In addition to calls for responsibility and accountability with respect to Iraq what is needed more than anything is clarity – – clarity about our goals, clarity about what our involvement there actually costs and, most of all, clarity as to how long our troops and financial support will be needed to establish stable governing structures and a social environment capable of providing security and basic services for the Iraqi people.
Wednesday’s airing of the president’s new direction in Iraq will bring conditions there into high focus. Leaks indicate that he will propose a “surge” of somewhere between ten and twenty thousand troops. Military sources report that only nine thousand new recruits are combat ready, suggesting that the so-called surge may simply mean longer tours of duty and repeat assignments for existing forces. Support from trained Iraqis drawn from elsewhere in the country are said to be a secondary means of enhancing the military buildup in urban areas; to what degree and in what capacity such forces would function is as yet undefined in this increasingly violent and convoluted social landscape.
In addition to purported military options are measures designed to create jobs for the huge number of unemployed Iraqis, clean the streets and bully Maliki into taking a stand against the militias. But first the environment must be secure enough to allow those things to occur. It was obvious in the conduct of Saddam Hussein’s trial and execution that the government isn’t truly representative or the judiciary independent and impartial.
And as time has gone on the militias, the army, and the police force have all been swamped by factional animosities internally and further divided by external forces with their own agendas. As a result it has become increasingly difficult to determine how to go about untangling a confusing web of local religious and political affiliations let alone identify and isolate international intruders. How to accomplish that is beyond imagining and how Maliki, whose very existence depends upon militia support, can ever control criminals embedded in his government and his army is equally difficult to conceptualize.
An article in Sunday’s NY Times Week in Review section laid out a disturbing overview of what has happened in Iraq since our invasion. According to the article “Al Qaeda in Iraq emerged after the American invasion, seeking to defeat the United States, destroy the Iraqi state and create a larger Middle Eastern Sunni Islamic state.” Its activities encouraged Sunni-Shiite violence, and nothing we have done has led to a tamping down of Al Qaeda influence in the country. In fact, the article suggests that “the June killing of (Al Qaeda leader) Mr. Zarqawi by American forces actually helped the Qaeda group…by removing a leader who was a symbol of foreign influence.” And “despite the loss of its principal leader…it absorbed at least 10 groups last year.”
Thus into the breach we created when we deposed Saddam Hussein Al Qaeda was provided a launching pad for its activities that has further complicated our ability to develop winning initiatives. And without engaging Iraq’s neighbors we will surely continue to fight a lonely, losing battle there. Whether or not it serves Iran’s current agenda to support Shiite militias in Iraq or whether Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia will stand by if Iraq’s Sunnis are marginalized to the point of extinction it is unlikely that they or others in the region want to see a takeover of their land and institutions by Al Qaeda.
One obvious conclusion is that countries do not like being invaded and occupied. And despite the fact that a brutal dictator was deposed in Iraq, what followed was not conducive to the creation of an independent, high functioning government. We became, then, occupiers with weapons, walking the streets, ignorant of local customs, unable to speak the language, sweeping up residents for endless questioning and detention and, in the end, serving as targets for an ill-defined, amorphous enemy. Some of those arguments have been made by military experts who suggest that the U.S. should have a reduced presence rather than reinforce a negative image whose mission is unclear.
However we do indeed owe something to the Iraqi people for dismantling all their political and social structures without creating anything better and for allowing an atmosphere of violence and fear to prevail. A lack of planning along with the notion that simply winning military battles would carry the day led the administration to believe that protecting Israel and shoring up oil resources in the region would be the logical outcome.
But whatever the president proposes, it is time for absolute clarity about our future involvement in Iraq. The new congressional leadership has said it will demand absolutes in terms of human and financial costs as well as the duration of our commitment. Two or three more years as some have suggested is not an encouraging timeline especially since the mission is so murky and the means of accomplishing a positive outcome so unclear. Hopefully this Congress will do a better job than the previous one of overseeing the executive and demand a fuller accounting of its intentions.

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