August 14, 2009

Don't Tell Me How This Ends

There’s a lot of talk right now among opinion writers and policy analysts about how Iraq may be slouching toward civil war again. It’s understandable. Suicide- and car-bomb attacks make headlines every week. After a recent devastating assault on a Shia village, a woman standing amid rubble looked into a television camera and yelled at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: “Look Prime Minister,” she shouted, “look Minister of Interior, where’s the security you’re talking about?”

Iraq is still a violent, dysfunctional mess. It probably will be for a long time. But Iraqis aren’t necessarily doomed to suffer another round of internal bloodletting like they did during the middle years of this decade.

In the dangerous security vacuum that followed the demolition of Saddam’s regime, Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) ignited a civil war by unleashing ferocious terror attacks against the country’s Shia community. Now that American soldiers have withdrawn from urban areas and created another partial security vacuum, the shattered remnants of AQI are trying to ramp up that effort again. It won’t be as easy for AQI now as it was last time.

Iraqis suffered terribly at the hands of militias and death squads before General David Petraeus radically transformed American counterinsurgency with his “surge” strategy. Petraeus succeeded, at least temporarily, thanks to overwhelming cooperation and support from traumatized Iraqis who had a bellyful of politics by bullet and car bomb.

Initially, many Iraqi Sunnis welcomed and sheltered al-Qaeda because of its promise to expel American soldiers and protect the Sunni minority from the Shia majority. In the meantime, three legs of al-Qaeda’s support have been sawed off. American soldiers aren’t a daily irritant anymore. Maliki’s Shia-dominated government smashed the Shia militias. And al-Qaeda proved itself the enemy of even the Sunnis with its barbaric head-chopping behavior.

Terrorist attacks against Shias by AQI won’t likely reignite a full-blown sectarian war as long as the Sunnis continue to hold fast against the psychotics in their own community and Maliki’s government provides at least basic security on the streets.

Iraq’s Sunnis have as much incentive as its Shias to fight the AQI killers among them. They suffered terribly at AQI’s hands, after all. Out in Anbar Province, they violently turned against “their own” terrorist army even before the Shias turned against “theirs.” And Tariq Alhomayed points out in the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat that Maliki faces the same pressure to provide security on the streets, especially for his own Shia community, that any Western leader would face under similar circumstances -- he wants to be re-elected.

The uptick in violence following America’s partial withdrawal shouldn’t shock anyone. If you scale back security on the streets, more violence and crime are inevitable. The same thing would happen in the United States if local police departments purged the better half of their officers. That does not mean, however, that Iraq is doomed to revert to war.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 14, 2009 9:51 AM
Comments

I have to say, I'm not this article even has a point to it. I know that sounds harsh, but consider this:

The article basically looks at two main questions:

- what does the current violence mean?
- will Iraq get better or worse?

In answering them, however, you've stated that:

- the current violence was to be expected

and

- Iraq will probably get worse, but it might get better eventually

I understand why you don't like to make predictions, but this piece was cautious to the point of stating only the obvious. I question the inherent value of telling people that Iraq might improve, but also that more violence is expected.

Looking at it another way, what would a reader learn from your article that he/she doesn't already know?

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at August 14, 2009 12:11 PM

what would a reader learn from your article that he/she doesn't already know?

It depends on what they knew and didn't know going into it.

I'm not going to say those who cry DOOM are wrong. They might not be. But there are good reasons for them to chill out. An entirely predictable spike in violence does not by itself mean it's 2005 all over again -- though even many writers and thinkers I respect think that it does.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 14, 2009 12:52 PM

Any persistent enemy probes for weaknesses, looking for psychological assets in particular to exploit, since they can expand in ways physical assets can't.

I met a New Yorker once who told me the first thing she did when moving into a new apartment was plug every crack and hole she found with steel wool, otherwise roaches WILL find you.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at August 14, 2009 3:19 PM

This is a useful warming against glib predictions in a country which has defied predictions in the past. thank you.

Posted by: Lorenzo Author Profile Page at August 14, 2009 3:31 PM

Michael,

Could you compare the danger faced and/or perceived by the average Iraqi with the danger faced and/or perceived by the average citizen in other restive areas that you have traveled to? Is living in Baghdad significantly more nerve-racking than living in territory dominated by Hezbollah or Hamas, or a locale in disputed territory in Israel? I only ask because - back when Iraq looked less hopeful - suicide bombings and other attacks were put forth as evidence of its imminent failure. Well, there are suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in Israel. Israel is hardly on the brink of collapse. I'm just curious how you would put the violence in perspective, from this standpoint.

Posted by: Schmedlap Author Profile Page at August 14, 2009 9:44 PM

As a New Yorker, I also know that eliminating garbage, crumbs and dirty dishes from one's apartment on a daily basis lowers the vermin risk, that baby roaches can get past steel wool and tend to decrease their activity in the cold. The scent of their feces egressing from walls and floor boards has been linked to asthma in children.

I also know that New Yorkers as yet cannot eliminate roaches even if we were drop a nuke on Manhattan.

Posted by: maxtrue Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 9:35 AM

Schedlap,

There are a lot more terrorist attacks in Iraq than anywhere else in the Middle East. Only during the Second Intifada was Israel as dangerous as Iraq has been lately. Israel during the Second Intifada was more dangerous than Iraq is at the moment, but also more civilized and functional.

Lebanon was in much worse shape during the civil war than Iraq is now, and it was in worse shape during the 2006 war. But Iraq is still the worst place in the Middle East by most standards. It has been trending the right direction in the last couple of years, though. We'll see if the current spate of violence is a real reversal or not. I really don't know what to expect. Flip a coin.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 10:16 AM

Maliki’s Shia-dominated government smashed the Shia militias. And al-Qaeda proved itself the enemy of even the Sunnis with its barbaric head-chopping behavior.

