Juan Cole picks up


Juan Cole picks up on a key development reported in today’s LA Times. Andrew Sullivan does too, if on a more thematic level.

As the Times reports, the US has launched a series of airstrikes targeting rebels in Baghdad’s Shi’a Sadr City district. A strike Monday killed four insurgents, according to the US military. But hospital officials said ten people were killed and that the number included civilians. Another attack came Tuesday but the exact number of casualties or fatalities in those raids remains unclear.

Reacting to this the President of Iraq Ghazi Ajil Yawer called the attacks “collective punishment” and compared them explicitly to Israeli raids in the West Bank and Gaza.

There are numerous layers to what is happening here. One is that the US military is trying to reduce the number of casualities its own troops are sustaining, especially during the run-up to the elections — thus the heavy reliance on airpower. That’s understandable; but there are consequences. Even the ‘smartest’ munitions kill a lot of innocent people if you’re operating in heavily populated slums.

Yawer’s comparison of these attacks to the IDF’s operations in the occupied territories speaks for itself. Perhaps even more important, though, is what remains implicit in Yawer’s remarks — that the ‘sovereign’ government of Iraq has no control over these operations. Or, to put it another way, that Iraq remains under military occupation. That seems certain to make the interim government into an object of contempt among the country’s population — something Yawer was clearly trying to head off with his comments.

I haven’t written as much lately as I usually do about Iraq because it is, quite simply, hard to know quite what else to say.

Anyone who can’t now see the Lebanonization of Iraq for what it is will never see it, is incapable of seeing it.

The issue isn’t the number of US military deaths or even the number of Iraqi civilians getting killed — at least not in and of themselves. It is the evident reality — observable by every measure available — that we are on the downward side of a slippery slope, that the insurgency is spreading rapidly both in its geographical scope and and its diffusion into the population, horizontally and vertically, you might say. That spread is a sign that if the majority of the population does not quite support the insurgents specifically, they also do not support the occupation, or, in other words, us. And without the support of the population, the cause is more or less lost.

Many have drawn attention to this private letter by Wall Street Journal reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, which has been making the rounds. Let’s look at one passage from the letter …

It’s hard to pinpoint when the ‘turning point’ exactly began. Was it April
when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when
Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq’s population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began
spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush’s rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a ‘potential’ threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to ‘imminent and active threat,’ a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

What strikes me about the stir this letter has caused is not so much what’s contained, as its backstory. What’s in the letter is not what we’re reading in the daily reportage. And why the cleavage? It almost as if a mighty membrane has been built up — largely because of the election calendar — to keep out the full force of the reality of what’s happening in Iraq. But here in this letter you can see the membrane springing leaks — and some of the reality bursting through.

And speaking of that membrane, the Post today has another example of the Orwellian moment we’re passing through. On Monday the Post ran a story about the sheer scope and spread of the insurgency in Iraq based on data from USAID compiled by the security contractor Kroll Security International.

The response, according to today’s Post, is that USAID will stop making the data public.

That’s their solution. Just think about for a second. That’s their response.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is sponsoring a PR campaign by hand-picked Iraqi-Americans and former CPA officials who will be speaking at US military bases around the country. The memo sent out to base commanders says the presentations will be “designed to be uplifting accounts with good news messages” and that commanders should try to get local news coverage for the speeches since “these events and presentations are positive public relations opportunities.”

That’s their policy: denial.

I was reading an article a day or so ago (perhaps someone will recognize the anecdote and email it to me) in which a US military officer told the reporter in question that despite all the turmoil the occupation forces had still not suffered one tactical defeat.

The insugents had killed many Americans; but they’d been defeated in every actual engagement. I’m not sure even that is really true because I think the withdrawal from Fallujah has to be seen as a defeat, by that measure. But that aside, the (unnamed) officer went on to say that the only way the insurgents could ever win would be for the US population to decide to give up the fight.

The historical resonances of those comments, I guess, need no elaboration.

But the key is that this argument is both narrowly true and completely irrelevant. One could have said the same thing — and it certainly was said — before the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British de facto withdrawal from Iraq in the 1920s, the French from Algeria, and so forth.

Insurgencies can seldom beat big conventional armies on their own terms — certainly not when the asymmetry is as great as it is here. They are battling to make the cost of occupation intolerably high and secure the support or at least acquiescence of the civilian population. If they can achieve the latter goal, our strategic goal becomes impossible.

The fact that we could probably stay in Iraq just like this for twenty years as long as we don’t mind burning through our military (which might come in handy if we ever faced a security threat outside Mesopotamia) and our sons and daughters isn’t really the point.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re in a position to just pull up stakes and leave the place. We’re in a position something like that a surgeon might face if he started an operation only to realize once he’d cut the patient open that the operation should never have been attempted. But now the patient’s gone critical and he’s got to stabilize him and close him up without having him die on the operating table.

In that situation, why the operation started in the first place or whether it should have been attempted at all is sort of beside the point. The issue is keeping the patient alive.

Our situation, I think, is a similar one in Iraq. And that’s why the thousand soldiers we’ve lost so far, painful as it is to say, is really the least of our problems.

The one sensible thing that can be said is that old saw about digging a ditch. If you find that you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. The Bush strategy at this point is to persevere in digging until we get down to the planet’s molten core — and pretend we’re going up, not down.

At least until after the election…