The midterm elections in the U.S. launched a new era in Iraq policy, including a new assertiveness by the ascending Democrats and visible soul-searching among at least some descending Republicans. The news is filled with a sense of impending change: The Democrats are finally claiming the front pages with promises of dramatic new departures and scads of investigations once they take control of Congress; James A. Baker’s Iraq Study Group is today to report its eagerly awaited recommendations for a new policy in Iraq to the President; a new Defense Secretary, himself a critic of deposed Secretary Rumsfeld’s Middle Eastern policies, is about to undergo confirmation hearings; and the President has officially abandoned his “stay the course” posture in favor of a new mantra of “flexibility.”
But beneath this ferment lies an unfortunate continuity with pre-election reality: the Myth of More. Almost without exception, whatever proposals are being raised about changing Iraq policy avoid mentioning, or explicitly reject, the idea that the United States should abandon its three-year old attempt to occupy Iraq and actually withdraw its troops. Instead, each new suggestion or set of recommendations calls for the United States to do not less, but a whole lot more of something that is already a part of existing policy.
Among the most commonly heard cries for more are the calls for more Iraqi troops to replace overstrained American combat forces; or more American advisers to insure the capability and growth of Iraqi combat units; or more American troops assigned to Baghdad to win back the streets of the Iraqi capital; or more marines in al-Anbar Province to quell the rising tide of violence in that heartland of the Sunni insurgency; or more Congressional oversight to ensure that the administration is following a constructive course in the Middle East.
Even the negative proposals being raised rest on demands for more. Demands that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawal or redeployment to non-conflict areas are explained as a way to force the Iraqi government to take more responsibility for the country’s security; and calls for that government to dismantle the religious militias all involve demands that more Iraqi police be assigned to the neighborhoods where these militias operate.
The terrible problem is that all these proposals and many others that pop up daily in the media rest on the assumption that the American presence, however much it has failed, is nonetheless ameliorating intractable internal problems among the Iraqis.
This is the fundamental fallacy of the Myth of More. In fact, the American invasion and occupation of Iraq have visited a series of plagues on both the Iraqi and the American people — and on the world as a whole; and these plagues will have no hope of amelioration until the U.S. military genuinely withdraws from that country or is expelled.
To demonstrate that this sad observation is true, let’s explore just two of the proposals that derive from the Myth of More in order to expose the underlying corruption of the policy upon which it rests.
Fallacy #1: Once More Iraqi Troops are Trained, Both the Insurgency and the American Presence Will Decline
Until just before the November election in the U.S., President Bush’s mantra was: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” In translation this meant, more Iraqi soldiers would result in a reduction in the fighting between the American military and the insurgency, leading to a reduction in American troop levels in Iraq.
The underlying logic of this argument, though rarely stated, is straightforward and intuitive. It rests on the assumption that the fundamental building block of the war is ferocious violence visited by insurgents upon local citizens in order to take control of Iraqi cities. Naturally then, U.S. (and Iraqi) troops, responding to this violence, must enter urban areas and chase the insurgents out of town or into hiding. Unfortunately, in this portrait, when the troops leave, the insurgents and the violence invariably return. So…if only we could add larger numbers of well-trained Iraqis, who could be stationed in such pacified city neighborhoods permanently, the violence would assumedly not be able to reestablish a foothold. More Iraqi troops, in other words, would mean less violence.
This certainly seems quite logical. The only problem is: This logic does not work in practice, not on the streets of Iraq’s cities. Between the fall of 2004 and the fall 2006, American military sources reported that the number of combat-ready Iraqi Army troops actually increased in number from about 40,000 to 130,000. The latter number is a hair’s breadth away from the 137,000 target figure long ago established by the U.S. military as the necessary threshold for Iraqi security; and yet this threefold increase has not resulted in the promised reductions in the level of insurgent activity.
Instead, during the same period, military attacks by insurgents at least kept pace with the numbers of troops being “stood up,” recording a threefold increase, from about 50 per day to about 150 per day, while the number of car bombs and roadside explosives (or IEDs) doubled. Nor, as is obvious, have the number of American troops in the country declined. They have remained at about 140,000 during the entire period.
