such a situation, given that they know no Arabic, are unfamiliar with the customs, have no idea how various families and tribes are aligned? As my friend says, it is “a mess.” It is always a tragedy of proportions that exceed out imagination. This is why I wonder about our new “Democratic Congress”. They are now so diligent to get our troops out – and yes, the sooner the better – but what will be the consequence? The heartbreak of this war is that it was never even remotely necessary – and the more we know about what was going on inside the administration we know that it was the creation of a small cabal who had no interest in getting correct intelligence: they were sure they would be heroes and would fix the mess in the Middle East.

But getting out? Rodman and Shawcross in today’s NYTimes remind us of much that we have been careful to forget: that the loss in Vietnam had huge consequences for millions of Southeast Asians – untold numbers killed and mamed, and (a matter of no small consequence) the credibility of the Americans was forever tarnished. Saddam referred to the Ameriocan flight when he invaded Kuwait,. Osama has referred to the American flight many times, and not only the flight from Vietnam but the others: from Lebanon, from Somalia, and the unwillingness of the Americans to support the Afghans after the Soviet withdrawal, and unwillingness to respond to the bombings in Mogadishu and Dar es-Salam, and the bombing of the Cole. So what would be the consequence of abandoning Iarq? Can we abandon the Iraqis who voted for democracy?

IN fact, of course, our country will not abandon its oil interests – witness the huge embassy complex being built outside Baghdad. But it is going to be more than an embassy: it will be a refuge, a hide-out for an army that may be forced to abandon its friends but not abandon its energy supply station. What would that mean? How could that work?

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