by Scott Ritter
Any analysis of the current state of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq that relied solely on the U.S. government, the major candidates for president or the major media outlets in the United States for information would be hard pressed to find any bad news. In a State of the Union address which had everything except a “Mission Accomplished” banner flying in the background, President Bush all but declared victory over the insurgency in Iraq. His recertification of the success of the so-called surge has prompted the Republican candidates to assume a cocky swagger when discussing Iraq. They embrace the occupation and speak, without shame or apparent fear of retribution, of an ongoing presence in that war-torn nation. Their Democratic counterparts have been less than enthusiastic in their criticism of the escalation. And the media, for the most part, continue their macabre role as cheerleaders of death, hiding the reality of Iraq deep inside stories that build upon approving headlines derived from nothing more than political rhetoric. The war in Iraq, we’re told, is virtually over. We only need “stay the course” for 10 more years.
This situation is troublesome in the extreme. The collective refusal of any constituent in this complicated mix of political players to confront Bush on Iraq virtually guarantees that it will be the Bush administration, and not its successor, that will dictate the first year (or more) of policy in Iraq for the next president. It also ensures that the debacle that is the Bush administration’s overarching Middle East policy of regional transformation and regime change in not only Iraq but Iran and Syria will continue to go unchallenged. If the president is free to pursue his policies, it could lead to direct military intervention in Iran by the United States prior to President Bush’s departure from office or, failing that, place his successor on the path toward military confrontation. At a time when every data point available certifies (and recertifies) the administration’s actions in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere (including Afghanistan) as an abject failure, America collectively has fallen into a hypnotic trance, distracted by domestic economic problems and incapable, due to our collective ignorance of the world we live in, of deciphering the reality on the ground in the Middle East.
Rather than offering a word-for-word renouncement of the president’s rosy assertions concerning Iraq, I will instead initiate a process of debunking the myth of American success by doing that which no politician, current or aspiring, would dare do: predict the failure of American policy in Iraq. With the ink on the newspapers parroting the president’s words barely dry, evidence of his misrepresentation of reality begins to build with the announcement by the Pentagon that troop levels in Iraq will not be dropping, as had been projected in view of the “success” of the “surge,” but rather holding at current levels with the possibility of increasing in the future. This reversal of course concerning troop deployments into Iraq highlights the reality that the statistical justification of “surge success,” namely the reduction in the level of violence, was illusory, a temporary lull brought about more by smoke and mirrors than any genuine change of fortune on the ground. Even the word surge is inappropriate for what is now undeniably an escalation. Iraq, far from being a nation on the rebound, remains a mortally wounded shell, the equivalent of a human suffering from a sucking chest wound, its lungs collapsed and its life blood spilling unchecked onto the ground. The “surge” never addressed the underlying reasons for Iraq’s post-Saddam suffering, and as such never sought to heal that which was killing Iraq. Instead, the “surge” offered little more than a cosmetic gesture, covering the wounds of Iraq with a bandage which shielded the true extent of the damage from outside view while doing nothing to save the victim.
Iraq is dying; soon Iraq will be dead. True, there will be a plot of land in the Middle East which people will refer to as Iraq. But any hope of a resurrected homogeneous Iraqi nation populated by a diverse people capable of coexisting in peace and harmony is soon to be swept away forever. Any hope of a way out for the people of Iraq and their neighbors is about to become a victim of the “successes” of the “surge” and the denial of reality. The destruction of Iraq has already begun. The myth of Kurdish stability-born artificially out of the U.S.-enforced “no-fly zones” of the 1990s, sustained through the largess of the Oil-for-Food program (and U.S.-approved sanctions sidestepped by the various Kurdish groups in Iraq) and given a Frankenstein-like lease on life in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and occupation-is rapidly unraveling. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, present-day Iraqi Kurdistan has been exposed as an amalgam of parts incompatible not only with each other but the region as a whole.
Ongoing Kurdish disdain for the central authority in Baghdad has led to the Kurds declaring their independence from Iraqi law (especially any law pertaining to oil present on lands they control). The reality of the Kurds’ quest for independence can be seen in their support of the Kurdish groups, in particular the PKK, that desire independence from Turkey. The sentiment has not been lost on their Turkish neighbors to the north, resulting in an escalation of cross-border military incursions which will only expand over time, further destabilizing Kurdish Iraq. Lying dormant, and unmentioned, is the age-old animosity between the two principle Kurdish factions in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). As recently as 1997, these two factions were engaged in a virtual civil war against one another. The strains brought on by the present unraveling have these two factions once again vying for position inside Iraq, making internecine conflict all but inevitable. The year 2008 will bring with it a major escalation of Turkish military operations against northern Iraq, a strategic break between the Kurdish factions there and with the central government of Baghdad, and the beginnings of an all-out civil war between the KDP and PUK.
