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If Iraq fails, U.S. hopes for Mideast go with it
Toronto Globe and Mail


August 11, 2005

WASHINGTON - As the daily carnage becomes a numbing norm, only the most horrendous acts of violence grab international attention: The suicide bomber who kills scores of children clustered around a U.S. soldier handing out candy; the exploding fuel tanker that obliterates the center of an Iraqi village; or the back-to-back attacks that kill 21 marines in two days.

More than two years after the triumphal declaration of "Mission Accomplished," parts of Iraq remain lawless, unstable and riven, threatened by a spreading insurgency and mired in crime, misery and growing anger.

"The massive slaughter of the innocents that these foreign jihadists are carrying out is the least relevant part of the problem," said retired General Barry McCaffrey. "They will not bring down the Iraqi government, they will not prevent the consolidation of a new political system and they darn sure are not a major threat to the U.S. armed forces. What we have to worry about, it seems to me, is preventing this civil war that's going on now."

Gen. McCaffrey paints a grim picture of time running out, of the United States being forced to withdraw large numbers of troops in the next year and - unless Iraqi forces can take over by then - of the country spiraling out of control. A stable, democratic Iraq is crucial if Washington's aims of fostering democracy and peace throughout the Middle East are to have any hope of succeeding. Success in Iraq won't assure they can be achieved, but failure there dooms the broader hopes. And getting out of Iraq without it collapsing into chaos or civil war won't be easy.

"By next summer in my judgment - we have 17 combat brigades there right now - we will be forced into a draw down, and have 10 brigades or less on the ground. The army and marines are starting to come apart."

The general, a Vietnam veteran who later taught at West Point military academy, has warned that the Pentagon's belated policy of training Iraqis may - but only may - deliver results in time to extricate U.S. forces and quell the insurgency.

Kenneth Pollack, director of research and senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is even gloomier. In testimony to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this month, he said U.S. troops in Iraq are wrongly chasing the rebels around the country thus committing "the classic failure of counterinsurgency operations."

"We have little impact on their actual strength or even their ability to operate, and we continuously allow the insurgents to creep back into areas that we have already had to pacify," he said. Instead, Pollack suggested the U.S. high command adopt the proven anti-insurgency strategy of a "spreading ink spot." That strategy involves initially securing one or more small areas, making them safe, pouring in reconstruction aid and winning hearts and minds to "deprive insurgents of a popular base and, in doing so, cause them to wither. . . . This is how insurgences have been defeated in the past."

Yet the horrific images and grim body counts - tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, most killed by other Iraqis long after the U.S.-invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, and nearly 2,000 American soldiers and marines killed - tell only part of the story.

Large chunks of Iraq such as the Kurdish-controlled north and the Shia-dominated south are relatively peaceful. The political process has survived repeated setbacks, assassinations and threats; and yet, buoyed by the indomitable spirit of ordinary Iraqis to defy the violence and vote, it seems roughly on track to deliver a new federal constitution.

Top U.S. commanders continue to sound almost sanguine.

"If the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the (Iraqi) security forces continues to go as it has been going, I do believe we will be able to take some substantial reductions in the spring and summer of next year," said General George Casey, who commands all U.S. troops in Iraq.

His boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, remains dismissive of the insurgency. "It's a mistake to suggest that this insurgency has the support of the people or that it's popular," he said.

"There's no Ho Chi Minh, there's no Mao Zedong. What you have got is a bunch of people, a lot of them foreigners, in there killing Iraqis, . . . and angering people because they realize it's mindless carnage."

But Rumsfeld has been dismissing the insurgency for years, saying first it was a handful of looters and criminals, then a few hundred bitter Baathist loyalists then a few thousand foreigners and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

In the meantime, U.S. commanders claim to have killed and captured tens of thousands of insurgents and routed strongholds such as Fallujah. Still, the insurgency, and Sunni fear of displacement and alienation on which it depends, seems to grow.

With no central organization, disparate factions, ranging from extremist zealots with a penchant for videotaping beheadings to cunning roadside bombers and occasional bands of guerrillas, collectively form a formidable threat.

Insurgents manage to stage between 60 and 70 attacks a day. More than 400 suicide bombers have attacked targets - most often Iraqi police and security forces - in the past year.

The insurgency may have no single leader, and no evident common purpose, but it is clearly not strapped for financing nor ammunition nor volunteers.

It remains active in Baghdad and the four Sunni-dominated western provinces and shows no sign of ebbing or being crushed.

Whether it poses a serious threat to Iraq's future remains unclear.

Although Iraq dominates U.S. foreign policy and may define the success or failure of George W. Bush's presidency, the insurgency only ranks a startling fifth on Iraqis' top-10 list of concerns, behind electricity supply, unemployment, health care and crime. Of course, all of those problems may be exacerbated by the security problems but the dichotomy remains; that the insurgency may seem more important outside the country than inside it.

Polling in a strife-torn country is notoriously difficult, the most recent nationwide polls from April, found two-thirds of Iraqis believe their country is "going in the right direction" and fully 80 percent said they expected their lives to be better a year from now.

Still, the future of Iraq has become iconic for both the insurgents and for Bush, who says the country is the central front in the ideological struggle between civil democracy and international Islamic radicals.

It may turn out not to be the central front for radical Islam as much as the central front for a still-evolving U.S. role as the sole superpower interventionist state in the world. The insurgency, if it succeeds either in driving out U.S. forces prematurely or fracturing Iraq, will reverberate through the Middle East.

"The administration was and is right in thinking that the overthrow of Saddam's regime could change the pattern of Middle Eastern politics in ways that, by favouring the cause of decent government and basic freedoms, would favor our interests as well," Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the advisory defense policy board, wrote recently in an essay admitting his worries now that his son, an infantry officer, is headed for Iraq.

Bush has proclaimed an end to the long-standing U.S. policy of propping up repressive and unrepresentative Arab regimes but his vision of democracy spreading across the region from Iraq will be stillborn if it fails in that country.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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