In early September, 2006, I wrote a piece at my own blog, and here at Donklephant, (more here) asking whether we had just lost a war. Afghanistan was the subject, and sadly, I think I was pretty close to right. The attempt by Musharraf to compromise with the Taliban and their allies in the tribal areas left the enemy there free to choose when and how to engage. It meant the enemy had a safe sanctuary.
You don’t win wars against foes that can hold the initiative, and then scurry back to a safe place whenever they don’t like the way a battle is going. Picture a boxing match where one fighter is allowed to throw every first punch, and then can call a time-out whenever he likes.
It seems now that the new(ish) semi-government of Pakistan will continue taking a hands-off approach to the tribal regions. Which means that either some local solution is found to the Taliban — ie the tribes get tired of them and the trouble they bring — or we’ll be fighting for a long, long time to come. Any time it becomes a test of staying power between a foreign army with a very shaky supply line, and the people who actually live in a region, bet on the locals.
But this post isn’t about Afghanistan. It’s about Iraq.
It’s been hard to get any sort of clear picture of exactly what happened in Basra between Sadr’s militia and Maliki’s army. (This one has the ring of truth.) It’s still pretty murky, and the sequelae have yet to be sorted out. But here are the relevant points, as I see them:
1) Sadr stood down. The Iraqi Army is still in Basra. Sadr didn’t stand down and allow IA forces to patrol the streets of Basra because he was winning. Sadr lacked the ability to force the IA off his turf.
2) The Iraqi Army performed poorly by American Army standards. But they didn’t lose. And they didn’t fall apart. And given the history of Arab armies in recent decades, that’s pretty good.
3) The Maliki government seems to have dreamed this up on its own, not acting on American instructions. The Maliki government was certainly motivated by political considerations more than some abstract concern for law and order.
4) Iran appears to have played a major role in the outcome.
The details, and most of the “why’s?” are yet to be learned. But this is nevertheless a big moment, a reverse Tet offensive, despite what Frank Rich wrote today. If the prevailing anti-war narrative had played out we’d have seen the IA break, switch sides, and bear a triumphant Sadr off to Tehran on its shoulders. Didn’t happen that way.
What we seem to have right now is a Maliki government that is able to initiate major military actions, even against another Shiite entity, and carry that action through to an arguably acceptable conclusion. If that doesn’t sound like much, you should read some history of the War of Independence. Or early Civil War. Or early WW2. Bumbling, stumbling, impatience and overreach are givens.
So, where do we stand right now? We have a government (of sorts) under Mr. Maliki, which is able to win fairly serious battles. We have Al Qaeda in a lot of trouble, pressed by us and our Sunni allies (of the moment.) The Kurds seem to have reached an uneasy modus vivendi with the Turks. The Iranians have backed away from pressing a confrontation with the US. It may be that the Iranians are biding their time, waiting for a Democrat in the White House. But it may also be that they’ve concluded that their real interests are more about a stable and not-hostile government in Baghdad, than about picking fights with Americans and American allies like Saudi Arabia.
There are big problems remaining. Will the Kurds stay contentedly within Iraq? Will our new BFF’s the Sunni’s of the anti-Qaeda coalition remain tame? Can the uneasy kinda-peace within Shiite ranks hold steady? Can this bunch of crooks figure out how to split up the oil loot so that all five families (apologies to the Gambinos, etc…) can wet their beaks?
Big problems. But what happened in Basra isn’t nothing, it’s something. It looks like a win. A win that may foreshadow a big win, a “victory,” now defined downward to mean: stability, within the middle-eastern meaning of that word; a not-entirely-hostile government in Iraq; widespread but not Saddam’s Iraq Chainsaw Massacre level of human rights abuses; a press that will end by being tame but perhaps not Pravda-tame; and a version of representative democracy that will probably end by being the sort of hollow joke that democracy has become in Iran, but may surprise us by rising to, say, Mexican standards.
If that’s the way it plays out, we will have failed in most of our original goals. We’ll have had no positive effect on the spread of WMD’s, and in fact may have nudged both Iran and North Korea further along that road. We will not have created a shining city on a hill to which all oppressed middle-easterners will look for inspiration. We will not have demonstrated that we are the one and only big dog, capable of going it alone and brushing aside all opposition. We’ll end up poorer, deeper in debt to the Chinese and the Arabs, with an experienced but worn-out military, and a world deeply sick of our shit. But we might at least, a in a couple of years, be able to get out.