Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Fear and Loathing in Fallujah

Fallujah is back in the news again with the recent escalation of terrorist activity in the small portions of Iraq that the Old Media care about. This in turn has caused many commentators to renew their assertions that the US handing of Fallujah last Spring was a mistake. To quote David Warren [who I am not picking on; he’s just handy and his views are typical]:

"The Americans have made one big mistake since entering Iraq. It was to make local peace deals in Fallujah, and elsewhere, which left the fox in charge of the hens.

"The idea was not, however, as stupid as it now looks. It was a risk: that if you put a few old Saddamite officers, and tribal leaders with lapsed Saddamite connexions -- the ones not currently wanted for war crimes -- in charge of a town, they will know how to restore order. They will prevent it from becoming a staging area for terrorist hits elsewhere, because if that happened the Marines would be back. And psychologically, one is likely to earn the gratitude of your erstwhile enemy, if you recruit him when he is expecting to be shot.

The risk may have been worth taking, in hindsight, for what the U.S. learned from it. We now know the policy backfired badly. The territories put off-limits to U.S. and allied patrol became terror havens immediately, as the local Jihadis came out of hiding to celebrate an "American defeat" -- even as the Marines, who had nearly exterminated them, were in the act of withdrawing, according to agreement."

He concludes:

"Election or no election, the Americans must now undo their mistake. They must, regardless of casualties, retake every town in the Sunni Triangle, and clean each one out, properly. Or, go home beaten by the Jihad. There really isn't a third option."
With all respect to Mr. Warren and the others who feel likewise, they are correct in that the idea was not "as stupid as it looks" but otherwise mistaken. The hard fact is that the US handling of Fallujah was not a mistake, nor has it backfired. I understand the desire to put the heads of the likes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Moqtada al Sadr on sticks in the middle of village square for everyone to see, but that is an emotional argument and in making it — in saying that we "must, regardless of casualties, retake every town in the Sunni Triangle, and clean each one out, properly" — Mr. Warren is letting his disgust run away with him.

I don’t think Mr. Warren really means the "regardless of casualties" part above; it is a sign of his frustration. But since he raised it, let’s address it. As bad the continued killings by the terrorists in Iraq are, they are not necessarily worse than storming Fallujah "regardless of casualties." Fallujah will eventually be pacified; that is near certain. So if by overrunning Fallujah last Spring we had caused, or allowed the terrorists to cause, a greater number of civilian deaths than will have happened by that happy date, we would clearly have made the wrong decision.

But history does not allow us to play it both ways, so we are left to rely on the judgement of the commanders on the ground at that time, and their judgement was that storming Fallujah was an unacceptable risk. I was not at Fallujah, nor was Mr. Warren, nor any of the other commentators who disagree with the commanders’ decision. We do not have all the data they had, nor their firsthand experience in that theatre, nor their training — in short we are in no way qualified to second guess them. We do know that the terrorists are still a problem, but we cannot say that they are a worse problem than the potential consequences of the attack that was not undertaken. History may someday reveal enough about the situation that we may be able to make that judgement, but until it does, we owe the commanders on the ground the benefit of the doubt.

But this is a small and secondary issue. The major point, apparently unappreciated by the critics, is that Fallujah is not in the US. Fallujah is in Iraq, and it is very important, perhaps crucial, that the Iraqis be the ones that ultimately deal with it. There are several reasons for this:

First and foremost, no nation is sovereign unless it can defend itself [memo to Old Europe: this means you too]. For Iraq to truly regain its sovereign status it must demonstrate that it can deal with both internal and external threats to its security. We brought in Iraqi forces last Spring, but they were not ready yet. That was an important test, and we and the Iraqis both learned important lessons that has been applied since then. Soon, the Iraqis will be ready to have another go.

Second, it is critical to Iraqi national pride to have a victory to call their own. Relying on us for protection only fosters feelings of dependency and resentment. An Iraqi victory in Fallujah will bolster Iraqi confidence and signal to them and to the world that they are now allies, not servants. Creating a stable, independent Iraq is not possible without such a victory.

Thirdly, an Iraqi victory over the terrorists is vital to the GWOT as a whole. The terrorists and their supporters know they can never beat the US militarily, so every US victory over them has muted psychological impact on them. They can spin almost any confrontation into a "victory" just by claiming they "stood up to us", for as long as there any of them still standing.

