Iraq - Strategic Options 17 Febraury 2007
The continuing failure of US and UK policy to stablise and pacify Iraq has led to a review of current operations and an evaluation of strategic options.
The execution of Saddam Hussein on 30 December 2006 set the scene for the New Year. The indignity of his fate, which was recorded on film and transmitted around the globe, filled even conservative observers with disgust.
The scandal of his execution demonstrates that the US and UK policy of handing over civil matters in Iraq to a bourgeoning domestic administration is fatally flawed and the rhetoric which talks about the green shoots of democracy and civil administration in Iraq is a sham. It also leads one to ask the question that if the US and UK cannot organise an execution, how can they claim to have the vision and will to rebuild Iraq ?
The current US policy is that Victory in Iraq remains an achievable objective. The new US policy is to split Baghdad into some 10 sectors and to cleanse each sector in turn of insurgents. After a section has been cleansed, responsibility for law and order will be handed over to the Iraqi army and civil institutions.
In the past both the US and UK forces have engaged with militias and ejected them from areas and then moved on. After the departure of US and UK forces, the militias have returned to these locations, spent some time quietly regrouping, and then re-commenced operations. This has also been the experience in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are once again an active force and a serious threat.
The prospect of operating in Baghdad was not welcomed by the Iraqi army, and forces in the South rebelled upon receipt of orders for deployment in Baghdad.
The US and UK have demonstrated their ability to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq by precision bombing, but they have singularly failed to rebuild the country. In fact the infrastructure of Iraq has suffered further major depredations since the defeat of Saddam Hussein.
The practice of awarding contracts to US companies, and without a tendering process, is unimpressive. It simply reinforces and perpetuates the nepotism and corruption which permeated Iraq during the Saddam years. Vice President Dick Cheney has received major personal benefits from contracts awarded to Halliburton Co and has, for several years, been attempting to distance himself from the company. The significant oil reserves of Iraq should be explored and extracted in an open and fair manner.
In the north of Iraq, the situation is better. Most of the investments in the north have been made by Middle East companies, especially Turkish, and these projects have conferred tangible and auditable benefits to the regional economy.
It is a tragedy that the US and UK have been unable to disseminate their infrastructure skills and entrepreneurial expertise in Iraq. The years of occupation will simply be remembered for the heavy handed military presence and the deprivations of the Iraqi people.
The Democrats in the House of Representatives do not support this policy and the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear:-The passage of this legislation will signal a change in direction in Iraq that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon - she said.
The Democrats are stymied by intellectual paralysis concerning Iraq and apart from their moral outrage at deaths of US soldiers, they have no constructive policy alternatives, other than to bring US troops home.
If victory is not an achievable goal, should the US withdraw troops from Iraq ? This is a simple and understandable policy, and inevitably has some appeal.
A reduction in troop levels will probably lead to increased casualties, rather than a reduction as the remaining forces will be stretched and more open to attack by militias. So the policy option is that of a complete withdrawal, presumably over a short time scale.
If there were a credible, embryonic Iraqi government in place, with both a palpable military capability and a commitment to justice and impartiality, then withdrawal with honour could be a possibility.
However, this is far from the case. The so called Iraqi government appears more like a passive spectator than an active actor in the daily disasters which are relayed to the western media. Even the Bush administration which initially proclaimed the democratisation of Iraq has become silent on this matter.
If there was a sudden withdrawal of US and UK forces, the disaster of Iraq would not diminish. On the contrary, it would grow and engulf neighbouring states including Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The results would be both unpredictable and possibly catastrophic.
In political terms, it would be a mortal blow for US credibility throughout the Middle East and create a vacuum which could be exploited by extreme religious and terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda.
If withdrawal is not a practical option, then the initiation of a dialogue with regional players would appear both prudent and pragmatic. This was one of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study group and espoused by George Bush senior.
Tony Blair has been especially enthusiastic about this option. However, this opportunity has been mishandled by both Bush and Blair. Both Syria and Iran were wooed to engage in diplomatic initiatives by the US. They were understandably nervous about this as they distrusted US intentions: the US media claims that Bush has drawn up plans for military action against these states.
Instead of treading softly, Bush and Blair adopted a threatening approach and warned of adverse consequences if they failed to become involved. This had the result of further alienating Iran and Syria.
In fact both Syria and Iran have become involved in Iraq, but not in the manner requested by the US. Syria provides training and aid to Sunni militias operating in west Iraq while Iran does the same for Shi'ites in the east. Both these militias target US and UK troops.
While the north of Iraq has seen some infrastructure improvements due to Turkish involvement, the treatment of Turkey by the US has been haphazard. On the one hand, the US has supported UK efforts to assist Turkey to join the EU, but on the other hand the US has been ambivalent about the status of Kurds in north Iraq.
The US has given repeated assurances that the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, will be removed from north Iraq. This has not happened. On the contrary, the US has encouraged Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state in north Iraq, which would place Turkey in an intolerable position due to the large number of Kurds in southern Turkey.
Tony Blair has exhibited courage by distancing himself from US policy and allied himself with Turkey. During January 2007, Turkey increased the number of troops and weapons on its southern border with Iraq.
No consideration of US policy in this area is complete without mention of Israel. The US and UK support for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006 and the ongoing problems in Palestine have been a harsh reminder to the Arab world of loyalties in the region.
The fact that Tony Blair and the UK were silent and hence complicit concerning the destruction of south Lebanon is a major reverse for UK credibility in the region. Future UK governments will have to work long and hard to redress this setback.
Some cynical observers perceive the Israeli hand in the US actions which have the effect of weakening or obliterating the military capability of states hostile to Israel. Based on this interpretation, Iran could well be the next target for US/Israeli ambitions.
Leslie Hardy, 17 February 2007