2008 February 27 Wednesday
Ethnically Shia Basra Still Dangerous

Defenders of US military involvement in Iraq point to a substantial decline in US military casualties as a sign that the country is stabilizing. But since the British forces pulled out from around Basra the city demonstrates what becomes of a part of Iraq in the absence of a foreign occupying force. The picture in Basra is not pretty.

What makes the situation in Basra — Iraq’s second largest city and commercial hub — so alarming, they say, is that it is a test of Iraqi rule under relatively optimal conditions: Basra has the nation’s best economic base, little ethnic tension within a homogeneous Shiite population and no Western occupation force to inflame nationalist tensions.

Yet the city remains deeply troubled. Disappearances of doctors, teachers and other professionals are common, as are some clashes among competing militias, most of which are linked to political parties. Murder victims include judicial investigators, politicians and tribal sheiks. One especially disturbing trend is the slaying of at least 100 women in the last year, according to the police. The Iraqi authorities have blamed Shiite militiamen for many of those killing, saying the militants had probably deemed the women to be impious.

Did "the surge" bring a decline in violence in Iraq? Or was that surge just coincidentally done at the same time a more powerful tactic was developed? The large scale purchase of Sunni loyalty with US money strikes me as the biggest cause of decreased violence in Iraq. (I strongly urge you to click thru and read Nir Rosen's piece in full)

Now, in the midst of the surge, the Bush administration has done an about-face. Having lost the civil war, many Sunnis were suddenly desperate to switch sides — and Gen. David Petraeus was eager to oblige. The U.S. has not only added 30,000 more troops in Iraq — it has essentially bribed the opposition, arming the very Sunni militants who only months ago were waging deadly assaults on American forces. To engineer a fragile peace, the U.S. military has created and backed dozens of new Sunni militias, which now operate beyond the control of Iraq's central government. The Americans call the units by a variety of euphemisms: Iraqi Security Volunteers (ISVs), neighborhood watch groups, Concerned Local Citizens, Critical Infrastructure Security. The militias prefer a simpler and more dramatic name: They call themselves Sahwa, or "the Awakening."

Could we just pay the Sahwa larger sums of money and cut way back on US troop levels?

I have an idea of what it would take to stabilize Iraq. So far we still funding fewer security forces than Saddam had. This cries out for an obvious experiment: Scale up US loyalty rental payments to twice their current level and see if that brings calm.

The American forces responsible for overseeing "volunteer" militias like Osama's have no illusions about their loyalty. "The only reason anything works or anybody deals with us is because we give them money," says a young Army intelligence officer. The 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, which patrols Osama's territory, is handing out $32 million to Iraqis in the district, including $6 million to build the towering walls that, in the words of one U.S. officer, serve only to "make Iraqis more divided than they already are." In districts like Dora, the strategy of the surge seems simple: to buy off every Iraqi in sight. All told, the U.S. is now backing more than 600,000 Iraqi men in the security sector — more than half the number Saddam had at the height of his power. With the ISVs in place, the Americans are now arming both sides in the civil war. "Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," as U.S. strategists like to say. David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus, calls it "balancing competing armed interest groups."

Update: Nir Rosen's full piece "The Myth of the Surge" (the second link above) is excellent. It explains why we are not building any sort of permanent peace in Iraq. We are basically arming and training the two sides of the conflict. What happens when the money stops flowing in to rent their loyalties?

Update II: Americans are confusing a decline in US casualties with real progress. We are not bringing the warring sides together. The Shias see our arming of Sunni militias under US tutelage as the arming of their enemies (and the Shias are correct).

To the Americans, the Awakening represents a grand process of reconciliation, a way to draw more Sunnis into the fold. But whatever reconciliation the ISVs offer lies between the Americans and the Iraqis, not among Iraqis themselves. Most Shiites I speak with believe that the same Sunnis who have been slaughtering Shiites throughout Iraq are now being empowered and legitimized by the Americans as members of the ISVs. On one raid with U.S. troops, I see children chasing after the soldiers, asking them for candy. But when they learn I speak Arabic, they tell me how much they like the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr. "The Americans are donkeys," one boy says. "When they are here we say, 'I love you,' but when they leave we say, 'Fuck you.'"

Rosen can speak Arabic. So he can get a clue. He watches the Arabs play and manipulate the American soldiers who delude themselves into thinking they are in control. Some US officers know that without Arabic language skills they are at a major disadvantage.

U.S. troops who work with the Iraqi National Police realize that beyond their gaze, the country's security forces do not act anything like police. "The INPs here are almost all Shiites," says Maj. Jeffrey Gottlieb, a lanky tank officer who oversees a unit charged with training Iraqi police. "Orders from their chain of command are usually to arrest Sunnis, not Shiites." The police have also been conducting what Gottlieb calls "United Van Lines missions" — resettling displaced Shiite families in homes abandoned by Sunnis. "The National Police ask, 'Can you help us move a family's furniture?' We don't know if the people coming back were even from here originally." Gottlieb shrugs. "We don't know as much as we could, because we don't know Arabic," he says.

The US military is making a huge mistake by not doing a large amount of Arabic training for every soldier going to Iraq with continuing intensive Arabic training while the soldiers are in-country.