The violence will probably get worse if the Shia militias and al Qaeda have learned from their mistakes.

Al Qaeda may have learned to stop using its Saudi charm on the Sunnis, and they may become content to behead, blow up and brutalize Shia, Kurds and Yazidis. Saudis aren't so good with the technical stuff, but as a culture with a long history of religious oppression, they're experts at manipulation and brainwashing. They may be able to convince Iraqi Sunnis that things will be different this time.

Previously the Shia militias were weakened by their leader Al Sadr's mysterious disappearance as a result of 'food poisoning'. Al Sadr spent four months "studying the koran" and/or being treated by Russian and Iranian doctors. Will Russia and Iran decide, for whatever reason, to retreat again? It's hard to tell at this point

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 10:23 AM

MJT, there hasn't been a spike in the total number of violent incidents in Iraq. There were 70 violent incidents for the latest week for which data is available. This compares to 1200 to 1800 a week in late 2006. What there has been is high profile terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians (versus coordinated attacks against the IA and IP, or insurgency.)

Iraq has far more of a terrorist problem than it has an insurgency problem. I don't know any country in the world that has figured out how to deal with terrorism directed at civilians. Perhaps Israel could teach the GoI and ISF quite a bit on this subject. I hope it happens.

On the subject of Israel and Palestine; Leo, thanks for posting this on the previous thread: http:/
/www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3761965,00.html
The fact that Hamas is one of the few organizations really taking the fight to Al Qaeda linked networks is an important reason America should consider reaching out to Hamas. The world is better off, in my view, because Hamas is taking on Al Qaeda.

Pew Survey:

Off topic I would like to discuss the latest Pew global survey; I don't understand why Palestine is by far the most antiamerican country in the world; much more anti American than even Pakistan. I also don't get why 52% of Palestinians support Osama Bin Laden (by far the largest percentage for any country on earth), versus only 18% of Pakistanis. How could so many Palestinians be so deeply wrong on this subject?

Posted by: anand Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 3:26 PM

The fact that Hamas is one of the few organizations really taking the fight to Al Qaeda linked networks is an important reason America should consider reaching out to Hamas.

HAMAS goes after al Qaida types because they are competitors, not because HAMAS opposes them ideologically. There isn't any need for the US to make bargains with HAMAS so that they will do something they couldn't be prevented from doing anyway :)

US would lose major credibility from trying to ally with a terror group, and would gain absolutely nothing. US can't work with HAMAS, and shouldn't try. Same goes for Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic. They are our enemies, anand, and that is not ever going to change because they are ideologically motivated and they ideology requires them to oppose the West, US and Israel first and foremost. If they ever did work with the US, it would only be because they felt that was the most effective way to do us harm in the long run.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 3:40 PM

Anand: How could so many Palestinians be so deeply wrong on this subject?

People in the West Bank and Gaza aren't acquiring these opinions in a vacuum. Both Fatah and Hamas have spent years inciting Palestinians with some of the most vicious terrorist propaganda on the face of the earth. That sort of thing tends to stick after a while.

Perhaps Israel could teach the GoI and ISF quite a bit on this subject.

Israel did it partly by walling terrorists off from the target population. Americans did something similar in Iraq, as you know. The walls are ugly, but they do the job. They won't work as a permanent solution in Iraq, but they can work permanently in Israel when a two-state solution is applied and the wall becomes a hard international border.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 3:43 PM

anand,

I must agree with programmmer_craig.

Hamas and AQ are not ideological enemies. Their fight is for the right to be called most righteous jihadi and most importantly for control. There can only be one chef in the kitchen.
As for US reaching out to Hamas, there is a saying "If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas". No, thanks.

"I also don't get why 52% of Palestinians support Osama Bin Laden (by far the largest percentage for any country on earth)"

My personal explanation - propaganda and ignorance. Pakistanis and Iraqis learned their lesson. Should AQ in Gaza prevail Gazans will learn it too.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at August 15, 2009 11:42 PM

Greetings Anand,
I'm not sure why you find these results so surprising. Reading the educational literature or watching the visual media should indicate the type of information the Palistinians receive and thus the directions of their favour.
The recent fighting in the Gaza strip, I believe, is just a taste of what is to come. There are several factions there supported by differing powers and it is likely to turn into a full-blown power struggle and perhaps even an "uncivil" war, similar to Lebanon's in the 80's.
Animosities run deep and memories are long in the Middle East. The results are almost always unpleasant.
JB

Posted by: JB Author Profile Page at August 16, 2009 10:18 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/17/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at August 17, 2009 8:01 AM

As someone who has watched this pretty closely from the beginning, I think these concerns are overblown.

First off, don't be fooled by headlines. Look at the numbers. At 240 deaths, July 2009 had the second-fewest deaths since they started keeping track. August will be worse, but still looks to come in well below the average of 494 in 2008.

Meanwhile, U.S. deaths last month were a record low of 8. This month so far: 5.

http://icasualties.org/Iraq/index.aspx

Yes, there are still attacks. Yes, Iraq is still horribly dysfunctional (but far better than under Saddam by virtually every measure, from basic services to average violent deaths to GDP to basic liberties like voting, free press, and free speech). But overall this still looks a whole lot like the victory conventional wisdom in 2006 said was a pipe dream.

Posted by: TallDave Author Profile Page at August 25, 2009 12:56 PM
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