Archive for the Internal Violence in Iraq Category

Libyan No-Fly Zones

Posted in Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq War, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2011 by whatafteriraq

It has become quite popular within the press and among pundits in the past several days to raise the prospects of erecting no-fly zones over Libya, the purpose of which is to deny Muammar Gaddafi’s air force the ability to attack rebellious groups in his country. The idea is beguiling, because it appears to provide a quick-fix, action-oriented way to respond the growing crisis in the country and to deny the Libyan dictator the ability to attack and slaughter his own people in locations where his land forces either cannot get to or to which they have been denied access. It is also an apparently cheap, not especially dangerous way to apply force for NATO, since Libya is a quick flight across the Mediterranean from bases in places like France, Italy and Spain, and since the Libyan air force probably would do little effectively to stop the over flights by allied patrols.

The precedent for establishing such zones is Iraq during the 1990s. In the wake of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set upon rebellious Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. In the Kurdish case, many fled across the border into Turkey, where they formed an unwanted refugee problem for the Turkish government, which insisted they quit the Turkish mountain sides and go home. The Kurds refused, knowing they would likely be slaughtered if they did so. The United States, which had encouraged the Kurds to rebel in the first place, was caught in the middle. Turkey is a valued ally, and thus their demands that the Kurds leave could not be ignored, but at the same time, we were sensitive to the likely Kurdish fate if they were simply sent home. The solution was to make it safe for the Kurds to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan, and the vehicle was a no-fly zone that would keep Iraqi forces out of Kurdish territory. Originally named Operation Provide Comfort and later rechristened Northern Watch in 1997, the erection of this protection convinced the Kurds to return, averting the crisis. The same shield was later extended to the Shiite southern region of the country as Operation Southern Watch.

An ingenious solution, one might conclude, and a precedent custom made for the current Libyan crisis, where a beleaguered population is at the mercy of Libyan air strikes. In one sense, that is true, but one should also be sensitive to another aspect of such operations: they are open-ended–there is no easy “exit strategy” once they are imposed.

Northern/Southern Watch offers the cautionary note. Once the no-fly were established over Iraq, they had to continue indefinitely. They could not be lifted, because doing so would have given Saddam Hssein a carte blanche to attack the Kurds and Shiites again. As a result, these operations, begun as temporary solutions to a specifics problem–the Kurds huddled unwelcome on the Turkish mountain sides–became a long-term commitment from which the United States could not extricate itself as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. In the end, the only “solution” was to overthrow the Iraqi regime–in other words, the Iraq War. Were Saddam still in power, Operations Northern/Southern Watch might well be close to “celebrating” their 20th anniversary.

Is that what we’re looking for in Libya? Of course not, but one can argue that, well, a no-fly zone is just a temporary expedient that will only last until Gaddafi is finally kicked out of power. Right? But the Iraqi precedent is not comforting: Provide Comfort was envisioned to provide “temporary” comfort, not 12 years worth of effort, as it eventually did. What if Gaddafi does not fall? Are those enforcing the no-fly zone as stuck as the United States was? Or do we all have to invade and conquer Libya?

Maybe an open-ended commitment is exactly what the advocates of a Libyan no-fly zone have in mind. If so, they should admit that and see if enthusiasm for the idea is as great as it currently seems to be. If so, fine. If not, it would be better to know up front what one may be getting one’s self into over the Libyan desert. That is the lesson of Provide Comfort/Northern/Southern Watch.


A Black Cloud over Baghdad

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting Into Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraqi Oil with tags , , , on January 9, 2011 by whatafteriraq

We have now–finally!–entered the last year of American military involvement in Iraq. As the months proceed toward the removal of the last U.S. forces by year’s end, one can expect to hear a great deal of justification of the war that began when George W. Bush ordered a full-scale invasion of that country in 2003. Those rationalizations will be essentially that, because any hard look at what has happened, and what is likely to happen, in Iraq after we finally depart can only maintain straightfacedly that we have accomplished exceptionally little at extraordinarily large costs.

