Less bad news from Iraq

by John Q on December 13, 2007

Over the last few months, the volume of bad news from Iraq has diminished. For example, the number of US troops killed in November (about one per day) was the lowest in a couple of years. While it’s much harder to measure Iraqi casualties the number seems to be declining, at least in Baghdad. Of course it’s good that not so many people are dying. But what does this mean for the policy choices facing the US and its allies?

The short answer is ‘Not much’

The long answer has a number of parts.

First, while there is less bad news as regards death and destruction, there’s no corresponding increase in good news, in the sense of progress towards a sustainable solution. Admittedly, it’s good for the US that the Sunni insurgents have decided to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to do so with US backing. But that very backing increases their capacity to sustain conflict with the Shia majority in the long run. And the one area where things seemed to have been resolved, Iraqi Kurdistan, is now on the edge of an international conflict with Turkey. With no real progress in this area, no new policy options have become available. The choices of getting out fast, permanent occupation and the range of intermediate choices are much the same as they were a year ago.

Second, the decline in bloodshed doesn’t say much about past policy decisions. The big question of whether it was a good idea to go to war was settled long ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead can’t be brought back to life and the trillions of dollars spent or committed are gone forever. No conceivable future outcome can make this war anything other than a disaster.

As regards the decisions of the past year, and particularly the US escalation (aka the ‘surge’) the picture is a bit more mixed. While the Pentagon is claiming success for the surge, the UK (followed in this by Poland and now Australia) is claiming similar success for a policy that amounts to ‘declare victory and get out’. And even if the recent decline in deaths can be attributed to the surge, the year as a whole has been the bloodiest of the war, partly because of the expansion of the conflict in the middle of the year.

Most importantly, as regards future options, little has changed in relative terms. There are no good options, but all of the options look a little less likely to end in disaster than they did a few months ago. Whether US troops are withdrawn rapidly or slowly, the worst-case disaster scenarios, such as all-out civil war, or a helicopter evacuation of the Green Zone, now seem to have receded a bit. But with another year passed, and not much achieved, the time for withdrawal must have come that much closer.

In the end, the only lessons are old ones. War is unpredictable, and all wars come to an end sooner or later. But it is usually beyond the wit of those who start wars to predict when they will end or who will remain standing.



Hidari 12.13.07 at 8:33 am

There are three main reasons for the declining death toll.

1: In some (not all or most but some) Iraqi areas the ethnic cleansing has now finished. Almost all Sunnis have been forced out of Baghdad (or killed) by now, for example. Iraq is polarising on ethnic/religious grounds.

2: The Americans have increasingly chosen to fight the war from the air (in some parts of the country, not others) not using US ground troops. This results, obviously, in less US army deaths. (in specific areas).

3: And yes, if you really want to stress this point, the ‘surge’ has worked (in other areas from where the ‘air war’ is going on, where the Americans have chosen to do so). If you flood an area with US army personnel who will shoot anyone with a gun then yes, the fighting will stop. But this will only last as long as the ‘surge’ lasts (in lieu of a political settlement). As the surge ends (the beginning of next year) the fighting will almost certainly start again.

The ‘surge’ has been a disaster not because it hasn’t worked but on the contrary because it did. This was the one last best shot for a political settlement. If the Americans (the British are ‘cutting and running’ as are the Poles and Japanese and quite right too) were serious about peace and stability this would have been the ideal opportunity to bring the Sunnis into the political process, reign in the Kurds, disarm the Shia militias, and begin to bring about reconciliation. But noooooo they would rather have their four permanent military bases and control over all that oil. So it goes.


stet 12.13.07 at 8:55 am

About counting things in Iraq (such as the killed and other stuff), I really recommend TomDispatch’s “counting lesson” here: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174844 (slightly blogged about here, if I may: http://testsociety.wordpress.com/2007/10/06/counting-lesson/)


Stuart 12.13.07 at 9:00 am

I had got the impression, maybe incorrectly, that whoever or whatever persuaded Muqtada al Sadr to get the Madhi Army to stand down was the most responsible for the relative improvements in the situation in central Iraq.

I would also suggest that comparing the different strategies between the US and UK in Iraq recently isn’t particularly useful, as they faced significantly different situations, so them having success (in some sense) with different strategies wouldn’t point to anything in particular.


abb1 12.13.07 at 10:35 am


Leinad 12.13.07 at 10:38 am

Also the other point to make is that at this stage of sectarian conflict diminishing returns are probably kicking in – a few million have fled, dozens of neighbourhoods have been ‘cleansed’ of one faction or the other or just plain devastated; so local militias have far less ‘low-hanging fruit’ to blow up/kill/intimidate.


dsquared 12.13.07 at 11:15 am

Quite. By the standards some people appear to be using, one would count Rwanda as a success of non-intervention.


