Professor Juan Cole: Critique of US Policy in Iraq

Sometimes, you read something and agree with it so much that you yourself could have said it. This is the case with Professor Cole's latest installment at Informed Comment. Here it is quoted in full...

Critique of US Policy in Iraq

Bush Administration policies in Iraq have largely been a failure. It has created a failed state in that country, which is in flames and seething with new religious and ethnic nationalist passions of a sort never before seen on this scale in modern Iraqi history. The severe instability in Iraq threatens the peace and security of the entire region, and could easily ignite a regional guerrilla war that might well affect petroleum exports from the Oil Gulf and hence the health of the world economy.

The relatively small number of US fighting troops that the US has in Iraq, some 60,000 to 70,000, cannot possibly hope to provide security to a country of 26 million under such conditions of ethnic and political civil war. The much smaller British presence in Basra appears not to have been effective in halting that city's spiral down into insecurity, with tribal and militia grudge fights and assassinations having become common.

The inauguration of a new Iraqi government was marred by the enormous amount of time it took to form it (5 months!), by open US imperial intervention in the choice of prime minister and in other negotiations, by the walk-out of over two dozen parliamentarians from both the Shiite (Virtue Party) and Sunni (National Dialogue Front and Iraqi Accord Front) parties, and by the failure of the new prime minister to name three key cabinet ministers central to the country's security-- Defense, Interior, and National Security. The Iraqi government is among the more corrupt in the world, working by bribes and a party spoils system.

The new parliament is virtually hung, and Prime Minister al-Maliki governs as a minority prime minister, being able to count on less than 115 MPs from his own party, in a parliament with 275 members. He is therefore hostage to the Kurds, who want to move Iraq in the direction of having a very weak central government, a degree of provincial autonomy unknown in any other country in the world, and who want to unilaterally annex a fourth province, oil-rich Kirkuk, to their regional confederacy, despite the violent opposition of Kirkuk's Turkmen and Arab populations to being Kurdicized.

The Bush administration reconstruction project in Iraq has largely failed. In part, it was foiled by sophisticated guerrilla sabotage, so that billions have had to be diverted from actual reconstruction to security. And nor has security been achieved. In part, it was foiled by a degree of corruption, cupidity, embezzlement, lawlessness and fraud that is unparalleled in US history since the Gilded Age. And in part is has been foiled by a US insistence on making most often unqualified US corporations the immediate recipient and major beneficiary of funds, so that Iraqi concerns get much less lucrative sub-contracts and relatively little of the money benefitted the Iraqi economy directly.

Military engagements between Sunni Arab guerrillas and US troops of some seriousness have been fought at Ramadi in the past week, though little noticed by the mainstream US press. Fallujah is dangerous again. Neighborhoods of the capital, Baghdad are blown up every day. A nighttime hot civil war produces some number of corpses daily, sometimes dozens, to the extent that morning corpse patrol has become a central duty of Iraqi police. A lot of us suspect that some units of the police themselves are involved in these kidnappings and killings, so that often they know just where to look for the corpses.

The main US military tactic still appears to be search and destroy, a way of proceeding guaranteed to extend the scope and popularity of the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement. The guerrillas appear more well-organized, determined, and effective than ever, and no lasting and effective progress appears to have been made in counter-insurgency anywhere in the Sunni Arab heartland. The human toll of the war has been deeply depressing. The number of Iraqi dead in the war and its aftermath (killed in political violence by any side) cannot be estimated, but certainly is over 100,000 and could easily be more. The 30,000 figure often cited comes from counts of reports of deaths in Western wire services, which are demonstrably a fraction of the true total. None of the nearly 1,000 Iraqis assassinated in Basra during the past month, possibly with police involvement, appears in such statistics.

