[OUTLOOK]A new counterstrategy for IraqIs Iraq a replay of Vietnam for the United States? The question first occurred to me two weeks ago some 500 meters above Baghdad International Airport. We were heading for Kuwait City in a thick-bellied U.S. Air Force C-130 “Hercules” when two things happened at once. First a burst of magnesium flares (“countermeasures” in military-speak) went off all around the plane. Then, the pilot went into a stomach-wrenching dive, banking hard-left and hard-right, and up again. The missile aimed at our plane missed.
Two days later, U.S. soldiers traveling in a Chinook helicopter were not so lucky. The missile found its target; 16 people died in the crash and 20 were badly hurt. The attacks have not stopped since then, and coalition troops are dying almost on a daily basis. The enemy, called “former-regime loyalists,” or FRLs, by the coalition, is demonstrating a quality of intelligence, coordination and daring that was dramatically absent from Saddam’s armies during the “real” war.
So is this “Vietnam, The Sequel?” Here are three reasons why it is not. First, the North Vietnamese could shelter behind two nuclear-armed powers, the Soviet Union and China ― countries that also delivered plenty of weapons and ammunition. But China and the Soviet Union provided an even more useful service: deterrence. Thus the United States could never inflict maximum pain on Hanoi. The former regime loyalists have no such patrons among Iraq’s neighbors. Syria and Iran would not dare support America’s enemies. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have no interest in doing so.
The second reason has to do with topography. Iraq is not jungle country, but wide open. In this type of terrain, American air superiority, mobility and space-based intelligence are decisive pluses. It is pretty difficult to hide, move and disperse in the desert.
The third reason is Iraq itself. The faceless hit-and-run war against American, Italian, British and civilian targets (like the United Nations) is not a “war of national liberation.” The opposition consists of two groups. One is made up of remnants of the old regime, the other of Islamic “freelancers” from Europe and the Middle East: Al-Qaeda, Ansar-al-Islam, jihadists (“holy warriors”) of all stripes and colors. The interests of these two groups are not identical.
The jihadists are implacable; they want to defeat and humiliate the United States at all costs, and so they will have to be fought to the finish. The profiteers of the old regime are a different story. These are Sunni Arabs, a minority of 15 to 20 percent that has ruled Iraq in many guises during the past century, from the monarchy to the Saddam dictatorship.
These people have a good reason to resist the coalition. They don’t want to live in an Iraq where power would flow to the two larger groups whom the Sunnis have suppressed (and regularly decimated) for many decades. Hence, the resistance is concentrated in the so-called Sunni Triangle marked off by the cities of Baghdad, Tikrit and Falujah. Their fight is not for “national liberation,” but for their own power, status and, as some think, sheer survival.
So there is an obvious counterstrategy that consists of military and political parts. Militarily, the United States has changed tactics already. After passively absorbing blow after blow, U.S. forces have gone on the offensive to dislodge the enemy and to keep him off balance. So watch for escalation and pre-emptive action.
The political part of the strategy is not yet in place. It is not so much “Iraqization,” as the new buzzword in Washington has it, that is essential now. The real thrust ought to be a credible offer to the Sunnis. It could sound like this: “We understand your fear of being suppressed in turn by the Kurds and the Shiites. Therefore we will guarantee your safety and grant you a political voice in the new Iraq.” Or in short: “We will not let these two groups do to you what you did to them in the past 80 years.”
This strategy would hold out a promise to those who fear the future most and are therefore willing to kill and be killed. This is why a new constitution is so critical. It would have to enshrine minority rights and power in such a way that no group could overwhelm any other. It would also have to hold out amnesty and employment to those Baathists who do not have blood on their hands.
Will such a strategy work? Above all, it will require an enduring American military presence in Iraq, plus lots of financial aid from all over the world to restore an infrastructure ― water, electricity, hospitals ― Saddam deliberately drove into the ground while using “food-for-oil” money for the benefit of his ruling clique.
The biggest question therefore is this: Will America stay the course? Here is a skeptical answer from one of America’s foremost Middle East experts, Fouad Ajami: “Americans are good firemen, but not good policemen.” Firemen fight the blaze and leave. Policemen, however, must stay, and they must know the people and the place they guard. Perhaps, democracies are too impatient for such an open-ended commitment.
* The writer is editor of Die Zeit, a German weekly, and an associate at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.
by Josef Joffe