Ciarán 12.13.07 at 11:44 am

Perhaps I’m ill-informed, but it seems that one aspect of the surge is that there doesn’t seem to be any impetus at all among Iraqi and American policy-makers to grasp the lull in violence as an opportunity to resolve the political mess Iraq faces.

The White House strategy seems focused on wielding brute force with no sense of what to do next once the sheer volume of troops has had an effect on the conflict.

In which depressing case, they haven’t even learned the most basic lessons from 2003. Either they don’t know what to do next or they don’t even know that there is a something to do next after the surge.


Barry 12.13.07 at 12:14 pm

“Quite. By the standards some people appear to be using, one would count Rwanda as a success of non-intervention.”
Posted by dsquared ·

Come on, now, Rwanda was a failure:

No oil
No re-election
No vast theft of government funds by contractors.


Steve LaBonne 12.13.07 at 12:18 pm

Most importantly, as regards future options, little has changed in relative terms.

Perhaps I’m ill-informed, but it seems that one aspect of the surge is that there doesn’t seem to be any impetus at all among Iraqi and American policy-makers to grasp the lull in violence as an opportunity to resolve the political mess Iraq faces.

Those are indeed the important points. Any slight, relative improvement in the tactical position- to the extent that even that isn’t an illusory effect, as noted by a couple of commenters above- is furthering what strategic objective, exactly? It seems that nobody has a clue. I’m no military historian, but somehow I doubt that military plans that are all tactics and no strategy have ever turned out very well.


Leinad 12.13.07 at 12:21 pm

Heh, the military conflict between the US and the various insurgents has basically been a sideshow in Iraq since 2004. The US army is just another armed faction, albeit the one with the most guns. Military strategy- as even General Myers admitted a while back can’t end this conflict.


Hidari 12.13.07 at 4:09 pm

Incidentally, Daniel (Dsquared), did you know you were a Chomskyite nihilist? It’s true. Taking one of his increasingly frequent breaks from his lawyering (presumably on behalf of the poor and defenceless: poll tax protesters, the homeless, people like that) David T writes:

‘Chomskyite Nihilist: Daniel Davies and his mates sneering in a superior fashion about “Decents”.’

But it could be worse. You could be a ‘Far Left Anti-imperialist’ defined as ‘Trots wanking themselves silly about the socialist revolution which the will lead (sic), after the Al Qaeda vanguard collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.’


Jim S. 12.13.07 at 4:25 pm

In regards to (1), do you wish to put the Sunni in control? They for over 70 years treated the other groups in Iraq with great brutality, and treated the country as if it was their own private perserve.

This from an anti-war person.


JP Stormcrow 12.13.07 at 4:59 pm

Bushco exploring new frontiers in the soft bigotry of low expectations since 2001.


dsquared 12.13.07 at 5:01 pm

11: really? where? I think that the only possible response to that is “at least I’ve got mates”.


Badger 12.13.07 at 5:12 pm

JQ, you have written a post about US policy options without explaining what you think existing US policy is. You seem to be assuming it is benign. But outside of the US allies in the GreenZone (the big Kurdish parties and the Dawa-Supreme Council group), the common denominator of views outside of the GreenZone is that US policy is to divide the country. Are you leaving out that part of the story because you think it is irrelevant, too easy to refute, too difficult to refute? Or because you don’t happen to be familiar with it?


roger 12.13.07 at 5:23 pm

The good news in Iraq is more a function of a news mindset in the Anglosphere, which neatly dices stories into things with only two sides. The two sides of the Iraq story in January, 2007 in the U.S. was the Democratic side and the Republican side. The Democrats lost overwhelmingly – they voted to pay for the war, and they are about to even vote to pay more for the war, and they will vote to pay even more for the war in 2008. If the Democrats lost, the Republicans must have won. However, the Republicans winning is a sort of awkward proposition, since, in spite of the good news, the media keeps running aground on the fact that every poll shows Americans stubbornly want to pull out of Iraq. If you pOlled the D.C. kewl crowd, you’d get a reverse of that number – across the board, Republicans and Democrats who count, in D.C., think we have to stay there – to win, for the Republicans, and for the Democrats, because we have a moral obligation (Democrats like to dress up pure greed and imperialist hysteria with terms like moral obligation – it makes them feel much better about things. It is a sort of moral tooth fairy politics).

In an odd way, this reflects a continuing saga of the deepening divide between political elites and populations. From the Clinton impeachment to the reform/gutting of social security to Iraq, the political elites keep ending up on the unpopular side. Now, as it is a rhetorical habit of elites, when they are grinding out some particularly slimy, gross, and criminal project – say, legalizing torture – that they are forced to ‘compromise’ because the humane, the liberal, the enlightened position, alas, is unpopular, they are in a rhetorically embarrassing position here – after all, it appears that the inhumane, the illiberal, and the unenlightened position is the unpopular one – theirs, the only position recognized by power. The only way out of a dilemma that threatens the very foundations of the two-sided discourse by which our political elites are happily looting various economies and structuring a nice, long war system is to just stop reporting it. And then, after an interval of non-reporting, report that nobody cares anymore, triumphantly turning the failure of democracy into the triumph of the wise and farsighted elites. But the poor elites! they might discover, as recession comes down in 2008, that an ungrateful and ignorant population doesn’t want to pay for the wonderful Iraq war that we are finally winning!


