The Fulcrum of the Mideast?   (May 19, 2008)

Readers have asked me to address the war in Iraq. Here goes--again. I have long questioned the entire "war on the cheap while the homefront goes shopping" basis of the war, as reflected in these essays from 2004, 2005 and 2006:

Katrina, Vietnam, Iraq: National Purpose, National Sacrifice

American Chickenhawks: Your Congress

Is This a Nation at War?

A Nation in Denial

Hawaii National Guard: An Unfair Deployment

This is not Vietnam

First, let's start with a map of the mideast:

Here are my semi-random observations. These are offered not with any claim of expertise but as a fellow citizen deeply perplexed by the immense lack of information and the immense complexity of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

1. The strategic value of Iraq and Afghanistan is rather obvious. If you want to control or influence the mideast, then by all means take the center, Iraq; and if you want to extend your influence all the way to China, Pakistan, Russia and India, then take Afghanistan, too.

Even as someone who sees the war as a catastrophe I am awed by the sheer ambition of the war's planners and respectful of the strategic implications of how it plays out from here.

A cursory glance at the map offers a staggering array of strategic advantages to controlling or influencing Iraq and Afghanistan. Even to an amateur these pop off the map:

  • you divide troublemakers Syria and Iran, collaborators despite Syria being Sunni and Iran being Shi'ite.
  • you sit astride two great rivers in a parched landscape.
  • you can easily project military power into Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Jordan and Kuwait, and threaten Russia's southern flank and Egypt.
  • your can also fill the airwaves of all these surrounding nations with disruptive ideas/propaganda like freedom of the press, individual liberty, economic opportunity, etc.-- dangerous ideas to the surrounding kleptocracies/oligarchies.
  • you sandwich Iran between Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • your land forces are within easy range of air support from the US Navy in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, not to mention long-range air power from bases in Europe, Diego Garcia and the U.S. mainland.
  • Afghanistan is central to "the Stans" and shares a small border with China.
  • even if you do nothing, you unsettle everyone around you because you hold the strategic aces of location, power projection, etc.
  • 2. We know about the oil, but what else is in play strategically? It's about the oil, of course, but beyond that observation lies a wealth of other factors, such as denying that oil to others who you might want to influence. Just choke off the Straits of Hormuz and a world of leverage suddenly opens up.

    The general assumption is that the U.S. is vulnerable to Iran shutting that chokepoint, but what happens if Iranian tankers bound for China get stopped? Who gets hurt then? Certainly not the U.S. The chokepoints work in all kinds of directions.

    If Bernard Lewis is basically correct ( What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East ) and that Islam in the mideast is fundamentally struggling to accommodate/make peace with modernity via its proxy, the West, then influencing events in the mideast is more than just influencing what happens to the oil under the sand.

    This is the "war" as framed by Osama bin Ladin and others, and it can be argued that even if the U.S. didn't need a single drop of mideast oil it still has a strategic interest in aiding the mideast's accommodation of modernism, if for no other reason than to avoid the consequences of an attempt to re-live the 14th century (just ask the young people of Iran how that's working out for them) and the fantasies of a global Caliphate astride the entire planet.

    3. The cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan are very different from ours. What the civilian war planners needed was not military planners but anthropologists who were deeply knowledgeable about the cultures, history and mindsets of those peoples who find themeselves within arbitrary national borders imposed by the British (and before them, by the Ottoman Empire).

    Tribal loyalties, so central to both those cultures, have no analog in our society. So how could we possibly expect to understand how those societies work?

    Since these peoples had rebelled against the Ottomans and the British, what did we expect? When various groups are shoved into a politically expedient amalgam not of their own choosing, the sorting out of borders, loyalties, shared resources, etc. will take a great deal of time and negotiation.

    4. Iraq was ruled for decades by a brutal dictatorship, and Afghanistan has been in semi-permanent war/chaos for decades. It's difficult for us to grasp the psychological damage done to people living in such dysfunctional, terrorized insecurity. In Iraq, tens of thousands of the best and brightest were taken out and murdered by Saddam's ruling elite; tens of thousands of young men were killed in a long, senseless war with Iran, and then thousands more were offered up as cannon-fodder when Saddam dared the U.S. to re-take Kuwait.

    The humiliations, indignities, losses, resentments and injustices endured by the Kurds and Shi'ites at the hands of Saddam's ruling Sunni elites is beyond our understanding, as is the Sunnis' desire not to suffer the same fate, i.e. be under the thumb of the Shi'ites.

