Bush’s Iraq War Course Is GOP Election Failure

With only days to go to November 7, and with the US body count in Iraq confirmed at 103 for October, the war in Iraq is still trumping local issues in the GOP’s mid-term crisis.

Confronted by daily reports of escalating violence, 65% of Americans believe that the US should withdraw its troops within a year. Some Republican candidates took their cue early on the campaign trail and distanced themselves from the Bush administration’s “stay the course” rhetoric. More recently, President Bush was forced to do the same.

Yet what is the right “change of course” in Iraq? Where did we go wrong? Have we lost the war? Can we stop the violence?

When Coalition forces rolled into Iraq in March 2003, the Iraqi army hardly put up a fight. Less than four weeks later, we had won the war. In April 2003, with Saddam Hussein deposed, most Iraqis were happy and supported the US presence. Yet after the military victory the Bush administration forgot that we also had a political war to win, social tensions to manage and an economy to rebuild. The consequences of that neglect have been considerable. We won the war, but lost the occupation. It is costing $6.4 billion a month for the US to remain in Iraq – where the majority of the people now want the troops to leave because they only seem to be inciting more violence.

At the same time, a number of other factors have turned ordinary Iraqis against the US occupation, including the failure to provide for the reconstruction and security of Iraq, prisoner abuse at Abu Graib and the rape and murder of civilians. Then there are the daily miseries of having no jobs, no electricity, crippled infrastructure and deadly bombings. It may well take a generation to rebuild Iraq. Yet three and a half years into the US occupation, with Iraq bleeding and burning out of control, it still took the threat of losing Republican control of Congress to instil a sense of urgency in the Bush administration.

It is worth considering the relative success of British troops in the south of Iraq. The British have a fair amount of experience as an occupying force, most recently in Northern Ireland. In Iraq, they made an effort from the outset to engage the local people while policing the streets, especially in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. They eschewed helmets that concealed their faces. They talked to residents and shopkeepers. They showed respect for the local people and their plight. This is not to say that everything has gone perfectly; but the British troops established and maintained control, and have made measurable progress. The Edinburgh News recently reported that murders in the region have been reduced from 30 to 11 per month, as the British army conducts extensive repairs to schools, broken drains and faulty lighting throughout the city. This has restored a sense of hope and pride for Iraqis in Basra, and has weakened the insurgency by weakening local support for it. Yet even as the people of Basra start rebuilding their lives, they still do so in the crossfire of continuing conflict.

Unfortunately, the democratically-elected government of Iraq has failed to establish its authority, including in the all-important area of security. Whenever the Iraqi security forces engage local militias in battle, it’s usually the security forces who come off second best. To be fair, they face enormous challenges: the forces are made up of new recruits; they are frequent targets of deadly attacks by insurgents and militias; their desertion rate is a staggering 25%; and the recruits are reluctant to leave their home towns and regions, making their mobilization to other trouble spots difficult.

There has understandably been a tendency to focus on the violence, yet the longer-term path out of the violence involves putting Iraq’s infrastructure and economy back together. The reduced level of violence and insurgency support in Basra, enabled by the British-led reconstruction effort, supports this strategy.

Eric Davis, Professor of Middle East Politics at Rutgers University and now a Bush administration advisor, has been pushing the case for reconstruction and economic development as a strategy for reducing the violence in Iraq. Earlier this week, he said on the Jim Lehrer News Hour: “I made the argument that, without turning the Iraqi economy around, we can’t expect the decline in political violence nor can we expect to move towards political stability in Iraq. This may have been the stated policy of the Bush administration, but little has been done on the ground. The key problem is unemployment. We have an unemployment rate in Iraq estimated between 40 percent and possibly 60 percent. If you also realize that 61 percent of the Iraqi population is under 25 and there’s been almost no new job creation since 2003, it doesn’t take very much arithmetic to realize who are the most susceptible to recruitment to insurgent groups and sectarian death squads.”  So the promise of dangerous work and a sporadic income is better than the prospect of no work and no income at all.

In other words … it’s the economy, stupid.

The economic breakdown in Iraq has exacerbated social tensions, fuelled sectarian violence and given strength to local militias, insurgents and terrorist groups. Needless to say, in such a lawless and volatile environment, the violence won’t just vanish when rebuilding gets underway. Troops and security forces will still be needed to ensure that economic recovery and development won’t be stymied. That could well mean focusing development in areas where the available number of troops and security forces are actually able to maintain effective control.

Most importantly, the forthcoming “change of course” debate must not get bogged down in existing task-oriented military operations. The new course needs to progress toward the goals of local and regional economic development, and the creation of jobs for Iraqis, because that will build a base for the country’s future political stability.

Thus, the GOP’s mid-term crisis has created a window of opportunity to turn the situation around and develop a strategy to bring the US occupation of Iraq to a reasonably successful conclusion.

Long buried but not forgotten is Donald Rumsfeld’s prediction that the Iraqis would “greet us in the streets with flowers”. Perhaps when the troops are finally able to pack up and start heading out of Iraq, Mr Rumsfeld might just get his wish.

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