Galbraith on the Surge

I'd been waiting for his critique, which is probably worth more than all the rest combined. He cites the too-ignored Kurdish problem posed by the surge: Until now, US forces in Iraq have been fighting, almost exclusively, the Sunni Arab … Read More

By / February 27, 2007

I'd been waiting for his critique, which is probably worth more than all the rest combined. He cites the too-ignored Kurdish problem posed by the surge:

Until now, US forces in Iraq have been fighting, almost exclusively, the Sunni Arab insurgency. Bush's new plan calls for the US military to initiate operations against the Mahdi Army (and related militias) as well, a measure that could mean US forces will become embroiled in all-out urban warfare throughout Baghdad, a city of more than five million. In addition, the Mahdi Army has members throughout southern Iraq, in the Diyala Governorate northeast of Baghdad, and in Kirkuk. While many Shiites do not support al-Sadr (the Mahdi Army has had armed clashes with the Badr Organization belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI, one of the two main Shiite parties), the Mahdi Army is a formidable force comprising as many as 60,000 armed men.[2] With Bush ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran, the Iranian government may see a broad-based Shiite uprising against the coalition as its best insurance against a US military strike. It has every incentive to encourage—and assist—the Mahdi Army in organizing such an uprising. Iran has sufficient influence with Iraqi Shiite groups—including SCIRI—to ensure at least their neutrality in a clash with the Mahdi Army.[3]

The biggest problem with Bush's implementation of the Kagan-Keane plan (and I wish Galbraith sourced his essay better to make certain of that implementation) is in the second sentence of the extract quoted above: engaging the Mahdi Army. The AEI wonks are clear about the need to stay away from Sadr City and purely Shia districts in and around Baghdad, except in the worst-case-scenario that the Madhi attack us first. The reason for this is to secure Sunni confidence in the multinational forces and to rebuild the infrastructure of those areas which are not under the thrall of a sectarian militia, which, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, also provides vital municipal services. (The only way to wean the Shia away from Sadr is through the exertion of soft power; i.e., demonstrating how much greener the grass is over here, where the Americans and fellow Shia in the army are in charge.)

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that simply advertising a willingness to confront the Mahdi is an end unto itself. Sadr, who may or may not be in Iran, has been notably pacific these last few weeks, even offering the U.S. tips on how to capture schismatic elements of his misfit outfit. Why the gemutlich approach all of a sudden?

Sadr is either a) cooperating with the Iraqi government because he realizes his grip on power is tenuous; b) now working much more covertly with Iran than we'd previously thought (or should ever want him to) in an effort to wedge the mullahs' support for his chief competitor at home, the Badr Organization; c) conducting an internal purge, reminiscent of Stalin and Saddam, to better consolidate his hold on the revolutionary force he hopes will inherit Iraq once the surge is over and all the Americans go home.

Whatever the case, Sadr's recent low-profile is beneficial. Time is not on his side because the more he betrays the messianic principles which have earned him the following of his inner circle, the more he cooperates with the national government and the once-dreaded "occupier," and the more he alienates splinter groups within the Mahdi — the less influence he'll wield on the entire Shia community.

This is exactly the psychological/political scheme that underwrites the Kagan-Keane plan.

I suggested two weeks ago that there was indeed good reason to believe Sadr had fled to Iran because he'd struck a deal with our side and he to avoid the likely outcome of it — his own assassination — once it became known and there commenced a violent power struggle within his own militia. Now comes word that, with the non-arrests of the 30 members of Iraqi Parliament associated with Sadr,

American, Iraqi and British officials are engaged in classified negotiations with his envoys over how to address the Mahdi Army and its Sadr City stronghold, the neighborhood named for Mr. Sadr’s father.

When asked about the talks, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top military spokesman in Iraq, said the meetings represented a reasonable and appropriate attempt to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

“Anytime you can find a political solution instead of a military solution,” he said, “it’s always better.”

Now here is Kagan in "Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq":

It is not in Sadr’s interest to engage in a full-scale confrontation. His experiences in 2004 in Najaf and Karbala made clear that whatever political damage he might be able to cause through such violence, American forces will decimate his fighters. He cannot afford to lose his warriors. He is not popular within the Iraqi political system and draws much of his political strength from his militia. He also requires a strong military arm to confront the Badr Corps and SCIRI in the fight for control of a post-coalition Iraq. Whatever harm Sadrists might do to coalition hopes for success in Iraq by confronting coalition forces directly, this path would almost certainly be political suicide for Sadr. He is unlikely to choose direct confrontation with the coalition unless it is forced upon him.

So far so good, even if the chubby cleric in black can't be trusted in the long-term.

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