You might think we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. After all, the civil war in Lebanon eventually stopped. But I see the numeric majority of the Shias and the lack of oil in the Sunni Triangle as huge obstacles to a power sharing agreement. The sides are not evenly matched and they do not have equal amounts to win and lose. The Shias have the most oil and the most people. They are not inclined to give to the Sunnis. At the same time, the Sunnis know that without non-democratically achieved positions they are out of power and out of the money that oil brings. Our substitute money only works if we are willing to pay them for many years to come.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 February 27 05:10 PM  MidEast Iraq New Regime Failures


Comments
Steve Sailer said at February 28, 2008 12:43 AM:

That's what Jimmy Carter did at Camp David -- promise huge amounts of military aid to both Israel and Egypt ad infinitum as long as they didn't use their shiny war toys to make war on each other. It sounds nuts, but 30 years later, they still haven't gone back to war.

Steve Sailer said at February 28, 2008 12:46 AM:

Also, that was a critical issue in the 1997 peace talks that settled the Northern Ireland troubles -- the IRA guys wanted jobs as cops. Whatever happened there, anyway? Did they get police jobs?

Kenelm Digby said at February 28, 2008 3:32 AM:

There is no nothing new about 'protection money' being paid by state agents to 'buy peace'.What we now think of as the preserve of organized crime has a long historic background.
The ancient Romans bought off the 'Barbarians' from the east (and babkrupted themselves), the English paid 'Danegeld' to the Vikings.
However, in each case every sign of weakness only emboldend the bullies to extract more.

m said at February 28, 2008 5:03 AM:

Wellll..............like you,I think Iraq is a mistke,BUT the situation in Basra is in part the result of the Brit hands off policy to minimize casualties.


The result was Brit troops penned up in unprotected camps pounded by mortars in the hands of people who knew the Brits would only sometimes be allowed to shoot back.

tommy said at February 28, 2008 10:54 AM:
There is no nothing new about 'protection money' being paid by state agents to 'buy peace'.What we now think of as the preserve of organized crime has a long historic background. The ancient Romans bought off the 'Barbarians' from the east (and babkrupted themselves), the English paid 'Danegeld' to the Vikings. However, in each case every sign of weakness only emboldend the bullies to extract more.

The difference would be that if we weren't in Iraq then we would have the ability to pay less and not get attacked ourselves. The Romans and the Anglo-Saxons were not in that position.

black sea said at February 28, 2008 3:40 PM:

One of the questions that will never be discussed in any of the presidentail debates is, "What exactly are we paying this protection money, or bribery, or whatever you want to call it, for?" We invade a distant and militarily inferior nation in order to bribe its various tribal members into not killing each other . . and this is a strategy?

In the meantime, we foot the bill not only for the bribes, but for the reconstruction, infrastructure improvement, civic development, security patrols carried out by the US military, and so on.

The barbarians periodically sacking ancient Rome, and the Vikings in Britain, were legitimate - indeed, terrifyingly legitimate - threats. Iraq under Saddam wasn't, and it's highly questionable as to whether a post-Saddam Iraq would be. It seems to me that Bush and Co. are just forestalling the day when the Iraqis will - through serious bloodletting, no doubt - sort out the shape and direction of their future.

Many argue that we need to stabilize Iraq because of the oil flowing out of the Gulf, but our past track record of stabilization there would seem to indicate that we don't have much talent for it, though we sure know how to waste money and lives there.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2008 6:20 PM:

m,

When the Brits came into Basra they bragged about how they were going to do an occupation smarter than the American occupation. They did patrols thru Basra on foot and not wearing heavy duty bullet proof vests. They did not start out putting themselves far from town on a base aimed to avoid local contact. They were convinced the US used too much fire power and created enemies in the process.

The Brits in theory had a lot going for them. They were taking over a city that was solidly Shia and therefore had fewer ethnic divisions. They also had occupation experience in Northern Ireland and lots of colonial experience. Well, it did not turn out well.

black sea,

The oil security argument fails. We could buy ourselves far more energy security by spending $150+ billion per year on insulation, hybrids, diesels, nuclear power plants, photovoltaics research, and other measures within our borders.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2008 7:04 PM:

Steve,

We also overthrew the Taliban in part by renting the loyalties of tribal chiefs in Afghanistan with suitcases full of cash. Those US special forces that fought their way across Afghanistan had two main tools: precisely targeted JDAMs and and precisely targeted suitcases of cash.

JJ said at February 28, 2008 9:53 PM:

Steve, Egypt and Israel are both fairly cohesive countries. So all you needed to do was negotiate with a few leaders.
The participants in the Sunni-Shia civil war come from so many different factions that negotiating/bribing for peace is going to be
much more difficult.

Lebanon's civil war partly came to an end due to Syrian intervention. So what do we need in Iraq? A Saudi or Iranian intervention? Perhaps a Turkish intervention?

gcochran said at February 29, 2008 9:47 AM:


Egypt had already stopped fighting Israel before we ever started paying them. In fact Egypt didn't want to fight more: the Egyptians had retrieved their self-respect by giving the Israelis a good fight in 73, and they had the Suez canal back already. The Israelis had already realized that they could get along with Sadat, had already tipped his people about a Libyan assassination attempt. As far as I can tell, Carter just decided that he needed to buy a foreign policy success.


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