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Sunday, September 07, 2008

"Learning the Lessons of Iraq"

I don't think we will know if the war in Iraq was a success or not until many years, decades even, after we are gone. If, for example, a few years after we leave, Iraq breaks down terribly and alliances that are very much against our geopolitical interests are formed, that won't be a success, will it? We just don't know yet if it is a success or not, and furthermore, if things do break down, we will have no way of knowing if an alternative path would have produced a better outcome -- we can't run the alternative scenario and find out.

I hope it is a success, let there be no mistake about that, but I just don't see how we can say anything beyond so far so good, and we'll see how it goes from here. As for repeating this strategy in Afghanistan, if we don't know for sure that Iraq will remain stable after we leave, and we don't, and if we don't know for sure if it was the surge or something else that caused the reduction in violence, and we don't, then we should be very careful before repeating the strategy once again.

If it was other factors that caused the reduction in violence, in combination with or independent of the surge in troops, and if we can better understand what those factors were, there may be a way to produce a similar outcome in Afghanistan without so much death and destruction.

So before we commit to repeating the same tactic, let's better understand exactly why things improved in Iraq. I realize that whether the reduction in violence is attributed to the surge or not has large political consequences, but I don't care about that, I just want our best assessment of what factors were at work. It's a matter of life and death:

Learning the Lessons of Iraq, by Joseph Stiglitz, Project Syndicate: The Iraq war has been replaced by the declining economy as the most important issue in America’s presidential election campaign, in part because Americans have come to believe that .. the ... ‘surge’ has ... cowed the insurgents, bringing a decline in violence. The implications are clear: a show of power wins the day.

It is precisely this kind of macho reasoning that led America to war in Iraq in the first place. The war was meant to demonstrate the strategic power of military might. Instead, the war showed its limitations. Moreover, the war undermined America’s real source of power – its moral authority. ...

To be sure, the reduction in violence is welcome, and the surge in troops may have played some role. Yet the level of violence, were it taking place anywhere else in the world, would make headlines; only in Iraq have we become so inured to violence that it is a good day if only 25 civilians get killed.

And the role of the troop surge in reducing violence in Iraq is not clear. Other factors were probably far more important, including buying off Sunni insurgents... But that remains a dangerous strategy. The US should be working to create a strong, unified government, rather than strengthening sectarian militias.

Now the Iraqi government has awakened to the dangers, and has begun arresting some of the leaders whom the American government has been supporting. The prospects of a stable future look increasingly dim.

That is the key point: the surge was supposed to provide space for a political settlement, which would provide the foundations of long-term stability. That political settlement has not occurred. ...

Meanwhile, the military and economic opportunity costs of this misadventure become increasingly clear. Even if the US had achieved stability in Iraq, this would not have assured victory in the “war on terrorism,”... Things have not been going well in Afghanistan, to say the least, and Pakistan looks ever more unstable.

Moreover, most analysts agree that at least part of the rationale behind Russia’s invasion of Georgia, reigniting fears of a new Cold War, was its confidence that, with America’s armed forces pre-occupied with two failing wars..., there was little America could do in response...

The belief that the surge was successful is especially dangerous because the Afghanistan war is going so poorly. ... [T]he belief that the surge ‘worked’ is now leading many to argue that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. True, the war in Iraq distracted America’s attention from Afghanistan. But the failures in Iraq are a matter of strategy, not troop strength.

It is time for America, and Europe, to learn the lessons of Iraq – or, rather, relearn the lessons of virtually every country that tries to occupy another and determine its future.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Iraq and Afghanistan | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (67)


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