Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Surge Splurge - Will a troop increase help Bush?

US President George Bush finally announced his new strategy for Iraq. Predictably, Bush has opted for a dramatic troop increase numbering over 20,000 to provide security in Baghdad and the restive Anbar region. The Commander in Chief has been under immense pressure from Democrats, ex- Generals and even erstwhile neo-cons on the right way forward in Iraq. Having sanctioned the much publicized bi-partisan Iraq Study Group, the president took cover behind the impending report for the better part of last year on what his future strategy will look like for a war that the coalition of willing seems to be losing. After seeing the report and also rejecting it in parts, Bush decided to set the future strategy in Iraq based on assessments from the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. He avoided any further criticism for the war by buying time and pushing his policy speech on Iraq to January. To instill clarity on how best to use the increased troop levels in Iraq, Bush has also shaken up the military establishment in Iraq and the Central Command based in the Gulf. With the removal of Generals Casey and Abizaid as heads of the Iraqi command and CentCom respectively, the White House gave subtle hints on what the renewed strategy in Iraq would look like. Both Casey and Abizaid have been vocal advocates of a gradual reduction in the number of troops this year and making “transition” the theme for 2007. Casey and Abizaid were of the firm belief that American troop presence in Iraq was increasing the insurgency and with more boots on the ground, the number of targets for the insurgents is also more. Further, many ex-Baathists and extreme nationalists, who make up part of the insurgency, propagate American presence as a foreign occupation and that sentiment helps fuel resentment against the Americans. The Casey-Abizaid line basically looks at ways to train more Iraqi troops and reducing the American presence in the front lines of the battle. The new team comprising of Admiral William Fallon and Lt. Gen. David Petreaus will look at how to best use the increased troop levels in Iraq and ultimately what mission will the additional divisions be assigned. But the question before the generals and the White House is – is the troop increase an exercise in futility?

President Bush has outlined some of the mistakes his administration has made during the war and how it has played out. Not sending more troops all of last year was one mistake that the president has conceded in a rare admission. He should also be aware that the inadequate numbers on the ground is not a year old problem. Many analysts and even the former Ambassador to Iraq, Paul Bremer have clearly stated that an adequate figure to stabilize Iraq was closer in the range of 500,000 rather than the existing 140,000 odd. Also, with the president not doing enough to bring out a political resolution after the Al-Qaeda attack on the Al-Askariya mosque in Samarra which Arab analysts described as the “Iraqi 9/11” ultimately added another violent element to the existing insurgency – sectarian reprisal attacks. The two key missteps are ultimately what lead to violence on an unprecedented scale all of 2006. The revised Bush strategy will not have the desired effects if the weak Iraqi government is not sincere in its efforts to quell the sectarian militias and death squads. Then again, the very definition of “sincere” is questionable. In the eyes of ordinary Shia Iraqis, by swearing allegiance to clerics like Moqtada al-Sadr the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki is showing conviction and solidarity with his community. The definition of sincerity changes dramatically in the Green Zone housing the Multinational Forces. Here, going after militias and death squads regardless of the sectarian affiliation is being truly sincere to the ‘cause of freedom’. This disconnect amongst the two sides has not only made radical clerics like Sadr control the government (he has 30 sitting members in the Iraqi parliament) it also sends a message to the two warring communities that it is the militias and not the Americans or the Iraqi army that will protect them. In such a scenario how a troop surge or increase will help is anybody’s guess. The Republicans and most vocal amongst them, presidential hopeful, John McCain has argued that an increase in troops will help in breaking the cycle of violence and thereby help the Iraqi government take control of Baghdad and the Sunni dominated Anbar promise. While the argument holds some merit, the counter argument to that is will the Shia dominated government act against its own militias, which are the source of majority sectarian attacks in the country. Then again, if the argument is that to secure Baghdad is of vital importance, in military parleys, whichever way Baghdad goes, Iraq follows, then a 20,000 increase in troops still falls short of the required number needed to safely take the city.

Bush has complained about the quality of troops coming out of the Iraqi training schools. Many units are heavily infiltrated by militiamen themselves and the notorious Interior Ministry has been accused of executing Sunnis without even a trial. The “clear, hold, build” strategy to clear areas of militias and insurgents, in the words of the president, is not working because while the Americans are doing the “clear” part of the strategy, Iraqi forces cannot manage the “hold” part for any building on those successes that can follow. To tackle this Bush has tapped Gen. Petreaus, a decision most will not argue against, for the general has done some excellent work in training Iraqi troops and his primary mission, it seems, will be to train more Iraqis so that the Americans can start going home.
The American public and the world in general have now seen the war go on for too long, and the will to maintain status quo is not an option anymore. One thinks that the president understands that but the solution does not lie in increasing troops, which as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman finds akin to a couple not being able to work things out, decide to have a child thinking it will solve all problems. The president must set a realistic deadline to step back from the frontlines and let the Iraqis, with their newly bestowed American sponsored “democracy”, decide the best way forward.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Iraq 2007: Hangs in the Balance

