This ambitious piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht examines “the struggle for the Middle East.” Specifically, Gerecht considers the status of Iraq, Iran, al Qaeda, our overall effort to bring democracy to the region, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The whole thing is worth reading, but the “must read” portion pertains to Iraq on which, Gerecht says, most of the rest probably depends.
Gerecht’s view is that “post-Saddam Iraq is not a failure, but it is certainly an awful mess,” and could become a failure in the next 6 to 12 months. But it’s not Gerecht’s conclusions that make his discussion of Iraq compelling; it’s his willingness to discuss the key issues of security and the elections in greater depth than we’re used to seeing.
As to security, Gerecht moves beyond the normal debate about troop levels to focus on what he thinks is the one significant aspect of security that is broken yet fixable, namely the roads. According to Gerecht, as long as the Sunni insurgency controls the principle arteries in and out of Baghdad and can kill with ease on major thoroughfares elsewhere, there is no way the United States and its Iraqi allies can win a counterinsurgency campaign in the country’s heartland. Gerecht argues that we can regain control of the roads though roadblocks, observation posts, and ground and air patrols. Moreover, he believes that we can do so without sending in additional forces, just by reallocating resources already in Iraq. Is Gerecht correct? I have no idea. However, I think he has advanced the debate.
Gerecht also thinks about the elections in a useful way by trying to determine which outcome will advance our interests. He’s convinced that the best outcome is an overwhelming victory by the Shiite slate backed by Ayatollah Sistani. Why? Because we need “an official realignment of Iraq’s politics, where the majority actually has some official presence and power.” The current strategy of trying to entice Sunnis to sign on to the democratic project is failing, in Gerecht’s views. We need, instead, “to ratchet up the pressure on the Arab Sunni community, especially on its elite, while prominent Iraqi Shiites appeal to the Sunnis behind the scenes to join the new nation. The Sunni Arabs have to know — have to feel it in their bones — that they are on the verge of losing everything in Iraq.” Then the pragmatists may sign on, leaving the extremists stranded (assuming we can control those roads).
If the Sunnis don’t sign on, the result will be a bloody civil war. The Shiites would win, but win ugly. An out-and-out civil war would bring the more radical Shiite elements to the fore, thus ending the democratic experiment. In that event, our intervention in Iraq likely will be adjudged a failure, and we will have suffered a setback in our struggle for the Middle East.
UPDATE by BIG TRUNK: Reader Paul Kotik writes with a suggestion:
I served in Southern Lebanon in the early 1980′s, IDF. As I have told everybody who would listen (nobody) in and out of government, I saw Iraq turning into Lebanon writ large. Same players ( Hizb’allah, Damascus, Teheran), same tactics, same strategy.
In Lebanon, we quickly learned what Gerecht advocates: control of the roads is everything. The daily, nightly, and dreaded priority mission of Israeli forces in Lebanon became ‘Ptihat Tzir” – opening the road. We set ambushes and lay there all night motionless and silent. We laid sensors, flew drones, and at daybreak walked our section of road in plain view.
By and large, it worked. I didn’t need to whine about armor in Lebanon at the height of the Shi’ite insurgency. I got around in a Toyota sedan just fine, thank you.
It is completely beyond me why the Pentagon isn’t paying a couple of hundred South Lebanon Army officer retirees some of these famous $20,000/month salaries to consult in Iraq. There’s a community of them living in Northern Israel, guys who had to flee Lebanon when Barak pulled out. These guys had 15 or more years doing exactly what the Americans are trying to do now, only these guys are native Arabic speakers, of unquestioned loyalty, and have already made all the the mistakes the Americans are making now.