Saturday, October 21, 2006

Bush Folding His Cards In Iraq

Donald Rumsfeld announced yesterday that the Bush administration is still committed to its strategy of "clear, hold, and build" in Iraq. The idea is for American troops to clear areas of insurgent forces and for the Iraqi Army to hold those areas and gradually engage in a social and economic rebuilding process.

But it's just not happening.

The situation for the American military in Iraq is somewhere between retreat and irrelevance. American forces have retreated from the strategy of clearing insurgents out of the cities and towns of Anbar province. Instead, American military units are posted on large bases outside Anbar towns and cities. This keeps American troops safer. It also avoids the ineffective sweeps of 2005 where American troops would move into a town to find that the insurgents (and all men of military age) had simply moved on to other towns. What made the sweeps useless is that the U. S. did not have enough troops to stay continuously on the offensive. As a result of ending the sweeps, however, Anbar has become "an al-Qaeda stronghold" according to one senior American officer.

In other words, the safety-conscious American military is no longer doing the "clearing" necessary for the "clear, hold, and build" strategy to work.

One of the problems with the situation in Anbar is that the U. S. moved troops to Baghdad to address the sectarian bloodshed that was unleashed after insurgent attacks on Samarra in March. Nevertheless, despite the concentration of American assets, the U. S. military has not been able to make itself relevant to the sectarian bloodshed. American policy has been to engage in "sweeps" against both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, but death squads and assassins on both sides continue to carry out their work as if American forces aren't there. The Shiite militias pose a particularly difficult problem. Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and SCIRI's Badr organization are not only integrated into the Maliki government, but are the strongest and the most popular forces associated with the government. To the contrary, the Iraqi Army is a creature of the American military. To destroy the Shiite militias would make the Iraqi government even more of an empty shell and make the American occupation even more unpopular with the Shiite population than it is now.

In other words, the price of making of the American Army making itself relevant in Baghdad might be destabilizing the situation even further. American units might end up staying in their bases in Baghdad just like they're staying in their bases in Anbar.

Of course, if American troops are mostly staying in their bases and DAB (driving around Baghdad) rather than clearing out the enemy, perhaps they're not serving a useful function at all.

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