Uncle Kvetch 12.13.07 at 5:51 pm

Any slight, relative improvement in the tactical position- to the extent that even that isn’t an illusory effect, as noted by a couple of commenters above- is furthering what strategic objective, exactly?

Short answer: It keeps the lid on an increasingly restive and pro-withdrawal US public, thus allowing the Bush administration to sustain the occupation through the end of Bush’s term and hand off the mess to whatever poor SOB comes next.

Longer, somewhat peevish answer: All of this hand-wringing from otherwise sensible people–“But what are their long-term objectives?”–is really starting to get on my nerves. We are in Iraq in order to be Iraq. The troops need to stay because Bush needs to leave office looking steely-eyed and stalwart, and because that way if things go to hell later it won’t be his fault. The troops need to stay because the occupation is making some very influential people extremely wealthy. The troops need to stay because–following up on Roger’s comment–there is a broad consensus among our political and journalistic elites, Dems and Repubs alike, that creating a new client state in the Middle East that will tolerate a massive, open-ended US military presence is in our “national interest.”

None of this is news, folks. We’re there in order to be there.


abb1 12.13.07 at 5:52 pm

#15, I don’t think the policy is necessarily to divide the country. The policy is (and always has been) to create a client state. Since the original plan to install a loyal strongman (Chalabi) had failed, they now need a leverage against the Maliki government, something that would allow them to run their usual protection-racket-style scheme.

Long-running sectarian conflict is the ideal environment; the government can’t survive without Americans, so Maliki becomes (and remains) a client to the American patron.

But if they were to divide the country, then each part could quickly become stable and self-sufficient. And therefore independent. And that’s the last thing they want.


Hidari 12.13.07 at 7:05 pm

# 14

It’s in the thread ‘ Misdirecting your Panic, Rage and Terror.’ December 13, 2007/

All anti-war thinkers can be divided, apparently, into:

‘- Right wing Isolationist: Simon Jenkins arguing that we shouldn’t waste our blood and treasure on ungrateful wogs

– Far Left Anti-imperialism: Trots wanking themselves silly about the socialist revolution which the will lead, after the Al Qaeda vanguard collapses under the weight of its own contradictions

– Chomskyite Nihilist: Daniel Davies and his mates sneering in a superior fashion about “Decents”.

– Islamists: one solution – a Caliphate!’

Posted by David T at December 13, 2007 03:04 PM


abb1 12.13.07 at 7:16 pm

Nihilism is cool.


dsquared 12.13.07 at 8:22 pm

I love it. Anyone asking for competence and realistic planning is thereby a “Chomskyan nihilist” or “negativist”, whenever the exercise of these minimal standards leads them to oppose anything at all, no matter how stupid. And it’s all about me, apparently. I particularly love that bit.


seth edenbaum 12.13.07 at 9:28 pm

Somewhere in moderation limbo is my mention of a new piece by
Reidar Visser

“Nonsense of Congress on Federalism in Iraq”


derrida derider 12.13.07 at 11:33 pm

You’re right about the US preferring their permanent bases to any peaceful settlement of the country.

The reason those two goals are in conflict is that a secure, representative Iraqi government would ask, politely at first and then maybe not so politely, for the yanks to leave those bases. While the government of Iraq fears either insurgents or external powers then it will tolerate those bases – but no longer than that. Right from the start the Americans have never understood that a democratic Iraq won’t be pro-US.

The realpolitik way out for the yanks is to keep things as quiet as possible internally, but create an external scare (maybe that’s why they refused the offer of a “grand bargain” from Iran, or maybe that’s a back-story to the Kurd-Turkey thing). But they’ve been notably unsuccessful so far.


John Quiggin 12.13.07 at 11:39 pm

Of course, the idea of “the US” as a unitary actor, with coherent motives is wrong, and I was wrong to imply it in the post.

There are lots of different groups in the US, and within the current Administration, and they want very different things. Still, in terms of US policy choices, they all get the same thing in the end.

So, it’s reasonable, if potentially misleading, to speak of “policy choices facing the US” without assuming that “the US” is the kind of actor that has well-defined objectives.


Badger 12.14.07 at 12:06 am

My point was that dominant Iraqi opinion is that the US (or “‘the US'”) has had, and has, well-defined objectives that have been manifested in specific actions and policies and have been and continue to be in various ways detrimental to the fabric of Iraqi society. I guess you’re saying you don’t have to meet that argument because there are different groups in the administration, so you think it’s reasonable to speak as if the “‘US'” didn’t have any well-defined objectives at all. Iraqi opinion says it isn’t reasonable to speak that way at all, because of a whole history of specific actions. I don’t see how you can get away with just saying “Oh yes it is too reasonable”, without even taking up their argument.


