Archive for Iraq

Stupidity, Brutality, and the Failure of Military Occupations

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Current Events in Iraq, Iraq War, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2012 by whatafteriraq

In the past decade, the United States has engaged in the military occupations: one (Iraq) that was the result of an American invasion and conquest, the other (Afghanistan) as part of a coalition of states seeking to rid the occupied state of the remnants of Al Qaeda. To put the matter mildly, neither excursion has been an unambiguous success.

There are, of course, numerous reasons why these occupations have not yielded the results the United States set out to accomplish in both of these adventures, including the adoption of unattainable objectives (e.g. representative democracy in countries with no tradition of democracy as we think of it), the lack of clear interests that are supposedly served, misstatement of the conditions being rectified, dealing with allies whose primary interest was in getting rid of us, and a host of others (e.g. a botched occupation administration in Iraq). Some or all of these no doubt have played a role. Let me suggest that there is another reason both have failed (technically, Afghanistan has not failed yet, but will): it is simply impossible to run an effective occupation of a hostile country in the modern electronic world in which we live.  

The problem of running an occupation is that those occupied generally do not want to be occupied and thus resent whoever is doing the occupying. This revelation is, of course, a classic BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) that American leaders never seem to grasp. Just last week, General Allen (the comander of American forces in Afghanistan) tried to buck up the troops after the murder of several American soldiers by reminding them of our mission there: to help out our “friends.” Hello, General! Very few Afghans think we are their “friends”; most of them think we are foreign occupiers, a genre to whom the Afghans have never especially warmed. To make matters worse, they are apostates (as the Quran burning episode demonstrated), a further source of disfavor. To the vast majority of Afghans, I would submit, the friendliest thing the United States can do is to go home (preferably leaving several large suitcases of money behind when we do).

That occupations are resented is no revelation. That they are opposed is further no more than a BFO (blinding flash of the obvious): that we do not understand this simple truth is beyond my personal comprehension. But why? Are we just that dumb?

I  can think of three possible reasons for this self-delusion. One is that we do not see ourselves as occupiers, but rather as liberators freeing first the Iraqis and now the Afghans from vile oppression. That is a much happier role, and one that fits our self-image much better (especially if you are a neo-conservative). Everybody likes liberators, after all. Well, everybody (except the former oppressors) like the liberators when they are being freed; it is when the liberators stick around and become occupiers that their initial action loses acceptance. Just ask the citizens of the Philippines, whose 1898 “liberation” from Spain lasted until 1946.

A second explanation is that occupations can be benign and poular with the subject population. The post-WW II occupations of Germany and Japan are always cited in this regard: it worked there, so why not other places? The answer, of course, is that other places are not like Germany and Japan (absolutely defeated western-style countries) who were essentially bribed into embracing the occupation with generous dollops of reconstruction assistance. There is no equivalent transfer of resources to Iraq and Afghanistan, which the American people whould not accept.

Self-image (we are not really occupiers) and faulty analogies (with Germany and Japan) help explain why we are blind to why those we occupy don’t appreciate our effort and thus oppose us, but that is only part of the problem. The crux of the problem (and the third explanation for why our occupations fail) is the dynamics of occupation in the modern world. Historically, the principal dynamic of successful occupations has been their brutal suppression of dissidents. Occupied populations can be won over by bribing them or by the departure of the occupiers, but if the occupying force stays–especially in a long, open-ended tenure–it will be opposed. If one wants to maintain an occupation, the only way to do so is to eliminate the opposition–the more brutally, the better. The Nazis understood this, Genghis Khan understood it, and so have countless others.

The problem is that the kind of ruthless brutality necessary to cow a population into submission just does not work in the modern electronic world, because there is no longer any fully private behavior. The Syrians are today’s best example of slow learning on this point, but it is becoming universal. To repeat, the only ways to have any chance to run an occupation that has any chance of success is to egregiously bribe the entire population into accepting it or to engage in massive and ruthless violent suppression that will inevitably be on the six o’clock news “in living color” that will outrage everybody. If one is willing to do either of those two things, occupation has a chance. If not, forget it!

The United States is unwilling to do either of these things in Iraq or Afghanistan. Massive economic assistance (bribery) has no domestic constituency and its simple advocacy would be political suicide in today’s fiscally restrained environment. Overt brutality broadcast on worldwide cable television is similarly unacceptable. So that leaves the United States with a series of half-efforts that don’t work. The drinking water of anyone to whom any of this is a surprise should probably be tested for hallucigens.

Oh yes, there is one foolproof method to avoid these dilemmas, and that is not to go around invading, conquering, and occupying places where you are unwilling either to bribe or slaughter the population. Too bad no one thought of that in 2001.


