Best Defense

Iraq: the unraveling? (II)

I checked in yesterday when retired Col. Pete Mansoor, who was Gen. Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq during most of the surge. I had been told that Mansoor had warned in Baghdad that signing the Status of Forces Agreement could lead the United States into fighting the Sunni “Awakening” units also known as the “Sons ...

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I checked in yesterday when retired Col. Pete Mansoor, who was Gen. Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq during most of the surge. I had been told that Mansoor had warned in Baghdad that signing the Status of Forces Agreement could lead the United States into fighting the Sunni “Awakening” units also known as the “Sons of Iraq,” or SOI. 

Mansoor, who is now retired and a professor of history at Ohio State, confirmed in a note that he did indeed express such a concern. Here is his note, which I am quoting with his permission:

As I recall what I said was that the status of forces agreement would put U.S. forces into a position where they could not intervene to stop the government of Iraq from attacking the SOI.  If the Iraqi Security Forces needed help once engaged against the SOI, U.S. forces could be drawn into the fight against the very people who helped us turn the war around.

I certainly hope this doesn’t come to pass, but given what we’ve just seen happen in Baghdad, the possibility is disturbing.

I think it is significant that one of the people closest to Petraeus in Iraq during the surge foresaw the kind of fighting we have saw in the streets of Baghdad over the weekend. (Private note to “PW in DC”:  I also think former regime elements who have been dumping on Joe Klein might want to start composing notes of apology.)   

Along the same lines, Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group, who knows Iraq, warns how things could fall apart if U.S. troops are withdrawn without more sustainable political deals:

Absent the glue that US troops have provided, Iraq’s political actors are likely to fight, emboldened by a sense they can prevail, if necessary with outside help. Obama should make sure that the peace he leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush’s war of choice turn into his war of necessity.  

Meanwhile, Ali Wyne of the Carnegie Endowment sends this insightful analysis weighing the success or failure of the surge. I quote it with his permission:

Conventional wisdom holds that the United States is shifting its focus back to Afghanistan now that the war in Iraq has been won.  The suggestion — which has, by now, been internalized in mainstream discourse — that the surge of American troops into Baghdad has been a success is dubious on two grounds. 

First, there are factual difficulties. A September 2008 report by researchers at UCLA found that “violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning.” They concluded, therefore, that “the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved.” That is, the surge occurred after the tinderbox that it was intended to eliminate had mostly been defused. Furthermore, according to a recent wire story, the apparent stability in Baghdad results from “fear,” which “keeps the peace.”

Second, there are moral considerations. Approximately five million Iraqis, or 20% of the Iraqi population, have been displaced from their homes; Human Rights Watch reports that “no structure exists to meet [their] humanitarian needs.” According to recent statistics, 88% of Iraqis do not have access to electricity; 70% do not have access to clean water (a new report found that 36% of Baghdad’s drinking water is unsafe); and 43% live on less than a dollar a day. One in five Iraqi women suffers physical violence, and one in three Iraqi children is hungry. It strains credulity to suggest that victory has been achieved in Iraq even though the country’s social services apparatus is dysfunctional, most Iraqis cannot access basic provisions, and the rule of fear substitutes for the rule of law. Because the surge “is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state,” concluded a respected analyst, “the recent short-term gains [in stability] have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.”

The dichotomous debate over Iraq — one side supports (even if tacitly) indefinite occupation on the grounds that a full-scale civil war will erupt if the United States withdraws prematurely; the other supports a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq on the grounds that the occupation is increasingly a strategic liability – excludes moral considerations. Members of the former camp should ask themselves: is it right for the United States to stay in Iraq if it does not accord at least as much priority to the welfare of Iraqis as it does to its own strategic interests? Members of the latter camp should ask themselves: given how greatly Iraqis have suffered as a result of the war, is it principled for the United States to abdicate its humanitarian obligations to them under the banner of “ending the occupation?” Although each camp claims the moral high ground, the reality is that they both avoid the considerations that must underlie any moral posture.  

Read Iraq: the unravling? (Part I)

ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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