No new U.S. strategy in Iraq

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Repeat after me: There is no new U.S. strategy in Iraq. The allies are the same, the enemies are the same, the tactics are the same, even the new American force strength lies within the range that has prevailed since 2003.

We are only being told that there is a new strategy because U.S. President George W. Bush had to say that he was doing something differently after the Republicans’ stunning defeat in the mid-term Congressional elections two months ago.

America’s allies in Iraq have not changed: the Kurds, and those Shiite Arabs who believe that American troops are still useful to help nail down their new domination over the Sunni Arab minority. That latter group includes the Shiite religious establishment around Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade and its associated death squads, and some of the Shiite factions close to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

The list of America’s enemies in Iraq has not changed either: most Sunni Arabs, whether they are Ba’athist, Islamist or just nationalist; and the more radical (and usually poorer) Shiite Arabs who support Muqtada Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army and death squads. But Al-Sadr’s supporters have grown at the expense of moderate Shiite forces: For the first time, opinion polls now show that a majority of Shiites also favor attacks on U.S. forces.

As for the tactics, it’s the same mix as before: block-by-block “clear and hold” operations in Baghdad (last tried unsuccessfully last summer); a major offensive against the Mahdi Army (tried twice without success in 2004); and nothing much beyond trying to keep the roads open in Anbar province in western Iraq, the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency. There are no surprises, no new approaches — and the alleged “surge” in U.S. troop numbers is meaningless in military terms.

The extra 21,500 American troops amount to a mere 16 percent increase in U.S. strength in Iraq. If 132,000 U.S. troops have not delivered “victory” in Iraq (in a war that has now lasted longer than American participation in World War II), then 153,500 American troops are not likely to do so either. Indeed, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq was actually higher than that at the end of 2005, and it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference.

It’s a pathetic escalation, nothing like the huge leap from 50,000 to 550,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam in only three years in 1965-68. Not that that helped the United States to win the Vietnam war in the end — it was probably as unwinnable as the Iraq war from the start — but now the option of major escalation does not even exist, for the U.S. Army is only half the size it was in the 1960s and Bush lacks the political strength to bring back the draft.

So it’s not surprising that Bush replaced both Gen. George Casey, the commander in Iraq, and Gen. John Abizaid, the head of Central Command (which oversees the entire operation), before he unveiled his “new strategy.” Those officers had already privately questioned the usefulness of a “surge” in U.S. troop numbers. Only new leaders, seduced by the promise of promotion and a more senior job, would accept the responsibility for trying to make such a threadbare military policy work

So what will be different in Iraq over the next six to 12 months? American casualties will be sharply up, because there will be more U.S. troops on the streets trying to take Baghdad back from the militias, and especially from the Mahdi Army.

Three thousand American troops have been killed in the past four years, but another thousand could die in the next three months if the Bush administration takes on Al-Sadr again — and by the end, large parts of eastern Baghdad may resemble the ruins of Fallujah.

Other things in Iraq may be different, too. If the Kurdish brigades that are being brought south to Baghdad are sent into battle against the Mahdi Army, it could trigger yet another civil war in Iraq, this time along the ragged ethnic frontier in the north between Arabs and Kurds. And if Al-Maliki really turns against Al-Sadr, his political ally in Parliament, his government might collapse amid intra-Shiite fighting.

What’s certain is that nothing positive will happen until American troops are irrevocably on the way out of Iraq, leaving no “enduring bases” behind. Nothing positive may happen then either, of course: The old Iraq has been destroyed by four years of foreign occupation, and nobody knows what the new one will look like, nor even where its borders will be. But first the occupation must end — and that will not happen one minute before Bush leaves office in January 2008.

This “new strategy” that isn’t new is not about Iraq, nor American interests either. It is a public-relations gesture by a proud man who understandably refuses to admit that the centerpiece of his presidency was a ghastly mistake from the start, and one that he cannot now fix.

Bush is not really playing “double or nothing” in Iraq, as so many critics allege, because he cannot: He lacks the ground troops to double his bet. He doesn’t lack air power, however, and where he might be tempted to play “double or nothing” is Iran. Let us hope not.