L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

09 August 2007 Blog Home : August 2007 : Permalink

Seumas Milne Stuck in 2005

In a "comment is free" article today, Seumas Milne seems to demonstrate that he hasn't read any of the news about Iraq over the last couple of months let alone the last few years. I had to check the date on this piece of tosh linked to by Tim, because it seemed so 2005 but no it really is dated "Thursday August 9, 2007". Tim points out a certain weakness of the piece which I'll get to by and by but the whole thing is worth a thorough end-to-end fisking so here is one:

Eventually, the US will have to negotiate its way out

Expectations of an early withdrawal from Iraq are premature. Only broader resistance is likely to break the American grip

The title, that negotiation will lead to the US leaving Iraq is undoubtedly true. The subhead - basically that the Yanks are there for good unless the population rises up en masse and kicks the out - is possibly true in the abstract, but rather less convincing if you look at what is actually happening in Iraq. You see resistance to America seems to be becoming narrower rather than it used to be. When you have former "resistance" groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigade patroling WITH the Yanks it seems to indicate that the chances for "broader resistance" are slim.

Whatever else they might disagree about, Iraqis, Americans and Britons have something crucial in common: large majorities in all three countries oppose the occupation of Iraq by US and British troops and want them brought home.

Large majorities in all three countries (well a large majority in Iraq and a majority inthe US and possibly a majority in the UK) want Iraq to be peaceful and stable. The evidence is widespread that Iraqis at least prefer the US presence to the bitter civil war they foresee if the US withdraws.

Recognition that the war has been a political and human catastrophe is now so settled that politicians are obliged to pay at least lip service to the pervasive mood for withdrawal. Gordon Brown's studiedly suggestive remarks on the White House lawn about plans to move British troops from "combat to overwatch" in Basra, where two more British soldiers have been killed this week, were clearly aimed at anti-war opinion in Britain.

May I translate. The defeatist media has managed to convince everyone that the war was a bad idea and Gordy Broon, being a slimy pol, isn't stupid enough to not try the slopey shoulders trick if it will help him get elected.

Meanwhile, speculation about scenarios for withdrawal is rampant in Washington and Iraq itself. But that doesn't mean it's about to happen - and there's a danger that pressure in the US and Britain to end the occupation could be relaxed in anticipation of a full-scale pullout that is still not seriously on the cards. After all, Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 on a promise to end the Vietnam war and American troops were still there five years later.

And most of said scenarios talk about civil wars, Iran conquering half the country and so on. Oh and did you read the stories about how even if the US decided to leave tomorrow it would take about a year to do it in an orderly manner?

What is clear is that the US has already suffered a strategic defeat in Iraq. A flagrant act of aggression intended to be a demonstration of untrammelled US imperial power to impose its will on the heart of the oil-producing Arab and Muslim world has instead demonstrated a fatal vulnerability to "asymmetric warfare". It's also true that, as a senior US intelligence officer told the Washington Post this week, "the British have basically been defeated in the south". Far from keeping rival militia from each other's throats, over 80% of violent attacks in the area are directed against British troops.

Now here's a wonderful bit of misdirection. What is a strategic defeat as opposed to a regular one I wonder? Perhaps a strategic defeat is when you win on the ground and then the media and the leftwing politicians decide that you lost anyway? My understanding of a defeat is that you either have to leave or that if you stay you can only travel around etc. at whim of the victor. No one is stopping the US troops from going anywhere in Iraq except their own scruples that think that running over (or bombing) a few babies used as human sheilds is a bad idea. Have the Americans 'demonstrated a 'fatal vulnerability to "asymmetric warfare"'? Well not the way I see it. They may have demonstrated hesitation and a failure to find the right strategy in the past but when even the NY Times says the surge is working militarily then the folks who seem to be losing the "asymmetric warfare" would appear to be those who are fighting America. Now having said all that one part of the country where there has been no 'surge' is, guess what? the British controlled area of the south. So in other words the non-surging British have been defeated while the surging US is being victorious.

But, given the political embarrassment a British pullout would represent for the Bush administration in Washington, it's hard to imagine Brown's government ordering a comprehensive withdrawal any time soon. So British soldiers will have to expect to go on paying Tony Blair's blood price for the much-vaunted special relationship.

Or if you put it another way they will continue to pay for the fact that, as the EU Referendum bloggers explain, the British MoD seems incapable of supplying the forces and equipment needed to do the job properly. Now there is another more subtle question here. If, as Seumas claims, 80% of violent attacks are against British soldiers, then what are the other 20% against? I venture to suggest that this is the sort of behaviour you might expect if you had two or three factions (or more) who hated each other but who realized that if they came out into the open and fought each other then the British would attack them. In other words you'd want to spend as much effort as nevessary to keep the British distracted so that you could get after your real opponents.

