Helene Cooper had a good analytical article in today’s NYT, looking at the differing views on the “winnability” of Iraq held by, on the one hand, presumptive Republican candidate John McCain and on the other, both the Democratic front-runners, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
All three say they believe that Afghanistan is an important security threat that needs to be addressed. But the Republican, John McCain, suggests that Iraq remains America’s bugaboo of security threats, while the two Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, appear to have moved on to Afghanistan. Both of them argue that focusing on Iraq gets in the way of a more serious threat in Afghanistan.
Attentive JWN readers will know that I am for a US troop withdrawal from Iraq that is speedy, orderly, and total. I hold this position on grounds of principle, given the patently illegitimate nature of the US invasion of Iraq and the inescapably repressive and harmful nature of rule by foreign military occupation whenever it occurs. But in addition, I believe that the continued US occupation of Iraq harms the interests of the US citizenry in a number of significant ways, not least by swallowing up huge amounts of (borrowed) financial resources that have already impoverished our country and will continue to impoverish it for some generations to come.
It is also true that the continued US troop presence in Iraq diverts attention and resources from the situation in Afghanistan, a place where for various historic reasons the US has a strong continuing obligation to help (at the very least) to help to rebuild the country. Afghanistan was a key battlefield in the US confrontation against the Soviets in the 1980s; and since 2001 it has been a key battlefield in the US confrontation against Al-Qaeda.
However, the exact nature of this obligation needs to be unpacked further. Most importantly, I believe the US needs to work with the United Nations, with Muslim countries, and with Afghanistan’s close big-power neighbors China and Russia to maximize the investment that is made in rebuilding Afghanistan’s society on a sound basis. Part of that effort might involve a continuing non-Afghan security presence in the country. But surely that presence should be provided by a specifically UN force, under the direct leadership of the UN, rather than coming from that old– and distinctly “Atlanticist”– Cold War relic, NATO.
But I can certainly agree with Clinton and Obama that the attempt to continue to maintain a large US troop presence in Iraq diverts attention and resources from the obligation the US has in Afghanistan– and indeed, in many other places, too, including here at home within the good ol’ USA.
Helene Cooper writes this about McCain:
Senator McCain, the likely Republican nominee, makes a de facto argument that Iraq and Afghanistan are two sides of the same coin. “Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will withdraw our forces from Iraq based on an arbitrary timetable designed for the sake of political expediency and which recklessly ignores the profound human calamity and dire threats to our security that would ensue,” Mr. McCain said in a Feb. 7 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Distilled to its simplest form, Mr. McCain’s argument is that withdrawing from Iraq would make Americans less safe in the long run, because a withdrawal would embolden Al Qaeda, put American interests at risk in the Middle East, and make an already volatile region less safe.
Backing up McCain’s argument that the US should not consider withdrawing from either Iraq or Afghanistan– but using a slightly different form of argumentation– is Anthony Cordesman, the long-time Middle East strategic guru at the Center for International Studies. Cordesman had an op-ed titled “Two winnable wars” in today’s WaPo.
Cordesman doesn’t actually sketch out, in the way McCain did, any specific scenario of dire consequences if the US should decide to withdraw from either Iraq or Afghanistan. He seems to simply assume that we all know that withdrawal would connote defeat. His main argument, instead, is that with the right kinds of US policies both these wars are winnable. Having recently returned from visits to both countries, he starts his piece with this bold assertion:
No one can return from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I recently did, without believing that these are wars that can still be won.
He does, however, immediately qualify that statement (and cover his own rear end) by adding, “They are also clearly wars that can still be lost.”
He then provides the useful service of spelling out what it is that in his view constitutes victory:
Meaningful victory can come only if tactical military victories end in ideological and political victories and in successful governance and development. Dollars are as important as bullets, and so are political accommodation, effective government services and clear demonstrations that there is a future that does not need to be built on Islamist extremism.
This is actually a pretty good definition, though Cordesman and I might– or might not– differ on what constitutes “Islamist extremism.” Where I differ from him, however, is in his view that it should be the US that “leads” (i.e. controls) the effort to bring good governance to the two countries.
After six years of US dominance of the government and security system in Afghanistan and nearly five years of US occupation of Iraq, have we seen anything about either of these situations that encourages us to think that US is able to bring good governance to either country?
