January 15, 2007
We Might 'Win,' But Still Lose
By Fareed Zakaria
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Everyone seems quite certain that George W. Bush's new plan for Iraq is bound to fail. But I'm not so sure. At a military level, the strategy could well produce some successes. American forces have won every battle they have fought in Iraq. Having more troops and a new mission to secure whole neighborhoods is a good idea-better four years late than never. But the crucial question is, will military progress lead to political progress? That logic, at the heart of the president's new strategy, strikes me as highly dubious.
Administration officials have pointed to last week's fighting against Sunni insurgents in and around Baghdad's Haifa Street as a textbook example of the new strategy. Iraqi forces took the lead, American troops backed them up and the government did not put up any obstacles. The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger concluded that the battle "looked like a successful test of unified [American-Iraqi] effort."
But did it? Newsweek's Michael Hastings, embedded with an American advisory team that took part in the fighting, reports that no more than 24 hours after the battle began on Jan. 6, the brigade's Sunni commander, Gen. Razzak Hamza, was relieved of his command. The phone call to fire him came directly from the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite.Lt. Col. Steven Duke, commander of a U.S. advisory team working with the Iraqis, and a 20-year Army veteran, describes Hamza as "a true patriot [who] would go after the bad guys on either side." Hamza was replaced by a Shiite.
Joint operations against Shiite militias are far less likely, and not only because of political interference from the top. Groups like Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army don't generally start fire fights with the Americans or attack Iraqi forces. Their goals are different, quieter. Another U.S. adviser, Maj. Mark Brady, confirms reports that the Mahdi Army has been continuing to systematically take over Sunni neighborhoods, killing, terrorizing and forcing people out of their homes. "They're slowly moving across the river," he told Hastings, from predominantly Shiite eastern Baghdad into the predominantly Sunni west. If the 20,000 additional American troops being sent to the Iraqi capital focus primarily on Sunni insurgents, there's a chance the Shiite militias might get bolder. Colonel Duke puts it bluntly: "[The Mahdi Army] is sitting on the 50-yard line eating popcorn, watching us do their work for them."
So what will happen if Bush's new plan "succeeds" militarily over the next six months? Sunnis will become more insecure as their militias are dismantled. Shiite militias will lower their profile on the streets and remain as they are now, ensconced within the Iraqi Army and police. That will surely make Sunnis less likely to support the new Iraq. Shiite political leaders, on the other hand, will be emboldened. They refused to make any compromises-on federalism, de-Baathification, oil revenues and jobs-in 2003 when the United States was dominant, in 2005 when the insurgency was raging, and in 2006 when they took over the reins of government fully. Why would they do so as they gain the upper hand militarily?
Administration officials claim that this time things are different. The Maliki government, and the Shiite leadership more generally, understand that they must crack down on militias and compromise with the Sunnis. Why? In the words of one senior U.S. official-under instructions to stay anonymous-because Shiite political leaders understand they no longer have "unquestioning American support anymore, especially from Capitol Hill." This suggests that the administration finally understands that Bush's blank-check policy for the Iraqi government has proved totally counterproductive. The one action that might be forcing the Iraqi leadership to make some compromises has been the threat that Congress would force a withdrawal of American support. One month ago, the White House was criticizing Congress as being borderline treasonous for suggesting such a thing. Today its strategy in Iraq rests on the fruits of that assertiveness.
Over the past three and a half years, the dominant flaw in the Bush administration's handling of Iraq is that it has, both intentionally and inadvertently, driven the country's several communities apart. Every seemingly neutral action-holding elections, firing Baathists from the bureaucracy, building up an Iraqi military and police force-has had seismic sectarian consequences. The greatest danger of Bush's new strategy, then, isn't that it won't work but that it will-and thereby push the country one step further along the road to all-out civil war. Only a sustained strategy of pressure on the Maliki government-unlike anything Bush has been willing to do yet-has any chance of averting this outcome.
Otherwise, American interests and ideals will both be in jeopardy. Al Qaeda in Iraq-the one true national-security threat we face from that country-will gain Sunni support. In addition, as American officers like Duke and Brady have noted, our ideals will be tarnished. The U.S. Army will be actively aiding and assisting in the largest program of ethnic cleansing since Bosnia. Is that the model Bush wanted for the Middle East?
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