Yes, there’s still a world out there. And there is still a big U.S. decision to be made about Iraq, discussed today in the L.A. Times by Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl. The surge has succeeded in reducing violence dramatically, for the moment. John McCain’s designated enemies–Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iran-supported Shi’ite militias–over whom we needed to achieve “victory,” have been pretty much vanquished. But the actual war in Iraq has been, for the past three years, a civil war–a war we can neither win or lose–and while the U.S. military’s tactical successes have created the conditions for a resolution, the government of Nuri al-Maliki seems increasingly unwilling to resolve it. (The claims by people like Fred Kagan that the Maliki government has achieved most of the U.S. “benchmarks” are either inflated or irrelevant.) Or, as Brimley and Kahl put it:
if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki’s weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America’s blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.
The specific enemies in this case are the excellent friends of the U.S. military–the Sunni Awakening Councils also known as Sons of Iraq–who turned the war around when they abandoned the insurgency and agreed to be funded by the U.S. with the promise that they would soon be integrated into the Iraqi military.
Over the last several weeks, Iraqi army units and special operations forces (which report directly to Maliki) have arrested Sons of Iraq leaders, dismantled checkpoints and otherwise harassed local security volunteers in Diyala province and greater Baghdad. There are reportedly plans to detain hundreds of Sons of Iraq members in the coming weeks. “These people are like cancer, and we must remove them,” an Iraqi army general in Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb, told a reporter last week. Another Iraqi commander in Baghdad confided, “We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently,” before telling that reporter of plans to instigate a major crackdown as early as November.
The question now is: what can–or should–we do about this? Whose side are we on if Maliki launches the crackdown? Brimley and Kahl think we can influence Maliki’s behavior by threatening to withold U.S. military support–but that may be exactly what the overconfident Maliki wants. Then again, what choice do we have? I doubt that even John McCain will argue that the role of the U.S. military will be to defend the Sons of Iraq in the coming battle. My guess is that the end result in Iraq is an authoritarian Maliki- or military-led Shi’ite government, less toxic than Saddam Hussein’s, which will stand closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia in the regional Sunni-Shi’ite contest. The war in Iraq will not have been “lost,” but can this be reasonably described as “victory?” I think not. It can be best described as a terrible, shameful waste of lives and resources.