Now for something completely different: An update on Iraq – adam lashinsky

this is an awesome update on iraq war from adam lashinsky of fortune. surprised we’re not hearing a louder outcry to just end this big tragic US blunder. his best point is that for $3b a week we could be buying a lot more hearts and minds there and nearby than we are now financing fighting.

Monday night in

San Francisco

I went to hear Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post speak. He’s the author of Fiasco, widely considered to be the best book about the botched occupation in

Iraq

. Ricks has a reputation for impeccable high-level sources in the

U.S.

military, so I hoped I could get a read on the current state of affairs from him. If you’re like me, you see the images and read the headlines, but it’s tough in the course of daily life to make sense of it all. Ricks didn’t disappoint. I thought I’d summarize what he said for others who are trying to figure things out. I haven’t made any grand efforts at synthesizing any of this. It’s actually startlingly straightforward. I’ll also dispense with the usual journalistic niceties of setting up quotes and so on. Assume everything not in brackets is in Ricks’s voice, not mine. I’ve bolded some bits I think are particularly important. A caution: Very little of what you’re about to read is hopeful or upbeat. It’s a sad state of affairs.

The “surge” is having some success tactically in parts of

Baghdad

. The security situation is better than it was a year ago, but that’s an extremely low bar. More important that assessing the security situation, however, is to consider what results the surge is having compared with its announced objectives in January of this year, namely achieving national political reconciliation in Iraq. In short, there is no sign of that happening. To the contrary, the Iraqi government has ground to a halt.

In six weeks General Petraeus will testify in front of Congress as part of the promised September update on the surge. His testimony “will be interesting but not dispositive.” In other words, he will stress positives, such as the switching of sides by some Sunni insurgents in

Anbar

Province

, who are working with

U.S.

and Iraqi military units they previously had been trying to kill. However, he is likely to explain that Shiite politicians are afraid of these arrangements. These insurgents effectively are being armed by the

U.S.

and will be able to fight the Shiite militias if the

U.S.

doesn’t stand in their way.

There are 21 Republican senators up for re-election in 2008, and each is terrified they will be defeated as a result of supporting the war. At the same time, Democrats will tread lightly on troop pullouts out of fear of being branded as the party that prematurely lost the war, as they were for 20 years

Vietnam

.

As a result, “There are no good answers left. We need to start talking about the least bad answers,” otherwise known as a “mitigation” strategy, and that is where Petraeus will begin to steer the conversation.

Petraeus likely will discuss the ramifications of various strategies as a way of fostering the necessary policy debate. The three strategies whose ramifications he’ll explore are pullout, containment and partition. For various reasons, pullout and partition are not viable strategies, which is why Petraeus will focus on the “Three Nos” that will be the new American policy in

Iraq

, a de facto containment policy:

* No genocide.

* No safe haven for Al Qaeda.

* No regional war.

[Earlier this year I began reading Fiasco. (My issues for stopping, not his.) Ricks explains extremely well that since the end of the first Gulf war the

U.S.

pursued an aggressive containment policy with its no-fly zone as well as special forces and CIA operation inside

Iraq

. His overall point, and here’s the depressing part: We will now continue a policy of containment for many years, only now with troops on the ground.]

No matter what happens in the next year or so, the U.S. will begin drawing down troops next spring by 2009 will have 80,000 or 90,000 troops in Iraq. [from 162,000 today, according to Wednesday’s papers.] If the surge goes well, we will do this because fewer troops are needed. If the surge doesn’t go well, we will do this because we are simply out of troops. Petraeus could order 18-month tours of duty, but he has said he doesn’t intend to do so.

The size of the army can’t be greatly increased without a draft particularly because of poor morale among junior officers and career staff sergeants. A young captain, first in her class at

West Point

, intends to get out when her commitment is up. Why. “Because I no longer have faith in the

U.S.

government.”

Morale is strong among the troops. Unlike forces comprised of draftees in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, this is a cohesive force of volunteers, many of whom have known each other for two years or more, including back home, where they knew each other’s spouses, saw their first baby coming home, and so on.

Even the residual forces that remain in

Iraq

after 2008 will deal with tremendous problems, including:

* Refugee flows. Refugee camps will need to be established, likely on

Iraq

’s borders, likely guarded by

U.S.

troops. These camps will resemble PLO refugee camps in

Lebanon

, not an enviable assignment.

* Mini civil wars. Already there is Shiite-on-Shiite fighting in southern

Iraq

, where the British have announced they are pulling out and have been largely contained to their base anyway. The reason: Disputes over oil-field ownership. Attempts by Kurds in the north to rid the region of Arabs will spark more fighting, currently at a minimal level.

Turkey

, a NATO ally, is itching to stop Kurdish raids inside its borders and could strike Kurd-dominated northern

Iraq

, which it has been refraining from doing largely because of

U.S.

pressure. Should that happen, Kurdish troops in central

Iraq

, considered to be the best fighters in the Iraqi army, would head north to defend their homes, worsening the situation in and around

Baghdad

.

Three over-arching points:

1. This is rapidly becoming not President Bush’s war anymore. His policies are set for the rest of his term.

2. We will not be able to wash our hands quickly of

Iraq

, the way we did in

Vietnam

, relatively speaking. The next president simply will not be able to pull out quickly.

3. No matter what, this will not end well. We are only in the third act of a five-act Shakespearean tragedy. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are not dead yet, and one of them is the Iraqi prime minister. [I think I understood this one, but I’ll leave it to true Hamlet scholars to decipher.]

Only a leader with an ability to embrace and accept tragedy can handle this job. It’s time to end empty, optimistic pronouncements about

Iraq

.

[This was the end of Ricks’s prepared remarks. What follows are some selected answers to questions.]

The

U.S.

burn rate in

Iraq

is $3 billion per week. Perhaps we should give, just give, $3 billion a year to

Pakistan

for education and not even monitor the money. We should do that for three years. And in the four year we should say, “Oh, and this year we want Osama bin Laden.”

Many reputations will be ruined in

Iraq

, but perhaps not enough. Seventeen division commanders were relieved in World War II. Either zero or one have been relieved in

Iraq

, depending on how you count. The generals simply have not been held accountable for their failures.

Another tragedy of this war is that there are 20,000 armed contractors in

Iraq

. Its unclear whose laws govern them. They certainly don’t come under military discipline. They are not serving the national interest but rather are there to make a buck. That hurts troop morale.

Adam Lashinsky

Fortune Magazine

2 thoughts on “Now for something completely different: An update on Iraq – adam lashinsky

  1. What about the problem of NO ELECTRICITY for weeks in 120 degree heat. Large parts of Baghdad have been without water for weeks.
    wtf! hearts and minds!

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