If you go to the CSIS website, you can see a PDF of a 48-piece slide presentation that Cordesman presented on Feb. 13, as a way of reporting on his most recent trip to Iraq. The slides look to have been prepared mainly by the US military themselves. I found slides #3, 35, and 41-46 to be the most informative. In slide 41, he states baldly that the US military needs a further “half decade” to be able to sort out all the many current challenges in Iraq, many of which are, as the following slides clearly demonstrate, very political challenges, within Iraq’s political system. (And therefore, imho, no legitimate concern of any foreigners, anyway.)
The various points of “positive achievement” listed in Cordesman’s slides make a stark contrast with what we read yesterday in Nir Rosen’s much more grounded reporting of what’s been happening in Iraq during the surge. (Do you think Cordesman ever got out of the Green Zone? He gives no indication whatsoever that he did.) And on the news pages of today’s WaPo, there’s a fascinating article by Joshua Partlow, reporting on the big problems the US military and its local, “Iraqi Security Force” allies have been facing in the large northern city of Mosul.
Don’t be misled by the inappropriately optimistic headline the piece bears.
Partlow writes this:
With just 2,000 American soldiers to patrol a city of 1.8 million people — the Iraqi Sunni insurgency’s most formidable urban stronghold — the U.S. military strategy in Mosul relies to an unprecedented degree on the Iraqi security forces. U.S. military officials here say there will be nothing like the “surge” of thousands of American troops that helped ease the fighting in Baghdad and no major effort to search for insurgents block by block. Instead, they are betting that 18,200 Iraqi soldiers and police can shoulder the load against the kaleidoscope of insurgent groups fighting in the city.
“We see the Iraqi security forces, more and more, take the lead and take the fight to the enemy,” said Maj. Adam Boyd, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s intelligence officer. “You do see a capability that we have not seen before.”
In recent months, three Iraqi army battalions have returned to Mosul from deployments in Baghdad. The Interior Ministry has approved 2,000 additional police recruits for the city, and a new Iraqi operations command is coordinating the efforts of the Iraqi security forces.
But some Iraqi soldiers say they have neither the manpower nor the equipment to defeat the insurgency in Mosul, where violence has increased over the past six months. As of mid-February, there were 80 attacks a week, a quarter of which killed or wounded people.
Mosul’s ethnic composition poses unique challenges for the Iraqi security forces. Sunni Arabs constitute four-fifths of the population, and there is little of the sectarian violence that has caused so much bloodshed elsewhere in the country. But many residents are openly hostile to the Iraqi army forces, whose leadership in Mosul is predominantly Kurdish, viewing them as a force for Kurdish encroachment.
… The distrust among local residents limits the Iraqi soldiers’ ability to collect intelligence about the insurgents they are fighting. The thousands of armed Sunnis who aligned with American soldiers and provided so much information about the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in other parts of the country have failed to materialize in Mosul. Dosky said taking control of the city would require at least two new Iraqi army divisions.
“The people, especially inside of Mosul, they don’t like the new government,” he said. “Very few of them have joined the army or police. They don’t help us with information.”
Many of the Kurdish soldiers don’t speak Arabic, and some denigrate the Sunni Arab population in the city for supporting insurgents. “Kurd good. Arab no good,” Sgt. Tayeeb Abdul Rahaman, an Iraqi soldier, said repeatedly in his limited English. “Anybody who doesn’t like the army are terrorists,” added Sgt. Major Mohammed Sharif.
(Which reminds me: I would love to know how many of the Kurdish fighters who were supposedly integrated into the Iraqi Army have gone AWOL in order to go and defend the Kurdish region against the current Turkish invasion?)
Finally, the most ambitious and probably the most important piece of war reporting in today’s papers comes from the NYT’s Elizabeth Rubin, writing a long piece in the Sunday Magazine section about a lengthy embed she did in Afghanistan in October/November, with the US Army Airborne Brigade Combat Team in a remote valley in the northeastern province of Kunar.
Rubin’s piece is a must-read. It certainly shows the huge amount of stress the US soldiers there are operating under. She focuses most closely on the efforts being made by 26-year-old Capt. Dan Kearney, the officer in charge of a small, fairly isolated outpost called the Korengal Outpost.