Despite the congressional bluster, a better guide to US intentions was given by the defence secretary, Robert Gates, a couple of months back, when he declared that the US was looking for a "long and enduring presence" in Iraq - reflected in plans to consolidate 14 "enduring bases" across the country. Given the huge US strategic interest in Iraq and the region - and its determination to halt the spread of Iranian influence - that seems unlikely to change in the event of a Democratic presidential victory in 2008. In other words, the price of staying in Iraq will have to rise still further if the US is going to be forced out and Iraq regain its independence.

Well there is another alternative. Consider Iraqi Kurdistan. There are (IIRC) no more than a handful of US militrary folks in Kurdistan because that part of the country is at peace and able to defend itself against invasion or at least infiltration. I don't think there are (m)any evil neocon chickenhawks whou wouldn't like to see the rest of Iraq in the same state. They (and I) think that leaving Iraq, or reducing the troop presence there, before the country is peaceful would be a bad idea for political reasons as well as the humanitarian one that without US troops being there the place seems likely to become even more violent than it is today.

Inside Iraq, that price can only be exacted by increased resistance. More than any other single factor, it has been the war of attrition waged by Iraq's armed resistance - or insurgency as it is usually described in the western media - that has successfully challenged the world's most powerful army and driven the demand for withdrawal to the top of the political agenda in Washington. Two years ago the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, insisted the insurgency was in its "last throes". But while the outside world has increasingly focused on al-Qaida-style atrocities against civilians and sectarian killings, the guerrilla war against the occupation forces has continued to escalate. There are now over 5,000 attacks a month, a more than 20-fold increase on four years ago, and the US and British death toll is rising. Opinion polls show there is majority support for armed resistance across Iraq; in Sunni areas it is overwhelming.

First note that Seumas is clearly advocating more attacks and more deaths of UK and US service personnel. What he is saying here is "if you kill enough soldiers the US will give up and go home, so far you aren't killing enough so get better at it and quickly." I don't know if Seumas is a British citizen but what he's writing here could probably be counted as treason and, if the UK were like, say, Russia, then a journalist who wrote such a thing might find himself committing suicide with extreme prejudice. Beyond that it is worth noting, as Seumas doesn't, that the cost of the war of attrition waged by "Iraq's armed resistance" seems to have mostly fallen on the Iraqis themselves. Figures are relatively hard to find but it seems clear that while the coalition loses perhaps 3 soldiers a day on average the Iraqi civilian population loses perhaps ten times that. It is also worth noting that the western media has hyped the "insurgency" and that if it were honest it would note that the insurgency is remarkably ineffective. Sure the recent EFPs due to "the spread of Iranian influence" have helped increase fatalities but even so hundreds of patrols go on without any attacks and dozens of attacks fail for every success. In other words the "insurgency" would be classed as a dismal failure if it were not hyped by journalists such as S Milne. See this email quoted by Michael Totten:

Having served with an infantry battalion much like the one subjected in the post during a year in Ar Ramadi when Ar Ramadi was at its most conflicted, I can assure you that the violence is not as you might expect. Our unit suffered pretty massive causalities during our year. However, we patrolled every single day of that year. Those patrols lasted many hours. And, typically, even in then “chaotic” Ramadi, most patrols followed the same peaceful format as the one described in Mr. Totten’s post.

Even in the worst places, day-to-day activity is mundane and quiet. When attacks occur, they do so viciously. In my case, these resulted in my unit’s heavy causalities. Nonetheless, I rarely patrolled in fear. I knew that on most days, our patrol would result in an absence of action. Again, this was in a city considered to be one of the most violent of the war. This peculiar dynamic of the situation in Iraq is lost on Big Media.

Also note that military casualties in July FELL, despite the surge and the rise ot over 5,000 attacks a month. It is also worht noting that in Sunni areas opinon, as demonstrated by actions, seems to prefer having the US around compared to either Al Qaeda or a Shia dominated Iraqi government. Sure the Sunni want the Americans to leave. But what Seumas doesn't say is that rather like St Agustine's plea for chastity there is a critical rider "NOT YET"

The mainstream resistance movement has often been dismissed in the US and Britain as politically incoherent, obscurantist or tarred with the brush of al-Qaida (which accounts for a minority of attacks, though perhaps a majority of suicide bombings). That has been made easier as it operated underground, communicating mainly through the internet or occasional statements to the Arabic media. Now that is changing. Last month, I interviewed leaders of three Sunni-based Islamist and nationalist-leaning resistance groups which are joining four others to launch a political front in advance of an expected American withdrawal. The recent cross-party Iraq Commission report cites four of the seven as among the "four or five main groups" the insurgency has now consolidated around. All have signed up to an anti-sectarian, anti-al-Qaida platform, oppose attacks on civilians, and call for negotiated withdrawal and free elections.

Their goals of anti-al-Qaida, not attacking civilians, negotiated withdrawl and free elections appear to coincide neatly with the stated goals of the USA. This may explain why in Anbar, Diyala etc. these groups and the tribes they come from are increasingly cooperating with the US. Something that Seumas seems unable to understand.