Let’s review this paradox. In a time when the Brookings Institute reported that Iraqi military strength increased by slightly less than 90,000 troops and American troops remained steady at 140,000, the insurgency dramatically increased in intensity. More actually seemed to work in favor of the insurgents. Why didn’t a larger presence result in a greater suppression of insurgent violence for longer periods of time?
Solving this paradox requires understanding the fundamental horror of Bush administration policy in Iraq: American troops are not quelling violence; they are creating it. Instead of entering a violent city and restoring order, they enter a relatively peaceful city and create violence. The accurate portrait of this situation — as described, for instance, by Nir Rosen in his book In the Belly of the Green Bird, is that the most hostile anti-American cities like Tal Afar and Ramadi have generally been reasonably peaceful when U.S. troops are not there. They are ruled by local leaders in league with local guerilla fighters. The insurgents — most often organized into armed militias — provide policing functions, as well as enforcing the (usually fundamentalist) religious laws that are currently dominant in both Sunni and Shia areas of Iraq.
These cities do not accept the sovereignty of the Iraqi government or of the American occupation, and therefore when the Americans seek to impose an outside government and root out the insurgency’s military leaders, the cities explode. On hitting the streets, American troops usually seek to arrest or kill local militia leaders, while the insurgents begin to set IEDs or mount sniper attacks to prevent the U.S. from controlling the town. Because the insurgents are usually supported by many in the community and U.S. tactics are generally destructive, American military “successes” produce new insurgents, recruited to avenge the deaths of friends and relatives. When U.S. forces withdraw, the city or town returns to something like its previous status quo (with insurgents once again playing the role of local police) — but, of course, it’s also more battered, economically worse off, angrier, more on edge.
Thus, it is not surprising that the increasing size of the “Iraqi” Army (whose troops are integrated into the American command and control structure) has only produced increased violence. With more troops at its disposal, the American command has entered more towns and neighborhoods, thereby triggering more and longer confrontations.
Ultimately these battles will end only when the U.S. stops trying to impose an outside government on the cities that are currently controlled by the local religious leaders and their militias.
Fallacy #2: Once Enough Troops Are Brought into Baghdad, Sectarian Violence Will Subside
This second application of the Myth of More follows the same sort of straightforward logic as the first. A strong military presence is assumed to be needed to intercept, capture, disrupt, or disband Sunni suicide bombers and Shia death squads. Roadblocks are established to search for suspicious individuals — and massive house-to-house searches are launched to find hidden arms caches and apprehend suspects. This is then expected to reduce the number and ferocity of sectarian attacks. Baghdad, however, is so vast and the number of sectarian fighters so numerous that even the large number of American troops transferred in from the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, al-Anbar Province, in recent months and ever larger numbers of Iraqi troops and police have not yet contained the sectarian violence.
Here again, there is a paradoxical problem. Though the logic of more seems once again to make perfect sense, “Operation Together Forward,” the distinctly a more-style joint American-Iraqi operation devoted to suppressing sectarian violence in Baghdad, has had the opposite effect. Six months after the operation started, the number of insurgent attacks in Baghdad had actually increased by 26%, and the number of violent deaths reported at the city morgue had doubled, and then doubled again, leading New York Times journalists Edwin Wong and Damian Cave to report that “sectarian violence is spiraling out of control.”
Here again, the paradox is explained only when you look at just what those American troops and their Iraqi allies were actually doing on the streets of Baghdad. And, here again, we need to realize that, despite their thuggish tendencies, the religious militias — the major target of American military action — are the forces of law and order in Baghdad’s otherwise lawless neighborhoods. They direct traffic, arrest and/or punish common criminals, and mediate disagreements among citizens. They also protect the neighborhood from outsiders intent on doing harm to local residents, including U.S. or Iraqi soldiers, suicide bombers, and death squads.
