Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Iraq: Now the Bad News

In the last post, we looked at some good news from Iraq-- the increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces. Today, we look at the bad news. And, as with all good new/bad news jokes, the bad news (almost) completely negates the good news.

There's a lot of bad news. Here's just some of it:
  • Those increasingly capable Iraqi security forces are, in most cases, just ethnic, religious or tribal militias in uniform, with little loyalty to the central government. Anthony Cordesman, who was the source of most of our good news in the last post, confirms that this is the case.

  • The prospects for the government of national unity that Condoleeza Rice and Jack Straw want the Iraqis to put together look increasingly dim. It now seems likely either that a government just can't be formed, or that the new government will leave significant groups unhappy and ready for war. In addition to the Shia-Sunni-Kurd conflict, the chances are rising of intra-community battles.

  • Baghdad and several other parts of the country are in the throes of ethnic (or religious) cleansing. While much of the country is relatively calm, that calm has been secured largely by ethnic, religious or tribal militias. As ethnic cleansing heats up, it is increasingly likely that these militias will mobilize nationally in an attempt to secure territory. Think Yugoslavia after Tito. Think Lebanon in the 1970s. If that's the case, the improved "quality" of these militias will be poor consolation.

If conditions continue to deteriorate, the United States will face some hard choices. No choice is good, but it is clear that as the civil war intensifies, and as Shiite militias become increasingly capable of taking on Sunni extremists, the case for U.S. withdrawal is strengthened. It's one thing to help a government fight against an insurgency, another to participate in or try to stop a civil war.

Citizen Cain has always been leery of just pulling out of Iraq, because as bad as conditions are, they will get worse if the civil war moves from assassinations in the night and battles involving platoon-sized groups, and takes on the scale of battalion-sized military units engaging in artillery duels in the middle of cities. But there’s a limit. We can’t go to war on the side of the Madhi army, and we there’s a limit to the casualties that we should accept in the name of keeping the violence in Iraq down to a low simmer.

Maybe there’s a way to pull out partially or gradually that will limit the risks to our soldiers while giving the Iraqis some chance of stabilizing the situation. I’m dubious. But we have to face the significant possibility that we can’t win in Iraq at an acceptable cost, and prepare for it.