A couple of particularly black clouds crossed the radar in the United States last week that bode very poorly for the prospect on a positive American footprint at the end of the adventure. In Baghdad, our good friend, Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Malaki (as quoted in the Perspectives section of Newsweek) bid us a fare-no-so-well, stating of the withdrawal, “This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.” In other words, “don’t let the doorknob hit you in the a**hole on your way out.” So much for the gratitude that the neo-conservatives assured us that the Iraqis would have for our “help.”

The second, and blacker, bit of news was the return of Muktada al-Sadr from his self-imposed exile in Iran. Al-Sadr, to put it mildly, is no friend of the United States, and his return bodes very poorly for the political tenor of Iraq toward the United States and U.S. interests post-occupation. For one thing, the Sadr army has been among the most violent opponents of the U.S. occupation (they have fought us at least twice), and al-Sadr’s political supporters have the second most seats of any party in the  Iraqi parliament, where their support has allowed al-Maliki to secure his majority. It is, of course, highly unlikely that al-Sadr ever talked politics with members of the Iranian government during his exile, but this still does not heighten the prospects of warm, congenial, and mutually supportive U.S.-Iraqi relations in the future, particularly with regard to Iran.

These events should not come as much of a surprise to anyone. It has become virtually conventional wisdom that the major geopolitical effect of the U.S. military action in Iraq has been to hand Iran a major geostrategic prize it could not achieve on its own when faced with a Sunni-dominated Iraq: primary political influence over its major Arab Sunni opponents in the region. The Arab states understand that their position vis-a-vis the Iranians has been materially compromised by George Bush’s war, which, among other things, helps amplify their horror over Iranian nuclear weapons development. If you are an Arab, your security is far less firm than it was before the invasion, and although you may not have liked Saddam Hussein very well–who could?–at least he kept the crazy Shiite Persians off your front doorstep. The Americans, in effect, have put them back in that position. Thanks, Dubya!

These events also help prejudice the post-occupation ethnic politics of Iraq in ways that do not favor American interests. When the major pinheads who planned the war (Paul Wolfowitz, et. al.) decided that a western-style democracy was just what Iraq needed, they seemed to ignore the obvious implication that this would be run by Shiites whose motives toward other religious and ethnic groups were no more benign that that of the Sunnis that our “idealism” would displace. The return of al-Sadr as a major prop for al-Maliki means the Shiite motive for revenge is going to be intensified, and we will not be there to get in the way. Although post-American internal instability in the country was pretty much a given under any circumstances, this can only make it worse. 

The rubber will hit the road over Kurdistan, where the United States has and will retain what few interests it ever had in Iraq. For one thing, the Kurds are the only group in Iraq that actually like us, largely because they think we will protect their autonomy (given the casualness with which we have turned on the Kurds in the past, why is not clear) in post-occupation Iraq. More objectively, the United States wants access to Kurdish oil (about half of Iraq’s reserves), and if we don’t get it, we will leave Iraq with absolutely nothing to show for our sacrifice. Concessions for the other half of Iraqi oil in Shiite areas, after all, was held last year, and the U.S. came out of that without a drop of oil. If the Shiites dominate the discussions of what happens to the Kurdish oil, the result could be the same. Should that be the case, we will be left holding the bag, and it will not be a sack with no appreciable oil stains on it.

If the reader happens to be (which he/she almost certainly is not) an Iraqi Shiite, this analysis is the cause of joy, not concern, and the black cloud analogy does not much hold. Rather, the final, irrevocable removal of the Americans lifts, not imposes the cloud. Rather, maybe it is more appropriate to say the black cloud has descended over Washington (where, in a deadlocked Congress, the Democrats will declare it is black, the GOP will equally declare it is white, and they will be unable to agree on a shade of gray). Or maybe the cloud will descend in the tony neighborhood in Dallas where the Chief Decider decided that invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place.

