One last push and that’s you finished in Iraq, Mr President

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 07/01/07):

This is the week, we are told, when George Bush will announce positively the last military assault on insurgency in Iraq before he finally loses patience and quits. The so-called surge will supposedly correct the mistake of last year’s Operation Together Forward. Without law and order in the capital the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq is impossible. But since that order cannot, after all, be assigned to Iraqi forces, the Americans must throw another 20,000-30,000 troops into the conflict instead.

I have not heard one remotely plausible game plan for the “Battle of the Surge”. Leaks have indicated that commanders on the ground are strongly opposed to giving the enemy yet more targets. Pentagon chiefs are equally opposed to the cost in men and money of a transient boost in control on the ground. American public opinion and Congress are overwhelmingly against the plan, which Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator, calls “Alice in Wonderland”.

American puppets in Baghdad’s green zone will do as they are told, but the only real enthusiasts are neocon diehards and Tony Blair. They were represented on this page two weeks ago by Frederick Kagan, in a fantasy revival of the 2003 “clear and hold” strategy, which amounts to telling American soldiers to commit suicide.

Leaders contemplating defeat far from the front are always tempted to order “one last push”. Thus did Hitler order the battle of the bulge, Nixon the bombing of Cambodia and Reagan the blasting of the Shouf to cover his retreat from Lebanon. A general must pretend to victory even in the jaws of defeat, or his soldiers will not fight. America has 1m men under arms. Surely they are not to be beaten by a few hundred guerrillas in the suburbs of Baghdad? So Bush will tell them to make one last heave, however pointless. He does not want to share his father’s legacy of cutting and running from Iraq.

To such callousness for the lives of others, reason has no response. War is so awful that most people can grasp it only through metaphor, as a football game or a business takeover or a pub brawl or, at best, some other war retrieved from history. The conflict in Iraq is beyond metaphor. It is the most dangerous, heart-breaking and hopeless that those who have witnessed recent wars can recall. Certainly the risks taken by soldiers on the ground and the terrifying existence endured by ordinary Iraqis are worse than in anything I have witnessed. Independent reporting is near impossible.

Military intelligence is non-existent. Bombers do not know where to bomb, soldiers whom to kill, generals when to negotiate.

Such Iraqi government as exists under Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, is unable to enforce any law or order any army. For Washington and London to tell him to “bring his militias to heel” is like telling a junior cop to arrest Al Capone. Large areas of Iraq are under the rough and ready control of local militias, either clerical fundamentalists or gangsters rich on stolen American aid. But the city of Baghdad is given over to armed gangsters, lethal roadblocks, nocturnal disappearance and mass killings. A million Iraqis have left the country since the Americans arrived, including an estimated 40% of the professional class. Only the green zone operates as a working entity and its isolation is medieval, its inhabitants barely able to venture beyond its walls. This occupation has been an utter disaster.

The idea that such a hellhole can be policed back to normality with an extra 20,000 US troops is absurd. Such a force (which means barely 7,000 on patrol at any one time) would simply disappear into the dust. The insurgency is anyway now entangled with the conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni, claiming hundreds of lives each week and fought by paramilitaries mostly armed by America in a shambles of unaudited theft and fraud.

The only way in which more foreign troops assert any control at present is by “denying the enemy ground” by laying waste to it. In Basra, Britain’s contribution to order has been to flatten the police station. In Anbar province, US counter-insurgency takes the form of wrecking whole settlements from the air, as in Falluja two years ago. According to a Times correspondent who reached Falluja last week, the city is back in the hands of Sunni militias who intend to rename the hospital after Saddam Hussein. What all Iraqis crave is a local policeman they can trust not to kill them. America and Britain have failed to give them even that assurance.

A shrewd analysis has been supplied by Ali Allawi, the sensible former Iraqi finance and defence minister. He concludes that “whatever project (the US) had for Iraq has vanished, a victim of inappropriate or incoherent policies”. He sees his country as moving inexorably away from Ba’athist secularism (let alone democracy) to control by Shi’ite Islamists in unstable coalition with Kurdish separatists. Formal partition is avoidable only with a ruthless regional autonomy, so that all sides can retreat to their territories and lick their wounds.

What the West would like to happen in Iraq has long played second fiddle to what is happening.

Indeed they are barely on the same planet. To most observers on the ground there is no point in dreaming international conferences on a “future Iraq” as long as the present one is so submerged in bloodshed. Peace will come only when the focus of personal security rises above the family, the clan and the street barricade at least to the tier of a city or province. That requires the province to have a coherent and disciplined police force to which local people give assent, and that will emerge only from the murky ranks of the militias and private armies.

As Allawi points out, Iraq has passed way beyond such a force emanating from central government. Progress depends on the split between Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite zones being reflected in devolution. As already recognised by the 2005 draft constitution, this must embrace not just fiscal and administrative separatism but military, judicial and religious autonomy as well. Without that autonomy, the Sunni minority will never trust a Shi’ite-dominated federal government in Baghdad. It will remain in thrall to such fanatical imports as Al-Qaeda, much as Catholic Ulster was in thrall to the Provisional IRA after the British occupation.

More US troops in Baghdad will almost certainly spend their time defending surviving Sunni enclaves from Shi’ite ethnic cleansing now pushing west across Baghdad, supported by semi-official Madhist and other death squads. Of all ironies none will be more savage than that US soldiers should lose their lives protecting Sunni Ba’athists from a murderous onslaught by Shi’ite irregulars in league with the police and army. Yet this is the most plausible outcome of the Battle of the Surge. Even now Sunnis pray that the nocturnal knock on the door is from a US marine rather than an Iraqi in police uniform. The first may mean “rendition”, but the second means death.

The best to hope from the surge strategy is to stabilise a “green line” of ethnic partition somewhere through western Baghdad, as in 1980s Beirut. Behind it each group could find some security and normality, sufficient for their local commanders to meet and fight a conventional civil war, or better parley some division of the spoils of aid and oil revenue.

If it comes to either state of affairs, no outsiders, regional or global, should meddle. Iraq’s next chapter must be written by Iraqis alone. Outsiders have made this country a byword for arrogant and incompetent interventionism. The West’s 2003 assault on Iraq was unprovoked and justified by no overriding threat to western interests. It was a ghastly, gigantic whim, one to which the British government fully subscribed.

When Blair was asked at a private lunch before Christmas what he had done to restrain US policy in Iraq, he looked baffled. “It’s worse than you imply,” he said with a smile: restraint was not an issue because he agreed with the policy. I assume he also agrees with the surge strategy, apparently the subject of his conversation with Bush on December 29.

So it is no good the Blairites or Gordon Brown or Labour voters or the British people objecting to the impending bloodbath on the streets of Baghdad. It is being done in their name and with their approval. The only good news is that it surely must be the beginning of the end.