Sunday, April 11, 2004

Misplaying our Hand...Again 

In an earlier post, I suggested that even though the news from Iraq appeared to be growing bleaker by the day, there might be some reason to believe that the ramping up of hostilities between the US and Moktada al-Sadr's followers was the result of strategic, purposeful decisionmaking by the CPA. My reasoning was that the CPA realized the unusually high threat of civil war in post-occupation Iraq and was taking steps to knock down the best-organized potential leader of a rebellion.

The narrative presented by this article in yesterday's Washington Post gives an account of what actually happened, and seems to suggest that I was accurately describing the strategy being pursued, but I may have been a little too willing to give credit to the CPA by hoping that the strategy would be pursued effectively. Once again, it seems, the Bush administration and its appointees have fastened onto a strategy, a defensible, reasoned strategy, even, but have failed to make realistic assumptions about the likely costs or probability of success of their chosen path.

What was the thinking underlying Bremer & Co's behavior? At first, the CPA tried to ignore Sadr for as long as possible in the hopes that more moderate clerics would draw away his supporters. But at some point, it became obvious that allowing the Sadrist militia to remain armed would make general disarmament impossible:
With the planned handover of sovereignty less than 100 days away, political officers within the occupation authority called for more aggressive efforts to disband Sadr's militia on the grounds that the continued existence of the Mahdi Army was preventing other Shiite militias from disarming. If the Americans failed to demobilize Iraq's disparate militias before ending the occupation, it likely would impede the country's democratic transition, the political officers had warned.

"He was creating a context in which there were simply not going to be free and fair elections," said Diamond of the Hoover Institution. "We could have bought him off, but the result was not going to be a democracy in Iraq but a creeping slide into some form of a Islamist dictatorship in which various militia armies would be the ones who would determine the outcome of the election. That's because if we didn't disarm his army, we wouldn't be able to disarm any of the other militias. And if you don't demobilize of all the militias, there's no way you can have a democracy."
As I've argued elsewhere, this may be understating the danger: disarmed militias could rapidly rearm, gaining resources and support by claiming future returns from controlling oil production. But the CPA did, correctly, realize that ignoring Sadr (or other leaders willing to violently resist a post-occupation Iraqi government) would be a colossal mistake. So the strategic thinking was correct.

Things don't seem to have worked out as planned, though, with Sadr now apparently emerging as a popular figure and rallying point for anti-American activity. Was this the result of poor execution of an anti-Sadr plan, or was it the result of a lack of an anti-Sadr plan?

Noam Schreiber makes a case in the New Republic that the article shows that it was Sadr who was in control of the situation, and he who precipitated the outbreak of active battles:
On the one hand, the article makes the point that Paul Bremer chose to tighten the pressure on Sadr in late March, by closing down his movement's increasingly anti-American newspaper, al-Hawza. This appears to have been the proximate cause for the Sadr-sponsored uprising, implying that Sadr didn't have a whole lot of choice in the timing of the matter. On the other hand, the article points out that the rhetoric emanating from the paper, and the actions of the Sadr organization generally, had been growing more and more belligerent in recent weeks, making it more crucial for the occupation authorities to respond. As Bremer's spokesman Dan Senor told the Post, the decision to confront Sadr came in response to "a real trend in the ramping-up of very inciteful, highly provocative rhetoric ... that was directed at promoting violence against Americans during a very emotional time.... We had a concern that if he was left unchecked, Americans could wind up getting killed." On top of that, the article says that Sadr had lowered his group's profile this past winter while he focused (successfully, as it turns out) on building up the size of his militia. The combination of these circumstances suggests to me that Sadr did, in fact, control the timing of the confrontation with the U.S. authorities, and that the timing was somewhat of a miscalculation given that several more months of low-grade insurgency could have helped him further increase the size of his militia while postponing an outright confrontation until the coalition forces had dwindled substantially.
In other words, Schreiber is arguing that our current problems were orchestrated by Sadr. By this reading, we can't fault the CPA for failing to anticipate a problem, merely for failing to address it quickly. Schreiber even holds out hope that this was a strategic mistake by Sadr, and that the problem is much less bad than it would have been if Sadr hadn't forced Bremer's hand.

Schreiber misses the most damning portion of the article, though:
When Bremer ordered the shutdown of al-Hawza, there was no intention to use force to apprehend Sadr or leaders of his militia, according to occupation authority officials familiar with the decision.

One U.S. official said there was not even a fully developed backup plan for military action in case Sadr opted to react violently. The official noted that when the decision was made, there were very few U.S. troops in Sadr's strongholds south of Baghdad. That area has been under the jurisdiction of multinational military divisions that had failed to move aggressively against the cleric's militia.

The newspaper closure was intended "to send another signal to Sadr, just like telling him about the arrest warrant," the official said. "In hindsight, it was a huge mistake. The best-case scenario was that he would ignore it, like the earlier threat, or that he would capitulate. The worst case was that he would lash back. But we weren't ready for that."

At the time, occupation authority officials figured that Sadr had between 3,000 and 6,000 militiamen, only 2,000 of whom were armed fighters -- a figure that turned out to be a vast underestimate. "We were relying on the most optimistic predictions possible," the official said.
Doesn't this seem to be the same problem that we've seen again and again? Doesn't it seem like the Bush administration and its appointees are constantly screwing up in this precise way? It's truly amazing to me how a group of people so determined to see itself as hard-nosed and realistic can be so selectively pollyanna-ish.

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