Baghdad Bombings and Afghan Peace

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on November 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

There is a curious peace process going on in Kabul. It is curious partly because it is so low key and private. Of course, diplomatic processes are supposed to be held behind the curtain, so that the participants can negotiate freely and reach compromise outcomes that could look like, and be exploited by, opponents as defeats if one knew negotiating postures in advance. While that is actually a sign of the health of the process, it is still curious in an electronic age where secrets of any kind are increasingly impossible to keep. Hopefully someone involved will tell the rest of us how they did it after the process is over–at least unless the process included draconian mutilations of attempted leakers.

Another source of curiosity is the American role. When the talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban began, the American role providing security for and ferrying Taliban negotiators to Kabul was widely publicized for a couple days, but since, there has been not a word about that continuing role–and it certainly does continue. What is interesting about this aspect of the process is that the Taliban actually trusts the United States to act in that capacity. What is more interesting is what this willingness says about the United States and its attitude. What it says to me is that the United States desperately wants to find a way out of Afghanistan and will do virtually anything short of a unilateral withdrawal to find a way out.

A third source of curiosity is exactly what role outsiders are playing in whatever talks are ongoing. The American role is especially veiled: what outcomes does the United States want? What is it willing to accept short of what it wants? And what leverage does it have to move the process toward what it wants out?

One can offer tentative answers to these questions. The answer to the first (what do we want?) is that the United States wants out, but in a way that we can plausibly argue victory (at least in some vague way) or, more minimally, the absence of defeat. That translates into a post-agreement Afghanistan that is non-Taliban and has a strong, stable government. This latter requirement is almost certainly unattainable (Afghanistan never has a strong stable government, and there is really no party that can lead a plausible attempt to create one). That leads to the second question (what, short of our preferred outcome, will we accept?).

The answer to that question is crucial, and it depends on two calculations. The first is domestic in the United States. Like it or not, Barack Obama’s reelection campaign for 2012 is in full motion, and the critical Afghanistan question it faces is, what about Afghanistan will do the president the most good (or create the least harm)? The answer again seems two-fold. By a healthy majority, the American people want out of Afghanistan, an outcome with the secondary benefit of possibly saving money and thus appearing fiscally responsible. Thus, getting us out or well on our way out before 2012 makes political sense. However, there is a second part of the answer: to make the political right, who believe Afghanistan is a righteous cause, the withdrawal has to look like it is done on American terms: there must be an appearance of victory/lack of defeat. An outcome that does this will not gain the support of the right for Obama, but it will make their opposition less convincing and maybe even less shrill (picture Mama Grizzly here). The other consideration is what the parties themselves will accept. It is gradually being recognized (and I suspect we will find later is the real joint interest that created the possibility of talks) that what virtually all Afghans want is for the Americans and their allies to be gone: Karzai so we will quit hectoring him about honest government, the Taliban so we will stop shooting them. If that is the case, they have reason to accede in a peace process wherein the Americans can declare “mission accomplished” and depart.

This brings us to the Baghdad bombings. In the past week or so, what had been passing for tranquility in Baghdad has been shattered by a string of bombings by dissatisfied Iraqis. The process that has just been described for Afghanistan is indeed essentially what happened in Iraq for the past couple years, and what is now going on in Baghdad is its net result. The Americans came, stayed, and seemed intent on staying indefinitely. Faced with that distasteful prospects, the Iraqi factions came together and negotiated enough of a peace agreement to make it look enough like peace had broken out so the Americans, anxious to go, could conclude an arguably accomplished mission, and withdraw combat forces.

Everybody who knew anything about Iraq knew the peace would not hold, and the bombings are just the tip of the iceberg of lingering Iraqi instability. Peace has not taken hold in Iraq, and it will not for a while–but with a difference. The United States retains a physical presence, but we have withdrawn in a psychological, political sense. Nothing likely to happen in Iraq will affect the 2012 election. In answer to the third question about Afghanistan (what is American leverage?), the answer is close to zero, and no amount of proposed American postwar assistance (which we will probably welsh on anyway) will affect that much.

Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan? Almost certainly. The peace process will, in due time, produce what both sides and the United States can agree is an honorable, stable peace. No one involved will really believe that, but it is a necessary kabuki dance to a) get rid of the Americans and b) remove Afghanistan from the 2012 election campaign. Will the peace hold? The answer is about as well as it has done in Iraq, but like Iraq, if we have managed to establish a psycho-political distance from Afghanistan, who cares?

The Voting in Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraqi Oil, Leaving Iraq with tags , , on March 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Iraqis went to the polls this weekend in long-anticipated and admidst much (possibly excessive) analysis and predictions. Given the trillion-plus dollars the United States has dropped in Iraq, our interest in seeing how well we have invested is not surprising. All the analysis, however, is premature, and anyone taking the slim evidence of actions–positive or negative–on the run-up to and conduct of the election is getting badly ahead of themselves. What will the outcome mean? It’s hard to say; coming back and asking the question in a year or so would probably be a better time to ask than now, but in an information soaked world where the instinct is to report and analyze everything in “real time,” such restraint is clearly in short supply.

This past week demonstrates the fervor of the enterprise. Newsweek, for instance, ballyhooed the voting in its lead article as “The Rebirth of a Nation,” suggesting this was the first step to the Iraqi democracy that George W. Bush promised in November 2003, when he expounded, “Iraqi democracy will succeed….The establishment of a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revoltion.” The Newsweek story led with that quote; five pages later, it concludes describing  an Iraq, “for better or worse, democratic or not.” At the other end of the scales, The Nation sourly predicts the election will lead to further factionalization and conflict in a lead article by Robert Dreyfuss,”Iraq’s New Sectarian Storm Clouds.” The gist of his argument is that the elections will only accentuate and bring to a head the considerable fissures within Iraqi politics.” Who’s right?

Equally predictably, the hype has spread to America’s increasingly dysfunctional domestic politics. Vice President Joe Biden yesterday proclaimed that the successful outcome of the election will serve as proof of the success of Obama administration politics. Former Vice President Richard Cheney quickly grumped in return that Bush should receive our thanks for a “mission accomplished.” The beat goes on.

All of this is at least partly evidence that the “silly season” of politics is in full bloom, weather patterns in the eastern half of the country over the past couple months notwithstanding. That the Iraqis are holding open and apparently fair elections is a good and positive thing. The outcomes, however, are almost certainly going to disappoint the cheerleaders from either end of the spectrum. They will not, at least immediately, solve any of the deep underlying differences that divide Iraqis and that could, ultimately, cause the country to succeed or fail. There is, for instance, little indication that the electoral efforts have transcended traditional ethnic lines that must be reconciled if Iraq is to prosper. Where are the Kurdish-Sunni, or Shia-Kurdish, or Shia-Sunni coalition parties? Will parties representing the various factions coalesce to form a government? For that matter, how will the outcomes move forward the underlying question of how oil revenues will be distributed? These are vital questions,the answers to which will not be known in any definitive way for months, maybe years, to come.

Is it a good and newsworthy sign that the Iraqi elections have been held? Yes, of course it is. That does not mean, however, that this single–if significant–event allows us to extrapolate far into the future immediately. For now, the most responsible course is simply to note the elections have occurred and then to sit back and see how things unwind. In other words, chill!

Winning and Losing Counterinsurgencies

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq with tags , , , on March 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The current debate about President Obama’s decisions regarding troop levels and lengths of tenure in Afghanistan and Iraq have reopened the stunningly confusing and ill-conceived debate about whether the United States is “winning” or “losing” either or both of these conflicts. At one level, this debate is basically irrelevent; at another, it distorts what the key terms–synonyms for victory and defeat–mean in these kinds of wars.

The irrelevance comes from the recognition that it is the Iraqis and Afghans who will ultimately win or lose these wars, not the Americans. The side we back may prevail or be vanquished, and that may be conflated with victory or defeat for the United States, but that is a scorecard calculation. It is the Iraqis and Afghans, who will have to live with the outcomes and thus for whom winning and losing has real meaning. Ask yourself these questions: how will I, and by extrapolation, the American people be personally affected regardless of how either war comes out? how will the Afghans and Iraqis be affected by those outcomes? To the former question, the only positive answer has to be couched in terms of some heightened or lessened vulnerability to terrorist attacks that may or may not ever occur and which, if they do, may or may not be directly attributable to the wars’ outcomes. To the latter question, the answer can be a literal matter of life and death.