Rubin writes this:
LAST AUTUMN, after five months of grueling foot patrols up and down the mountains, after fruitless encounters with elders who smiled in the morning and were host to insurgents in the evening and after losing friends to enemy fire, Captain Kearney’s men could relate to the sullen, jittery rage of their predecessors in the 10th Mountain Division. Many wondered what they were doing out there at all.
Kearney refused to entertain that thought. He would tell his visitors, whether generals or reconstruction teams, that his campaign plan was clear, if modest: “It’s World War II Pacific-island hopping, turning one village at a time.” Over five months, he had gained about 400 yards of terrain. When some generals and colonels had flown in for a quick tour, and Kearney was showing them the lay of the land, one officer said to another, as Kearney later recalled it, “I don’t know why we’re even out here.” Another officer jumped in to talk up the logic of the operation. Kearney told me he thought: Sort your stuff out before you come out here. My boys are sucking it up and dying. . . . For besides being lord of the valley, he had another role to play — motivator, disciplinarian and confidant to his soldiers. “It’s like being in charge of a soap opera,” he told me. “I feel like Dr. Phil with guns.”
One full-moon night I was sitting outside a sandbag-reinforced hut with Kearney when a young sergeant stepped out hauling the garbage. He looked around at the illuminated mountains, the dust, the rocks, the garbage bin. The monkeys were screeching. “I hate this country!” he shouted. Then he smiled and walked back into the hut. “He’s on medication,” Kearney said quietly to me.
Then another soldier walked by and shouted, “Hey, I’m with you, sir!” and Kearney said to me, “Prozac. Serious P.T.S.D. from last tour.” Another one popped out of the HQ cursing and muttering. “Medicated,” Kearney said. “Last tour, if you didn’t give him information, he’d burn down your house. He killed so many people. He’s checked out.”
As I went to get some hot chocolate in the dining tent, the peaceful night was shattered by mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire banging and bursting around us. It was a coordinated attack on all the fire bases. It didn’t take long to understand why so many soldiers were taking antidepressants. The soldiers were on a 15-month tour that included just 18 days off. Many of them were “stop-lossed,” meaning their contracts were extended because the army is stretched so thin. You are not allowed to refuse these extensions. And they felt eclipsed by Iraq. As Sgt. Erick Gallardo put it: “We don’t get supplies, assets. We scrounge for everything and live a lot more rugged. But we know the war is here. We got unfinished business.”
Her article has a number of other riveting passages in it, including close-up accounts of a number of battles. In one of them a couple of Kearney’s men command are killed. You also get a fairly vivid picture of the huge destructive capabilities of the airpower that these soldiers are able to call in– and of the high casualties among Afghan civilians that result from this.
Bottom line: I think it is highly irresponsible– not to mention just plain wrong– for Tony Cordesman to write, “No one can return from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I recently did, without believing that these are wars that can still be won.” I very much doubt that Nir Rosen, Joshua Partlow, Elizabeth Rubin, or numerous other extremely courageous reporters who have been out on the front-lines would agree with that judgment. (Actually, I know that Nir doesn’t.)
The US military is already stretched very thinly indeed between these two wars: almost to breaking point. And the costs of the two wars– in blood, treasure, and opportunities for human betterment willfully foregone– continue to mount at a truly alarming rate. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have given support to increasing the total size of the US military (which will further increase costs). They have also promised to draw down the US troop presence in Iraq considerably, as a way of freeing up additional troops to send to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the US cannot undertake a large-scale drawdown of troops from Iraq without considerable help from the international community. Specifically, it cannot do this without being able to reach an agreement on this matter– and probably a number of other matters– with Iran. And to win such an agreement it needs to draw in all the other major players in the region (as Baker and Hamilton understood); and it needs the help of the rest of the UN Security Council, too.
And if there is to be a successful socioeconomic and political stabilization in Afghanistan– which is the definition that both John McCain and I give of “winning” there– then the whole of the international community, and not just its “Atlantic” component, will similarly need to be engaged.
I’d love to hear the Democratic candidates talk a lot more about the important choices and tradeoffs involved in these two battlefields. Our country desperately needs a new– and far more intentionally “inclusive”– approach to resolving thorny security problems in distant places. Maintaining the old myths of “America’s role of global leadership” or the US as the “indispensable nation” just doesn’t fit the reality of the world’s situation any more.