Friday, June 10, 2005

Hoping for a Banana Republic in Iraq

Today's Washington Post article on the "new" Iraqi military was a devastating picture of the quagmire in Iraq. The Sunni soldiers being interviewed were serving in the Iraqi military because they couldn't find jobs in a "new" Iraqi economy where unemployment was 19%. They expressed loyalty to Saddam Hussein rather than the "new" Iraqi government, dispersed when they were attacked, refused to raid a local mosque that was hosting snipers, and blamed the Americans rather than the insurgents for the destruction of their town. Not only did American troops not respect the bravery and commitment of their Iraqi colleagues, but the American military assumed that the new Iraqi soldiers had been infiltrated by insurgents and did not trust them with any knowledge of the next day's operations. As a result, the Iraqi soldiers had no idea of where they were being sent or what their mission was.

Perhaps the most depressing part of the story is that the American military hand-picked this particular unit to be interviewed. One had to assume that other units are worse, perhaps much worse. There are 169,000 men listed as being in the "new" Iraqi military and police forces, but the American military only lists three battalions (about 2,300 men) as able to operate on their own and the Washington Post article made that estimate sound overly optimistic. None of the American soldiers interviewed for the article had any hope that these Iraqi soldiers would ever be ready to defend a democratic Iraq on their own.

The failure of the new Iraqi military fits well with the lengthy string of miscalculations and blunders by the Bush administration and the American high command in Iraq. There was the ludicrous idea that the U. S. would be able to install Ahmed Chalabi at the top of the Saddam era administrative apparatus, the mistaken belief that the Iraqi's would be relatively immune to fundamentalist Islam because of the relatively high level of education and secular character of the Saddam regime, failure to maintain law and order after the occupation of Baghdad, failure to maintain basic services like electricity, failure to clean up ammo dumps, failure to secure the borders, failure to rebuild economic infrastructure, and failure to re-evaluate the strategy for Iraq after the initial wave of reverses. In the context of so many significant failures, the real successes of the American occupation--the quick military conquest, capture of Saddam Hussein, and holding of elections--all look like empty victories that have done little to create the ground conditions for a stable Iraqi democracy.

Of course, there's some reason to doubt that the Bush administration really wants a stable democracy in Iraq. The original vision of stable democracy in Iraq meant a government of secular, pro-Western types like Chalabi. Now, stable democracy means Shiite-domination backed by the prestige of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and fundamentally hostile to the American military occupation. The over-all strategic aim of the Iraq invasion was to establish a strong American military presence at the center of the Middle East. If Shiite democracy stabilizes, a "new" Iraqi government would most likely try to make itself popular by expelling American troops. As a result, a strong insurgency benefits the Bush administration because it means that the Iraqis still "need" a large American military presence. Without the insurgency, the invasion would have been a waste because a Shiite government would have asked our troops to leave.

So, what can we do to create a real basis for hope in this situation? Actually, WE can't do anything. However, there is some basis to think that the Iraqi government can create a military force that can be competitive with the insurgents. The first building block for a government military force is not the "new" Iraqi army controlled by the Americans. That's probably hopeless, but the Iraqi government does have a building block for a military establishment in the Badr and other Shiite militias. If Iraqi's democratic Shiite government could gain control over the new Iraqi army and turn that army into a committed force on behalf of Shiite rule, the government could recruit soldiers with a religious, ethnic commitment, get them to serve with more courage than the American-created force, and avoid the security problems plaguing the current Iraqi forces. Financed and trained by the Americans, a national Shiite government force would serve as a real fighting force that would be complimented by the Shiite militias. It would be the growth of a Shiite army and Shiite militias (along with the Kurds) that would create an Iraqi counter-weight to the Sunni insurgents.

So, what does that hope add up to. Not really a whole lot. Iraq would become the Middle Eastern version of a banana republic--with weak governments presiding over a chronically divided country, a semi-permanent state of civil war (like Guatemala and Columbia) and an ever-present danger of drifting into anarchy. But there's a chance that a Shiite government could sustain itself with Kurdish support and enough Sunni participation to look legitimate even if the insurgency becomes a chronic state of affairs. That looks like the best we can do.


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