The greatest danger to both the resistance and the wider campaign to end the occupation remains the Sunni-Shia split, fostered since the invasion in classic divide-and-rule mode. Throughout the occupation, armed resistance has been concentrated in mainly Sunni Arab areas. Whenever it has spread to the Shia population - as it did in 2004, when Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army fought the Americans - the potentially decisive threat to US control from a genuinely nationwide resistance movement has become clear. Now armed resistance by the Mahdi army has re-emerged, against the British in Basra and the Americans in Baghdad, where the US lieutenant general Raymond Odierno has claimed that most attacks during July were by Shia fighters.

Now we start to mix truth with utter fantasy. It is true that the Sunni-Shia split is the great threat but it is the great threat to Iraq remaining a unified country not to the "resistance". The implication that the coalition fostered the split is 100% opposite to reality. It is clear that it was Al Qaeda, in conjunction with Sunni Ba'athist criminals who did most of the splitting by attacking Shia again and again. Once they'd started they were of course ably assisted by the retaliation from Al Sadr and  the other Shia militas.The statement "armed resistance has been concentrated in mainly Sunni Arab areas" should be telling you something - namely that the Shia were not resisting and not worried about the US. When Al Sadr fought the Americans we saw many Shia, including their supreme Ayatollah, support the US because they hated what Al Sadr and his thugs wanted to impose. Finally if the majority of attacks are now caused by Shia then perhaps that indicates that umm the Americans have substantially defeated the Sunni insurgency and got them on its side.

But while acutely aware of the need to make common cause with Shia groups and the danger of the breakup of the country, the new Sunni-based resistance front refuses to have anything to do with the Mahdi army because of its role in sectarian killings and on-off participation in the floundering US-sponsored government. Meanwhile, the US is seeking to draw some on the margins of the Sunni-based resistance into the orbit of its anti-Iranian, anti-Shia regional alliance.

So the Sunnis won't ally with Al Sadr because he's in the government and he's been killing Sunnis. Let me guess which one of those two reasons has greater resonance. As evidence of the way the Sunnis trust the US more than Al Sadr I repsent Michael Yon's two dispatches about getting food to Baquba from the food store in Sadr City. What Seumas seems not to grasp is that, finally, the Sunni tribes have figured out that the US doesn't attack you if you don't attack them while Al Qaeda and the Shia militias do attack you especially if you don't attack them. And I love the way the Sunnis working with the US are considered "the margins". When a Sunni province like Anbar goes from hundreds of attacks a day to practically zero that's not the effect of a few marginal players changing sides. Finally he calls the alliance anti-Itanian, anti-Shia. I'm not sure about the Anti-shia part but he is right about the Anti-Iranian bit, but then most Iraqis are already anti-Iran anyway, even amongst the Shia.

The history of anti-colonial and anti-occupation resistance campaigns shows that success has almost always depended on broad-based national movements. But the embryonic resistance front has got to be a positive development if it holds together. Not only could the creation of an alliance with a common programme help open up cooperation with Shia anti-occupation forces now, but if there is going to be a stable post-occupation settlement in Iraq, that will have to include all those with genuine support on the ground. Sooner or later, the Americans are going to have to negotiate with these groups.

We're in fantasy land here. There is no broad-based national resistance movement. There never has been and, as far as I can see, never will be. Indeed contrary to Seumas' delusions what there is, increasingly, is a section of the Iraqi population that wants all the militias disarmed, preferably fatally. It is extremely unclear to me whether the militias have support on the ground except through intimidation and I suspect that as the operations against Al Qaeda wind down and operations against the Mahdi army and other Shia militias start up we will see precisely how much support these groups lack once they are put on the defensive. I see no reason why the US should negotiate with criminal militias except at the barrel of a gun and, despite Iranian assistance, it seems like the US has rather more weapons and rather more powerful ones than these gangs.

All in all this piece is a disgrace. Seumas lets his anti-Americanism blind him to the brutal behaviour of those who claim to be fighting for the "liberation" of Iraq and he makes no attempt what so ever to analyse whether these groups will actually be a constructive or destructive force. Going on their actions to date as corrupt warlords in the areas that they control it would logical for a "liberal" democrat like Seumas to oppose them and support the struggling US backed democracy in Iraq - the only one so far in the Arab world and one of very few in the Muslim world as a whole. Indeed, as I said at the top, this piece could have bene written almost unchanged in 2005 and been unremarkable. To write it in 2007 after the surge and related activity has convinced the Sunni tribes in much of Iraq that the US is more their friend than either Al Qaeda or the Shia militias are is astounding. It shows that Seumas can't grasp the idea that there should be any alternative to "resistance" or that the US can occupy any position other than "great satan". Perhaps he should go live in Iran for a while, then he can decide if the US is indeed the greatest evil, or whether, just possibly, the Iranian influence that the US is worried about is actually worse.