Monday, February 27, 2006

Iraq: Declaring Victory ...

I'll be visiting the University of South Alabama (USA) soon, and was interviewed by John Sledge at The Mobile Register:

... JS : This is an unfair question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. We hear lots of talk about "victory" in Iraq, but the definition varies or is vague. How do you see our involvement there playing out?

CD : There's nothing unfair about the question; it's fundamental. After 9/11 there were several occasions when we might have declared victory in the war on terror, if that's what we really wanted. Al Qaeda's safe haven in Afghanistan had been obliterated, Osama bin Laden's protectors among the Taliban deposed, and virtually all of the key planners of the 9/11 atrocity captured or killed by March 2003 -- before the invasion of Iraq. Victory could have been declared then, and other strategies pursued to isolate and weaken Saddam. That would have been the wisest course, as I wrote in 2002 and early 2003, but the war machine was already rolling toward Baghdad.

By May 2003, when President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared mission accomplished, he was right, if the mission had been defined solely as the elimination of Saddam Hussein. Washington could have declared victory and announced a timetable for a pullout then. But the Bush administration did not want to do that. It resisted even the creation of a token interim government, any transfer of sovereignty, and calls for immediate elections by Ayatollah Sistani, among others. The American design for the Iraqi military was limited to about 40,000 troops with no air force, thus remaining completely dependent on the United States not only for logistical support and aerial reconnaissance, but for close air support in combat. It was not until the insurgency began to show its gruesome power and the American death toll rose dramatically in November 2003 that Washington reversed course, set a date for the transfer of nominal sovereignty and agreed to a timetable for elections. The effort to build an Iraqi military has progressed since then, but the institution is essentially still dependent on U.S. backup, and that appears to be the American intent. The electoral process has favored groups with long historical ties to ... Iran.

How will this play out? I think there will be some good news over the next few months. I expect, for instance, that the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will be killed or captured as some Sunni leaders decide to work more closely with the Americans and the government that Washington is trying to broker after the latest elections. But most of the power in Iraq's parliament is in the hands of Shiite groups with very long, close and complex ties to the mullahs in Qum and Tehran. They are not puppets but they are realists, and they see reconciliation and cooperation with Iran as a strategic necessity. At the end of the day, with prodding from Tehran, I think the Iraqi government will probably demand that the United States military leave the country. We will have spent many hundreds of billions of dollars (we're burning money in Iraq now at a rate of more than $1.5 billion a week), with thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands wounded. At that point, whoever is in Washington will declare victory, but it will be very hard to know what they mean. ...

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