December 7th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man


As predicted, the report of the "Baker-Hamilton" bipartisan Iraq Study Group came out Wednesday. I read it. It's not as bad as it might have been. For example, the trial balloon that got floated a month ago about recommending another 20k to 30k US troops is visibly, perceptibly missing. You can even see, if you pay attention, where they took it out.

If you read my journal, the odds are you do so because you like the way that I explain things. In that case, you absolutely should read at least part of the report, which is a great deal better than anything I might have tried to do on the subject. In particular, read section I(A), "Assessment of the Current Situation in Iraq," which is the single most coherent and comprehensive explanation of exactly what is going on over there that you will find in any medium. A trifle optimistic, perhaps. For example, they give an estimate for the size of the Mahdi Army of 60,000; reports in the last couple of weeks put it at closer to 80,000 to 120,000. But other than a few tiny nitpicks like that, which could simply be artifacts of the fact that parts of this report were compiled as far back as March, it's amazingly thorough and does an incredibly good job of explaining all of the relevant forces, factors, sides, and issues, in the space of about 20 pages.

But since none of the news accounts I've seen yet have actually given a decent overview of what's actually in the report, instead narrowing in on specific out of context excerpts, let me see if I can do that for you. The basic situation, as they see it, is that there are somewhere around 20 major "players," major factions in the region, all of which are fielding various sized armies or proxy armies in Iraq. The most prominent native factions are the pro-government Shiites, pro-Islamist Shiites, Baathist Sunnis, Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist Sunnis, two Kurdish political parties, various corrupt government officials who are building their own mini-empires within their branches of government, and one or more organized crime factions. Add to that proxy armies for Syria and Iran, plus threats of meddling from Turkey if they don't like the way the Kurdistan situation shakes down. All of these, all of them, have one reason or another to maintain an armed militia of their own, and to use those militias to engage in reprisal killings against one or more rival militias.

The Baker-Hamilton committee unanimously agreed that it is flatly not within the US's power to stop those militias by force. Period. Can't be done; we're way too badly outnumbered. So if those militias are to be persuaded to stop killing each other, lay down their arms, and become peaceful political parties, interest groups, and lobbyists, a whole lot of things have to be done at once. 49 of them, say the Baker-Hamilton group. And, they stress, skipping any one step guarantees failure. They're even realistic enough to admit that even if we try all 49 steps, we could still fail. But, according to them, what's going to happen if we fail (economic chaos, inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian violence flaring up in other Islamic countries, and a new semi-permanent home for al Qaeda training camps) is so dire that we have to try those 49 things whether we think they're going to work or not.

To get the in-country native groups to settle down means strengthening the Iraqi judiciary and police so that they don't have to resort to militias to get justice when someone from another group kills one of their friends or family. It means building confidence among the Iraqi people that the government's army will stay neutral and not be a breeding ground for all sides' death squads, in no small part by breaking up our best Special Forces and other elite units into individual soldiers and lending one to fight along side each platoon, to supervise, train, encourage, and fight along side them. It means undoing de-Baathification, so that Sunnis who had lucrative careers can actually find jobs again. It means breaking up the private armies that the various government ministries have been building, by incorporating them into the police or the Army. It means spending tens of billions of dollars per year, not millions of dollars per year, on providing equipment to the Iraqi police that's as good as the stuff we use, so they're not sitting ducks. All so far very plausible. Not likely to work, and we'll really regret some day not using those special forces units in Afghanistan and western Pakistan instead, but at least able to be attempted.

The part that strikes me as really deranged, though, is how are we supposed to get Syria to stop letting al Qaeda in Iraq move weapons and recruits freely across its borders and to stop funding their own proxy army inside Iraq: trade them the Golan Heights. Which, frankly, aren't ours to give. And which offer wouldn't impress them, since they're pretty sure at this point that they're going to get them back any day now without our help. And how are we going to get Iran to stop funding their own Hezbollah forces inside Iran and to stop providing even better funding and training to the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade? That part's even funnier: promise not to try to overthrow their regime and admit them into the WTO. Oh, I'm sure that offer is going to impress them. And how are we going to persuade Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and other countries to lend the Iraqi government substantial assistance and diplomatic legitimacy? By opening a new round of Israel/Palestine peace talks. That's going to be enough? Just peace talks? How gullible do we think those countries are?

And that's the thing: I think that Jim Baker is just as delusional about the power of American diplomacy as George Bush is (or, if we're lucky, was) about the power of American military force. And by the Baker-Hamilton commission's own admission, without success on all diplomatic fronts, any hope of stopping the Iraqi militias short of their escalating into a full-scale civil war is hopeless. So, by their own design, we'd keep trying to persuade the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army to attempt the impossible, while threatening them that some time in the summer of '08 we'll give up and withdraw our troops and let them all fight it out. So even though by their own admission, if we can't pull off complete successes diplomatically in every country in the region, there'd be no chance for success, they suggest that we sacrifice another 4 to 10 American soldiers per day for another 18 or so months.