November 21, 2006

So where did it go off the rails

This page has long said (starting in 2002) that the United States occupation of Iraq would be a low-odds Hail Mary proposition. It's been further stated here that things were already not going well before the Bremer takeover in May of 2003 and got significantly worse almost immediately thereafter, due to the rushed and phony "election" schedule and the disbandment of the Iraqi army.

I think history will back these conclusions up. The only other inflection point to find then, is where things went completely, irrecoverably wrong, to the point where American aims were no longer within the realm of the feasible.

I think the consensus will come that that point was the first 2-3 months of 2006. The statistics I've been idly citing the last few posts would seem to indicate that's when the internecine violence really ramped up, to the point at which national institutions, such as the army, began approaching the verge of ceasing to function altogether. I think that there were a couple reasons for this, both political and military, that happened in close proximity to each other:

1. First was the Dec. 15, 2005 election, which solidified Shia-Kurd control of the Iraq government. It was wrongly interpreted, I believe, at the time, as a vote for national unity, but the parties were so clearly already demarcated on sectarian lines that it really became something more like a census. The only party that had representation from more than one group, Allawi's National List, only received 8 per cent of the vote; the Sunni, of course, largely boycotted the event.

2. Immediately following, of course, came January's unprecedently rapid, and largely unnoted, drawdown of American troop strength in the country, with 24,000 U.S. and 2,000 Coalition forces leaving in the space of a few weeks. Much of this had been the recovery of a surge in troop strength that had been sent to last through the October constitutional vote and the December election. The larger number was not meant as sustainable, but it was certainly a sudden change in the ground truth at a bad time.

3. The effect of this was multiplied by the ensuing long and unconstitutional delay in the formation of the new Maliki government (Maliki would not take office until May, amid peaking violence), due to the inability of the Iraqi political parties to find a compromise candidate suitable to all of them. Iraqi government was essentially paralysed for five months.

4. All this left the paralysed government and U.S. forces without an effective ability to respond to the devastating al-Askari Mosque bombing on Feb. 22, or the violence that followed. Well, that's not quite true, because even though the Askari bombing was in all likelihood committed by Al Qaeda in Iraq, it served to significantly strengthen the position of the Shia and Kurdish leadership within their own communities, as well.

This doesn't mean, of course, that events prior to December, 2005 had no impact... the two 2004 battles of Fallujah, to take an example were a big contributor to both Sunni alienation and a growing Shia resentment for Sunnis. Given what had gone before, the election result itself seems almost pre-ordained, in fact. The fact that the government took so long to form, in the face of strict constitutional provisions limiting the deliberation times, is a reflection of American inability by this point to influence the political process decisively anymore, but that impotence, too, had seeds much farther back.

The only decision point that could have changed in the last year was the U.S. extending their expanded military presence even longer, until the government had seated itself. The equivalent of another division in Iraq might have offered some more options when the crisis-at-the-worst-possible-time (Al-Askari) came: certainly the military thinning-out immediately upon the conclusion of a safe election, even before the ballot counts had been ratified and with a country waking up to a firm political split on ethnic lines, seems a little unseemly now. The fact that it apparently wasn't possible to contemplate a further redeployment delay is a testament to how stretched the U.S. military now is. It is the uncomfortable reality, I fear, that will prove to have dropped the curtain on this ill-advised foreign adventure.

Posted by BruceR at 04:41 PM