Weston 12.14.07 at 1:14 am

Roger says, “Democrats like to dress up pure greed and imperialist hysteria with terms like moral obligation – it makes them feel much better about things. It is a sort of moral tooth fairy politics.” I understand the sentiment, but attacking politicians’ motives is not much sport, and calling their proposals wishful thinking is not an argument.

I’m not trying to benefit from the occupation, and I’m not an imperialist, but I think there’s something to the idea that the US (or its citizenry) has a moral obligation to do what’s best for the Iraqi people. Do you really think the Iraqis would be better off, in the foreseeable future, if the US withdrew prior to the existence of a stable and effective Iraqi government?

While I don’t think the war was justified, and I’m as worried as anyone about a permanent occupation, I’m more concerned about the consequences of withdrawal. Whether or not there’s a civil war going on in Iraq right now, there are good reasons to think the conflict would be worse, and last just as long as, US attempts at reconstruction.


seth edenbaum 12.14.07 at 1:44 am

“While the government of Iraq fears either insurgents or external powers then it will tolerate those bases – but no longer than that.”

No. In fact the Parliament which must by law approve any final decision would vote against bases right now. The Bush-Maliki agreement tries to shut them out.. The US policy is bases: now and forever. Everything else is secondary, including the unity of Iraq.


roger 12.14.07 at 4:18 am

Weston, you’ve made quite a defense of continuing the occupation there, consisting of a rhetorical question and this: “there are good reasons to think the conflict would be worse, and last just as long as, US attempts at reconstruction.” So, pray tell, what are those good reasons? Since, at last count, the U.S.’s humanitarian occupation, has produced +675,000 casualties, plus a million and a half external refugees ( with those devil states, Syria and Iran, selflessly taking in most of them – obviously they haven’t reached America’s moral heights, where you take in maybe 5,000 Iraqi refugees if they can survive long enough to go through the bureaucracy), I wonder just how much more goodness from the U.S. Iraq can take. You might have noticed that violence dropped, recently, 90 percent in Basra when the British withdrew. Also, you might notice that the poor Iraqis have a whole delusional mindset about this: by a large majority, they actually think it is justified to kill or attack the always humane U.S. forces. I suppose they don’t understand the essential kindness of Blackwater.

So, let’s add up what we’ve done for these people, and give ourselves a big Christmas hug. We’ve saddled them with an unworkable constitution. We’ve tried to privatize their oil reserves at a time when almost all of the rest of the oil producing states are going the opposite direction. We’ve proposed dividing the nation. We’ve definitely refunctionalized Saddam’s prisons into … our own prisons. We’ve presided over the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad and called it victory. We’ve sacked Fallujah and called it breaking the backs of the terrorists. And those same ‘terrorists’ have since become our best pals in Anbar province, to whom we are supplying a motherlode of weapons.

Looking through this endeavor, you see how much and how truly we love, as good liberals and Christians, our Iraqi neighbors – but of course, you were opposed to the war! I am not sure why – did you think it would turn out badly? And has it? And do you think, wow, this is so bad that we have to keep going, see how much we can pile on?


John Quiggin 12.14.07 at 5:13 am

Badger, the way I’ve approached the question probably reflects the fact that I favour getting troops out as fast as possible. This is a decision that is ultimately unilateral.


Weston 12.14.07 at 6:45 am

Roger, I see that extremity is an expected currency in forums like this, but I don’t believe I was throwing myself behind a full-throated defense of the occupation. Nor was I pretending to offer an argument–I was asking for one. And in spite of your ill-targeted sarcasm, I believe you may have given me one. But first, let’s be clear: yes, I thought the war would turn out badly. And of course, it did. But saying that the invasion and all its attendant evils should not have happened does not show that pulling out now would be better for Iraq.

I didn’t need a recitation of how badly the occupation has gone. In fact, I agree with all of your complaints (which made enduring your acerbic tone all the more bizarre). What I need is a reason to think that a post-withdrawal Iraq wouldn’t be even worse. My skepticism about immediate, or at any rate, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq is based on the observation that withdrawing occupation forces prior to the existence of a viable government typically leads to a power vacuum, and power vacuums surrounded by heavily armed groups already engaged in ethnic conflict typically lead to all-out civil war. (By the way, while the US is certainly responsible for the insecurity that brought the death of so many Iraqi civilians, it is clear that intra-Shiite and Shiite/Sunni violence was the direct cause of many of those deaths. I don’t see how an American pullout would stop that carnage.)