What constitutes victory or defeat is also a convoluted and confusing issue, but one with considerable emotional baggage that prejudices the debate. I know of nobody who, offered the alternatives, prefers defeat over victory. Thus, when any situation is described in those terms, it  automatically prejudices the debate toward those who wrap themselves in the cause of “winning.” As just discussed, it is helpful to understand who exactly is supposed to be winning. It is even more important to specify what winning means. In conditions of insurgency-counterinsurgency, that is not as easy as toting up how many runs a baseball teams has scored.

The current confusion most clearly surrounds Afghanistan, which is both clearly an insurgency (making the United States the counterinsurgents) and a contest where the U.S. is clearly not winning. The most recent purveyors of obfuscation about what that means include Senator John McCain and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Both agree that the United State is not winning and that in counterinsurgency, “if you are not winning, you are losing.” Huh?

Two things need to be said about this analysis of the Afghan situation. Both start from the recognition that indeed the United States is not winning by any measure and that, in any personal or even physical sense, the United States cannot win this war.

The first comment is that winning and losing in insurgent wars are primarily NOT military determinations. As Lyndon Johnson put it so well during the Vietnam conflict, the crucial “battle” in insurgent warfare is over the “hearts and minds” of the subject population, in this case the Afghan people. The battle for loyalty is overwhelmingly a POLITICAL contest about which side the people want to see prevail. The only military contributions that can be made are either convincing the people that your side is a “winner” who deserves support, or preventing the other side from trumping the discussion by imposing its will by force on an otherwise reluctant population. In this regard, outside, foreign troops acting as counterinsurgents may actually work against the likelihood of the side they favor prevailing, because they will be identified by parts of the population as foreign devils occupying the country. The insurgents, on the other hand, will gain support because they are attempting to expel the invaders. Anyone who does not believe this dynamic is present in Afghanistan has not studied much Afghan history.

The other comment is about who wins and loses. The only real objective the United States has in Afghanistan is whether the post-war country will serve as a sanctuary for Al Qaeda. We back a regime that opposes Al Qaeda, but it is not entirely clear the U.S. is backing a winner here. Afghans say they do not like the Taliban, but they also dislike the Americans. In turn, the Taliban gains some of its support because it supports the Americans. Who will rule Afghanistan, which is what the war is actually all about (at least if you are an Afghan), is an Afghan, not an American matter. The United State may be able to declare victory if the side we back prevails (however unlikely that may be), but what if the side we favor is not the side the Afghans prefer? Does that mean the Afghans could lose while we win? Is that winning?

In the end, the confusing assessments by McCain and Mullen amount to an admission that one loses in counterinsurgency if the battle for the hearts and minds goes to the opposition. That is certainly the interpetation most students of counterinsurgncy would attach to notions of winning and losing. If that is the case and we are losing, it means we are not winning the battle of loyalties.

Therein lies the rub and what makes counterinsurgency so sifficult and frustrating. Sir Robert Thompson, the British hero of the Malay counterinsurgency of the late 1940s, made the point that an insurgency can never be won by foreign troops, because only natives of the country in which it is occurring can win the crucial battle for hearts and minds. Foreigners will, to some extent, always make matters worse because they are aliens. Overcoming that conundrum has always been the sticking point in counterinsirgency doctrine, and it is not a problem that anyone has satisfactorily overcome. That includes the United State in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, who’s winning? Clearly not the United States, but that is not the point. It is the Afghans and Iraqis who ultimately must win or lose in both cases, and they will be the ones who pay the price depending on winners and losers. Furthermore, phrasing the whole thing in terms of the U.S. winning and losing simply raises emotional hackles for us (we don’t want to lose) that may make it more likely that the people for whom this really matters (the Iraqis and Afghans) will ultimately lose.  Then who wins and who loses? Senator McCain? Admital Mullen? Your answers?

