Thursday, December 29, 2011

Responsibility to Protect the Win

I've long thought (for decades) that Cordesman knows his stuff on explaining what is happening in regard to military matters. But I often strongly disagree with his conclusions based on what he explains.

I don't get this at all, from a working draft of a monograph on US-Iranian competition for the fate of Iraq:

The US has gone to great lengths to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, including using its status as an occupying power and Iraq’s main source of aid, as well as through information operations and more traditional press statements highlighting Iranian meddling. However, containing Iranian influence, while important, is not America’s main goal in Iraq. It is rather to create a stable democratic Iraq that can defeat the remaining extremist and insurgent elements, defend against foreign threats, sustain an able civil society, and emerge as a stable power friendly to the US and its Gulf allies.

America’s ability to achieve this goal is highly uncertain. US and Iraqi forces scored impressive tactical victories against the insurgents in Iraq from 2005-2009, but the US invasion now seems to be a de facto grand strategic failure in terms of its cost in dollars and blood, its post-conflict strategic outcome, and the value the US could have obtained from different uses of its political, military, and economic resources. The US went to war for the wrong reasons – focusing on threats from weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi-government sponsored terrorism that did not exist. It had no meaningful plan for either stability operations or nation building. It let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories – if they last – did little more than put an end to a conflict it help create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

I don't even disagree with his summation of our objectives for Iraq: "to create a stable democratic Iraq that can defeat the remaining extremist and insurgent elements, defend against foreign threats, sustain an able civil society, and emerge as a stable power friendly to the US and its Gulf allies." Of course, that's why I think we should have retained 25,000 troops in Iraq after this year. That is what makes the outcome more uncertain, I think. And countering Iranian influence in Iraq--at least in the sense of stopping Iran from supporting armed elements within Iraq--helps achieve our objectives.

But the idea that the Iraq War is a grand strategic failure seems very short-sighted. Certainly, if we throw away what we achieved and fail to exploit that victory for wider victories, you could make that case. But that is not a case against the war but against the "peace" that followed.

The idea that going to war over WMD and support for terrorism was a mistake focuses too much on the tactical and not enough on the grand strategy. Iraq did not have an active WMD program when we invaded. But we had no way of knowing that since Saddam pretended he had active programs and capabilities. It is foolish to draw the conclusion from that narrow fact that Saddam was not a WMD threat. It is clear that Saddam would have been able to restart chemical weapons production quickly and could easily restart the small-footprint biological weapons research (which he hid under the noses of UN inspectors until a son-in-law defected and spilled the beans in the mid-90s (before he unwisely "undefected" only to be killed by Saddam upon returning to Iraq). And the long-desire for nuclear weapons would not have remained dormant given the fear of Iran that Saddam had. Iran started their nuclear program with Saddam in mind--not fear of America. Does anyone think that Iraq under Saddam would have accepted Iran having nukes while Iraq did not? Does anybody not think that two nations that spent 8 years slaughtering each other on a static front might be a danger to the world had they both eventually deployed nuclear weapons? And then used them on each other? (UPDATE: and let's not forget that Saddam had yellowcake for that nuclear program)

And there were definitely terrorists in Iraq and Iraq supported terrorism. Including al Qaeda affiliates who fled Afghanistan to the peripheral but technically Kurdish region (and drew supplies from the city of Baghdad). Don't forget that Saddam also was importing lots of Sunni Arab jihadis into Iraq for Saddam's Fedayeen, which was a paramilitary force that savagely fought our troops in the invasion (we killed lots). The idea that this was not a reason to destroy Saddam is astounding.

The rest of that paragraph is just wrong, too.

We certainly had a plan for Iraq. We assumed that by not attacking the infrastructure of Iraq we would avoid the need to rebuild it. We assumed local police could handle policing with a paramilitary force we built to support it and a small rebuilt conventional army of 40,000 to form the core of an army eventually capable of external defenses. We assumed Iraqi oil exports could pay for the project. And we certainly assumed that Syria and Iran would not invade Iraq. We assumed that after a couple years we could turn over to Iraqis a recovering economy and the framework of democracy.

Obviously, these assumptions did not work out. That happens. Contact with the enemy, and all that.

