The Anbar Argument

We are about to enter the silly season, that is, the season when silly things will be said about serious matters, matters of life and death. The Battle of Baghdad is nothing compared to the battle to spin the Battle of Baghdad, with the administration desperately looking for some sign of "success" that it can use to sell its pointless war in Iraq. And it seems as if the selling point in this marketing campaign is the success in Western Iraq, namely Anbar province. And indeed, there has been some improvement, but the source of this improvement is worth examining.

In the first place, "our" success is viewed as a failure--even a great danger--by the Iraqi government. What we have done is arm the local Sunni sheiks, the same sheiks who oppose the mainly Shiite government. This in itself is not a bad thing. However, it does create a counter-force to the central government, and lays the groundwork for a new front in the civil war. What we did in Fallujah is essentially the same thing the British did in Basra: resign control of the city to local militias and withdraw to an isolated fortress. We condemned the British for this tactic, but are doing the same thing ourselves.

In the second place, this "success" is greatly exaggerated. For example, we are told that American deaths are down for July and August. And this is true. However, of the five July's we have been in Iraq, this July was the bloodiest and August the second bloodiest. And September, through the first six days, has already seen 18 deaths, or three/day.

But Fallujah is "quiet" right? Yes, deathly quiet. Since May, all car and truck traffic has been forbidden in the city, which certainly cuts down on car bombs, but has also wrecked the economy of the city. And while attacks are down, they have not stopped by any means; rather they have been reduced from 400/month to 100/month.

Gen. Petraeus will tout Anbar as a symbol of our success. The problem is that the General has a history of making claims of "success" that are later refuted by events on the ground. In 2004, he claimed that "Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt" and "Iraqi leaders are stepping forward." In 2005, he proclaimed that "there has been enormous progress with Iraqi security forces." Now we have more claims. Should we put any more trust in them then in previous claims?

But the real problem with the "Anbar Argument" is that it argues not for a surge, but for a withdrawal. If the answer is to turn security over to the locals and withdraw to a fortress, the best fortress is fortress America. The truth is, only Iraqis can fix Iraq. The Kurds are running their own affairs without out help, and Southern Iraq is more or less self-governing because the "coalition" has little involvement. The best argument (and really the only intelligent one) for staying is the "pottery barn" argument: we broke, and its up to us to fix it. However, this begs the question of whether we can fix it, or whether or very presence makes the situation worse. But if the experience of Anbar, Kurdistan, and Basra is any indication, the best way "we" can fix it is to leave the Iraqis alone to take care of their own affairs. In fact, that might be a pretty good foreign policy principle in general.


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