Sunday, March 01, 2009

US troops Are Iraq's Insurance Policy

Al Asad, Anbar Province, western Iraq - Like a rash that refuses to
fade, violence persists in Iraq. Mosul in the north, Baghdad and
areas north of Baghdad see daily attacks, though most attacks are
aimed at the Iraqi security forces.
The toll of American combat deaths, which was once a flood reaching
125 a month, is now a drip of less than half a dozen a month. Officers
say driving accidents are more likely to kill troops than the enemy.
In northern Iraq and here in western Iraq, where it is quietest,
hundreds if not thousands of US troops wonder why they are here and
complain they have too little to do. The biggest complaint here at Al
Asad, a large Marine base near Syria, is that the Marines spend too
much time in the gym because their patrols have been cut down. It is
no big secret that the Marine top brass has been trying to exit Anbar
entirely and shift their forces to Afghanistan for over a year.
Still fighting in Iraq are remnants of Al Qaeda, remnants of the Shia
militias, remnants of Sunni Islamists and Sunni nationalists. Add in
localized tribal fights. Add in local retribution against the Iraqi
government or the US military for the occasional missteps, such as
accidental shootings of Iraqi civilians. Add in the organized
criminal elements, many of whom were spawned by the legitimate
political insurgents. The violence in Iraq has fragmented, which is
both good and bad.
It's bad because no one group laying down its arms will quell a whole
mass of fighting. The Sunnis gave up in November 2006 and the effects
were enormously far-reaching. But that won't likely happen again on
such a massive scale.
Then again it's also good, because as anyone who has watched tag-team
wrestling on television will know, opponents operating piecemeal are
much easier to cut up than those who fight as a unified team.
So the question remains, just why does America still have 130,000
plus troops in Iraq if many of them are wondering what they are going
to do today, tomorrow and the next day to justify their (generally tax
free) pay checks?
They are here because America is Iraq's insurance policy.
If the Shia militias reorganize, as analysts in Baghdad say they are
(unsuccessfully) trying to. If Al Qaeda manages to kick off sectarian
violence again (as it is likely trying to do, with the recent killing
of dozens of Shia pilgrims heading to Karbala). If Sunni nationalists
feel the Maliki government has stuck it to them, and want to stick it
back (as is the fear, with the government's avowed aim of dismantling
the widespread pro-government Sunni counter-terrorism groups, named
the Sons of Iraq).
If any of these things should happen, US forces are ready to step in
and do what the Iraqi security forces may or may not be able to do for
General Petraeus reportedly has sent a plan calling for a 23-month
withdrawal from Iraq to the White House. That's longer than Barack
Obama's repeated 16-month preference. Most likely the withdrawal will
never be down to zero at all, despite tough talk by the Maliki
government and the White House, and few people in Iraq I've spoke to
expect the US military presence will ever reach zero.
Officers of the Iraqi security forces say they still need US support,
moral as much as material, as they slowly improve. Above all, America
provides the moral fiber that gives the ISF the psychological edge
over their well-armed, determined, though now battered, opponents.
These are the forces at play in Iraq.
How soon America can draw down its troops without upsetting the
delicate balance of these forces is the game that will be played out
for the rest of 2009 in Iraq and Washington.