Thursday, November 02, 2006

Assassinations, Coups, and a Blood-Drenched Desert

Last week, NY Post columnist Ralph Peters unambiguously called for the assassination of Muqtada al-Sadar -- the headline, in typical NY Post subtlety, demanded KILL MUQTADA NOW. Chap tipped me to this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column by Jack Kelly which seconds Peters' motion:

So why is the Moqtada al-Sadr still alive?

When Coalition Provisional Authority chairman Paul Bremer issued an arrest warrant for al Sadr in April of 2004, we were dissuaded from serving it by Iraqi politicians and clerics who claimed they could "control" him. Now he's controlling them.

Whenever we've attempted to apply a political "solution" to what is essentially a military problem, bad things have happened. An example is when we broke off the first battle of Fallujah in May of 2004 at the insistence of those Sunni leaders (more or less) supporting the government. This handed al-Qaida a major (though fortunately only a temporary) victory.

We hesitate to act decisively against Mr. Sadr in order to preserve the facade of Iraqi democracy and sovereignty, even though Mr. Maliki's hapless government wouldn't last a week if U.S. troops withdrew.

To maintain this fiction, we won't take actions Mr. Maliki doesn't approve of. But he depends upon the 28 votes Mr. Sadr controls in the Iraqi parliament in order to maintain his tenuous grasp on power. Prodding from the United States has so far been insufficient to get him to give them up. Mr. Maliki has declared which side he's on, and it isn't ours.

If we act against Mr. Sadr, there will be an uprising. It will be bloody. But continued inaction pretty much guarantees slow motion defeat.

And then yesterday, Peters calls for yet another well-placed bullet:

Our greatest setback in Iraq may be that country's undoing: It has proven impossible to develop an honest, nonpartisan police establishment anywhere in the country's Arab provinces. The police aren't feared by criminals, but by law-abiding citizens.

The secret police are back, in the form of death squads. And the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looks perfectly happy with the situation.

American advisers risk their lives in the struggle to build Iraqi police units committed to doing their duty. We've equipped them, trained them and led from the front.

In gratitude, Iraq's police have ambushed our troops, fielded death squads less restrained than those under Saddam, stolen everything they could steal in preparation for a future civil war - and, apparently, funneled U.S.-provided arms to militias, insurgents and terrorists.

Our efforts to develop good cops have failed (garbage in, garbage out). We need to stop wasting our efforts. Shielded by government ministers and parliamentarians, the police are so out of control that there's no longer any hope of weeding out the bad guys. Instead, the bad guys are weeding out the good guys: Honest cops get killed. By other cops.

The situation's desperate. We need to revamp our strategy (to the extent that we have one). For all its shortcomings, the Iraqi army has been a far greater success than the police - whether we're speaking of cops on the beat or paramilitary commandos.

It's time to abandon the cops. Let the anti-American elements in the Maliki government have them. Don't continue to strengthen our enemies. Concentrate on developing and expanding the army.

Why? Here's where the truth gets still uglier. As dearly as we believe in democracy, Iraq's Arabs are proving that they're incapable of the political, social and moral maturity necessary to run an elected government.

Casting ballots alone doesn't make a democracy. The government has to function. And to protect all of its citizens.

In the coming months, we may find that the only hope of restoring order is a military government. It sounds repellent, but a U.S.-backed coup may be the only alternative to endless anarchy.

OK. One at a time here. Kelly concedes that the assassination of al-Sadr will result in a bloody uprising, a noxious tonic that only goes down when confronted with the alternative of a "slow motion defeat." I'll posit that Kelly's crystal ball isn't any better than mine. And my crystal ball tells me that the assassination of al-Sadr will merely speed up our defeat.

Wouldn't our assassination of a leading Shiite cleric royally inflame the broader Iraqi Shia community, even those that think that al-Sadr is a kook, if they see the assassination as a proxy action on the behalf of the Sunnis? At the moment, we're mostly fighting Sunni insurgents - do we want to add another significant front with a mere 138,000 pairs of boots with almost nothing in reserve? Nowhere do Kelly nor Peters acknowledge the fact the Army and Marines are dealing with both physical exhaustion and significant degradation of their hardware. Do we truly have the manpower and equipment to deal with a new significant offensive? The situation would, quite likely, certainly leapfrog to total chaos, American casualties would skyrocket, and the remaining home front support for the war would evaporate and Congress would pull the plug.

In the post below, I mentioned that Maliki might want to read up on what happened to Vietnam's Diem. Looks like Ralph Peters was thinking the same thing with his open call for a coup. That "solution" looks like a disaster to me.

Any replacement government won't have the veneer of being indigenous. Peters is quite correct to call bullshit on the Bush Administration's fairy tale that purple thumbs alone make a democracy but glosses over the reality they do at least provide some cover. "Military government?" What does that mean? We off a Shiite who's tight with Iran, who enjoys at least some fair measure of popularity in the Shia community. We off a moderate Shiite AND off the radical Shiite (al-Sadr) and we have a rather unified Shia Iraq wanting to kill every American they see. What do we really replace Maliki with? What faction within the existing Iraqi military will have a significantly different outlook and vision than Maliki? Killing Maliki and replacing him with a body without the imprimatur of the "consent of the governed" will make that government an obvious puppet and a terminal inflammatory target.

And where does a Maliki coup leave the neocon foreign policy base for Bush? Maliki is Zalmay Khalilzad's (American ambassador to Iraq) guy. Given Khalizad's history, he's probably got the stomach for a coup but his credibility within Iraq disappears. The one American who seems to have his head screwed on straight from the perspective of the Iraqis turns his back while murder went down... I can't see it. And what of Kristol, Frum, Perle, and the others who will see the last vestige of their fantasy of democracy in Iraq crushed in the wake of such a coup? Most Americans aren't in thrall to the neocon vision as they may have been in 2002 and 2003 but as prominent talking heads, the neocons still provide significant media cover for American blood-letting in Iraq. They have nothing left to support if a democratic Iraq is permanently put on hold. Their collective desertion of Bush would weaken him even further and would likely speed demands for a withdrawal.

We have no clearly good choices. Peters and Kelly are right about one thing -- what we're doing isn't working and appears to be fatally leading towards defeat. The new Congress and Senate will have a difficult choice laid before them: take a chance on a new, more muscular, and at least in the short-term, far bloodier policy with no clear guarantee for victory OR a phased withdrawal which absolutely guarantees no victory and most likely results in the Democrats being labeled as national security wimps for another generation. Will Senator Clinton want to continue to cultivate her aura of toughness and say "no thanks." What will Senator Obama say -- quite possibly his moment of truth is imminent.

The importance of the impending Baker plan now stands in sharp relief. Because if we discard that path, my guess is that the Congress, Senate, and the President will opt for far more blood than we have seen thus far. I fear that in the not-to-distant future, we may well wax nostalgic for a month where "only" 105 American servicemen and women fell in Iraq.