Less bad news from Iraq

Over the last few months, the volume of bad news from Iraq has diminished. For example, the number of US troops killed in November (about one per day) was the lowest in a couple of years. While it’s much harder to measure Iraqi casualties the number seems to be declining, at least in Baghdad. What does this mean for the policy choices facing the US and its allies?

The short answer is ‘Not much’

The long answer has a number of parts.

First, while there is less bad news as regards death and destruction, there’s no corresponding increase in good news, in the sense of progress towards a sustainable solution. Admittedly, it’s good for the US that the Sunni insurgents have decided to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to do so with US backing. But that very backing increases their capacity to sustain conflict with the Shia majority in the long run. And the one area where things seemed to have been resolved, Iraqi Kurdistan, is now on the edge of an international conflict with Turkey.

Second, the decline in bloodshed doesn’t say much about past policy decisions. The big question of whether it was a good idea to go to war was settled long ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead can’t be brought back to life and the trillions of dollars spent or committed are gone forever. No conceivable future outcome can make this war anything other than a disaster.

As regards the decisions of the past year, and particularly the US escalation (aka the ‘surge’) the picture is a bit more mixed. While the Pentagon is claiming success for the surge, the UK (followed in this by Poland and now Australia) is claiming similar success for a policy that amounts to ‘declare victory and get out’. And even if the recent decline in deaths can be attributed to the surge, the year as a whole has been the bloodiest of the war, partly because of the expansion of the conflict in the middle of the year.

Most importantly, as regards future options, little has changed in relative terms. There are no good options, but all of the options look a little less likely to end in disaster than they did a few months ago. Whether US troops are withdrawn rapidly or slowly, the worst-case disaster scenarios, such as all-out civil war, or a helicopter evacuation of the Green Zone, now seem to have receded a bit. But with another year passed, and not much achieved, the time for withdrawal must have come that much closer.

In the end, the only lessons are old ones. War is unpredictable, and all wars come to an end sooner or later. But it is usually beyond the wit of those who start wars to predict when they will end or who will remain standing.

26 thoughts on “Less bad news from Iraq

  1. Er..
    “Earlier this year, Maliki tried to crack down on the Islamic Virtue Party, which controls the Southern oil fields and which withdrew from the ruling coalition in 2006, and reinstated Saddam’s old labor laws to crack down on the Oil Workers Union, which opposes privatization.”

    Can I clarify this? It was the SIIC (al-Maliki) that used Saddam’s labour laws against the Iraqi Oil Workers Union, not the Islamic Virtue Party. The Islamic Virtue Party is dominant in Basra and draws support from the Shia poor in the South. It has connections with the Oil Workers Union and opposes the 2007 Oil Law. Its militia guard the refineries around Basra giving it control over much of Iraq’s oil. There is no functioning government in Basra. The governer al-Waili is been estimated to have embezzled billions in oil revenue, although he claims to be spending the money on reconstruction and services. al-Maliki has attempted to dismiss al-Waili, but he refuses to step down. In the middle of this standoff the British have wisely cut and run. It might come down to SIIC sending in the Badr brigades to take control of Basra, in which case SIIC will truly be in control of the country. But al-Sadr also has strong support across the south and may launch an opposition movement to SIIC and the Americans the time of his choosing.

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