Winding Down in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by whatafteriraq

With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.

The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.

Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).

Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.

Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.

These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.

General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.

“Fragile and Reversible Progress” in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , on April 17, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Speaking of the situation in southern Afghanistan at what is the traditional beginning of the military campaigning season (it is warm enough and the winter snow has melted), this was the assessment put forward by General David Petraeus about what he considers to be more favorable circumstances as the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies prepare for yet another year’s battle with the Taliban. We are making “progress,” but it is “fragile and reversible.”

Wait a second! Haven’t we heard these identical words (or at least very close approximations of them) before in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this phrase not simply a part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written under Patraeus’ difection for the Army and Marines that has been discussed in this space before? It certainly has a familiar ring about it. Why?

There are several candidate reasons. The most prominent involve the nature of countering indigenous insurgencies in foreign countries (foreign at least to those conducting the counterinsurgencies). In this situations, “progress” is an elusive term. Does it mean military progress? If so, what are the measures of that progress? Attrition of the enemy? Victory in encounters with the opposition? More territory gained and secured? These are traditional ways military progress is measured, and they do not quite fit insurgent circumstances. We generally do not know how effectively we are “attriting” (killing off) the enemy, or we cannot measure accurately his ability to replenish whatever losses he endures (remember Vietnam and the infamous body count that “proved” in 1968 that the North Vietnamese/VC had been so depleted they couldn’t possibly field the size forces they did at Tet?). Victories on the battlefield are also an imprecise measure, as demonstrated by the famous exchange after Vietnam by an American officer and a North Vietnamese where the American said, “We never lost a single battle,” to which his counterpart replies “That is absolutely true and irrelevant.” Similarly, control of territory is a notoriously limited metric, both since insurgents do not consider territory held their objective and because holding gained territory is the Achilles heel of COIN strategy (because of having too few troops to keep liberated areas secure). 

Maybe “progress” means political progress, winning the battle for political loyalty (LBJ’s “hearts and minds of men”), which is the ultimate measure of success in insurgency. But how do measure that? Typically (including in the current case) we ask people in the areas we have liberated if they are glad we’re there. Standing at the wrong end of an American rifle barrel, those we ask almost always reply that they sure do like us better than they did the Taliban. What a surprise and wonderful measure of loyalty and conversion that is.

All this suggests that “progress” is a slippery term, and it is unkind (but not unfair) to say we really do not know, in any meaningful operational way, what it means in this or similar circumstances. We do know, however, that it is, at any point in time, “fragile and reversible.” The translation for this term is pretty straightforward: whatever “progress” we experience is ephemeral and subject to rapid, radical change, but with a rejoinder. The rejoinder is that we have worked damned hard to make this progress, and if policy (defined in terms of support levels) for what we have done flags, the result could well be that the fragile progress may be reversed. Is there any reason to wonder about the motivation of such a warning when faced with a presidential determination to review policy in a few months, with scaling back the resources that have allowed “progress” to occur as a major element?

One could be more sanguine about this pronouncement by Petraeus if one had not heard it so many times before. When was the last time anyone heard the U.S. or allied military command pronounce progress as solid and irreversible? It is always “fragile and reversible,” and one must ask why.

The answers lie in the nature of the enterprise. Outside intervention in civil wars in the modern world has turned out to be fool’s work: it never succeeds in the manner those contemplating it anticipate before they jump in. NEVER! I have discussed these dynamics in a number of books (“Distant Thunder” and “Uncivil Wars,” both published in the 1990s are the most complete statements, but the arguments also appear in the various editions of “National Security for a New Era”). Basically, the problem is that intervention, no matter how well intentioned by whoever (i.e. the U.S.) does it will never be viewed in the same benevolent manner by whoever is the recipient of the action. Intervention changes civil wars, adding to the firepower of the government on whose behalf one intervenes, but it also alienates the target population unless the action is swift, decisive, and followed by a rapid withdrawal before the natives can get sick of us. These conditions never hold in modern internal warfare, meaning intervention will always be resented and opposed. Progress, such as it may appear, will always be “fragile and reversible,” because it is the intervener’s progress, not the progress of the (reluctant) host government. It does not matter how “bad” the Taliban are (which is bad) or how “good” the government may be (which they are not), intervention will always make the insurgents look better.

It really is as simple as that. The United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and the best we can come up with are statements of “fragile and revsersible” progress which is, effectively, no progress at all. The president has said he expects to be in Afghanistan with significant force at least until 2014, and apologists for the war think it will be much longer than that. Why? The best we can hope for is more “fragile and reversible” progress. It’s really as simple as that.

