Douglas Macgregor is a retired Army colonel and a decorated Persian Gulf War combat veteran who was an active duty officer (and Pentagon advisor) until 2004. He has authored three books on modern warfare and military reform. His latest is Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. Macgregor writes for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C. He recently replied by email to a series of questions about the current situation, and future prospects, in Iraq.
1. How big of a change has there been in recent months in the military situation in Iraq?
The situation on the ground has definitely changed, but not for the reasons the Bush Administration and its generals claim. The main reasons include cash-based deals with Sunni leaders and Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr’s independent decision earlier this year to temporarily restrain his Mahdi army from attacking U.S. forces. There have also been improved force protection measures–increased commitment of emergency ordnance disposal units to clear mines from roads–and increased use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles. As a result, American casualties have declined in the last 90 days to the levels experienced in 2006.
2. Has the “surge” in troop levels played an important role here as well?
Not really. Where once there was one country called Iraq, there are now three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. More than two years of sectarian violence have left districts in and around Baghdad completely Sunni or completely Shiite, and that has significantly reduced violence in those districts and resulted in fewer bodies in the streets. This new strategic reality, combined with huge cash payments to the Sunni insurgent enemy, is what has given U.S. forces a respite from the chaos of the last four years. The introduction of a few thousand additional troops into Baghdad’s neighborhoods was never going to result in any kind of strategic sea change.
3. So is the problem in Iraq one of refining counterinsurgency tactics?
The Sunni Arab leadership has suspended its rebellion against the U.S. military occupation because the White House and its generals in Baghdad have given Sunnis independence from the hated Shiite-dominated government and money–lots of money. When U.S. casualties were rising last spring, General David Petraeus issued directives to coalition forces to extend the model of Anbar province by offering cash payments to more and more Sunni Arab leaders outside of that region. One army officer on his second tour summed up the change this way: “Since we refuse to leave and are much more powerful than al Qaeda, they are siding with us. They call this the ‘great awakening’.” The tactic of paying your enemy not to fight is not a new one, but it has limitations. If the plan is to leave Iraq, it’s a good solution. If the plan is to stay in perpetuity, and that seems to be the case with the Bush Administration, history says it’s dangerous. Eventually, the underlying hatred for the foreign presence overwhelms greed.
4. How will this play out in terms of Iraqi political reconciliation?
One of the unspoken assumptions that underpins the “great awakening” is that U.S. occupation forces will place untold thousands of Sunni insurgents on the U.S. government’s payroll, which will allow them to rearm and recuperate inside Sunni-pure enclaves while U.S. forces open a new front in the war of occupation against the Shiite militias. The question now is whether the Shiite militias will launch the kind of campaign against U.S. forces that the Sunnis waged for nearly four years.
5. What’s the likelihood of a future full-out clash between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites?
No one knows because selected Shiite Arabs also benefit from U.S. military action and subsidies. From the beginning of the American intervention, the United States backed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in its struggle for power with Muqtada al Sadr, despite the ISCI’s Iranian ties and origins. The problem for U.S. forces is that Sadr has a far stronger base of support inside Iraq’s Shiite population than the ISCI. But it is doubtful that Sadr will stand idly by while U.S. forces halt operations against the Sunnis, the Shiites’ old enemies, and allows them to rebuild. Sadr may well step up attacks on Americans, assisted, of course, by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces. What the majority Shiite Iraqi army would do in these circumstances is another unknown.
6. What’s Iraq going to look like five years down the road?
The current Administration wants to stay in Iraq with the object of controlling it and removing its oil wealth with the help of American and British oil companies. But it’s unclear whether the United States can sedate the Sunni population with cash while exploiting their fear of Iran–for example, by promising that giant American bases like the 30,000-man U.S. Air Base in Balad will form an anti-Iranian Maginot line stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Turkish border. This may be the Bush Administration’s strategic ploy to win the support of neighboring Sunni Arab countries for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq long after Bush leaves office. But there are lots of variables the United States does not control, both internal and external. The Muslim Arab populations of the region do not want U.S. forces permanently stationed in their countries. In addition, future Turkish intervention in Northern Iraq, especially with Iranian and Syrian support, would leave the United States in a very dangerous position. We can only hope that the next Administration realizes it can buy the oil without parking a tank on top of the oil wells.
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