After nearly four gruelling years, the war in Iraq may be
entering its most critical phase - a surge by American forces that
needs results in a hurry, lest the whole adventure be confirmed as
the US failure it appears to be.
The US President, George Bush, has claimed repeatedly that
victory is just around the corner. Now, he has actually admitted
that his strategy was doomed - far from advancing liberty, it has
been spreading anarchy. Washington must try a different tack, the
But as Bush aides fleshed out the detail of his new plan over
the past 10 days, they robbed the President of the luxury of time.
They are demanding policy backflips by the Shiite administration in
Baghdad that are seemingly impossible at the same time as they
insist on results in a matter of just months.
Thus Bush is setting the stage for a critical milestone, not
just in the Iraqi conflict, but also in the global war on terrorism
which he launched in the immediate aftermath of the September 11,
2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Any lingering doubts that the US-led coalition forces in Iraq
are hostage to religious, ethnic and tribal forces beyond their
control will evaporate unless Bush's new 21,000-strong US troop
deployment can impose a genuine sense of law and order and real
security. Their failure in Baghdad would make it very difficult for
Bush to deny that he has failed in Iraq.
Despite all the partisan rhetoric and brinkmanship in Washington
these days, that will be a defining moment in US history - because,
whether they are Republican or Democrat, few in Washington would be
able to stomach the many ugly consequences of being seen to be
surrendering by ordering the American troops home.
Those consequences? Even more intense civil war as the country's
security forces abandon the last vestiges of loyalty to a national
government and, instead, line up with the militias already fighting
for their own ethnic or religious quarter. In the best-case
scenario for the region, neighbouring countries might just fund,
arm and train their co-religionists in Iraq; in the worst, they
will send troops and machines for what will become a Shiite-Sunni
war that will throw the region - and global oil markets - into
Tip-toeing around the civil war that has already begun and
staying "mum" on the irreparable damage that would be done to US
credibility in the eyes of the world, Bush himself outlined what he
said would be the consequences of US failure in Iraq: "Radical
Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits.
They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments,
create chaos in the region and use oil revenue to fund their
"Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our
enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch
attacks on the American people."
Some halfway houses are being canvassed for the Americans - a
retreat to bases in "safe" areas of Iraq that would maintain a US
presence while Iraqis sorted out their own mess; or a retreat to
bases beyond Iraq, but in the region.
But beyond the Iraqi furnace, any of those will be enough for "victory" claims by Islamic jihadis that will have great resonance
as a tool of global terrorist recruitment.
Inevitably, too, anything approximating an American retreat in
Iraq would be a massive morale booster for the Taliban and
al-Qaeda, which now are fighting more determinedly than at any time
since the fall of Kabul. There is a very real risk of an explosion
of terrorist and insurgent violence in Afghanistan that will demand
a huge new deployment back where it all started at the end of
Such a prospect was underscored this week when the new US
Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, finished a round of meetings with
his generals in Kabul by declaring he was "strongly inclined" to
send more US troops to Afghanistan because of a three-fold increase
in insurgent attacks in just over three months.
All this would unfold in a region that is even more unstable
than it was before September 11 - unshackled by the defeat of Sunni
regimes to its immediate east (Afghanistan) and west (Iraq), Shiite
Iran is in the ascendancy; Iraq is Shiite-controlled and Shiites in
Lebanon and elsewhere are flexing their muscles.
Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are alarmed by
all this Shiite thrusting which, for them, is the most troubling of
the unintended consequences of the Bush invasion of Iraq. But there
is also a "we-told-you-so" smugness in these autocratic Sunni
capitals because, given developments, they don't expect too much
more of this democracy nonsense to be thrust at them by
Just as aspects of the Bush case for invading Iraq didn't add
up, commentators have found credibility gaps in the President's
planned Baghdad surge. Bush billed it as an Iraqi solution to the
crisis, but it has been widely reported that the Iraqi Prime
Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, demanded a lower US profile - not the
higher one on which Bush is pinning his hopes. Bush also said the
plan had the support of American generals, but in November the
commander of US forces in the Middle East, General John Abizaid,
told Congress that extra troops were not needed.
Perhaps Bush's greatest departure from reality was his warning
that if the Iraqi Government did not deliver it "will lose the
support of the American people". He appears to be in denial about
countless opinion polls and the result of the November midterm
elections in the US, all of which confirm that that support is
Also, for reasons that have never been explained since the
former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, insisted on a pared-back
invasion force in 2003, the numbers don't add up.
A new manual for the US military estimates that, to be
effective, a counterinsurgency force requires at least one soldier
for every 40 or 50 inhabitants. But for Baghdad and the adjacent
Sunni Triangle alone, that would require about 130,000 more troops
- not Bush's promised 21,000.
