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Whatever happened to the war in Iraq?

The Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds remain unreconciled

Whatever happened to the Iraq war? Remember six years ago Junior, Dick and Donald brought us ‘shock and awe.’

Critics were dismissed: “ Our boys will be welcomed with flowers and kisses”.

Then the oil would flow, a beacon of democracy would be established and the troops would be home by Christmas, leaving a coke-swilling, burger-eating, mall-shopping, Israel-loving Middle East in their wake.

What’s more it wasn’t going to cost a cent. The black gold would underwrite the whole show. Heck it was a ‘no brainer’!

Bob Woodward’s series of books on the whole tragic affair perfectly captures the ‘no brainer’ ambiance in the Oval Office, the ‘jocks in the locker room’ mentality that prevailed amongst the principals. Significantly, with the exception of the first compromised and later isolated, Colin Powell, none of the main men had actually seen the reality of their ‘bring it on’ machismo on the battlefield. Nor did they seem too concerned about how their ass-kicking leadership might be interpreted down the ranks or indeed how it would affect the image of the US.

Paul Wolfowitz and the neo-cons’ vision of a Prague like spring in Baghdad was seriously wounded by the atrocity exhibition that was Abu Ghraib. The vision, however, staggered on until it officially died in 2005 in Haditha.

The myth of the liberator finally hit the dirt there too in the My Lai type horror that followed an ambush on a platoon of US Marines. A couple of grunts were wounded but what made the remainder lose the plot was the sight of a well-liked comrade’s upper torso flying out of his Humvee leaving his legs behind in the car seat.

When the Marines’ homicidal rage subsided, 24 Iraqis, including women, children and the elderly, lay dead.

The actual insurgents, by all accounts, got away safely. Armies in general, and the US army in particular, are easy targets for armchair critique. But as Thomas Ricks’ bestselling book “Fiasco” reveals, the most enlightened critique of how the US was actually conducting the war came from those officers faced with the problem of implementing ‘no brainer’ policies on the ground. By 2005 those top brass who cared to look were already registering US troop morale plummet as ordinary soldiers paid with their lives for the lack of any long-term strategy. The savagery at Haditha was indicative of this. It seemed that we were returning to Vietnam “destroy to save” absurdity and the Iraqi people were realising to their horror that there’s only two letters between liberate and obliterate. While Washington was dismissing insurgents as “dead-enders”, the brass on the ground was clamouring for a new strategy and starting to discuss defeat.

In fact, they needed a strategy that would let the army do what armies need to do – seize the initiative. Because ever since their ‘shock and awe’ premiere, the three horsemen of the White House were doing their blockbuster best to hide the fact that they were not directing the show – when they weren’t merely reacting, they were winging it.

Lacking leadership and direction, the army was constantly in defensive mode.

The gap between Washington and Baghdad became critical, prompting the unprecedented ‘Generals’ Revolt’. It was a very American coup in that a handful of retired generals broke protocol and spoke out, criticising Rumsfeld’s management of the war. The plan to train, equip and hand the situation over to Iraqi troops, some argued, was not only unreal but surreal.

The Generals argued their intervention was necessary as one of Rumsfeld’s achievements was his monopolisation of the traditional avenues of information to the President, thereby both undermining a healthy system of checks and balances and encouraging Bush in such unstatesmanlike conduct as his ‘bring it on’ caper.

Come 2006, as Baghdad descended into sectarian savagery; the Republicans were badly mauled in the US congressional elections. Bush’s own ratings plummeted to new lows.

In fact, things were getting so bad that not even Rumsfeld could paper over the cracks. Finally he got his marching orders. His replacement as Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, instantly realised that something had to be done, fast. First the US had to work out what it was doing in Iraq. So the democracy and human- rights talk gave way to the still ambitious words – “stable” and “unified”. There was one immediate priority, a ‘no brainer’- security.

The now dominant Democrats were happy to criticise from the sidelines but did not want the responsibility of picking up such a problematic ball as Iraq. So with nothing to lose and a free hand, Bush finally opened the Oval Office to some alternative thinking.

It was the moment General David Petraeus was waiting for. The current military strategy did not provide security for the people but it did provide targets for the insurgents. So you got the worst casualties, pointless ones. The General also argued against the policy of pulling US troops out of built-up areas and into fortress camps. Not alone did this alienate them from the people but it made their predictable patrols easy targets for the increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs that were claiming most US lives and limbs.

The US was now fighting a counterinsurgency war and needed to adapt. The goal was to win people not terrain. Petraeus called for more troops on the ground, lots more. He wanted to throw some 30,000 extra troops into what some thought was a lost cause, others said was a cause for the Iraqis, and still others again said was simply a wrong cause.

But Petraeus said it was the only option.

His plan essentially involved standard counter-insurgency tenets – get your troops out into the towns, on foot, among the people, help create security and slowly win some degree of trust. Small outposts were to be established in towns. And, having seen the effect on morale of winning terrain by day to lose it again at night, these posts were to be held at all costs.

As in many conflict-zones, a lot of people just want to get through the day with a sense of security, and will grant some degree of allegiance to whoever provides it.

A couple of other things also stood in the general’s favour – the savage sectarian battle for Baghdad was pretty much over. The Shiites had succeeded in religiously cleansing most of the capital of its Sunni inhabitants. And then up in the Sunni triangle, the heartland of the anti US insurgency, Al Qaeda had overplayed its brutal hand and had started to alienate the majority of Sunni guerrillas. The US saw an opportunity, albeit controversial, to divide and conquer. It meant sitting down with many of the men who had been attacking them and offering them guns and money to protect themselves and their towns against the jihadis. Al Qaeda responded with fury.

The response, however, just boosted the ranks of the US-funded militia. The General’s policy started to reap dividends. When the locals saw that the US troops were staying put in their towns, tips on roadside bombs and suicide vehicles started coming in. The effectiveness of these could be seen in the decrease in major suicide bomb attacks using cars and trucks.

Al Qaeda resorted to using women bombers, who less likely to be frisked, children and even the mentally disabled. But overall there was a decline in violence and a drop in US casualties. And with that, the Iraq war pretty much disappeared off the Western news agenda.

Petraeus’ policy – the Surge – was a Gamble, as Thomas Ricks called the book with which he followed “Fiasco”.

The gamble was that if the troops could provide enough security, there might be the possibility of some move on the political front.

Sadly as the Surge comes to an end, there does not appear to be any sign of political movement or any gesture of reconciliation between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. All three have now been bankrolled and armed by the US at some stage.

If the problem doesn’t first comes from the Kurds moving to claim the oilfields, many argue the Shiite-Sunni civil war will flare up again once the US troop presence recedes. “The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven’t happened yet ”, Ricks warns in the last sentence of “The Gamble”.