Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Going Big

Senator Carl Levin (new, democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee) says he is hoping to begin a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq very soon, canceling a purely militaristic approach in favor for a political (or political-military) one.

John McCain, on the other hand, is taking a different side: he thinks we should increase troop levels and prepare to be there for a long time.

It caused me a small identity crisis this week when I realized I thought McCain's position sounded like the more reasonable one.

I don't envy anyone for having to deal with this, or having to make the decision, but as a purely academic exercise here's what I'm thinking. There are intimations out there (in the media, from politicians, from friends, etc) that this is a Vietnam-esque situation. Superficially this might be true, but not substantially.

Vietnam is not a multi-ethnic society, Iraq is. It's the multiplicity of ethnicities making it difficult to get a functioning, stable, service-providing government and infrastructure established. And in spite of how Robert McNamara characterizes it in The Fog of War or his books, Daniel Ellsberg makes a compelling argument (in his memoir Secrets) that there was no war in Vietnam before the French and Americans made one. This part is likely true to Iraq, but things are not likely to resolve in Iraq the way they did (and to the extent that they did) in Vietnam if the Americans were just to leave. There is also some similarity to pre-Taliban Afghanistan that, though my understanding is not very thorough or detailed, should be considered.

In 1978 communists overthrew the government of Afghanistan and drove the king into exile. This pleased the Soviet Union, as this was not only the first new communist nation since Castro's Cuba but also right on their periphery.

The new communist government was, by December of that year, threatened by schisms in the country and the outbreak of a civil war. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support its communist allies, and the United States was concerned that if the USSR was successful they might overtly use force to expand their empire elsewhere.

The Carter Administration decided to make this as expensive as possible for the Soviets, hoping to prohibit their expansion. A major covert operation was launched to arm and train Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and then launch them in to carry out guerilla attacks on the Soviets. Saudi Arabia agreed to help fund this project.

What we did not know at the time was that Saudi Arabia was also funding more fundamentalist groups working against the Soviets.

By 1989 the Soviets had wearied of fighting in Afghanistan. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power. The USSR's public had lost enthusiasm for Afghanistan's pacification, and the Soviets withdrew. The United States withdrew shortly after the Soviets, and the factions it had been supporting were abandoned.

Saudi money continued coming in. The guerrillas that had been mainly Afghan refugees in the beginning had become predominantly Arab (mainly Yemeni, Somali, and Saudi, with some Jordanians). Religious inspiration was soon coupled with the guerilla training. Al Qaeda grew from this, and the Taliban eventually came to power in Afghanistan.

(I believe Rambo III deals with some of these politics.)

Al Qaeda, and Osama Bin Laden, were initially more angry with the Saudi royal family than anyone else. But their anger became directed at the United States when they were allowed to build a military presence in Saudi Arabia prior to the Gulf War.

In conclusion, what happens if the United States reduces its presence in Iraq? Given that at least some material support for the Iraq insurgency is coming from Iran, does leaving Iraq give Iran an opportunity to increase its presence in Iraq? Since Iran is one of the few countries that we know certainly has both carried out and sponsored attacks on Americans (both in Iraq and out of it, and both recently and in previous decades), and is also acting a little blustery now, I think any decision made as to Iraq's long-term security needs to either involve or take into consideration Iran. How much trouble will there be if they are allowed to influence the government structure in Iraq?

Aside from that, there is the problem of daily life in Iraq. Since the invasion, large portions of the country have either been dangerous to be in, and/or haven't been able to rely on the basic services (electricity, potable water, etc). Committing large numbers of troops to Iraq for a long time to help pacify and provide services the population seems like the least we can do (being that none of this was a problem before we toppled a relatively contained dictator to put him on trial for crimes committed over 20 years ago).

Those are my feelings in the Iraq situation. We should commit to the place, and send a force big enough to tamp down the country and rebuild things. Also, though, I don't want to be the one to make any decision.


Mark said...

Hey Bryan-

I really like your post. Good stuff!!!

Along the lines of what you are saying...what happens in Iraq - where it's about 60%/40% small Sunni majority - when a predominately Shiite Iran is next door with Saddam (Sunni) out of power? Another Iran/Iraq war?

And with Syria moving all over Lebanon - by way of Hezbollah - right now, you could have one large Iranistan someday.

And what happens to the Kurds? The poor Kurds. This is tough stuff.

I still wish we could get some military support from Europe.

Chris said...

I have to say that I agree. although i realize that is not a popular sentiment. especially since i was against the invasion in the first place (and still am). but to leave Iraq at this point seems like a pretty awful non-solution. i'm happy to see the Republicans deflated a bit but I will admit that i'm a little concerned that the democrats don't really have a realistic plan for Iraq either.

- Chris