February 10, 2004

This is Good News? Then Bring on the Bad....

Gee, I've got to disagree with Drezner and Chafetz here and here that this NYT piece constitutes good news.

What it means to me is that Baathist dead-enders, jihadist fanatics and al-Qaeda types have smartened up. They calculate (hopefully correctly, by the way) that Bush is not going to cut and run from Iraq. Even with the talk of handing over sovereignty to the Iraqis by June 30th--we look set to have north of 100,000 GIs in theater through at least '06.

So the calculation that a GI a day gets the Yanks away hasn't borne fruit. And attacks on Japanese, British, Spanish, Italian, Polish and other international forces hasn't frayed the staying power of the coalition either. Yes, the U.N. and Red Cross reduced their presence after their respective HQs were attacked but this didn't imperil the nation-building effort like if the Americans had decided to cut and run.

Therefore, our enemies conclude, trying to create anarchic conditions by lashing out at any and all foreigners hasn't done the trick--mostly because the U.S. led coalition has stuck by its guns.

So now, the unholy alliance of Sunni radicals, Baathist dead-enders, jihadist infiltrators and al-Qaeda are shifting strategy.

They are looking to help stoke the worst conflagration of all--a brutal civil war.

I mean, who do you think was trying to kill Sistani last week?

Josh Marshall is right, we dodged a bullet along with Sistani. If the culprits were Sunni, how much do you want to bet that, particularly in mixed Sunni/Shi'a population areas (see Baghdad) the specter of large scale communal strife would have ratcheted up considerably?

Yes, Martin Indyk is on to something-- Iraq isn't Yugoslavia (here's a key snippet from a debate with Les Gelb):

"You, in your op-ed, make the argument that Iraq is, in fact, a Yugoslavian model, but it's not precisely, because you do not have this sectarian strife. I mean, Shiites have suffered horrendous terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, lost their leader and, I think, 60 other people. Kurds have suffered the same kind of thing. But these terrorist attacks are not being undertaken by Sunnis against the Kurds, or Sunnis against the Shiites. And you don't see a retaliation by any of them. This is not Pakistan and India, the Muslims and Hindus in India fighting each other. On the other hand, by coming in and dividing them by these sectarian lines, you're going to promote that kind of strife." [emphasis added]

Hmmmm. Maybe.

But what if al-Qaeda was hell-bent on publicizing the assassination of a Sistani as a Sunni operation? Given their newfangled strategy--that's probably the perception they would do their utmost to foster.

Would Indyk remain so sanguine about the de minimis prospects of sectarian strife in Iraq?

Note too, of course, that Kurdistan remains something of a tinderbox (one that's not really on anyone's radar as Bremer and Co. rush about attempting to appease Sistani's lastest musings about ballot modalities...)

And note that the new strategy isn't just to forment civil war. Like genocidal Serbian paramilitaries operating in places like the northern town of Prijedor in Bosnia--the Iraqi resistance is killing off intellectuals (doctors, lawyers etc). (Hat Tip: Spence Ackerman)

Kill off those that might provide a middle class, a technocratic brain trust, in a word, those modest elites that represent the hope for real, sustainable progress in the Iraqi polity.

Brutal and evil actions. But also, of course, brutishly effective and smart.

I ask, yet again, do we really have the requisite forces on the ground?

I fear not. If we did, we would have crushed this insurgency by now. Of course, we haven't.

Oh, and note that Chafetz writes this:

"Coincidentally, it may also not be terribly good for recruitment for it to be publicized that al Qaeda is trying to stir up violence amongst Muslims."

Ah, but not just any violence between Muslims. Violence between Sunni and Shi'a.

If there is anything a died in the wool Wahabist hates more than a "Zionist-Crusader" type-- it's a Shi'a!

"This is particularly true of the Shi`ite question in Saudi politics. Radical Sunni Islamists hate Shi`ites more than any other group, including Jews and Christians. Al-Qaeda's basic credo minces no words on the subject: "We believe that the Shi`ite heretics are a sect of idolatry and apostasy, and that they are the most evil creatures under the heavens." For its part, the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment expresses similar views. The fatwas, sermons, and statements of established Saudi clerics uniformly denounce Shi`ite belief and practice. A recent fatwa by Abd al-Rahman al-Barrak, a respected professor at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University (which trains official clerics), is a case in point. Asked whether it was permissible for Sunnis to launch a jihad against Shi`ites, al-Barrak answered that if the Shi`ites in a Sunni-dominated country insisted on practicing their religion openly, then yes, the Sunni state had no choice but to wage war on them. Al-Barrak's answer, it is worth noting, assumes that the Shi`ites are not Muslims at all."

Folks, this was never going to be easy. We'll be looking at how to mitigate the prospects of success for al-Qaeda's new strategy (ie, how to minimize the prospects for a full-blown civil war occuring in Iraq) more in the coming days and weeks.

But when a guy like Les Gelb says something like this, well, you pay attention and start putting your thinking hat on:

"[Iraq] is on the verge of civil wars. I think if you don't see that, and if you think that everybody considers themselves a happy Iraqi and there's no ethnic strife, then you're missing what's really happening in that country, and you're missing the tidal wave that's about to hit us. That's what I'm worried about. I want to act, based on these ethnic realities, and they are the underlying realities, before that tidal wave hits us. As soon as we begin to get out, these folks will start killing each other, unless we prepare for it in the way I describe."

If that particular tsunami hits--Iraq will likely prove the worst foreign policy disaster for the U.S. since Vietnam.

So we damn well better be marshalling every intellectual, military, economic etc resource to make sure it doesn't happen.

Let's hope this national security team is up to it--and in the midst of an election year--when Washington gets a bit, er, distracted.

UPDATE: A directly relevant NYT story on this today.

"In the angry clamoring of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds in the north, many Iraqis, foreign diplomats and allied military officers say they discern the first smoke of broad communal strife.

"Wherever we see a spark, we have to dampen it quickly," said a senior allied military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Neither the allied official, nor the Iraqi clerics, tribal sheiks, politicians, foreign diplomats and ordinary people interviewed over two weeks said civil clashes were imminent. But they said the potential was there, as politicians and allied forces try to forge one country out of ethnic and religious groups with conflicting grievances."

On the optimistic side of the ledger:

"But some gathered there understand that suffering blanketed the whole country, not just their families or towns. "We have nothing against the Sunnis," said Amina Hadi, a Shiite woman from Nasiriya in the south whose 16-year-old brother vanished into Mr. Hussein's prisons in 1991, never to be found. "It was the Baathists. They took Sunni, too, and there were Shiites who worked for Saddam."

Posted by Gregory at February 10, 2004 01:26 AM
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