Sunday, December 17, 2006

Let the Militias Handle the Militias

Rather than fighting Badr, Mahdi & co., the U.S. should
focus on preventing Iran from blockading the Strait of Hormuz

I could not agree more with former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's skepticism about plans proposed by Senator John McCain to "temporarily" increase troop levels in Iraq. That is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, especially given that it is entirely unclear what the mission of those troops is supposed to be. If the model is to "root out" the insurgents (don't these people remember Vietnam?), the troop increase will lead to nothing but more of the same - i.e., further American casualties and loss of face. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps cannot defeat the Iraqi militias. Rather, they should get back to doing the kind of work conventional armies are designed to do: engage or defend against other conventional armies.

I think the calls for embedding more U.S. advisers with Iraqi Army troops are similarly foolish. In almost every encounter, the Iraqi Army has been getting creamed by the militias. Is that only a function of training? It seems that most of its soldiers simply lack the will to fight. In the end, most of them are likely to join one of those militias anyway, or de facto support a Shi'i faction of one sort or another, as this is what the government is doing.

The U.S. ought to let the militias handle the militias. They are the ones most motivated to fight and most able to carry out the kind of warfare required to defeat other armed groups hiding among civilians. The Sunni will protect their neighborhoods, and the Shi'a will take care of theirs. Yes, there will be more death squad killings and "cleansing," but this is going on anyway.

It is clear now that the American invasion of Iraq accelerated the Iranian drive for regional hegemony. The Iranians are in an excellent position, and it is no wonder that the Syrians have decided to go with them rather than the Americans. A propos, I was dismayed to hear Powell endorse the idea of "talking with Syria":
Mr. Powell said the United States should be talking directly with the governments of Syria and Iran in an effort to stabilize the region — a contrast to the policy of the Bush administration, which has not engaged in such talks (New York Times).
Right now, neither Syria nor Iran have any interest in stability. Instability - whether in Iraq or Lebanon - is exactly what these two regimes want. At least when this instability harms the U.S., Israel, or pro-Western local players. If Syria had been interested in reaching some kind of accommodation, Bashar al-Assad would have picked up the phone and dialed Bush's number a long time ago. The problem is that Assad thinks the Iranians are the rising power in the region, and that Iran, through Hizbullah, will deliver Syria's main prize - political, and therefore economic control over Lebanon. The U.S. and the Europeans, on the other hand, are committed to Lebanese independence. Unless Baker & co. want to sell out the Lebanese (and maybe they do), there is no reason to talk to Syria at the moment. Rather, U.S. troops in the region should concentrate on finding ways to challenge the Iranian aims for hegemony, by confronting the conventional armies of these states. In the meantime, the Saudis will pour money into the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and check Iranian influence there.

In sum, the U.S. should maintain a large naval presence in the Persian Gulf and ground forces in Kurdistan and southern Iraq, able to mobilized quickly against land-based incursions or attempts to block strategic shipping lanes.. It will fall on Israel to contain Syria. The trick will be to avoid becoming bogged down in asymmetrical warfare - whether against Hizbullah or the Mahdi Army.

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