Sunday, March 18, 2007

Iraq War, Year Four

So this morning I got up to watch Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on CBS' Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer. Not having seen Gates discuss the war before, I found him to be a refreshing about-face from Donald Rumsfeld. In place of Rumsfeld's confrontational tone and Clintonian parsing, Gates offered a thoughtful, quiet directness in discussing the fourth anniversary of the Iraq invasion and the addition of nearly 30,000 new US troops in Iraq.

Schieffer asked Gates about President Bush's observation that withdrawing from Iraq would only motivate Al Qaeda to follow the troops elsewhere, i.e., advance on a retreating enemy. Schieffer's point was that Iraq is a civil war and why would a civil war leave the country in which it is being waged? Gates response (and I'm paraphrasing) was that "this isn't a bunch of Sunnis and Shi'a falling in on one another," but rather a bunch of organized hit squads hitting targeted spots. In other words, there is still a method to this madness, a centralized source orchestrating this chaos for its own purposes. For once, the debate of whether what's going on in Iraq is a civil war seemed like something other than a semantic debate to me.

It's a fair question: Would withdrawal be construed by Al Qaeda and its affiliated militias as retreat and, more importantly, would they follow us to another theatre, such as Iran, Indonesia, Afghanistan or the US? If I recall Sun Tzu's The Art of War correctly, it seems that you'd want to direct your attacks where your enemy's troops are the least concentrated, as Al Qaeda did on 9/11. It doesn't seem likely that Al Qaeda would allow US, through its troop movements, dictate where and when the war will be fought.

As this war has rolled on, I admit to having rationalized it a number of ways. Not because I'm any kind of Bush apologist, but merely because it's happening regardless and to counter a few of my countless criticisms of it. When it was first launched, I didn't have high hopes that we would find WMDs and wasn't particularly concerned about that issue, since 250,000 dead Kurds sure sounded like mass destruction to me. Mostly, I looked at it as unfinished business from the first Persian Gulf War, which I believed should have been concluded with a US push to Baghdad and the removal of Saddam then. I realize that, given Bush 41's affinity for international consensus, why he eschewed that option and I also know now that such a move would have put us in the same situation then that we're in now.

Since then, I've thought that, if we must be at war with Al Qaeda, and, given Al Qaeda's unambiguous insistence that we must, I'd rather stage that war anywhere – Iraq, Iran … hell, Antarctica – than on US soil.

The flipside of that perspective has to do with the nature of this war, specifically, measuring success. For the moment, forget "winning" in the traditional sense. It's not as if Al Qaeda and its affiliated militias in Iraq are nation-states with civilians who have an exhaustible appetite for war. Al Qaeda is a relatively decentralized terrorist network of disaffected Muslim extremists who became sufficiently disgusted with US hegemony in their homeland to be willing to complete kamikaze missions at Al Qaeda's behest. By its very constitution, all of Al Qaeda's members can bear the cost of war. So the question becomes: Is our work in Iraq blunting Al Qaeda's ability and willingness to wage war? If anything, it seems clear that our actions in Iraq are having a multiplier effect on those sympathetic to Al Qaeda and its affiliated militias.

What's also troubling is the possibility that we've created a welfare state in Iraq. The US has spent countless man-hours training hundreds of thousands of Iraqi security personnel and yet we're doubling down on our presence in Iraq. In business terms, this resembles chasing good money with bad. It's hard not to conclude that we're playing into our enemy's hands by being a full-time nanny (and inadvertent Al Qaeda recruiter) in Iraq while Al Qaeda regroups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and while it opens up a new theatre of war in Southeast Asia.



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