The ability of 20,000-odd US troops and their Iraqi helpers to
make any difference to the mayhem of the capital was put in
perspective late last week when the joint forces again attempted to
tame Haifa Street, a single thoroughfare in downtown Baghdad: 1000
troops were required.
In the same vein, when the Americans doubled their forces to
15,000 and brought an extra 9000 Iraqi troops into Baghdad last
year, there was a 20 per cent increase in the rate of attacks - a
rise that some senior US officials attributed to the fact that more
American troops meant more targets for the insurgency.
Likewise, relations between the US generals and their Iraqi
counterparts are far less rosy than Bush would have had his
audience believe when he unveiled his plan last week.
Acknowledging the ever-present Shiite fear that the Americans
are trying to rob them of power and resources in a country in which
their majority status has been confirmed at the ballot box, a
frustrated US officer told The New York Times this week: "We
are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is
actually part of the problem. We are being played like a pawn."
The Americans are itching for a showdown with the Shiite
militias - especially Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which is melted
into the fabric of Sadr City, a district identified by Gates as a
definite target in the new security campaign. Given the uncertain
loyalty of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces, that could
be a fraught contest.
But in a move that confounded some observers, Bush also seemed
to be setting the ground for open confrontation with Iran - he has
sent a second navy carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf and
warned Tehran that US forces in Iraq "will seek out and destroy the
networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in
In the days after the speech, US forces in Iraqi Kurdistan
seemed to be deliberately picking a fight when they raided an
Iranian building in the northern city of Irbil, arresting six
Iranians whom they described as "foreign intelligence agents
working with Iraqis to destabilise Iraq and [to] target coalition
The smacking came not from Tehran, but from Baghdad - Iran was a
neighbour and trading partner and the six were diplomats known to
Baghdad whose office was in the process of being given consular
This is high-risk stuff from Washington - because the likely
outcome is further alienation of the Shiite establishment in
Baghdad, many of whom remain grateful to Tehran for sheltering them
during the Saddam years.
Some US officers in Iraq suspect their President has been a
victim of Iraqi double-speak in his belief that the Baghdad regime
will allow an even-handed security approach in Sunni and Shiite
districts of the capital.
Until now, Maliki has blocked US incursions into Shiite areas -
especially the slum quarter of Sadr City which is the power base of
the renegade Sadr, on whom Maliki depends for the votes of his
30-odd member bloc in the National Assembly.
The Americans rate Sadr's Mahdi Army as the most lethal and
disruptive of the militias in Iraq. But Maliki's supporters insist
that the Shiite militias only mount retaliatory attacks and if the
Americans would just stamp out the Sunni insurgents there would be
no attacks to demand Shiite retaliation.
Maliki tried to talk tough on Thursday, claiming that his forces
had recently rounded up more than 400 Mahdi Army members. But he
was flatly contradicted by a senior spokesman for the Sadr
It all leaves some Shiites wondering if the Americans are
attempting to set Maliki up for a fall. A Shiite political figure
laid it out for The New York Times: "[Maliki] can't disarm
the militias. He can't deliver a good program for the economy and
reconstruction. He cannot deliver on services. This is a matter of
fact - there is a common understanding on the American side and the
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to American hope in Iraq is the
concrete walls of distrust that have been thrown up - majority
Shiites who welcomed the Americans in 2003 have become suspicious
of them; minority Sunnis who spat on the Americans in the days
after the invasion now want them to stay; few ordinary Iraqis trust
anyone in a uniform of the Iraqi security services - especially
that of the Iraqi police.
Also, there is neither the trust nor the mutual respect between
any of the key religious and ethnic groups necessary for any
political accommodation that might be built on the back of a
successful military campaign. No matter the phase of the
post-Saddam era - US occupation in 2003, a raging Sunni insurgency
in 2005, a Shiite-dominated government in 2006 - the Shiites have
refused to compromise on issues that might convince Sunnis they
have a viable future in the new Iraq.
The best Bush can hope for is that the "surge" will buy him time
- but that is a false dawn. His aides are already warning the
Iraqis that off-ramps have been written into the "surge" plan to
allow the Americans to abandon the new deployment if the Iraqis
don't live up to their side of the deal.
And then what - blame Tehran?
American experts such as Stephen Biddle, the author of
Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern
Battle, fret about a long-term crisis that could involve
Iranian nuclear weapons.
But bad as it was, his most likely scenario when he spoke to
reporters last weekend was less calamitous: "We get out - the civil
war escalates. It's funded by all [the neighbouring countries], but
they don't send their troops across the border. The war just bumps
along for five or 10 years and everybody eventually gets so weary
that diplomacy finally gets going and there is a ceasefire,
"During that period, Iraqi oil output crashed, there is huge
instability in the region and oil prices rise."
Almost as an afterthought, he said: "And there's a humanitarian
catastrophe in Iraq."
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.