The US and its allies in Iraq would be relieved to see the back of 2006, clearly the year being the worst in the 3 years of war in the country. The year saw a dizzying increase in violence, Shia-Sunni tit for tat attacks, bombings and ethnic cleansing that is killing close to 100 Iraqis every day. The US hopes that 2007 will be a “year of transition” clearly wanting to end its front-end military involvement by 2008 and giving the job of securing Iraq to the Iraqis. There are reports that the British will also be pulling out of Iraq before Prime Minister Tony Blair demits office sometime later this year. Undoubtedly, Blair would want to finish the military intervention that he started in the face of all round criticism in 2003. Also, the heir apparent Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown would want to take office with the populist message of bringing the troops back home. With Basra alternating between violence and relative calm, the exact pullout dates will most likely depend on how the summer and fall of 2007 shape up for Southern Iraq.

2006 though will not be remembered in public memory so much for the sectarian strife than for the execution of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was hanged amidst much criticism and a threat of a spike in ethnic tensions. The hanging of Saddam does mark an end of an era in Iraqi politics and would definitely be a welcome closure for many Iraqis who suffered under his tyrannical regime. The execution would have been broadly welcomed by the world had it not been for the appalling nature in which Saddam spent his last minutes facing a volley of taunts, jeers and insults by prison guards and security forces present during his execution. The very act of having video recorded the event ensured that the weak Iraqi government came under sustained criticism from human rights agencies, many governments and by a section of the Iraqi population. However, as was the case with Saddam’s capture and the death of his sons in 2003, a large section of the Iraqi populace would have wanted undeniable verification of the events before they began rejoicing. Similar was the case with the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, whose body was flashed the world over to convince not only Iraqis but also skeptical sections of the US population to convince them of his death. Such is the influence of the visual medium today and also the lack of trust in governments that most statements are taken as propaganda rather than the gospel truth. The video footage of the Saddam execution would have “proved” to Iraqis that Saddam was indeed death. However, the release of the grainy last minutes of Saddam caught on a cell phone brought to the fore what many have commented on the nature of the dictator’s execution – that it was nothing more than Shia retribution for the atrocities they faced under a Sunni Saddam. The very notion that the security men filming and those taunting Saddam could not look over the ethnic status of Saddam and see him as a tyrant who not only killed Kurds and Shias, but also Iranians and Kuwaitis, was nothing short of shameful while at the same time extremely telling.

That Iraq is now clearly divided on ethnic lines with regular purges of minorities from many of its regions is well established. However, how deep this ethnic divide runs was witnessed by the world in that cell phone video. Chants of “Moqtada” (after the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, who controls the largest militia in Iraq and who by a cruel twist of democracy also props the current Iraqi prime minister and his government in place) evidently established the complete fragmentation of Iraqi society. In such a grim reality, it is little wonder that many analysts are now calling for an informal trifurcation of the country on ethnic lines. The new Iraqi constitution does authorize limited autonomy for certain regions, a clause that the Kurds in the north of Iraq have used to their advantage and put to fullest use. The Kurdish north remains the most stable part of Iraq with only Kirkuk seeing some Sunni-Kurd and Kurd-Shia violence. By and large, the Kurds are the only stabilizing factor and a rare success story in Iraq. The remaining regions, as has been suggested by Democratic Senator Joe Biden and many others on the ground in Iraq, should be loosely divided into a Shia and Sunni region with a central government looking after Oil, Foreign Affairs and National Defense. But for this panacea to become a reality is an uphill task. The ensuing violence after declaring such an announcement will be unbearable. If the partition between India and Pakistan is anything to go by, we are looking at a massacre on a genocidal scale. Then again, the US and its Allies would not look at this solution too kindly. By declaring such an option as a viable solution there will be tacit acceptance of a failed policy and further fuelling a oft repeated notion in Iraq that only a strong man can keep the country together. The Americans lose out by choosing either option. On the one hand, you leave behind a country divided and on the other you replace a dictator you didn’t like with a dictator you can live with. More so, there are no takers for the position of a strong man with the exception of Al-Sadr, who is reviled by the White House and the Pentagon.

There are no easy solutions in Iraq neither is “staying the course” a viable option. Bush, who is to make a policy statement on Iraq next week, will need to show some success in Iraq before he leaves office in 2008. Historians will argues that here you had a president whose response to 3000 odd civilian deaths on 9/11 was by sacrificing another 3000 troops against a country that had no direct links to 9/11. Removing the tyrant was important but the world is not necessarily a safer place without him. The “war on terror” has been derailed by the war in Iraq. It is important that Bush get the former back on track and end involvement in the latter. Iraq needs a solution and it is important that the Bush administration starts taking into account the reality that exists in Iraq and take the suggestions of the sane voices coming out of the country. Time is running out for Iraq, a country whose fate hangs in the proverbial balance much like the hung body of its disgraced dictator tethering between chaos and control.