Iraq: The Real War and Why It's Ignored

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July 17, 2007: There are several large scale counter-terror operations going on. Each one has five to ten thousand troops (usually about a third of them Iraqi) sweeping through an area long used by terrorists for bases.) One such operation, "Marne Torch" reports that, after six weeks, 1,152 buildings were searched, 83 terrorists killed, 278 arrested or captured (depends on if they were armed and shooting when caught), 51 weapons caches found, 51 terrorist boats (used to move men and weapons via water) destroyed and 872 suspects entered into the electronic database. That last item, the database, is proving more valuable as time goes by. With nearly half a million people entered in it so far, more of the usual suspects are being identified and eventually arrested. Fingerprints and retinal scans eliminates the language barrier. When troops catch a suspicious character, and quickly get a positive ID for someone who has been caught elsewhere in the country, but without enough evidence to keep him confined, you know you have someone you need to have a chat with. Or at least run the test to see if he has handled explosives lately. Or maybe ask the neighbors if this guy has been bothering anyone. You know, the usual death threats against anyone who might give information to the Americans or police. Troops let it be known that cash rewards will be quietly paid for any useful information. The IDs of these informants are not shared with the Iraqi police, to make sure the informant is not found and killed by the terrorists. The war in Iraq is mostly about information, and these days the terrorists have less of it, and Iraqi and coalition troops have more of it.

But the war is still not the major problem. Corruption and incompetent government are.

Corruption is pervasive throughout the Middle East, and so common that it is simply accepted by most locals and foreign visitors. But the inability to create a civil society leads to widespread incompetence in government. This is made worse in Iraq, because the 2003 invasion put the ruling class, largely composed of Sunni Arabs, out of power. The Kurds had been free for over a decade, protected by British and American air power. The Kurds still had corruption and a shortage of skills, but they had been able to develop a peacefulness and prosperity that was in sharp contrast to the rest of Iraq. It's amazing what peace and some honest government will do. Northern Iraq is a striking example of what the rest of Iraq could be like. But you can't do it in a hurry.

Take a look down south, the Shia Arabs, who have been locked out of the government, not to mention the education system and many economic opportunities, for generations. Suddenly they had to come up with replacements for the unemployed Sunni Arab bureaucrats and military commanders. Suggestions that the Sunni Arab civil servants and military officers be kept on the job ignored the fact that this was how Sunni Arabs took over in the first place. The Sunni Arab domination of the government and economy IS the problem. Saddam's main job was to see that it stayed that way. So, since 2003, the Shia Arab replacements have been climbing a steep learning curve. It has not been pretty, especially when you throw in all the corruption.

Then there's the Sunni Arab intransigence. Most of the violence initially came from Sunni Arabs, led by military officers and secret police officials who wanted their jobs, and privileges, back. The Sunni Arabs have a high opinion of themselves, which is somewhat justified by their high educational and skill levels. The Sunni Arabs also realize that the majority of Iraqis (65 percent of the population is Shia and 22 percent Kurdish) hate them. That majority is also hungry for revenge. Saddam's thugs (the word fits very well here) got increasingly sadistic and brutal during the end of Saddam's 30 year reign. But Saddam rarely wiped out families, so all those victims have kin keen on killing Sunni Arabs in return. Blood feuds are not unique to the Middle East, but the sheer size of the problem in Iraq is one for the record books. Until recently, the mass media ignored this motive, and called the Sunni Arab terrorists "insurgents." But now that Saddam's victims are well armed and organized, the terrorists have become the terrorized.

For most of the last year, the U.S. response to the corruption, incompetence and intransigence has been to attack it head on. This is how things are done in the Middle East. Except for Israel and Turkey, there are no working democracies in the region. It's all bullies and police state politics. The locals understand a good hit up side the head. So tell the Shia Arab politicians who are currently trying to run the country, that we want them to do certain things (like more effective policing and less stealing), or U.S. aid will be cut, and American troops will begin leaving. That's more brutal than it sounds, because recent opinion surveys indicate that more Sunni than Shia want the American troops to stay. Why? Because the Shia want to slaughter the Sunni Arabs and drive the survivors out of the country. Only the presence of U.S. troops prevents that. The Shia politicians don't want this mass murder to take place, even if most of the people who elected them do. The politicians realize that mass murder is wrong, and would be impossible to explain away to the world community. But to all the Shia and Kurd families who have lost someone, the world community's feeling don't figure into the equation. Besides, you can just blame the Americans, and most of the world will agree with you.

This rough love approach has been used in the past in similar situations. How soon we forget that, before World War II, U.S. troops (soldiers and marines) were all over the place doing peacekeeping and nation-building. Some of the current back-to-the-future techniques include simply paying off some local leaders to keep them quiet. This was done in late 2001 in Afghanistan, as part of the two month campaign that had 300 U.S. troops and CIA agents organize the fall of the Taliban. That sort of money politics is generally frowned on in the United States, except when you're desperate (like in the wake of September 11, 2001). U.S. troops have taken direct control of more aid and reconstruction operations. Large jobs program for Iraq's unemployed young people gives them an alternative to working for gangsters or terrorists. Giving the money to the Iraqi government risks having most of it stolen.

More American troops are now embedded with Iraqi police and military units. Partly they are there to advise, but mostly they are there to spy. When incompetent or corrupt officials are spotted, the American troops can either turn them around or turn them in.

There's no guarantee that this "war on corruption" will work, but things will remain bad if you do nothing. The Arab world is a mess because of the corruption. Not just all the dictatorships, but an economy that under-performs the rest of the world (including many areas without natural resources, like oil). There's an "Arab Reform Movement" operating throughout the region, but so far all they have been able to do is bring the problems out into the open. That's progress, but not a solution.

We need solutions, but too often, most American politicians are more concerned with political correctness. That isn't always bad. For example, there has been enormous emphasis, in Iraq, on keeping American casualties down. This has been a success, with the casualty rate being about half what it was in Vietnam, and at a record low level historically. This has amazed military experts the world over, but was accomplished by adopting tactics that limited what American troops could do. That is, most U.S. troops were engaged in "force protection", not going out hunting for bad guys. The effort saved lives, but the Department of Defense never got much credit for it. To the media, each death was an unforgivable tragedy, because the war had become a political football.

The basic strategy in Iraq is, historically, sound. You help the locals get organized so they can take care of themselves. That means elections and help to rebuild local institutions. But there's never a guarantee that will work. The U.S. Marines were in Haiti for nearly 30 years (from 1914), and the country still reverted to dictatorship and poverty when the marines left. This exposes a truth that many refuse to acknowledge. Fixing countries isn't easy. The "civil society" that we in the West take for granted, cannot just be conjured up. The harmonious relationships that enable some democracies to work, are not a given. Those relationships often require a lot of bad habits to be changed. This is not easy. Just check a history book.

Iraq, and most of the countries in the Middle East, are broken. They have been for a long time. We in the West have generally ignored it, because there were no workable solutions that were easily available. Then came the latest wave of Islamic terrorism. This got worse, until September 11, 2001, and the prospect of mass murder in our own backyard became a reality. Then, the West became divided over the solution. Do we keep treating the terrorists as a police problem, and wait them out? That is known to work. But the threat of even deadlier terrorist attacks made more dramatic moves attractive. So here we are in Iraq, confronting the Arab problems up close and personal. It ain't pretty. But unless the Arab problems are solved, the ugly aftereffects will still be there, and so will the threat of mass murder on the street where you live.

 

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