Using American Force in the Middle East

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Egypt, Iraq War, Libya, US Domestic Politics, Yemen with tags , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As the uprisings of 2011 continue to roll across the Middle East, one inevitable question seems to center on whether, or in what cases, the United States should contemplate the use of American forces to intervene in the situation(s). Eqaully inevitably, there is widespread disagreement about answers along fairly predictable ideological lines.

Because so many of the country’s land forces either are tied down in or have been exhausted by a decade of fighting two wars in the region in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody of note has openly advocated putting American “muddy boots” on the ground in any of these conflicts. This admirable show of restraint is not because the civil uprisings are much less important to the United States or the world (it is not difficult to argue that most of the countries experiencing violence are as important to the United States as Iraq in particular), but because either the force is not available or the calculation is that even the American public would support such action. Still, on one side exemplified by John McCain (who could, one is reminded with a shudder, could be president of the United States) hectoring General Carter Ham, the Pentagon’s front man in this situation, about whether imposing (with American air forces) a no-fly zone in Libya might have brought about a different result (a Qadhafi overthrow) than the current impasse. General Ham, who is a bright guy, to his credit refused to rise to the bait on this one, sardonically telling the Senator such determinations were not military and thus not part of his portfolio. (Personal note: General Ham was a student of mine at the US Air War College in  1996-97, and was then a very perceptive student of the utilities and limits of military power.) The political left equally predictably decries any use of force in the current situation, arguing either that these are civil wars (they are) where our interests are not clear (which they are not) and that it is not clear whether our intervention might help under any circumstances (equally true).

Even the suggestion that the United States might use force to affect the outcomes of these various uprisings is curious. For one thing, they are all internal, civil affairs, with autocratic governments under varying degrees of siege from suppressed populations who want the old leader out, replaced by some alternative they we (and they) cannot define. These are, in international legal terms, strictly speaking none of our business, and although we may oppose dictatorial rule in principle, it is not clear we support an as-yet undefiined alternative. Who, for instance, is the alternative in Egypt? Moreover, our past catches up with us: if dictatorial leaders either professed anti-communism, ant-terrorism or both, we have probably supported them, making changing horses embarassing. We did pull the plug on Mubarak,but can we do so with Saleh in Yemen, where we clearly have no clue about the dynamics or other consequences of various outcomes (other than fearing Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula–AQAP–might benefit). Thus, the question “force for what?” has to be asked.

Stephen Walt, in a posting in Foreign Policy (online) dates April 4, 2011, offers some insight into why these questions even arise. In the article, he lays out five reasons the United States employs force so much, and he comes up with five answers that help frame the application of force to the Middle East. First, Walt argues, we use force “because we can.” The U.S. has lots of sophisticated military capability (most of which no one else has), and it is pretty easily available. Second, “the U.S. has no serious enemies,” which has two implications. One is that we don’t need our forces to deter non-existent enemies, and the other is that there is nobody who can–or wants to–oppose us when we do. The third reason is the existence of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Its existence largely removes the restraint of public displeasure, since nobody is involuntarily forced to implement force decisions. The fourth, “It’s the Establishment, Stupid!” argues that our political establishment has become in essence “force-happy,” seeing military solutions as the answer to all our problems (the neo-conservatives are singled out as the leading evangels of this phenomenon). Fifth and finally, “Congress has checked out,” meaning the Congress no longer asserts its constitutional perogatives to approve or disapprove applications of force. Taken in combination, Walt argues, the result is a green light for the U.S. government to view almost everything as a military problem with military solutions. Why should the current situation in the Middle East be any different?

Well, there are three differences. One is that there is some evidence the American public is becoming war weary enough that appeals to force do not resonate so well today. I have not, for instance, seen any groundswell behind the McCain position on no-fly zones (admittedly, I never listen to or watch Fox “News”). Second, it is indeed not at all clear what American interests are in this situation or how U.S. military action would positively achieve achieving whatever goals we might have in the area. 

The third reason may be the most defining: the budget crisis. Any U.S. application of force in the current uprisings is going to be expensive at a time when there is great pressure to bring down government spending. The Tea Partiers exclude (hpyocritically, in my view) defense spending in budget cuts to bring down deficits, but any serious advocacy of added defense spending to support military adventurism in the Middle East at a time when other budget oxen are being gored is probably politically unsupportable. Moreover, as Papa and Baby Paul would quickly point out in their libertarian way, overseas military activities are not exactly how one shrinks government. It thus may be that an unlikely coalition of the right and left, starting from opposite motivations, may come together to torpedo any dreams/nightmares that are entertained about inserting American force into the uprisings of 2011.

What Now in Libya?

