"The lid of the pressure cooker has come off"
The situation in Fallujah, as well as the rest of Iraq, has been fluid for at least as long as the current engagement has been going on. As the saying goes, the issue is still very much in doubt. Thus, despite extensive reports in the NYT
, I'm reticent to read the tea leaves as pointing to a particular end. MG David Petraeus' question
is certainly apt here -- "Tell me how this ends.
I think that Virginia Postrel articulates this point well
on her weblog:
I have the same problem blogging on this topic that I do blogging on every little twitch in the economic statistics: It's too hard to separate the transient noise from the long-run trend, and the long run is what matters. Things are bad in Iraq right now, but is this a last-gasp effort by our enemies, the beginning of a quagmire, or, most likely, something in between whose conclusion depends largely on our response? Rushing to judgment, especially from afar, is a prescription for foolish conclusions and bad policies.
One reason pundits focus so much on the political, as opposed to substantive, effects of economic or military developments is that political effects do take place in the short run. Plus it's easier to understand poll numbers than to peer through the fog of war (or the complexity of the economy).
Virginia's thoughts, refined by years of economic analysis, are spot on. In war, it is very difficult to see the forest through the trees -- to piece together those indicators on the battlefield in order to a form a complete picture of what's really
going on. American military doctrine calls this "situational understanding", and it's a very hard thing to acquire through the fog of war. So, I'll try to focus on some discrete details of the engagements in Iraq to make observations, and I'll only make a tentative guess as to the big picture.
The AP reports
that (Iraqi?) government negotiators have moved into Fallujah to broker some sort of agreement -- either a lasting peace or temporary cease-fire -- with the militants for humanitarian purposes. The American command appears to be blessing this effort with a temporary pause in combat operations.
FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) -- Government negotiators entered the besieged city of Fallujah Saturday as fierce battles raged elsewhere in central Iraq, including Baghdad. Forty Iraqis were killed, two U.S. servicemembers and two Germans were missing, an American civilian was captured and a Red Crescent official was gunned down.Analysis
Several members of the Iraqi Governing Council met with Fallujah city leaders, trying to win the handover of people who killed and mutilated four American civilians last week. They also want the insurgents to give up foreign militants in the city, council member Mahmoud Othman said.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the military was seeking a cease-fire during the talks, but explosions and sporadic gunfire continued to be heard Saturday afternoon in the city. The Marines largely remained in the industrial zone they hold in the eastern part of the city, 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Some Marines moved a few blocks into a nearby neighborhood, breaking into homes, witnesses said, in an apparent attempt to clear out gunmen firing on them. An AC-130 gunship airplane raked insurgent positions with gunfire Friday night.
: This is a very interesting development. It runs counter to the old maxim of American diplomacy, that we never negotiate with terrorists. By negotiating with the insurgents in Fallujah (or by blessing the Iraqi negotiations with them), we have elevated the status of these insurgents to something approaching a legitimate military force. My sense is that we're offering humanitarian aid to the civilians in Fallujah and safe passage for them in exchange for the handoff of the actual people responsible for last week's ambush and mutiliation of the contractors, and we probably also want some agreement to let Iraqi police/military units patrol Fallujah without being attacked. Prediction
: the insurgents will tell us to go pound sand. In a week, they have inflicted significant losses on an elite American unit and held their ground, and their situational understanding probably tells them they are winning right now. At most, they will allow humanitarian convoys to enter the city, but they won't let Iraqi civilians leave en masse
, because that would deprive them of a significant source of protection against American firepower.
The Los Angeles Times reports
on another large development relating to the battle for Fallujah. Several members of the nascent Iraqi Governing Council appear to be severely disenchanted with American tactics in Iraq, to the point where they have announced their departure from the IGC or their thoughts about doing so. Given that the IGC is America's hand-picked governing body for Iraq, this obviously presents major political and strategic problems.
One council member, angered by this week's heavy fighting in Fallouja and the prospect of a U.S. move against the militia of an anti-American Shiite cleric, suspended his membership Friday. Four others say they are ready to follow suit.Analysis
A sixth council member, Adnan Pachachi, a respected former diplomat who less than three months ago had accompanied First Lady Laura Bush to the president's State of the Union address, harshly criticized U.S. actions as "illegal and totally unacceptable."
* * *
"The coalition has opened too many fronts in Iraq, alienating a large swath of the population," said Hachim Hassani, who is representing the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni Muslim group, on the council. "The Iraqi people now equate democracy with bloodshed."
The council members say the only move that would stop them from suspending or resigning their membership is the U.S. military's agreement to halt military operations in Fallouja long enough for council members to engage in negotiations with the local community to try to forestall further bloodshed.
: I'm no Iraq expert or trained political scientist -- see Juan Cole's site
for that perspective. However, this development has some major strategic implications. First, the Iraqi tactics are becoming clear -- they are operationalizing the "bond" theory of insurgency. This theory posits that the institutions of a given society -- political leadership, the military, the people -- are bound together by relationships which themselves can be targeted. The Iraqi insurgents right now are targeting the bonds between the American people and its political leadership, through the infliction of American casualties. They are also targeting the same bond in the Iraqi society. To some extent, they are succeeding in both campaigns. But this development on the IGC is most disturbing because it shows that they are really
succeeding at breaking the bond between the Iraqi people and their current governing body.
