Iraq: Drug War Analogies and Mutation Metaphors
It's difficult to articulate a comprehensive perspective on the Iraq War. The Bush administration certainly has many accomplishments, but it has proven difficult to measure the extent to which the American mission in Iraq is making progress in relation to the many and serious setbacks. The accomplishments include capturing Saddam Hussein and bringing him to trial, holding three successful elections, inaugurating a new elected government, and eliminating much of the al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership. Yet, the accomplishments have a frustrating transience about them. There was a lot of optimism following the capture of Saddam, but that was irrevocably lost after the Mahdi army uprising in Najaf and Sunni uprising in Fallujah. Likewise, the elections of last December were a monumental event, but momentum was lost when Iraqi politicians took six months to form a government and the accomplishment almost forgotten when the death squads accelerated their murderous work this spring. In fact, the Bush administration's accomplishments in Iraq are quite a bit like the accomplishments of American governments for the last forty years of the Drug War. State and federal governments capture important drug dealers and make big headlines, but new drug lords always appear to replace them. The French Connection was replaced by the Medellin Cartel which was replaced by the Cali Cartel which seems to have been replaced by Mexicans. Likewise, drugs like marijuana and cocaine was displaced by crack, ecstacy, methamphetamines, and OxyContin. Despite the best efforts of the mammoth American law enforcement apparatus, the drug business is as big or bigger than it ever was. That's because the structural foundation of the drug business in American demand for drugs never changes. As long as there is an enormous American demand for drugs, there will be always be ambitious criminals eager to make gigantic amounts of money in the drug business. In a similar way, the Bush administration holds elections, captures or kills terrorist leaders, and takes and retakes cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Haditha. All of these accomplishments involve a lot of American ingenuity, resources, effort, and constant hard-slogging. But the headlines from these victories barely fade before the insurgency moves to the Baghdad area, death squads begin massacring Sunni and Shiite men, and the situation starts to deteriorate in Basra. Like the drug trade, the daunting problems of Iraq just seem to change personalities, change locations, or morph into new shapes despite the determination and resourcefulness of the American personnel in Iraq. In some ways, there doesn't seem to be the rock-solid structural basis for the difficulties in Iraq that American drug demand represents for the illegal drug business. Instead, what often seems to happen is that some events seem to mutate unexpectedly into a severe worsening of the situation. Most recently, the bombing of the Samarra mosque by Sunni insurgents was certainly a traumatic event guaranteed to exascerbate sectarian tensions. However, the enormous escalation of death squad activity that has been going on in Baghdad for more than three months was something that no one outside the death squads themselves could have predicted. As a result, the situation in Baghdad is now so unstable that 75,000 American troops have only been able to slow rather than eliminate the attacks. As a result of the burgeoning violence in Baghdad, all of the patient work of the Americans in organizing elections, promoting compromise between the sectarian factions, and training Iraqi troops has been overshadowed by the onset of a Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all. There have been similar mutations in the difficulties faced by the Americans before. Raiding the offices of the Mahdi army in 2004 triggered an uprising by the Sadrists in Najaf, Karbala, and the Sadr city slums of Baghdad. These uprisings took months to put down while American focus on the Sadr and the Mahdi army allowed Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis to entrench themselves in Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, and other cities north and West of Baghdad. In this sense, the dramatic expansion or mutation of the Sunni insurgency of 2004 created a new structure that American occupation forces still had not been able to take apart before the equally dramatic expansion of death squad activity in Baghdad this spring. The reason why the Iraq sitation looks so bleak to most people in the United States is that mutating crises like the expansion of the Sunni insurgency and the death squad nightmare in Baghdad have run far ahead of the "drug war" accomplishments of the American occupiers and their Iraqi allies. Why is this the case? I would argue that the mutating crises like the current anarchy in Baghdad have several structural foundations that the American occupiers and our Iraqi allies have not been able to counter. First and most important is the escalating religious sectarianism of both the Shiite and Sunni populations. Outside Kurdish controlled areas, Iraq is a much more religiously motivated society than it was before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the intensity of sectarian passion on both the Sunni and Shiite sides has made much of the country into an ethnic and religious tinderbox ready to explode over events like the Samarra bombing. The second foundation for mutating crises is the hostility of the Iraqi Arab population to the occupation. From the grieving relatives of those killed by the occupation armies, to teen-agers cheering the destruction of American vehicles, to Prime Minister Maliki complaining about the frequent murders of Iraqi civilians, the occupation is wearing on the host population and creates conditions for more setbacks even as it makes progress. The third foundation for mutating crises is the inexperience of Iraqi politicians with governing which makes the infiltration of the government by insurgents and sectarian militias easy, corruption an appealing first choice, compromise extremely difficult, and concerted action apparently impossible. The Iraqi government has not been able to exercise control over its own personnel. As a result, the main thrust of the death squad activity that has so destabilized Baghdad this summer has come from within the government itself. Finally, there is the lack of effort by the Bush administration. The failure to commit enough troops and seriously pursue economic reconstruction has meant that the occupying forces do not have enough troops to finish off the insurgency in Western Iraq or the resources to provide a counter-weight to the crisis so that people can have hope. It would be a lot easier for the Americans to deal with the Baghdad death squad crisis if people in Baghdad had 24 hours of electricity, readily available gas, stable employment, and security from the jihadis. Because the American occupiers haven't been able to bring any of these things about, the Baghdad population has been in a permanent state of crisis, a state of crisis that mutated into something much more dangerous after the Samarra bombing. Put together the drug war transience of our successes with the mutating expansion effects of our setbacks and you have a recipe for both short-term and long-term failure. And right now, we are failing in Iraq.