In the TV gameshow bubble that substitutes for foreign policy discussion on the U.S. presidential campaign trial, there’s a lot of talk these days about how the U.S. is “winning” in Iraq. The evidence to back this claim is a comparative lull in the death rate in recent months, and the fact that Iraqi government forces are taking more casualties than the Americans. Those proclaiming “victory,” of course, are invariably the same crowd that enthusiastically backed the invasion of Iraq in the first place, and their desire for vindication for their part in authoring what all serious analysts agree has been the most catastrophic strategic blunder in America’s history is all too understandable. (Less understandable is the echo of this position by the Washington Post, which claims the U.S. and the Iraq government are “winning the war” and gaining full control of the country from al-Qaeda and rival militias.)
But the suggestion that a shift or fall in the pattern of violence indicates that the U.S. is “winning” in Iraq betrays the same lack of understanding of dynamics in that country as was so evident in the original decision to invade and occupy Iraq.
War, as Clausewitz always told us, is the continuation of politics by other means, and its outcomes are ultimately measured in political terms rather than by body counts. All of those waging war in Iraq — from al-Qaeda to the U.S. and everyone in between — are doing so in pursuit of political objectives. None is fighting just for the sake of fighting, or out of blind hatred. Moreover, in a conflict where one party has massive conventional forces at its disposal while others are combinations of militia and guerrilla units, the rate of tactical engagements doesn’t necessarily signify the balance of forces: If conventional forces are massed in particular areas, guerrilla units will likely lie low or disperse to keep their capability intact for later engagements. Claiming victory on the basis of the number of firefights and body counts is more than a little ridiculous, as anyone remotely familiar with the Vietnam war would attest.
Moreover, everyone knows that the success against al-Qaeda is based on the fact that nationalist Sunni insurgent groups turned on the foreign fighters and made common cause with the U.S. against them. But these groups have never made common cause with the Shi’ite dominated Iraqi government, to whom they are implacably opposed. (Al-Qaeda was never a fundamental aspect of the conflict in Iraq, as brutal and spectacular as its sectarian murders were; it always constituted only a small minority of the overall Sunni insurgency.) And on the Shi’ite side, the lull in violence, and its periodic uptick, is dependent almost entirely on the positions taken by the Mehdi Army of Moqtada Sadr, and by his opponents. Again, here we see an instance where Sadr’s Shi’ite rivals — who are actually closer to Iran than Sadr is — using the U.S. forces in Iraq to attack their own political foes.
Those in the U.S. who want to put a Pollyanna-ish spin on things in Iraq rush to proclaim these developments as signs of a political consensus emerging around the U.S. occupation. Far from it. As critics of the war on Capitol Hill often point out, there has been precious little progress towards the political reconciliation for which the “surge” was intended to create security conditions. Indeed, that’s because while the U.S. remains the dominant military force in Iraq, none of the Iraqi factions accept U.S. political tutelage. On the contrary, they are using the U.S. presence — which they assume will be finite — to best position themselves to trump their rivals once the U.S. has departed. That’s why, when it has come to substantial political legislation favorable to U.S. interests that Washington has pressed for — the obvious example being the oil law, which privatizes Iraq’s oil reserves and opens them to ownership by foreign investors — the Iraqis have politely, but firmly demurred. Laws such as the oil law, of course, run counter to the interests of the Iraqi parties with which the U.S. is in alliance, and where that happens, the Iraqis protect their own interests.
A similar dynamic may be unleashed by new U.S. efforts to get the Iraqi government to sign a security agreement that would keep 50 permanent military bases in Iraq and commit Baghdad (and President Bush’s successor) to accepting an open-ended military deployment in which U.S. forces would be free to pursue their own objectives on Iraqi soil may turn out to be a decisive moment in which all the key stakeholders in Iraq are forced to declare their intentions. And that could prove disastrous for the U.S., because outside of the Kurds, all of Washington’s key Iraqi allies cooperate with the U.S. only insofar as that advances their own interests in the intra-Iraqi political battle. That much is true for the leading parties of the Iraqi government, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and also the Shi’ite Islamic Supreme Council of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, on the one hand, and the various Sunni nationalist and Islamist groups both in the political process and among the insurgents of the “Awakening” groups who fight alongside the U.S. against al-Qaeda, but also oppose the Shi’ite led central government — none of these groups can in any sense be claimed as a strategic, let alone a principled ally of the U.S. Their alliance with the U.S. is purely tactical.
So, now that the U.S. is once again pushing for a political agreement by the Iraqis that many deem inimical to their national interests — and which Iran, the key regional player in Iraq, has deemed unacceptable — we’re suddenly being treated to a kind of snap survey or straw poll among the players in Iraq on the long-term U.S. presence and goals for Iraq. Sadr is out on the streets protesting; Maliki is unhappy and so is SCIRI; Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani seems likely to oppose it by insisting that it be passed by parliament and not run contrary to the principle of Iraqi sovereignty (which it obviously does); Iran is warning of resistance; and the Sunnis don’t like it either. The interests of none of the key players in Iraq run to a permanent U.S. presence, particularly given the fact that the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis oppose it.
Bush is clearly betting that Maliki lacks any option but to sign on, because without the U.S. he wouldn’t remain in power. The problem that it can’t recognize, however, is that being seen to embrace the U.S. will also result in certain political doom for Maliki. Forced to choose, the smart money says he can’t say yes to Bush. Which is why he’ll probably find a way to avoid having to make the decision the U.S. wants him to make.
If the new law is passed in the way the U.S. wants it, to sanctify a permanent U.S. military presence, I’d concede that it’s a sign that the U.S. is, indeed, beginning to win in Iraq. Anything less, however, would confirm my suspicion that surge notwithstanding, Washington is no closer to achieving its political objectives in Iraq than it was five years ago.