The next unraveling of the “surge” myth will be in western Iraq, where the much applauded “awakening” was falling apart even as Bush spoke. I continue to maintain that there is a hidden hand behind the Sunni resistance that operates unseen and uncommented on by the United States and its erstwhile Iraqi allies operating out of the Green Zone in Baghdad. The government of Saddam Hussein never formally capitulated, and indeed had in place plans for ongoing active resistance against any occupation of Iraq. In October 2007 the Iraqi Baath Party held its 13th conference, in which it formally certified one of Saddam’s vice presidents, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, as the supreme leader of the Sunni resistance.
The United States’ embrace of the “awakening” will go down in the history of the Iraq conflict as one of the gravest strategic errors made in a field of grave errors. The U.S. military in Iraq has never fully understood the complex interplay between the Sunni resistance, al-Qaida in Iraq, and the former government of Saddam Hussein. Saddam may be dead, but not so his plans for resistance. The massive security organizations which held sway over Iraq during his rule were never defeated, and never formally disbanded. The organs of security which once operated as formal ministries now operate as covert cells, functioning along internal lines of communication which are virtually impenetrable by outside forces. These security organs gave birth to al-Qaida in Iraq, fostered its growth as a proxy, and used it as a means of sowing chaos and fear among the Iraqi population.
The violence perpetrated by al-Qaida in Iraq is largely responsible for the inability of the central government in Baghdad to gain any traction in the form of unified governance. The inability of the United States to defeat al-Qaida has destroyed any hope of generating confidence among the Iraqi population in the possibility of stability emerging from an ongoing American occupation. But al-Qaida in Iraq is not a physical entity which the United States can get its hands around, but rather a giant con game being run by Izzat al-Douri and the Sunni resistance. Because al-Qaida in Iraq is derived from the Sunni resistance, it can be defeated only when the Sunni resistance is defeated. And the greatest con game of them all occurred when the Sunni resistance manipulated the United States into arming it, training it and turning it against the forces of al-Qaida, which it controls. Far from subduing the Sunni resistance by Washington’s political and military support of the “awakening,” the United States has further empowered it. It is almost as if we were arming and training the Viet Cong on the eve of the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War.
Keeping in mind the fact that the Sunni resistance, led by al-Douri, operates from the shadows, and that its influence is exerted more indirectly than directly, there are actual al-Qaida elements in Iraq which operate independently of central Sunni control, just as there are Sunni tribal elements which freely joined the “awakening” in an effort to quash the forces of al-Qaida in Iraq. The diabolical beauty of the Sunni resistance isn’t its ability to exert direct control over all aspects of the anti-American activity in Sunni Iraq, but rather to manipulate the overall direction of activity through indirect means in a manner which achieves its overall strategic aims. The Sunni resistance continues to use al-Qaida in Iraq as a useful tool for seizing the strategic focus of the American military occupiers (and their Iraqi proxies in the Green Zone), as well as controlling Sunni tribal elements which stray too far off the strategic course (witness the recent suicide bomb assassination of senior Sunni tribal leaders). 2008 will see the collapse of the Sunni “awakening” movement, and a return to large-scale anti-American insurgency in western Iraq. It will also see the continued viability of al-Qaida in Iraq in terms of being an organization capable of wreaking violence and dictating the pace of American military involvement in directions beneficial to the Sunni resistance and detrimental to the United States.
One of the spinoffs of the continued success of the Sunni resistance is the focus it places on the inability of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to actually govern. The U.S. decision to arm, train and facilitate the various Sunni militias in Iraq is a de facto acknowledgement that the American occupiers have lost confidence in the high-profile byproduct of the “purple finger revolution” of January 2005. The sham that was that election has produced a government trusted by no one, even the Shiites. The ongoing unilateral cease-fire imposed by the Muqtada al-Sadr on his Mahdi Army prevented the outbreak of civil war between his movement and that of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its militia, the Badr Brigade.