The only thing in your response that moved me is the possibility that the rest of Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, might react the way you believe Basra did. I’m not sure where you’re getting your statistics. The latest information I’ve read about Basra comes from an interview with Damien Cave (NYT), who has this to say:

Well, it’s clearly a battleground, and it’s been a battleground for much of this year. As violence has declined through much of the country, in places like Baghdad and Diyala province and Anbar, Basra has in some ways been an anomaly. It’s a place that remains as violent today or appears to remain as violent today as it was a few months ago. So it’s a sign of the fact that, even as security improves in much of the country, there are still places in Iraq that are very dangerous and that have yet to be brought under control.

And in any case, even if Cave is just wrong, it’s not clear that we should take Basra as a model for the rest of Iraq, since most of the violence there is between Shiite groups competing for control, rather than the more trenchant forms of ethnic warfare that mark Baghdad and much of the rest of the country. Nobody thinks the US is above reproach. All thinking persons are rightly appalled at the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the war. But we should not leap to the conclusion that the solution to an initially unjust and consistently awful occupation is complete and immediate withdrawal. Contrary to much of the anti-war movement’s assertions, it’s a lot more complicated than that.


abb1 12.14.07 at 8:41 am

23, Right from the start the Americans have never understood that a democratic Iraq won’t be pro-US.

If by ‘Americans’ you mean the US government, then of course they understood, that’s a given. Right from the beginning they (both Republicans and Democrats) planned to install a loyal dictator.

We’ll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we’ll install a pro-Western dictator, who will be good for us and for you.” –Tom Lantos (D, CA), 2002

27, In fact the Parliament which must by law approve any final decision would vote against bases right now.

From what I understand, the most likely ‘compromise’ position on the bases will likely be this: NO to the permanent bases, but YES to ‘temporary’ bases for as long as necessary. It’s a farce.


abb1 12.14.07 at 9:34 am

But we should not leap to the conclusion that the solution to an initially unjust and consistently awful occupation is complete and immediate withdrawal.

Would the same concern apply to, say, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s; should the Soviets have stuck around until a stable government emerged under their occupation, until the local secular/marxist constituency managed to reconcile with the Islamic/nationalist one? If not, why not?


The government of President Karmal, established in 1980 and identified by many as a puppet regime, was largely ineffective. It was weakened by divisions within the PDPA and the Parcham faction, and the regime’s efforts to expand its base of support proved futile. Moscow came to regard Karmal as a failure and blamed him for the problems. Years later, when Karmal’s inability to consolidate his government had become obvious, Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said:

The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help.

In November 1986, Mohammad Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD), was elected president and a new constitution was adopted. He also introduced in 1987 a policy of “national reconciliation,” devised by experts of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and later used in other regions of the world. Despite high expectations, the new policy neither made the Moscow-backed Kabul regime more popular, nor did it convince the insurgents to negotiate with the ruling government.


magistra 12.14.07 at 10:42 am


A post-US withdrawal Iraq may well be worse in the short-term, but that’s not the only issue. Unless you argue that the US should be there for ever, or at least for the next 10, 15, 30 years, then you’ve also got to ask the alternative question: Is there anything that the US can do that will improve things substantially and make the country more stable before they go? What can they try that they’ve hadn’t tried so far? The surge was a temporary increase in troops to enable political progress and there’s been no political progress. There’s been a lot of emphasis on training the Iraqi army and police, which has often meant just improving rival militias’ ability to fight. Reconstruction claims are a joke. The US cannot improve the situation substantially, so a holding operation is not going to help anyone, it’s just going to mean more people dying for the same negligible results.


Hidari 12.14.07 at 10:51 am

My only concern is this: will ‘Revolution which the will lead after the vanguard’ become the ‘All our base are belong to us’ style rallying cry of the post-Decent left?

Incidentally, I am prepared to print up ‘Chomskyan nihilist and proud of it’ T-shirts and distribute them on the web if anyone is interested. It could have ‘Which the will lead after the vanguard!’ on the back.


Badger 12.14.07 at 2:04 pm

JQ, re your #29, how does it follow that since a withdrawal will ultimately be unilateral, your argument about the lack of coherent post-invasion US policy can also be unilateral? I don’t doubt your heart is pure, I’m more interested in what’s behind your analytic method.


roger 12.14.07 at 5:26 pm

Weston, what exactly are you saying? You think that the U.S. shouldn’t withdraw because of the threat of civil war? Is this the same U.S. that has been pouring weaponry into the hands of a Sunni militia in Anbar, while also arming a Shiite militia dominated police force in Baghdad? In spite of your protests, the tooth fairy fable fits very well here – a dismissal of U.S. actions on the ground while appealing to the high principles that are supposedly embodied by U.S. actions on the ground – for instance, that the U.S. will subordinate its interest in Iraq’s oil to the good of the Iraqi people. These issues were played out years ago – it was a system called colonialism. It did not get better as the colonists persisted – it got worse. As I pointed out in my reply, the U.S. occupation wasn’t just bad because it was inept, it was bad because it tried to embed, structurally, dysfunctions into the Iraqi system. Divide and conquer is, after all, a necessity for a small occupying force in a big country.