The infrastructure was already broken down and required far more building even though we did not strike it in 2003.

Local police were glorified traffic cops while "policing" under Saddam was outsourced to Sunni gangs. So these guys were worthless.

And while we were successfully grinding down the Baathist insurgency, capturing Saddam in December 2003, and seeing only 20 KIA in the month of February 2004, a new war broke out when Syria and Iran invaded Iraq by supporting al Qaeda, Baathist, and Sadrist terrorists beginning in spring 2004. Saying we "let" Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war ignores that there was violence because we resisted the enemy attempts to destroy the now-liberated Iraq. Avoiding a civil war would have meant just letting the enemy win (and I will quibble that while civil war threatened, the sectarian fighting didn't rise to civil war scope).

The paramilitaries we established were inadequate to this new war, and the external focus of the army was looking too far ahead, so we merged both of them into a light infantry army focused on internal security. We achieved this despite the renewed Syrian and Iranian effort after the February 2006 Samara mosque bombing that threatened to really ignite a true civil war. Only now are we working on a conventional military capability.

But the Petraeus surge and the Sunni Awakening halted the enemy success and finally broke enemy resistance by the fall of 2007. And despite terrorist attacks, we greatly expanded pre-war electricity, potable water, and economic life--including getting oil production at least in the same range as pre-war production. Iraq has a better economic basis than a lot of other countries. Iraq indeed has a functioning democracy even if it hasn't sunk deep roots yet and even though post-withdrawal unrest threatens that democracy.

Even if you leave aside what we really achieved, calling Iraq only a victory in a war we created ignores that by destroying the Saddam regime we ended a looming threat to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and ended a supporter of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Saddam wanted to be the dominant power in the Gulf, in the Arab World, and in what was called during the Cold War the nonaligned movement.

Instead, Iraq is an ally actively killing jihadis and remnant Baathists and resisting Iran. So the difficult task of "dual containment" where we tried to contain both Iraq and Iran (while worried a new "Nazi-Soviet" pact could unite them against us) is no longer needed.

And we can't know the wider implications for a while yet. Some Iraqis certainly believe they had a role in inspiring the Arab Spring. They could be right. In early 2005, it sure looked like Iraq could just be part of a wave of democracy making progress. Intensified violence in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 seemed to squelch that change, but after we put down most of the violence in Iraq, it is not far-fetched to think the inspiration at least partly arose from these ashes. And who knows if the 2009 protests in Iran were inspired by seeing fellow Shias attempting--however imperfectly--to run their own lives freely in Iraq?

Even if Iraq wasn't a positive example for Syria, could the long effort to destabilize Iraq by hosting Sunni Arab terrorists have backfired on Assad? A million or so Sunni Arab Baathist refugees from Iraq with lots of money and an al Qaeda terrorist infrastructure whose pipeline into Iraq stopped feeding many jihadis into Iraq (more from the inability of the remnant terrorists to use all of them than from Syrian or even Iraq border defense success) could have led to a little blowback. Perhaps some jihadis turned on Assad. Perhaps some Iraqi Baathists turned on Assad. Perhaps just seeing all those Sunni Baathist refugees reminded Syria's Sunni Arab majority that they were perhaps worse off than the Iraqi Sunni refugees and that Alawites ruled them all.

In the end, if we fail to establish a strategic partnership with Iraq and ultimately "lose" Iraq, it will stem not from the Iraq War itself which achieved a lot and raised hopes for achieving even more, but from the absolute failure of the Obama administration to do anything over the past three years but prepare to get American troops out of Iraq. Three years of possessing the most awesome, nuanced, "smart" diplomacy known to liberal man failed to get a deal with Iraq that we have made with countless (well, "countless" because I don't know the number) other countries over the decades to maintain American troops on foreign soil.

If Iraq turns into a "grand strategic failure" (and I think it would have to include an Iraq returning to a hostile, aggressive power as it was under Saddam), the fault will not be the decision to fight Saddam or the victory in the war itself, but will be the fault of the Obama administration that values getting out of Iraq ("responsibly" as President Obama chants to ward off charges he is losing Iraq) more than it values defending what their despised predecessor in the Oval Office achieved.

How "responsible" is that?