Now, it's always been known that self-determination is a messy thing, and we should not be surprised that battlefield events have unpredictable (and unwanted) consequences for Iraqi democracy. But I think that we should take steps to protect Iraqi democracy while it's in its fragile infancy, and not allow the insurgents or terrorists to pull at its levers while it's at such a sensitive point. We must find some way to keep the IGC together, with a membership that represents most of Iraq, or else we will not be able to hand over sovereignty in 80+ days. And if we let the IGC be weakened by insurgent tactics, we will effectively be setting it up for failure.
The Washington Post reports this morning on the battlefield tactics
being used in Fallujah, as well as the progress of the American offensive
around the country. It does not surprise me to see the U.S. winning slowly as it applies combined-arms firepower to each enemy stronghold in Fallujah and elsewhere. Even the most disciplined, well-trained, and well-armed force would be overwhelmed by this synchronized application of firepower -- let alone an ad hoc force of insurgents. The deliberate speed of the American advance is likely a function of risk management; commanders are doing what they can to minimize casualties through the use of standoff firepower and caution. Clearing buildings takes time, and the price of speed is measured in blood. American forces appear to be taking back some of the ground gained by insurgents thus far, but the issue is still in doubt, according to The Post
Sadr has taken refuge in Najaf, and his militia, called the Mahdi Army, maintained control over the city Friday while U.S. forces have remained outside. In Kut, another southern city held by insurgents since Ukrainian troops retreated earlier in the week, about 1,000 U.S. troops fought Friday to reassert coalition control.
Fighting between insurgents and coalition forces was also reported in the northern cities of Mosul, Baqubah and Muqdadiya, as well as Karbala, the holy city where Shiite pilgrims have been gathering for a religious observance this weekend.
In Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, fighting continued between Italian forces based on the south side of the city and Sadr's militiamen on the north side, across the Euphrates River. Explosions rang out across the city shortly after midnight as an Italian army brigade moved across the river. By Friday evening resistance was "minor and manageable," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition deputy for operations.
In Baghdad, explosions echoed across the city during the night after a day marked by several mortar strikes around the center of the capital. Shiites and Sunnis prayed together outside each other's shrines, and worshipers continued to donate tons of food for residents of Fallujah.
The Post and other media also report
on the possible kidnapping of several persons by the insurgents, including possibly several Americans. Reports are still sketchy, but it looks like insurgents ambushed a fuel convoy and took several hostages in the process. CNN reports
with some more fidelity on this developing situation, but it's still not clear what's going on.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- An Australian television network broadcast footage on Saturday of armed militants in Iraq holding a man who appeared to be an American, as U.S. and coalition forces searched for foreign nationals who have been kidnapped or reported missing in recent days.Analysis
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation showed a car stopping on a highway and masked, armed men getting out and asking journalists to look at a hostage, who was sitting in the back seat next to a gunman.
A journalist asked the man what happened and the man, white and middle-aged, replied in a slight Southern U.S. accent that "they attacked our convoy. That's all I'm going to say."
It is unclear if the man on the video is referring to an incident Friday when a fuel convoy was attacked near Baghdad International Airport.
* * *
The Pentagon said two U.S. soldiers and four civilian contractors -- some of them American -- are unaccounted for after a fuel convoy was attacked near Baghdad International Airport Friday. The four were from the same company.
: We need to be very
careful about this risk, because American prisoners in Iraqi hands are a very powerful bargaining chip. The insurgents have likely seen the way we responded to the capture of American scouts in Kosovo, and the capture of American soldiers (including PFC Jessica Lynch) in Iraq. They know our creed of not leaving behind a fallen comrade, and the extent to which we will act to bring prisoners home alive. Thus, they may now have a strategy of opportunistic kidnapping. American soldiers -- and contractors -- must take additional measures to ensure they do not travel in small groups that make them vulnerable to kidnapping. We can't afford to give the insurgents these kinds of chips to play poker with.How does this end?
Some parts of Iraq remain in coalition control, and a lot of good nation-building work continues without interruption. But the situation in many parts of the country remains quite fluid -- and violent. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw painted a very realistic picture
of what's going on, based on the information he's received through his government and ours:
"[T]here is no doubt that the current situation is very serious and it is the most serious that we have faced."
* * *
"It is plainly the fact today that there are larger numbers of people, and they are people on the ground, Iraqis, not foreign fighters, who are engaged in this insurgency," he said. "The lid of the pressure cooker has come off, and some of the tensions and pressures which were there and would have come out in any event have to a degree been directed toward the coalition."
How do you put the lid of the pressure cooker back on? The short answer is that you can't. If that's the right metaphor, and the lid has literally been blown off, then we must wait until things simmer down until we can restore peace and order in Iraq. Of course, we cannot (and should not) wait passively. American forces ought to hunt down and capture or kill as many insurgents as possible, because these people will
come back to fight another day if we don't. But we should recognize the broad nature of this uprising and the extent to which disaffection and dissent permeate Iraqi society. And in the long term, we must figure out a way to allow this kind of dissent and to structure the Iraiq democracy so as to survive it -- and indeed, to incorporate this kind of dissent into Iraqi democracy through free speech, free elections, and other peaceful means.
Trust me -- I know this task is easier said than done. But no one said that nation-building was easy.Update I
: Check out the excellent analysis here
and elsewhere at Back to Iraq
, a weblog written by journalist Chris Allbritton (it's called that because he's trying to raise money through the 'blog to send himself back to Iraq.)