I mentioned Basra because there we have seen an experiment. And in November, we got this story from the AP:

“Attacks have plunged by 90 per cent in southern Iraq since Britain withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, their commander has said.

Their presence in central Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, was the single largest trigger for violence, Major General Graham Binns said.

“We thought, ‘If 90 per cent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?’ ” Gen Binns said in an interview in Baghdad yesterday.

“About 500 British troops moved out of one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in the heart of Basra in early September, joining some 4,500 at a garrison at an airport on the city’s edge.

Since then there has been a remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks. The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets.”

What the story doesn’t say is that Basra has become a much worse place by all accounts over the last four years, a mini Taliban state ruled by thuggish Islamicists. Eventually, I’m sure there will be more fighting – to overthrow the Islamic militias that run the place. If, as seems likely, the Shiite who are returning to Iraq complete the take over of ethnically cleansed Sunni areas in Baghdad, and the Sunnis who, so far, are staying in Syria and Iran, see this and decide to do something about it, fighting will also break out. In the latter case, it helps that the U.S. has armed all sides. So: what, concretely, do you think the U.S. is going to do? If you aren’t thinking in tooth fairy terms, then surely you have a concrete sense of possible American actions leading to a peaceful Iraq. What are they? Permanent occupation? Permanently arming and disarming militias? Permanently making Iraq a potential launching pad for other Middle Eastern wars? By this time, such ingenue suggestions are no longer simply naive – they are simply pro-war.


John Quiggin 12.14.07 at 8:31 pm

Badger, this is the kind of argument that is hard to manage in a comments thread, but I’ll keep on trying. My point is that it is reasonable to say that the US as a whole has to assess the option of rapid withdrawal, and in this context the questions of whether “the US” is the kind of actor that has coherent objectives, and how Iraqis perceive the objectives and actions of the US, are moot points. Either the US will withdraw or it won’t.

As regards alternative proposals like a US-sponsored partition plan or permanent bases, these questions would indeed be important, and the implication would be that such proposals are unlikely to work well for most of those involved (Iraqis and Americans in general) although they would certainly benefit some.


Badger 12.14.07 at 11:25 pm

Of course if you have a blog, and you raise a complicated issue like Iraq just as a one-off thing, and then on to the pop charts or whatever, then I agree you’re not likely to have a coherent discussion. I notice there are a lot of great aphorisms on this thread. Some not-so-great aphorisms, but there you go.

If you’re off the “what kind of actor” language and back to plain English, then I’ll put it this way:

My reasons for insisting US policy 2003 to date is very important are two: (1) Non GreenZone Iraqis (and I agree) think the policy continues to be bloody-minded as far as tearing the country apart is concerned, and if that is the case (and there is a strong case for that view, which naturally you don’t see much about in the corporate media), then an election on the question of policy-change that doesn’t even raise that issue (namely the issue of what policy you’re changing from) is really a sham. And by saying “it’s moot”, you’re supporting the idea of not even raising that issue. That was my initial beef, namely that it’s pointless to say I JQ am for speedy withdrawal, and it doesn’t matter whether actual US policy is to continue tearing the country apart. The answer would be: So what if you’re for speedy withdrawal, the point is the electorate doesn’t understand the existing policy (supported in this ignorance by 1000 people who like you say it doesn’t matter), hence there won’t be pressure for change.

(2) The US has been in talks of some kind with people connected with the Sunni resistance, and one major stumbling block seems to be their demand for a commitment to speedy and complete withdrawal. Negotiations and withdrawal in the real world seem to be connected issues. You can have helicopters on the roof, or you can have a negotiated withdrawal. So to your phrase about the US will unilaterally (and voluntarily) withdraw or it won’t, the answer is “it won’t”.

But as you say, this isn’t the right forum…We could leave it at that


Weston 12.15.07 at 2:01 am


Let me preface this with a good-faith disclaimer that I am neither a military strategist, nor an expert on the Soviet-Afghan War. I’m just a guy trying to figure out for himself where to stand. At first glance, I have to admit that the parallels between the US occupation of Iraq and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan are striking.
But one important disanalogy is that Afghanistan was a proxy for the Cold War. The Mujahideen had stronger external support than any faction does in Iraq, and they also appear to have been better organized. Given US aid through Pakistan (along with some aid from Saudi Arabia, China, and the UK), the Mujahideed were not likely to be exhausted by military losses, and Soviet offensives would be continuously offset by more US aid to their opponents. In the Iraq occupation, the US can bring a greater (though not necessarily decisive) amount of pressure to bear on would-be financiers of the insurgency (Iran, Syria, etc), and as the ‘surge’ may have shown, escalation can have positive effects on the security situation (compare the disastrous results of Gorbachev’s 1985 troop increases).