Provincial Voting in Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Iraq War, Iraqi Oil on February 1, 2009 by whatafteriraq

Initial reports out of Iraq suggest that voting in provincial elections is going well, with a noticeable absence of sectarian violence, intimidation and acts of anti-democratic behavior by the Iraqis. Moreover, the elections are being held with Iraqis themselves largely in control of security surrounding the event. That is, of course, good news (certainly better than if there were major in cidents). But how good is the news?

The answer is that it depends on two things, neither of which is apparent at this juncture. The first is why these elections are proceeding as smoothly as they appear to be, and there are three possible answers. One is that they are, after all, provincial level elections, not elections to determine the national parliament and thus the direction of national policy. The stakes are thus different than they will be for the national elections scheduled for later this year. Just as voting for the Mississippi legislature does not provide a harbinger for the American national elections, the question of carryover is open. Moreover, since most of the provinces have completed the process of ethnic cleansing, theyare being held in by-and-large ethncially pure areas (that is, of course, not entirely true in areas, for instance, around Baghdad).

A second possibility is that the Iraqis are on their best behavior to make an impression on the Americans and the rest of the world. Most Iraqis very much want to see the American occupation end as quickly as possible, and demonstrating that they can carry out these primary manifestations of democratic process offers a demonstration they no longer need us, and success further makes that point for world public opinion, which also wants the Americans to leave. It thus reinforces President Obama’s 16-month timetable and undercuts the foot draggers who say we must stay longer. The third possibility is that democratic process has actually taken hold in the country, a maturation of the influences the United States has sought to inculcate all along.

Which of these is true? Not being there, it is impossible to know, but my guess is that there is some truth and thus contribution of each influence. More localized elections probably are less inflammatory, the Iraqis (and those who support them, notably the Iranians) certainly do not want these elections to serve as an excuse for a prolongation of the occupation, and at least some Iraqis undoubtedly now do “get it” about democracy.

The other, and more critical, question is whether this spirit will carry over into national voting later in the year. Since this has not yet happened and there is inadequate experience on which to gauge, this question cannot be answered, only speculated on. Those who want to leave will make a great deal out of Iraqi progress toward self-government, while skeptics will argue the jury is still out. Since one cannot know what connection there will be, it is almost certainthat these elections will be greeted by a cautious optimism but no important changes until they are reinforced (if they are) by the national elections.

The New York Times articles on the elections (Alisa J. Rubin, “Pointing to a New Era, U.S. Pulls Back as Iraqis Vote,” February 1, 2009, online) adds an interesting about the post-election environment and its relationship to Iraqi oil, a fequent subject in this space.  She says, “The United States exerts more influence here than in any other oil-producing country–and will be intent on continuing to do so. Iraq will be eager to demonstrate its independence….This promises considerable tension as each side redefines the relationship.”

This tension enters a source of ambivalence into the American view of the electoral scene in Iraq. The United States badly wants and needs success in democratization to demonstrate the success of its goals in that country and to provide the conditions for a “peace with honor” accompanying withdrawal. At the same time, the United States equally badly wants enought continuing influence in Iraq to ensure we are not cut off from Iraqi oil, as we were by Saddam Hussein.

Hopefully, a fully democratic Iraq will also be sufficiently pro-American to allow both goals to be realized. Unfortunately, recent history in places like Gaza and Lebanon suggest the possibilities of people voting to create unfriendly democracies (I discuss this at some length in Cases in International Relations, 4th edition, due in bookstores in March 2009). As it wends its way out of Iraq, it may be part of the diplomatic challenge on the Obama administration to try to be sure that the end result of democratization in Iraq is a friednly democracy–one that will allow us to tap into their oil. The provincial electionsare just the first step in that process.

