Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pushback in Iraq

Just came across this article over at the Long War Journal, in which Bill Roggio cites credible intel about the perpetrators of recent bombings in Baghdad:

Al Qaeda front group the Islamic State in Iraq has claimed responsibility for last week's deadly truck bombings in Baghdad.

The bombings, which targeted Iraqi's foreign and finance ministries, killed more than 100 Iraqis and wounded hundreds more. The bombings took place less than two months after the Iraqi security forces took control of security in the cities, and US forces withdrew to bases. The Iraqi government was also beginning to remove the concrete barriers that line the city streets.

Al Qaeda in Iraq said its "sons launched a new blessed attack at the heart of wounded Baghdad," designed to "wreck the bastions of infidelity."

The attack was designed to shake the Iraqi people's faith in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and show that the Iraqi Security Forces are incapable of providing security...

A couple of thoughts: I had suspected and ---weird as it may sound to use this word in this context-- rather hoped that this might be the case. My fear had been that some new collection of insurgents was rising, and/or vying with the remnants of existing insurgencies to destabilize the hard-won gains in Iraq. The worry would be that a comprehensive power vacuum was perceived, which a variety of actors was emerging to fill. That would be Very Bad, since it would represent a groundswell of chaos the likes of which are devilishly difficult to turn back. This was the case in 2006, and it would be a long bet that the kind of lightning which Coalition Forces and their Iraqi counterparts were able to wield then would be available again.

Instead, it appears that the usual suspects have seen an opportunity to cash in on the anxiety which accompanied the withdrawal of Coalition forces from urban areas and back into their bases, in keeping with the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Further, if these miscreants did indeed succeed in bribing elements of the Iraqi Security Forces to soften up key checkpoints, then they get the "twofer" of undermining confidence in both the capability and integrity of the ISF. But fundamentally, if Roggio's sources turn out to be correct (and he does have a pretty stellar track record), then we are looking at a rather predictable tactical setback which will require proportional adjustments...but which leave the overarching strategy essentially unchanged.

Yes, Maliki appears to have jumped the gun somewhat on the removal of blast barriers in Baghdad and courting an array of foreign investors. Yes, the degree to which AQI can count on shelter and support from Syria still argues against loosening of the screws on Damascus (are you listening, Hillary?). Yes, some re-vetting and remedial training is pretty clearly in order within the ISF (though, for the most part, they are keeping the peace quite ably in most of the country). And yes, it may be prudent to work in conjunction with the Iraqi Government to revisit some of the pacing issues with respect to the total withdrawal of Coalition forces as per the SOFA (sidebar: would a truly "Imperial" power have sat still on its bases while this was going on?).

But AQI still is still not controlling any appreciable amounts of territory, and remains relegated to the status of savage vandals, whose lashings-out are if anything brought into higher relief due to the overall level of sustained security across the vast majority of the lately war-ravaged Iraq.

AQI's leadership are bloodthirsty nihilistic psychopaths, cloaked in the rhetoric of piety, but they are not fools; they understand as well as we do that the success of counterinsurgency operations keys on the host nation population's sense that their lives and livelihoods are effectively protected by their government and its duly designated (and appropriately controlled) wielders of force. AQI knows that it has precious few windows left for de-legitimizing the elected Iraqi government and its security forces. They know they have a non-zero probability of success if they can make the Iraqi people believe that it was only the presence of the Infidel Occupiers which enabled the Iraqi Government to keep the peace. They will try to shame that government, to paint it as an impotent lap-dog of foreign masters. They will try to make the people yearn for the harsh but sure hand of a strongman (Baathists) or a theocrat (Salafist Jihadis) to make the chaos go away. And they know they don't have long to make their case.

These are delicate, dangerous times for Iraq (beginnings always are). But thus far I have not seen any real game-changers. This is not something I am taking for granted, and neither should you. But beware also the inevitable cries of "Quagmire" in the coming weeks and months. This is push-back, and only triumphalist fools should be surprised at it. But only equally foolish defeatists would not see this as the occasion to dig in and push back even harder. Maliki appears to have slid a bit in the former direction (mainly for political purposes), and he's got a well-earned bloody nose for it. But in the past he's shown himself to be a tough and resilient leader when it's counted. This would be another one of those times.

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