To answer your question, whether or not the Soviet military should have stayed in Afghanistan seems to be contingent on two factors. First, whether the Mujahideed could have been defeated (which is of course contingent, in turn, on whether they would have received continuing support from their external allies); and second, whether continued occupation would have been better for the Afghans than the intensification of the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal.
In this case, assessing the costs is complicated by competing considerations. On the one hand, the post-Soviet civil war was relatively short and seems to have been considerably less intense than was the Soviet occupation (though I can’t verify this without doing some research I don’t have time to do). On the other hand, when a modicum of stability finally arrived, it was because the Taliban came out on top. Here, I’m swayed by the increasing intensity of the Soviet occupation, and I’ll concede for the sake of argument that the withdrawal was the right thing to do.
But note the crucial role of the disanalogy: the violence in Iraq has been decreasing. If this is the result of sustainable improvements–and I think it just might be–then my answers to the Soviet-Afghan war and the Iraq war need not be the same. Moreover, I’m not convinced that the impending civil war in Iraq wouldn’t be much worse than the one in Afghanistan. In short, though we should not leap to the conclusion that withdrawal is always the best option, I leave open the possibility that, in particular circumstances, it might be.


Weston 12.15.07 at 3:03 am


I don’t think the length of the occupation is directly relevant to the moral question. Indirectly, of course, the longer the US stays in Iraq the more people will become convinced that the occupation is really an attempt at imperial expansionism. But suppose, contrary to fact, (1) that the Iraqis are permanently unable to form a working government, and–maybe not contrary to fact–(2) the violence in Iraq will continue to decrease. Under those conditions I’d think we should stay, if only because some form of political authority is necessary to secure human rights, but also because their instability is the result of our initial stupidity. In that sense, and on those idealized assumptions, I don’t see anything wrong with a “holding operation.”

Of course, at some point, the Iraqis will probably be able to form an effective government (or several regional governments–I’m inclined to think the Kurds are entitled to their own state, moderate Turkish oppression notwithstanding). And of course, violence in Iraq will continue to fluctuate. I’m genuinely pained, Magistra, because part of me strongly agrees with you: if we’re making any gains at all, its in inches, not miles. But I’m not convinced that substantial gains are beyond reach. And it’s important to remember how tragic the choice really is, because more–many more–are going to die no matter what we do.

What frustrates me on the domestic political front, however, is how quick those of the anti-war persuasion were to criticize the surge on the grounds that not enough political progress has been made. I’m not sure if the US could ditch attempts at democratization and install a relatively benign dictator at this point, but I think the Iraqis certainly deserve more time if we can give it to them. If a drawdown of the ‘surge’ troop levels results in increased violence, I would take that as evidence that more troops are needed, not less. But again, increased troop levels will only incite Iraqis to more insurgency, so there is definitely a balance to be struck. As for how to strike it, and whether the attempt will ultimately be worth it? Those are exactly the complicated questions that anti-war advocates must face honestly, and answer convincingly, if they’re going to have a case for withdrawal.


Weston 12.15.07 at 3:13 am

As Badger and John pointed out, these debates become unmanageable in a comments thread. I’ve become a flagship example of that problem, so I apologize for the bulkiness of these responses.


You didn’t really answer my objection to Basra. Whatever happened immediately following the British withdrawal, the city is once again a battleground. And again, even if it weren’t, Basra isn’t Baghdad. See my previous response for details. Nor do am I ignoring US actions on the ground–I’m simply arguing that those actions are not obviously worse for the Iraqis than American withdrawal. On one level, yes, it’s absolutely wrong for the US to exploit the Iraqi people. But on an even more fundamental level, US exploitation might, might, be a better deal for them than American withdrawal and the resulting instability. In order to disagree with me, you’ve got to think that Iraqis would be more secure and better fed if the US left.

What I think the US is going to do is quite different from what I think the US ought to do. What’s going to happen, obviously, is that the US will cave to popular dissatisfaction with the war, it’s going to pull out prematurely, and it’s going to leave Iraq to a brutal civil war which, ultimately, Iraqis are going to blame on us. What the US ought to do–if my tentative arguments are correct–is to sustain its present troop levels, beg the UN for assistance with the voice of a newly elected president, facilitate reconciliation among Iraqi ethnic groups, and then wait, hope, pray, and cajole the Iraqi government into compromise and viability. Those are all possible goals, in some sense. The only thing that makes them impossible, I surmise, is the anti-war movement’s unwillingness to set aside its (justified) hatred of the Bush Administration long enough to put things in perspective. But if all you care about is what’s probably going to happen, then you can stop arguing. Sadly, you’ve already won.


abb1 12.15.07 at 11:30 am

On July 20, 1987, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country was announced…and on February 15, 1989, the last Soviet troops departed on schedule from Afghanistan.

