Sunday, April 08, 2007

Fight al-Qaeda Strategy as Prolonged Surge/Occupation?

Thoughtful piece by Noah Feldman in NyTimes.

The assertion, which I had not heard so specifically laid out, but thought was possible, is that the keep some troops behind to fight al-Qaeda policy that will be the eventual de facto US policy will not work out as Democrats plan.

It will require more troops to stay in Iraq than people imagine. The US presence, as Tom Ricks argued earlier, will likely be a 10-15 year endeavor.

Realistically, then, the “fight Al Qaeda” policy cannot work the way it is being promoted. It is not easy to attack Al Qaeda without taking on the larger Sunni insurgency, notwithstanding a few cases in which Sunni tribes have decided to confront Al Qaeda themselves. Most likely, troops will continue to police population centers — but now under a new and more appealing name than “surge” or “stay the course.” To be accomplished successfully and without unnecessarily endangering soldiers in the line of fire, the policy would require roughly as many troops in Iraq as we have now. The result would probably look a lot like the Bush policy. And it could take years to show success.
There are not the number of troops necessary to actually fight a counterinsurgency strategy. The counterinsurgency strategy being employed unfortunately only works well in agrarian societies. It is only marginally, if not counterproductive by some arguments, against an open-source platform insurgency. For this reason Bush's surge plan will fail.

The same number of troops would be needed for safe partitioning.

And a large scale immediate pullout would create a bloodbath. Others argue oppositely, mostly I think for political reasons, but I just don't see it. The Democrats timeline approach.

I think a civil war is unavoidable. Feldman is pushing for these numbers of troops to remain for this period of time and sees this as a correct political intuition of the muddled US and Iraqi domestic opinions. That might be a stretch. It could easily just as much be an indecisiveness on the part of everybody.

An important side point Feldman makes though is this urge to get out is not just from Democrats. If there is even marginal success in Baghdad, the Republicans will call for a pullout and declare victory (interestingly making them the inheritors of the uber-Democrat Jim Fallows' argument from 2 years ago while the Democrats have switched to the originally conservative blame-Iraqi position.)

The main problem I see with Feldman's argument is that it assumes the US military alone can sustain such a long term policy. They can't. Baker-Hamilton knew this which is why it suggested a move to policy-training role. But that means training Shia to hold a separate country and at best training Sunni tribal leaders to fight al-Qaeda. But there is no way to do this as I see it without Shia-Sunni endemic conflict for a generation. Not when insurgency groups name themselves the 1928 Brigade---recalling how the Sunnis wrested control in the wake of beginning British withdrawal from the Shia.

Important to recall Feldman's own bias here: he is the one of the main crafters of the Iraqi constitution. He was the most articulate spokesman for Islamic liberalism/democracy. He is seeing his dream go down and genuinely is concerned about a humanitarian crisis.

I think it might still be possible, although only slightly so, to stop a full scale regional war. For Iraq to turn into the Middle Eastern version of the 90s Congo. But a civil war I think there's no way it doesn't happen.

But Feldman may be right, that a Democrat will win the White House on a platform of bringing the troops home and not be able to do that to satisfaction. Making such a president open to a one-term presidency. If there is such a long term, heavy American presence in Iraq, that might forestall such large scale civil conflict for that time period. It might not though.

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