When the American troops enter the various sections of Baghdad, they drive the militias off the streets and underground. Usually this results in battles between militia-members-turned-insurgents and the invading force, but it also results in the suppression of their enforcement and protection activities. Local militia members cannot patrol the streets for fear of being attacked by the invading army — and the soldiers of that army have neither the skills, nor the every-street-corner presence to replace them. This makes the community not less, but far more vulnerable to suicide bombers and death squads.
This vulnerability is all-too-vividly illustrated by the tragic events associated with Operation Together Forward in Sadr City, the vast Shia slum and stronghold of the Sadrist movement in East Baghdad. The dense presence of the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi army, had made the city-within-a-city relatively invulnerable to suicide car bombs, but this ended in October when American troops sealed off the area and set up checkpoints at key entrance and exit spots in order to hunt down Mahdi army leaders they suspected of participation in death squads as well as the kidnapping of an American soldier. Local residents told New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise that the cordon “forced Mahdi Army members who were patrolling the streets to vanish,” and set the stage for a ferocious series of car bombings by Sunni jihadists.
Even after the check points were dismantled, American patrols kept the Mahdi Army underground, opening the way for a devastating, coordinated set of five car bombs that killed at least 215 and wounded 257. Qusai Abdul-Wahab, a Sadrist member of parliament, spoke for most residents of the community when he told the Associated Press that “occupation forces are fully responsible for these acts.”
At about the same time and in a similar way, American troops facilitated death squad attacks in the nearby cities of Balad and Duluiyah, scenes of intense sectarian tension. American troops cordoned off the cities, seeking to root out Sunni insurgents accused of slaughtering 17 Shia workers. This drove the local Sunni militia underground and soon afterward Shia death squads appeared. According to the Washington Post, “A police officer in Duluiyah, Capt. Qaid al-Azawi, accused American forces of standing by in Balad while militiamen in police cars and police uniforms slaughtered Sunnis.”
In both cases, the logic is the same. The Americans were unable or unwilling to divert their attention from their primary target (Sadrist militia men in Sadr City, Sunni insurgents in Balad), and so opened the door for car bombers and death squads to operate in relative freedom. This primary commitment — to subdue the forces that oppose the American occupation — ultimately translates into a perverse formula in which more American forces generate further sectarian violence.
American patrols in Shia neighborhoods immobilize the local defenses and make the community vulnerable to jihadist attack; while American invasions of Sunni communities are even more damaging. They not only immobilize the local defense forces, but almost always involve the introduction of Iraqi Army units, made up mainly of Shia soldiers (since the army being stood up by the Americans is largely a Shia one). What results is violence in the form of battles between a Shia military (as well as militia-infiltrated Shia police forces) and Sunni resistance fighters defending their communities. These attacks generate immense bitterness among Sunni, who see them as part of a Shia attempt to use the American military to conquer and pacify Sunni cities. The result is a wealth of new jihadists anxious to retaliate by sacrificing their lives in terrorist or death-squad-style attacks on Shia communities — which, in their turn, energize the Shia death squads in an escalating cycle of brutalizing violence.
The agonizing reality is that the American occupation and its military forces stand at the beginning and the end of this cycle of violence. Brutal American invasions of largely Sunni cities — aided by ever larger forces of Shia soldiers — generate retaliatory car bombings and murders by Sunni jihadists. Their terrorist attacks in Shia neighborhoods motivate the Shia death squads — utilizing government equipment and personnel — to invade Sunni neighborhoods and execute those suspected of planning or mounting terrorist attacks (along with increasing numbers of uninvolved and innocent locals). Then, in an ironic final act, the American military reenters these warring neighborhoods, demobilizing each community’s defense system, and so making it just that much vulnerable to further attack.
Proposals that envision larger contingents of American or Iraqi troops as the antidote to sectarian violence in Baghdad or elsewhere simply miss the point by misunderstanding Bush administration military policy. American military action does not suppress sectarian violence; it is, instead its animating force, and a catalyst for its diffusion into new areas.
The most recent crescendo of sectarian violence in Baghdad is a consequence of Operation Together Forward, and as long as American troops and their Iraqi allies attempt to pacify Baghdad neighborhoods, they will generate and amplify sectarian attacks.
