Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I've been wracking my brains ever since Bush's escalation in Iraq, his Baghdad security plan, began trying to figure out why the Mahdi Army folded. By my strategic calculations, they should have been able to swallow every soldier we threw into their neighborhoods and then some, with minimal casualties. But instead of doing that, they withdrew from the field of operations altogether, without a single shot fired. And for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. I'd feel worse about that if anybody else had seen today's news coming, if anybody else had offered an explanation other than the patently easily disproven guess that maybe Moqtada al Sadr had been bluffing about his military capabilities. But I didn't get it right, either, and it looks like now we know: the US, and our approved occupation government in Iraq, have been had. Al Sadr turned out to be smarter than all of them.
What was he thinking? It looks like what he was thinking was withdraw from the field fast, without waiting for the Americans and the secular Shiite Iraqis to fortify the territory. Watch al Qaeda slaughter 60 to 100 Shiite civilians per day. Await the obvious result of this: the overwhelming majority Shiites in Baghdad are begging for his troops to come back. (See Edward Wong, "Shiite Cleric Condemns U.S. as His Militia Takes to Streets," New York Times, 3/31/07.) When it was his troops patrolling the street, al Qaeda was doing well to kill more than 10 or 20 people per day in Baghdad. He can keep the (relative) peace, and neither we nor President al Maliki's paper army can. This, of course, renders the Iraqi elections, all those purple fingers waving in the air, moot. He, and his ally and superior the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, are now in the catbird seat; any Iraqi government official that tries to stand in his way has a life expectancy measured in weeks.
And the gods help any American in Iraq who gets in his way. Only roughly 1/4 of the reinforcements we're sending are in the field yet. None of the forward posts that we were building to secure the territory are finished. The units that are there are deployed alongside Iraqi army units, scattered all over Baghdad. If they try to fight the Mahdi Army when it returns, they'll find themselves outnumbered in every fight, at street level in a city full of snipers, fighting against people who know the terrain better and who are dug in. This is where we find out if we can deploy enough Predator drones, and if we're willing to inflict enough civilian casualties, to even keep our troops alive under those conditions long enough to withdraw them. Forget winning. Those soldiers are toast.
All the sturm und drang over who's going to get blamed if Bush vetoes the Democratic spending bills that call for withdrawal by fall of 2008? The angst over what'll happen if the military runs out of money for Iraq at the end of May if the Democrats refuse to pass a veto-proof Iraq war spending bill? Forget it. If Sadr pulls this off, we won't have a single living soldier in Baghdad by Memorial Day. This is the Tet Offensive all over again; that helicopter on the roof moment is coming so fast that all the political maneuvering back home is going to have been rendered moot by the facts on the ground. The old spending bill won't even be expired before the retreats begin, if I'm reading this situation right.
Holy Mary mother of "Bob," we're screwed. I was hoping we'd lose, yes. But I was rather hoping that we could withdraw our troops from there in an orderly fashion before Hezbollah took over the country; I was hoping our troops wouldn't have to stage another fighting retreat like that desperate race to evacuate Saigon in 1974. I was sincerely hoping for a loss that wouldn't involve nearly as many dead soldiers (let alone dead Iraqi civilians, both from our return fire and from Shiite on Sunni ethnic cleansing) as we're facing if the Mahdi Army counter-surges on us right now. This is as bad as it gets.
As an aside: This week, after being "questioned" extensively in American military prisons, Australian David Hicks said that he trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan with the intent to attack the US, and while they're still holding him he says that he's saying this of his own free will. This week, after being "questioned" extensively in Iranian military prisons, British sailor Nathan Thomas Summers said that his military unit illegally invaded Iranian territorial waters, and while they're still holding him he says that the Iranians are treating him well.
Give me any one fact-based reason to believe either one of those statements and not the other. Because I know of no reason to believe either of those statements.
(Hmm. Putting the two stories together, if any American soldiers are over-run by Mahdi Army in Sadr City, they'd better fight to the death. Thanks to George Bush's rollback of 100 years of progress on the rules of war, I know of no reason to think that they won't be tortured if they surrender.)