The Charade of Letting The Generals Decide

You may not have noticed it from the coverage, indeed you may not have seen his name at all, but General Petraeus was in fact accompanied by Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, in what was meant to be a joint presentation to Congress this week.

That Crocker paled into virtual invisibility beside the bemedalled figure of the four-star general beside him is a demonstration of Washington's priorities now. With an election year coming up, what the American politicians and the public care about is how soon will their soldiers come home. It is what President Bush will be concentrating on in his response to the evidence tonight.

What doesn't figure is what the Iraqis may feel (on the latest polling, they don't believe the surge is working at all). The Iraqis are now only important in that their interests can be called up in aid of the surge and against Democrat demands for a much fuller troop withdrawal than Bush is intending to announce. Their actual conditions and needs, let alone prospects, are hardly worth a mention.

Certainly you won't find much about it from Ambassador Crocker's formal report to Congress, which blames all the Iraqi problems on Saddam Hussein's rule, glosses over the political fractures, avoids the thorny issues of Kurdish separatism and electoral reform and ends with an almost desperate plea that America has to stay because chaos would ensue if it didn't.

This is not just a failure on Crocker's part, although it is that. It's really a failure of the whole idea of sitting a general alongside a civilian ruler and pretending that somehow you can organise a society.

You can't. At the heart of the failure in Iraq is an assumption about nation building through military might which was never going to work in Iraq and won't work in other places such as Afghanistan. Humanitarian intervention can be effective in preventing civilian slaughter. It worked in protecting the Kurds after the first war with Iraq. It stopped the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. But it doesn't build societies, particularly in countries that are fractured.

The idea, of course, is that the military provides the security behind which the civil society can develop, helped by doses of outside funds and expertise. But this is a chimera. However well-trained soldiers are, they are basically trained for battle. Security demands effective police forces, a working judiciary and accepted civil administration.

You can't impose them. Indeed it's doubtful whether you can ever grow them from the outside. And without them, the outside military force becomes just a foreign occupying presence. This is what has happened in Iraq and no amount of surge of soldiers is going to make it work. All it can do is what General Petraeus was trumpeting, which is to keep a lid on areas which you can patrol in sufficient numbers.

It is the mistake the British have made in southern Iraq. They went in boasting of their experience in Ireland, donning soft caps instead of helmets and assuming the best. But the best didn't happen because electricity wasn't restored, the sewers failed to work and the youth remained unemployed. Instead the British troops became targets for the militia vying to fill the vacuum of civil power, forcing the soldiers to don their flak jackets and helmets again, thus becoming ever more obvious targets of occupation - too alien to become friends and too few to mount an effective military government.

We are repeating the same mistakes in Afghanistan. For the military, the prospects may be different. Having failed in Iraq, they feel that they are now up against a more straightforward enemy in Afghanistan whom they can beat when they can bring them to battle. This is old fashioned warfare and the British generals feel that given time and more troops they can win it.

But it isn't an old-fashioned war and no general, however highly regarded, should be depended on to decide the future of it. We are basically an occupying force attempting to sit on a civil scene every bit as fractious and resentful as southern Iraq. We can suppress opposition for the short term, but as the Americans have found elsewhere in Afghanistan, as soon as the troops go, the insurgents are back.

The harsh fact is that we are doing no more than holding ground, and becoming part of the problem as a result. The harder truth is that, as Iraq has proved once again, we are simply not suited to this kind of intervention. All we achieve is rousing up internal power struggles and becoming a magnet for every youth wanting to prove his virility.

The Petraeus-Crocker hearings were a piece of theatre played out for domestic US consumption, but they're a charade we'd be ill-advised to imitate.


(c) 2007 The Independent

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