Najibullah’s regime, though failing to win popular support, territory, or international recognition, was however able to remain in power until 1992. Ironically, until demoralized by the defections of its senior officers, the Afghan Army had achieved a level of performance it had never reached under direct Soviet tutelage. Kabul had achieved a stalemate that exposed the Mujahideen’s weaknesses, political and military. For nearly three years, Najibullah’s government successfully defended itself against Mujahideen attacks, factions within the government had also developed connections with its opponents.

According to Russian publicist Andrey Karaulov, the main reason why Najibullah lost power was the fact Russia refused to sell oil products to Afghanistan in 1992 for political reasons (the new Russian government did not want to support the former communists) and effectively triggered an embargo.


Weston 12.15.07 at 11:46 am

I read that too, but I’m not sure I understand why you quoted it. Do you think the Russians should have continued to support Najibullah? Do you think the fact that they didn’t means they shouldn’t have withdrawn? Do you think there is a lesson here for Iraq?


abb1 12.15.07 at 1:59 pm

Well, I guess it’s just that the Soviet military left and then things didn’t change much for 3 years; no apocalypse, no mass-slaughter. And that’s in the situation where the mujahideen (aka ‘the insurgency’) had, as you noted, virtually unlimited material and political support. And ideologically the government and the insurgency were much further away from each other than what they have in Iraq now.

I’m skeptical about the claim that in Iraq it’s going to get worse if the US troops leave.


roger 12.15.07 at 5:23 pm

Weston, originally, you criticized me for claiming that the Dems had a tooth fairy policy about Iraq – and then you advocate your own policy, which involves the U.S. begging for U.N. intervention as we continue this mindless, goalless and immoral war.

I don’t know what I can say to that,except q.e.d.

However, I’m sorry that I didn’t specify that the tooth fairy would contribute to UNICEF. And to President Clinton’s charity. It is a good little tooth fairy.

I’m hopeful that as the U.S. heads into a recession, the minds of the warparty enablers in the Dem party will be wonderfully concentrated. Because otherwise, they will share the blame with the GOP for the vast and insane waste of resources that is what the Iraq war is all about. And I don’t think that outcome is going to make them too happy.


seth edenbaum 12.15.07 at 6:21 pm

“As Badger and John pointed out, these debates become unmanageable in a comments thread.”

Mostly because people continue to talk out of some sort of psychological inertia, some version of: “I still think…” etc., even when their question has been answered (or their ignorance confirmed.)
“So to your phrase about the US will unilaterally (and voluntarily) withdraw or it won’t, the answer is ‘it won’t’.”

As to whether the US plan has always been to break up Iraq, I’d say no. The one thing the US has been consistent about is the desire for long term military ties, in the form of bases and men on the ground. This is not occupation as such, but its got nothing to do with the interests of the Iraqi people. The Iraqi’s recognize that, as Badger has pointed out, much more than Americans do, or even than JQ is willing to admit.
Everybody wants to be a doctor and no one is willing to listen to the god damn patient.


abb1 12.15.07 at 7:34 pm

the answer is ‘it won’t’

You don’t know that. Look at that NIE thing, clearly something’s is going on in there. It might.


seth edenbaum 12.15.07 at 9:09 pm

“This is not occupation as such, but its got nothing to do with the interests of the Iraqi people.”

I should have been clearer. It’s never been a question of breaking up the country or not. There’s no evidence that anyone in US policy circles has ever cared one way or another.
The overriding interest, the only thing about which this administration has been absolutely consistent, is having more military outposts in the mideast.
Facts on the ground.


Weston 12.16.07 at 10:43 am

Abb1, I appreciate the clarification. Maybe I’m overestimating the likelihood or severity of a post-withdrawal civil war. I’ll have to read and think some more about the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and its relevance for Iraq. Thanks for the feedback.

Roger. Originally, I criticized you for rejecting, without argument, the idea that we have a moral obligation to Iraq, and that this obligation might entail continued occupation. I don’t recall backing any particular Democratic policy other than my own, your Latin bravado notwithstanding. And as long as we’re engaging in rhetoric, you were also complaining about the media’s tendency to cast every issue in black and white. Yet here you are, boiling everything down to “pro-war” or “anti-war” and calling me naive, while failing to support your lone argument (the dubious Basra example) against a fairly obvious objection (disanalogy). I don’t know what to say to that, except ad hominem and tu quoque.

Seth? Thanks for the insight. This has been my first time posting comments to a blog, so I’m a little unfamiliar with the protocol. But I still think making baseless, inflammatory remarks is the way to confirm ignorance, not persistent questioning of those who pretend to knowledge. I don’t know if you saw my question answered above somewhere, but perhaps you can explain to a genuinely concerned liberal voter how you know the civil war following an American withdrawal wouldn’t be worse than the occupation itself? Maybe you can help Roger with that, too.


Weston 12.16.07 at 11:37 am

Better yet, do it here.

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