Moment of truth in Iraq

By Prem Shankar Jha | 23 Jun 2005


Today the coalition forces have begun to resemble the early Christian crusaders in a way that Bush administration had not even remotely anticipated. After their initial victories, the crusaders too had found themselves increasingly confined to the huge grim fortresses they built, just like the UK and US forces in Iraq today, while the countryside reverted to the Arabs.

Prem Shankar JhaFor two years after the US and UK decided to invade Iraq without a mandate from the United Nations, the rest of the world has been content to let them stew in their own juice. But Iraq has reached, or will soon reach, a crisis point at which the cost of letting these two nations learn the price of their folly the hard way is beginning to outweigh the cost of lending them a helping hand. Despite the stubbornly optimistic statements that still keep emanating from the White House, more and more American military commanders have begun to concede that Iraq is moving ever further from the peace and democracy that they had hoped to bring to that country.

Almost no one now talks about withdrawing US troops after the election scheduled for the end of this year, when an Iraqi government elected under a new constitution will come to power. Indeed it is by no means certain that the election will take place. It took almost three months to set up an interim government after the January 31 elections to the constituent assembly, and even longer to set up the 55-member drafting panel. Neither contains more than a token number of Sunnis. The likelihood of the constitution that will emerge from this body being rejected by the Sunni provinces of central Iraq is very high. But even if a constitution can be drafted in time and the veto somehow circumvented, neither it nor the elections that follow will acquire the necessary legitimacy in the eyes of the Sunnis. Violence will therefore continue.

This concern took secretary of state Condoleeza Rice to Baghdad last month to warn the government that it had to bring not only more Sunnis onto the drafting panel, but also those whom the Sunni population accepted as their representatives. But the mainly Shia and Kurd government has not been able to reach an agreement with either the moderate Sunni umbrella organisation, the National Dialogue council, or the main Sunni political organisation, the Iraqi Islamic party, on the number of seats to be given to them.

In the meantime, after a short and, as it turned out, deceptive lull, the violence in Iraq has continued to mount. Iraqi leaders and military analysts have conceded that the attack on Iraqi security forces and on civic installations is being centrally planned and coordinated, and is achieving its goals. These are to keep the infrastructure in disrepair and thereby deny credibility to the 'occupation and its 'Quisling' government, and to prevent the latter from acquiring the coercive power without which it cannot hope to control the insurgency when the British and Americans leave.

The US military command has concluded that it cannot leave Iraq until it has broken the back of the insurgency. But that second victory is getting further and further away. This is apparent from the element of desperation in the tactics that the 'Iraqi and US forces' are now following. Since the January elections, American troops have hunkered down in the heavily fortified green zones and tried to leave the day-to-day policing to the raw recruits in the new Iraqi army and police. These have proved almost worthless, in part because they have become the prime targets of the suicide bombers. In the meantime not just the countryside but town after town in the Sunni belt has passed into the hands of the insurgents.

In a tacit admission of this uncomfortable truth, American and Iraqi troops have taken to making sallies into the Sunni heartland to crush pockets of resistance. But since the Americans use airborne weapons they have killed substantial numbers of innocent civilians. They have thus given birth to a fresh crop of militants and suicide bombers with each sally.

The situation is not without irony. At the beginning of the invasion Bush and other American spokesmen spoke of having launched a crusade to free Iraq. The allusion to the crusades was deeply resented in the Arab world and never repeated. But today the coalition forces have begun to resemble the crusaders in a way that Bush administration had not even remotely anticipated. For after their initial victories, the crusaders too had found themselves increasingly confined to the huge grim fortresses they built, while the countryside reverted to the Arabs.

The parallel could easily hold in the future too. After hanging on for more than two hundred years the remnants of the crusaders finally abandoned their forts and retreated to Cyprus and Malta. The sustaining faith of the Jihadis, which they seem to have passed on to the Iraqi Sunnis, is that the US and UK will do the same. As time goes by with no signs of improvement in Iraq, the idea no longer seems far fetched. Last week, a Gallup poll found that 60 per cent of the Americans favoured an early pullout from Iraq and more than half now felt that the war had not made them safer.

The US has only two options — to keep trying to put down the insurgency militarily, or leave Iraq behind the fig leaf provided by a transfer of power to the post-election Iraqi government. The fig leaf will deceive no one for very long, so the Bush administration is predisposed to the former, and most of the western media believe that this is the better option. But this conclusion is based upon a lack of experience with insurgency in modern conditions.

Our experience in both Punjab and Kashmir has shown that one needs a hundred soldiers for every active insurgent. Five hundred active militants in Punjab tied up around 300,000 police and armed forces personnel for a decade. Kashmir never had more than 3,000 insurgents under arms, but has tied up close to 400,000 security personnel for 16 years. The most recent estimate of the number of active militants in Iraq was 18,000 and the number was rising!

Trying for a military solution will therefore only postpone the day when the US and UK will have to withdraw their troops. The longer they wait the more humiliating will their departure be. The resulting 'victory' will free Jihadis to return to their home countries to unseat more moderate regimes, and to plan the export of terrorism to other countries. It will also reverberate throughout the Muslim world and gain them a flood of new recruits.

The only strategy that offers a glimmer of hope of success is to drive a wedge between the Iraqi nationalists, who are fighting foreign occupation, and the Jihadis who are determined to turn Iraq into the next launch pad for a holy war. The US and UK cannot do this for it is their very presence that is keeping these otherwise disparate elements together. As has been said by Sunni leaders more than once, they are a part of the problem and not the solution.

The challenge before the international community is to find a way to make it possible for the US and UK troops to leave without creating a power vacuum in the country. The first step towards ensuring this would be to bring authentic representatives of the Sunnis not only into the constitution-making panel but also into the Iraqi government. Only the US has the power to persuade its present leaders to do so but so far all it has done is to push genuine Sunni leaders away.

Once this is done, the enlarged government needs to phase out US and UK troops in Iraq, and simultaneously bring in troops from other countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Bangladesh, Malaysia and possibly India, to replace them. This will become easier if the US and UK agree to transfer their responsibilities as the occupying powers to the UN, and to allow the Security Council to appeal for assistance to the above named and other countries.

This road is strewn with difficulties, and is not without risk for the troops that will replace the departing British and Americans. But even to countries like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and India, let alone Iraq, the risks of doing nothing may soon become far greater.

* The author, a noted analyst and commentator, is a former editor of the Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Financial Express, and a former information adviser to the prime minister of India. He is the author of several books including, The Perilous Road to the Market: The Political Economy of Reform in Russia, India and China, and Kashmir 1947: The Origins of a Dispute, and a regular columnist with several leading publications.

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