The US has lost over 2400 troops dead, and the number of wounded in action is over 17,000, some significant proportion of them seriously wounded, with long-term disabilities. Some Iraq War vets are suffering mental problems and were discharged because of them under circumstances that make it difficult for them to get VA care. Some Iraq War vets are showing up homeless in US cities already. Meanwhile, Halliburton is back from the brink of bankruptcy. US troops have fought bravely in unfamiliar terrain, and have often done unheralded community developoment work. Their enemies have included ex-Baathist serial murderers and Salafi Jihadi terrorists. Their sacrifices for the sake of removing Saddam and his regime, and attempting to stabilize Iraq, must be honored. But some of their enemies have been honorable resistance fighters, as recognized by the present Iraqi government itself, and US troops have had the profound misfortune of being ordered into an illegal war and then becoming caught up in a series of guerrilla wars for local autonomy, of a sort that no imperial power has been able to win since about 1960.

There is no evidence of the new Iraqi army and security forces proving themselves effective against the guerrillas. The security forces with the possible exception of the new army are heavily infiltrated by partisan militias. A recent news article quoted an approving US officer as saying that Iraqi troops in Baqubah fought a guerrilla attack right down to the point where the troops ran out of ammunition. These were almost certainly Shiite and/or Kurdish troops fighting Sunni guerrillas, so this was actually another battle in the Civil War. No wonder they fought to the bitter end. But what I take away from this anecdote is that the guerrillas have more ammunition than do the poor s.o.b.'s in the Iraqi army, and I don't see that as a good sign. A unified military is almost impossible to achieve in conditions of civil war, in any case. Lebanon had an army when the civil war broke out there in the mid-1970s, but President Elias Sarkis was unable to commit it, for fear it would split along ethnic lines. The same problems now exist in Iraq, and are unlikely to be resolved for some years, if ever.

Iraq cannot be stabilized without the active help of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the neighboring countries. But the Bush administration has actively attempted to alienate Iran and Syria, threatening them with regime change or military attack, and guaranteeing that they would be hostile to US success and continued presence in Iraq. The US has also alienated Turkey by allowing the violent leftist Kurdish guerrilla movement, the PKK, to base itself in northern Iraq and to attack Turkey and Iran from that safe haven. The US has alienated Saudi Arabia in a whole host of ways, from insinuations that the Wahhabi form of Islam is in an unqualified way a source of terrorism, to US insensitivity to Saudi fears of the rise of a Shiite Crescent.

Bush administration ineptitude, ignorance, and often stupidity is matched by some regional players. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud El Faisal came to the US in fall of 2005 and castigated the US for allowing Iraq to fall into the hands of the Iranians (i.e. pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiites), provoking a severe diplomatic tiff between Baghdad and Riyadh. Instead of being helpful to a fellow Arab country, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt alienated the Shiite south of Iraq by saying that Arab Shiites are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. After these incidents, which enraged the Iraqi Shiites, the prospect for a fruitful role in Iraq for the Arab League have receded substantially, since Shiite Iraqis cannot see it as an honest broker.

The Bush Administration trumpets that a defeat of "al-Qaeda" in Iraq would be decisive for defeating terrorism in the world at large. But Bush and his policies led to there being anything like an effective Islamic radical terrorism in Iraq in the first place. The tiny Ansar al-Islam group that operated in the north before 2003 had been hunted by the Baath security and only survived because of the US no-fly zone that prevented Iraqi armor from being deployed against it. Bush has not shown any particular ability to put this genie, which he unleashed, back in the bottle. His war in Iraq has been an enormous boon to the international Salafi Jihadi movement, encouraging angry youths from all over the world to join it to fight to the US. Bush by his aggressive and inept policies is creating the phenomenon he says he is fighting, and so can never defeat it.

The prospect lies before us of years, perhaps decades of instability in the Gulf and eastern reaches of the Middle East. There is a danger of it doubling and tripling our gasoline prices. There is a danger of it forming a matrix and a school for anti-US terrorism for years to come. Are people in Fallujah, Tal Afar and Ramadi really ever going to forgive us? And there is no guarantee of the Shiites remaining US allies for very long, either. Many, of course, already have conceived a new hatred of America as a result of over-reaction of green National Guardsmen, who often have killed innocent civilians in the south, and as a result of iron fist policies when US troops were fighting the Mahdi Army.

The Bush administration has pushed us all out onto a tightrope in Iraq, 60 feet up and without a net.