Posted in Afghanistan, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The international community, armed with a United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) authorizing Chapter VII force, has endorsed a military campaign against Libya, and the christening blows were sent yesterday as French jets and American Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on the forces of Muammar Qadhafi. In defiance, Qadhafi has promised the coalition arrayed against him a “long war” and has characterized the intervention, predictably enough, as a “colonial crusade,” presumably in the hope of rallying indigenous anti-colonialists and intervention-wary Arab states to his aid.

It is, of course, entirely too soon to predict where all this will lead. Those who have joined the “coalition of the willing” have stated modest goals for their actions. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the JCS, has specifically said the purpose of military action is not to overthrow the Qadhafi regime, but simply to protect those attempting to overthrow Qadhafi from retribution. This, arguably, is a distinction without a difference, but it at least rhetorically gets the United States off the hook of intervening (illegally) to affect a civil conflict and on the morally higher ground of preventing a humanitarian disaster. Hopefully it is that simple; probably it is not.

Although it is escessive to predict where this whole adventure is going to head, it is not so improvident to raise questions about that direction in the hope that the answers will in some way inform and even direct policy. For lack of better labels, I think the questions can be characterized as political, military, and precedential.

Politically, there are at least two important, sequential questions to ask. The first is about who it is we are now supporting. Although the French quickly recognized the “rebels” as the legitimate government of Libya last week, it is not at all clear who these people are in political terms. They are anti-Qadhafi, but we don’t know who they are or what they are for. Qadhafi says they are Al Qaeda, an interesting stretch, and they almost certainly are not that. They indicate they favor democracy (what else can they say?), but at least publicly, there has been no indication we have a clue what these people would do if they gained power. Some people might argue that if one is going to put American lives at risk, it would be nice to know in what cause.       

The second political question flows from the first: what political objective do we seek to achieve in what we are doing? Is it merely to save Libyans from slaughter by their leader? If so, when can we say “mission accomplished” and quit? The potential for what the military calls “mission creep” (an original mission gradually enlarging until it bears little resemblance but much greater commitment than it originally had) is omnipresent. Think Somalia in 1992, or Operation Provide Comfort (Iraq) in 1991, or, for that matter, Afghanistan in 2002. If replacing Qadhafi is the objective, that may mean a much longer commitment (as he promises) and could still leave unanswered the first political question (e.g. Who are these masked men?).

The second concern is military. What is the United States (and the rest of the UN deputy countries) willing to do to achieve against Libya whatever objective we have? Is it “limited” to creating and enforcing a no-fly zone? If so, how long a commitment is that? The Kurdish no-fly zone,as pointed out here a couple weeks ago, suggests a possibly open-ended commitment that would certainly constitute mission creep. But does the mission go beyond that? Are we going to provide close air support of rebel activities on the ground? If so, we are going to kill Libyan armed forces and incur casualties ourselves, thereby raising the stakes of the game. If that doesn’t work, are ground troops next? We say and doubtless believe the latter answer is no, but once processes are engaged, they sometimes develop a dynamic all of their own.

The final question is about the precedent that is being set. Clearly, the underlying principle here is that the international community will not permit the concerted slaughter of a population by its political leaders. As a principle, that is pretty unassailable, but its implications are not. First, there is no shortage of such potential situations for the world to stick its nose into, and the history of these efforts is that sometimes the world acts, and sometimes it does not. How is Libya an obvious instance of the kinds of things we do involve ourselves in? The United States, one might add, has been decidedly ambivalent about its personal involvement in these matters. Humanitarian intervention is a universally appealing principle, but executing it is not.

There are two more precedential matters to ponder. In this case, the Arab League has endorsed military actions, but it is on the horns of dilemma here. By turning on one of its members, it is saying there are limits to Muslim brotherhood, but how much outside help are they willing to accept or embrace? There is also lots of anti-colonial, anti-Western sentiment in the region, and a prolonged military action (particularly if it involves putting Europeans/Americans on the ground) is going to precipitate a negative reaction. There is a fine line here somewhere that is probably as yet undefined but over which we do not want to step.

Finally, what kind of precedent does the UN action set for others out there who want to overthrow their governments? Does the UN action means that if one rises up against a tyrant (and, to repeat, they are not in short supply, especially in the Middle East), begins to lose, and has worldwide media coverage of the carnage, that you can expect an international intervention to help accomplish your goals? If the outside forces indeed push the situation decisively against Qadhafi, it certainly would be possible for someone to think that way.

These are probably not all the interesting, potentially important questions that should be asked about the Libyan operation, and one hopes they are indeed being asked in official circles as we speak. The answers to these and other questions not raised here will help inform what to do next and whether any or all of it is a good idea.

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.

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?