Jockeying over Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Foreign policy and 2008 election, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Troop Levels, Iraq War on January 29, 2009 by whatafteriraq

President Obama ventured into the lion’s den yesterday, visiting the Pentagon, over which he is now Commander-in-Chief. The highlight of his visit was a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Obama said a major purpose of his visit was to hear what the JCS thought about issues facing the United States. One of the issues discussed, unsurprisingly, was withdrawal from Iraq. Equally unsurprisingly, the military advisors cautioned against the 16-month deadline for total combat troop withdrawal on which the President ran in the election. The Army, in particular, thinks that is too fast and prefers (probably reluctantly) meeting the deadline of total troop withdrawal by the end of 2011 set in the Status of Force Agreement signed in Decebmer 200 that gives the military an extra 18 months or so in Iraq.

Why does the military feel this way? The answer is that they believe the longer the United States stays in Iraq, the more likely it is that Iraq will be a stable place that won’t revert to chaotic civil war after we leave. General Ray Odierno, in an interview yesterday, summarized the case: “The longer we go [staying country], if we get rhough the elections, we get closer and closer to not being able to backslide.”

The key assumption behind this logic is that American continued presence aids stabilization by creating a physical shield behind which the Iraqis reach the kind of political accord that would lead to a durable peace. Thus, Odierno maintains, US troops are needed to counter the “drivers of instability” such as Kurd-Arab competition over places like Kirkuk. The evidence for the viability of this approach is the surge.

This approach (it is hardly a strategy) is questionable. It starts from the assumption that the surge has “worked” to aid stability in the country, as witnessed by reduced casualty rates. That may be true, but it also may be false or misleading. True, violence is down, but why? One possible reason is the surge, but there are alternatives. One is that the United States essentially bought off the Sunni resistance by paying them to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq and promised their integration into the Iraqi armed forces. The former occurred, the latter apparently is not, meaning continuing Sunni cooperation cannot be taken for granted. A second reason is that much of the violence between 2004 and the onset of the surge was really about ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds out of one another’s claimed territories, a process largely completed by the time of the surge except in places like Kirkuk, where violence remains. American presence–except as Sunni paymaster–had little to do with either of these phenomena. If they, rather than the surge, were responsible for the reduction in violence, then the argument for slowing Obama’s withdrawal intentions is weakened.

But there is more to it than that. Odierno says he can imagine, at some unspecified point in the future, a time when the U.S. would only need about one-third of its current 140,000 troops in Iraq, hardly the President’s position. It is one thing for Odierno to say this in private as a statement of his beliefs; to say it publicly in opposition to his commander-in-chief’s known preferences borders on insubordination; it certainly lacks tact.

Why? Here the jockeying becomes obvious. It is no surprise that George W. Bush’s hand-picked Middle Eastern military team supports policies unlike those of Obama. Indeed, the Army, or at least Central Command, may sincerely believe that staying longer will yield a superior outcome, although that presumption is itself suspect. I would bet neither Odierno or David Petraeus voted for the president. So what? Their candidate lost, and if they take their oaths seriously, they will present their positions in private, wait for the President’s determination, then salute smartly and either carry out his orders or resign in protest. It really is as simple as that.

So why the public jockeying and posturing? Could it be that America’s supposedly apolitical military knows they have President Obama in a bad spot right now? Obama is in the middle of an increasingly political, partisan battle over the economy, and needs all the political capital he has for that issue. Publicly taking on the military right now would reinforce his opponents on the economy (largely the same group as his military detractors) and create more friction he clearly does not need. Thus, it may be that the proponents of prolonging the Iraq involvement feel they can get away with what amounts to defiance of their commander-in-chief.

In 1993, new President Bill Clinton got in trouble with the military hierarchy over gays in the military: the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Like Clinton, new President Obama is not particularly popular among the military brass, and defying their wishes on Iraqi withdrawal could be, or appear, parallel to Clinton overriding the military on gays. Clinton never really recovered from his early confrontation with the military, and Odierno et. al. may be calculating that President Obama may be reluctant to stir up a parallel hornet’s nest.

Will their strategy work? In the short term, it may well, and then we will see how long Obama’s memory is and how sharp his elbows are. If I were Ray Odierno, I think Iwould start keeping my opinions and expert analysis contrary to my boss’s beliefs to myself or start looking for a post-retirement job.