When Saddam’s security forces dissolved on the eve of the fall of Baghdad in March 2003, the security organs which had been tasked with infiltrating the Shiite community for the purpose of spying on Shiites were instead instructed to embed themselves deep within the structures of that community. Both the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade are heavily infiltrated with such sleeper elements, which conspire to create and exploit fractures between these two organizations under the age-old adage of divide and conquer. A strategic pause in the conflict between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military on the one hand and the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade on the other has served to strengthen the hand of the Mahdi Army by allowing time for it to rearm and reorganize, increasing its efficiency as a military organization all the while its political opposite, the SCIRI-dominated central Iraqi government, continues to falter.
Further exacerbating the situation for the American occupiers of Iraq is the ongoing tension created by the war of wills between the United States and Iran. The Sunni resistance has no love for the Shiite theocracy in Tehran, or its proxies in Iraq, and views creating a rift between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade as a strategic imperative on the road to a Sunni resurgence. Any U.S. military strike against Iran will bring with it the inevitable Shiite backlash in Iraq. The Shiite forces that emerge as the most independent of the American occupier will be, in the minds of the Sunni resistance, the most capable of winning the support of the Shiites of Iraq. Given the past record of cooperation between the Mahdi Army and the Sunni resistance, and the ongoing antipathy between Sunnis and SCIRI, there can be little doubt which Shiite entity the Sunnis will side with when it comes time for a decisive conflict between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, and 2008 will be the year which witnesses such a conflict.
The big loser in all of this, besides the people of Iraq, is of course the men and women of the armed forces of the United States. Betrayed by the Bush administration, abandoned by Congress and all but forgotten by a complacent American population and those who are positioning themselves for national leadership in the next administration, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who so proudly wear the uniform of the United States continue to fight and die, kill and be maimed in a war which was never justified and long ago lost its luster. Played as pawns in a giant game of three-dimensional chess, these brave Americans find themselves being needlessly sacrificed in a game where there can be no winner, only losers.
The continued ambivalence of the American population as a whole toward the war in Iraq, perhaps best manifested by the superficiality of the slogan “Support the Troops,” all the while remaining ignorant of what the troops are actually doing, has led to a similar amnesia among politicians all too willing to allow themselves to seek political advantage at the expense of American life and treasure. January 2008 cost the United States nearly 40 lives in Iraq. The current military budget is unprecedented in its size, and doesn’t even come close to paying for ongoing military operations in Iraq. The war in Iraq has bankrupted Americans morally and fiscally, and yet the American public continues to shake the hands of aspiring politicians who ignore Iraq, pretending that the blood which soaks the hands of these political aspirants hasn’t stained their own. In the sick kabuki dance that is American politics, this refusal to call a spade a spade is deserving of little more than disdain and sorrow.
While the American people, politicians and media may remain mute on the reality of Iraq, I won’t. There is no such thing as a crystal ball which enables one to see clearly into the future, and I am normally averse to making sweeping long-term predictions involving a topic as fluid as the ongoing situation in Iraq. At the risk of being wrong (and, indeed, I hope very much that I am), I will contradict the rosy statements of the president in his State of the Union address and will throw down a gauntlet in the face of ongoing public and media ambivalence by predicting that 2008 will be the year the “surge” in Iraq is exposed as a grand debacle. The cosmetic bandage placed over the gravely wounded Iraq will fall off, and the damaged body that is Iraq will continue its painful decline toward death.
If there is any winner in all of this it will be the Sunni resistance, or at least its leadership hiding in the shadow of the American occupation, as it continues to exploit the chaotic death spiral of post-Saddam Iraq for its own long-term plan of a Sunni resurgence in Iraq. That the Sunni resistance will continue to fight an American occupation is a guarantee. That it will continue to persevere is highly probable. That the United States will be able to stop it is unlikely. And so, the reality that the only policy direction worthy of consideration here in the United States concerning Iraq is the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American forces continues to hold true. And the fact that this option is given short shrift by all capable of making or influencing such a decision guarantees that this bloody war will go on, inconclusively and incomprehensibly, for many more years. That is the one image in my crystal ball that emerges in full focus, and which will serve as the basis of defining a national nightmare for generations to come.
Scott Ritter was a Marine Corps intelligence officer from 1984 to 1991 and a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He is the author of numerous books, including “Iraq Confidential” (Nation Books, 2005) , “Target Iran” (Nation Books, 2006) and his latest, “Waging Peace: The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement” (Nation Books, April 2007).