The most discouraging element of the soaring mayhem in Baghdad is the growing conviction within the Bush administration that sectarian violence may be a way to rescue the American mission in Iraq. Commenting on the fact that Shia militiamen were killing Sunni insurgents and vice versa, an anonymous former intelligence official told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in his latest piece in the New Yorker, “The White House [now] believes that if American troops stay in Iraq long enough — with enough troops — the bad guys will end up killing each other.”
Opposing the Myth of More
Nir Rosen, one of the most insightful journalists writing about Iraq today, recently summed up the current situation this way:
“I think both Bush and [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki are absolutely irrelevant in Iraq. Neither one of them has any power. Maliki has no militia to speak of. Bush has a militia, the American army, one of the many militias operating in Iraq. But the American Army is lost in Iraq, as it has been since it arrived. Striking at Sunnis, striking at Shias, striking at mostly innocent people. Unable to distinguish between anybody, certainly unable to wield any power, except on the immediate street corner where it’s located. So, it just doesn’t matter…
“Now you have about 10 or 12 city states in Iraq: Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra, Amara, Ramadi, each one is disconnected from the others, each one controlled by its own militias. You could put anybody you wanted in Baghdad, it just wouldn’t make a difference outside of Baghdad. And the guy you put in Baghdad would have to have power in Baghdad, which means street power, which means Muqtada al-Sadr.”
Every version of American policy in Iraq now being suggested in Washington (which created the present crisis of violence) is ostensibly designed to reverse this very situation and they all, in some way or other, envision the smashing of the militias, which would, in effect, allow American power to remain in place in a largely pacified country. None of the current proposals abandon the essential Bush administration goal of dominating Iraq; and each in its own fashion, even when togged out as some kind of “withdrawal” scheme, embraces the Myth of More.
We have seen that more Iraqi troops are supposedly needed to help conquer the rebellious city states; and more U.S. troops in Baghdad are supposedly needed to recapture the capital from Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi army, as well as from Sunni jihadists and insurgents. Advocates of a change in Iraqi leadership argue that a more powerful figure, a “strong man,” could help the U.S. achieve more “security” around the country. Redeploying American troops to secure bases inside Iraq or in neighboring countries would provide a safe launching area for more successful offensives in support of the Iraqi government and against militia strongholds when they were needed. Negotiations with neighboring countries would be aimed at generating more (diplomatic, economic and/or military) pressure on rebellious militias and insurgent factions to come to terms with the American presence. And more Congressional oversight on Iraq would insure against further strategic blunders that undermine the effort to pacify the country.
There is more at stake here than a battle of wills over who will rule various cities in Iraq. The ferocious resistance against American rule derives from the original goals of the American-led invasion: installing a regime in Iraq that, minimally, would embrace a military alliance with the United States, a foreign policy actively hostile to Iran (and Syria), and an economic policy that replaced state-delivered food and oil subsidies with a “free market” dominated by American multinational companies.
From the beginning, the various factions that are contending for control of Iraq-on-the-ground have resisted elements of this Bush administration program. The Shia detested the American insistence on antagonism to Iran; the Sunni rebelled against the de-Baathification policies instituted by our viceroy in Baghdad, J. Paul Bremer III, the dismantling of state-run enterprises, and the disbanding of the military; the oil workers struck against the contracts that allowed American oil companies to dominate the marketing of Iraqi oil; and virtually everyone resisted the elimination of fuel and food subsidies.
More of anything that the U.S. is doing is bound to prove just another effort to win a war of conquest and occupation whose goals are antithetical to just about every Iraqi desire. What more ensures is only more death, more destruction, and more violence. Instead, the U.S. should discontinue its efforts to militarily dominate the oil heartlands of the Middle East and withdraw its troops from Iraq.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, as well as on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared on numerous Internet websites, including Tomdispatch.com, Asia Times , Mother Jones.com, and ZNet; and in print in Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Protest and Social Structure, and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is [email protected]
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]