    The damage done to people who survived dictatorships, war and chaos cannot be undone in a few years. Rebuilding a civil society will take decades, and that's with the best of intentions and global support being made available.

    5. The information we have access to is partial, incomplete and biased by ignorance. Personally, the only information I trust is that provided by the U.S. Army and Marine officers tasked with actual combat and "civilian relations" on the ground-- lieutenants and captains--and the rare independent journalists who are reporting from largely forgotten provinces in the north (Kurd-controlled) and the Shi'ite-controlled south.

    Having read as widely as I can--and again, I am just another concerned citizen, not an expert--I think the most accurate way to understand the U.S. Military in Iraq is to see the forces on the ground as the Iraqis see them: as another tribe you have to deal with, a tribe that is blundering at times, extremely lethal and therefore useful to have as an ally at times.

    If there are any successes in the war--and to be fair, there are some--they come when a boots-on-the-ground U.S. commander (say, a captain) establishes a personal connection with a local tribal leader or council of leaders. Is this the path to Iraq-wide peace? Nobody would claim that, but if a town or city or neighborhood gets more secure, then that's progress.

    Would things get worse for these towns and neighborhoods if the U.S. forces pulled out? It is highly likely that the answer is, whether we like it or not, yes in many cases. Who is qualified to make that assessment? Obviously, it's the tribal leaders and the U.S. captains. Nobody else's opinions are worth much, in my view, because they're not based on actual experience.

    Is the U.S. destroying Sadr City, or establishing security in the vast slum? Who knows? Let's be clear that we can't know the answer from afar, and the "answer" depends on who you're speaking to--not just a Shi'ite, but of which tribe and of what affiliations. Should the U.S. pack up and leave tomorrow? You'll get one answer in Sadr City, another in the Kurdish north; which one should you heed? You can't agree with both at the same time, or can you?

    6. Recall that U.S. civilians sent our Armed Forces to war, not the Pentagon. Army leaders like General Eric Shinseki who warned that 150,000 troops were totally insufficient for postwar occupation/security were summarily fired/forced from office by Bush, Rumsfield & Co.

    The reading list below spreads the blame for incompetence, poor planning and stupidity around to everyone involved, but we must keep in mind every critical decision was made by civilians, and therefore we the American people/voters/taxpayers are ultimately responsible. The Military is just following civilian orders.

    And since "it's the only war we got," the professional military journals focus on what's been learned about counter-insurgence and the progress that's been made in local Iraqi communities. They're making the best of their task, and the career officers are careful not to counter what their civilian no-nothing "leaders" are saying. But maybe we should ask the guys on the ground before we decide complex matters.

    7. Ethnic cleansing and a host of other horrendous tragedies are already done deals because security has been non-existent. The only way to build any security is within the tribe or equivalent, so non-tribal neighbors are forced out at gunpoint. Iraq is undoubtedly one of the most heavily armed societies on Earth. Without a functioning police or Army, it's up to groups to create local security--even if the group is essentially thugs.

    The Iraqi Army and police are supposed to step in and provide basic security, but it seems that a "national" anything is either not national or riven with the same tribal/religious regional complexities as Iraqi politics.

    8. Foreign insurgents have a different agenda than Iraqi insurgents. Foreigners favor suicide bombs in crowded market places and weddings; these tactics aren't endearing them to the Iraqis. To foreign Sunnis, the Shi'ites are as worthy of killing as the Americans. To ignore the foreign/Al Qaeda agenda is to ignore a reality that we have introduced. Whether we leave or not, these agendas will play out.

    Is the central government a facade? Is the Iraqi Army hopeless? Is the police force a Shit'ite cover for death squads? My conclusion is these generalized questions are impossible to answer in a generalized way. All answers in Iraq are local: this town, this unit, this police station, this tribe, this neighborhood. Generalized answers are either inherently inaccurate or mere conjecture/bias.

    9. Political reconciliation of Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis is essential, regardless of whether Iraq remains a nation-state, a coalition of independent substates or three new nations. Ethnic cleansing seems to be partitioning the "old Iraq" into three distinct regions (with Baghdad being a special case), but regardless of the final settling of borders, accounts and power-sharing, the oil will have to be shared and open conflict resolved with a negotiated settlement.

