Sunday, April 20, 2008

Totten on Fallujah

In this City Journal article, linked from his main page, Michael Totten provides a nice overview on the status and stakes in this notoriously troubled city in Anbar Province. Fallujah and its fiercely independent tribes have presented would-be conquerors with a thorny problem for centuries; even Saddam's tyranny "succeeded only in renting the tribes around Fallujah, not buying them."

Fallujah, most of you will recall, was the site of the horrific burning and mutilation of four Blackwater contractors in 2004. It was the site of an abortive attempt by Coalition Forces to wrest the city from the grip of a motley assemblage of terrorists and insurgents in April of that year, followed by a more successful (but still incomplete) pacification attempt that November. Its name became synonymous with an intractably hostile operational environment.

Since the emergence of the Awakening Councils and the implementation of Gen. Petraeus' counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy and its supporting Surge, the tides have turned dramatically in Anbar Province in general and in Fallujah in particular. It's quite spectacular, really, just how profoundly the picture has changed there; Coalition Forces have gone from complaining about an almost unimaginably dangerous climate, to complaining about boredom and an excess of invitations to tea with solicitous locals.

This, however, is not to say that all is and shall remain roses in the City Of Mosques. Here is where Totten really shines; he is able to portray the very dramatic progress on the ground, while enumerating the substantial challenges yet to be conclusively faced.

The Marines’ final mission is the make-or-break mission, as all final missions must be. The third battle for Fallujah will be decisive. After the Americans leave, the city will either transform into a relatively normal backwater that nobody cares about—or tear itself apart. If Fallujah goes, Baghdad goes, and all of Iraq will follow.

A particularly pessimistic U.S. Army soldier I met in Baghdad last summer was certain that Iraq was too dysfunctional and conflict-wracked to be fixed. “Iraq will always be Iraq,” he said. Fallujah, likewise, will always be Fallujah, and Fallujah is difficult. One should not be starry-eyed at the news of its “awakening.” The city is not yet open to the modern world and its ways. Only desperate necessity granted Americans a reprieve from Fallujah’s fear and loathing of outsiders, which it now directs at Baghdad, Iraq as a whole, and international as well as local jihadism. Jeffersonian democracy has not yet come to the banks of the Euphrates.

That said, Fallujah’s worst days are likely behind it. “The al-Qaida leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman, who oversees an area just north of Ramadi. “They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”

Again, like Michael Yon, the particular genius of Totten's writing is his ability to report on progress without lapsing into cheerleading, and about challenges, setbacks, and outright disasters without collapsing into histrionics. The simple truth is that nothing in Iraq is truly simple. If our goal was to perform a kind of alchemy whereby Iraq would become some sort of clone of a Western-style Democracy over the course of one American election cycle, then we would be better off taking the Democrats' advice and packing it in straightaway. The task before us is to thread the needle between an unobtainably Utopian feat of social engineering, and a pointlessly "realistic" installation of a business-as-usual thugocracy which would be more amenable to the strings of an American puppeteer.

While respecting and co-opting existing social structures, we must facilitate the emergence of a State which will allow those structures to evolve. That means winning the respect and trust of the tribes, for they have formed the skeleton of a social compact among peoples whose views of any external authority --foreign or domestic-- have been quite understandably jaundiced for centuries. It is only when the tribes feel enfranchised and empowered that they will allow their shields to drop enough to acknowledge the legitimacy of any authority beyond Sheiks and clan affiliations. The coalescence of the Iraqi state quite simply has to emerge from the bottom up, for any top-down imposition of State control will inevitably evoke the specter of conquerors and tyrants from living memory down to the dim vaults of history.

It is this last point which I fear the Democrats of this country are dispositionally unable to recognize. Then again it is not surprising that a group of people for whom the top-down imposition of Governmental Initiatives is viewed as a panacea for all social ills should be chronically unable to see the existence –let alone the value– of social processes which arise from the bottom up. Thus the de facto reconciliation which is going on all over Iraq cannot help but be seen as irrelevant (when it is seen at all) because it is not the result of earnest deliberations by progressive-minded legislators, duly deploying a proper bureaucracy in the service of a comprehensive Program. So when Clinton and Obama and their legislative brethren on the Left side of the aisle prattle on about unmet benchmarks (albeit less so in recent days), they reveal a fundamental misreading of Iraqi society. They are stuck on statism.

This is why it is so imperative that independent reporting like Yon's and Totten's be required reading for those who struggle to develop a comprehensive understanding of Iraq's true status and its standing in our larger endeavors. As ever, I do encourage you to Read The Whole Thing and, if you feel it has been of value, to navigate over to Michael's site and make a donation to his on-going contributions to this vitally important conversation.

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