    Lasers, more guns or more technology isn't going to bring this settlement about; the Iraqis will have to do it themselves, with support from the U.S., regional players and the U.N. Everyone has to see the conflict as impossible to win (otherwise, they'll try to win) but possible to lose, and therefore settlement is their best option.

    10. Paraphrasing Bismarck, Iraq is not worth the bones of a single additional American soldier. As I have noted here before, I think of the career Marine officer we know who served his time in Iraq and made it home in one piece; would I risk leaving his two young children without a father and his wife without a husband for the sake of some future strategic security? Personally, I would not.

    My wife's cousin's family has already lost one young member to the war, as have 4,200+ other families. (Don't forget the quasi-civilian Americans who have been killed and wounded while serving in Blackwater and other "private" (i.e. mercenary) armed forces in Iraq.)

    But what of Colin Powell's warning at the beginning of the war: "You break it, you own it"? What is our responsibility to the Iraqi civilians? We're awfully good at blowing up and defoliating entire nations, and then leaving in a huff when things don't pan out quickly enough for our short-term, "we like to win" mindset.

    So let's be honest: we broke it, we own some part of it. So what can we do from here?

    Here are the thoughts of one concerned citizen:

    a. leave the Green Zone and the new U.S. Embassy/fortress to the Iraqi government immediately. They both scream "occupation" and "empire." Let's stop raising our voice on all the wrong messages. Talk national and regional reconciliation, not endless occupation.

    b. the decision to pull troops immediately or on a schedule should be made by the tribal leaders and U.S. captain-rank officers, on a locale-by-locale basis. If some presence is requested, deploy advisors who already know the tribes and their leaders.

    c. pull all remaining U.S. troops to bases in the remote desert (Iranian and Syrian borders) where they remain potent but out of sight and to some degree, out of mind except to Iran and Syria. Casualties will drop to near-zero and security will be much, much easier.

    d. open "regional security" talks with everyone at the table--Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq's three groups (Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites), the U.S. and the U.N. Even if absolutely nothing gets accomplished, at least everyone has an open stake and a forum. Acting like one tribe (the U.S. Military) controls the game is ludicrous; the players are there whether we like them or not. It's reality, let's deal with it.

    e. institute a military draft for all Americans up to the age of the oldest Reservist serving in theatre (Iraq and Afghanistan). If he or she is 55, then go ahead and draft me (I'm only 54). And draft everyone randomly, regardless of age, gender, religion, politics, previous service, etc. Make every American responsible for their chosen leaders' decisions. You're not going to the mall, you're going to Iraq. If you can drive to the mall, you can drive a Humvee. If you're in poor health, we'll get you into shape; there's laundry to be done on the fleet's 11 aircraft carriers and you don't need a lot of skills to do it. You'll be perfectly fit to serve your country after a few months of training.

    If you really don't want to go, maybe you'll take a little more care with who you elect to lead the nation. Oh, and it's a 5-year stay in the Federal pen if you fail to report for induction.

    f. Launch a "patriotic" reduction of U.S. oil consumption from 21 million barrels a day (MBD) down to 11 MBD. (More on that tomorrow.)

    g. amend the Constitution to require a Congressional Act of War for any deployment of U.S. Military forces in combat/harm's way which lasts longer than seven days or involves more than 5,000 soldiers/sailors/Marines.

    I am sick and tired of these mushy congressional "permissions" to engage in decade-long wars with tens of thousands of casualties, all without a formal declaration of war and a real mobilization of the populace. I'm tired of wars with no civilian participation or stake, wars where the sons and daughters of other people join and serve while the rest of us sit around playing military-style video games and shopping at the mall while our "leaders" brazenly borrow billions from the Saudis and Chinese to pay the cost of our own war. Inflict the slightest sacrifices on the "what war?" American public? No way. They might actually get off their duffs and demand an accounting of what's being done in their name.

    If you'd like to know more, I can recommend these titles as a start:

    What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis

    Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey by V.S. Naipaul

    A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin

    Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America by Michael Scheuer

    The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace by Ali A. Allawi

    Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (American Empire Project) by Chalmers Johnson

    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks

    Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

    Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone
    by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

    Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror by Robert Young Pelton

    The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

    Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror by Michael Scheuer

    State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward

    NOTE: contributions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

    Thank you, Amy C. ($20), for your very kind encouragement and generous contribution to this site. I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

    For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


    All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith, All rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.

    I would be honored if you linked this wEssay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


    consulting   blog  fiction/novels   articles  my hidden history   books/films   what's for dinner   home   email me