Not so when pitted against Iraqi forces. An Iraqi victory really hurts them; all the more so because it is accomplished by an Arab nation, particularly an Arab democracy. The terrorists do not enjoy the wide support in the Islamic world that some believe they do. The example of a free Iraq successfully combating terrorism would go far to turning that lack of support into an active force against terrorism. Put another way, success is contagious. Just as terrorist "victories" [usually perceived US retreats] embolden terrorist supporters, Iraqi victories will embolden those who condemn terrorism. Much has been made, quite rightly, of the general Islamic silence in the face of terrorist atrocities. Having an Islamic nation engaged successfully in the GWOT is perhaps the only effective way to attack that silence. [see Footnote]

These are the reasons why holding off on Fallujah last Spring was the right strategic decision. Thinking the US should have pacified Iraq by force and then handed it over to the new Iraqi government with a stern warning — "There, we’ve cleaned things up. Try not to make a mess again"— is the sort of patronizing attitude that undermines our cause and causes the international resentment that Kerry and his ilk whine about. It sends the signal that we feel Iraq [and therefore all other Islamic nations] are too weak, too stupid, too undeveloped to be able to solve their own problems, and too fragile to endure the cost of doing so. Freedom cannot be granted; it is not gift. It must be earned and the price is often high and always bloody. We can and have been and will continue to help Iraq and stand by them, but we can’t keep them from paying the necessary price and so cheapen their freedom if they are to succeed. To the coddled American ear, unmindful of how we got where we are, that will sound horridly callous; even intolerable. But I think the Iraqis lined up to volunteer outside of police stations that have just been shelled understand it. We should too.

Finally, the prescription offered by Mr. Warren that "They must, regardless of casualties, retake every town in the Sunni Triangle, and clean each one out, properly" is not for the US to decide or attempt. "They" in this case must refer to the Iraqis. Only the Iraqis can decide to retake every town in the Sunni Triangle, regardless of casualties, and I am confident that they will indeed do so when they feel they are ready. I believe we should and will support them in this, but we cannot demand it of them — it is not our country.

Footnote: The above focuses on Iraq and Fallujah but I don’t wish to convey the impression that I think they are the only game in town. The issue is bigger than that, although Iraq gets all the press. In particular, I think the contribution of Pakistan to the GTOW has been vital. However, Pakistan is not much of democracy and General Mussharef does not enjoy the popular support the PM Allawi does, so he is a less useful ally for rousing Islamic public opinion against the terrorists. In this regard, the outcome of the recent election in Indonesia is very promising. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a strong advocate of eliminating terrorists rather than appeasing or supporting them, won landslide victory, capturing 60% of the vote. He wants to restore full military co-operation with the U.S and shows every sign of being a valuable ally in the GWOT, and most importantly he has a true popular mandate for doing so. This will increase to three [possibly four, since I’m not sure of Jordan’s stance] the number of Islamic countries taking an active and open stand with the US against the Islamo-Fascists. This is very good news. [Hat Tip: DavidWarrenOnline]

UPDATE: This account demostrates some of the problems with "clean them out once and for all" advice I criticize above, and shows why restraint can often be prudent in a war of this kind. I believe this scanario never occured to the critics, but it seems to have to the people on the ground over there. This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I said we over here, commenting comfortably in our PJ's, aren't over there and don't have all the info or first-hand experience needed to pass reasonable judgements on tactical decisions. This event is reported by a Lt. Col Jim Rose, now in Iraq, and of course I can't personally vouch for the accuracy of it. But it is certainly plausible. As sickening as this is, it is the way our enemies think:

''The Najaf shrine — HUNDREDS of dead women and children were brought out after Sadr left,'' Rose wrote. ''They (Sadr's supporters) rounded them up during the battle and brought them in to be executed. Why? Because they anticipated the Americans would eventually enter the shrine and walk into a media ambush. We never went in. The people of Najaf love us right now because of that. They hate Sadr and want him dead.

As Glenn says, read the whole thing. And by way of postscript, does anyone have any more stupid questions about why we're fighting this war? [Hat Tip: Instapundit]

UPDATE: 10/06/04

Commenting on my article, SharplyShiloh disagrees with me and presents a closely reasoned argument in support or his or her contention [and by the way, I would be grateful for a gender-neutral 3rd-person singular English pronoun that isn’t "it"]. While admitting the for force of this argument, which might possibly be right — certainly it has substantial support — I believe the issue turns on the question of legitimacy.

In the examples given [retreating now into the passive because of the lack of that damned pronoun], both sides of the conflict have equal legitimacy, and in such case the argument holds. But in Iraq today, the government, being new, has yet to establish it’s legitimacy. The terrorists get their legitimacy from their association with Saddam and with fundamentalist Islam, and tyrannical authority has a much longer track record as a source of legitimacy in the Mid-East than democracy does [about 4000 years to 4 months, at this point]. Revolts and insurgencies against recognized legitimate authority do not succeed. But legitimacy can only be conferred by a likewise accepted legitimate source, [think the Divine Right of Kings or the Chinese Mandate of Heaven] and democracy does not yet have this status in Iraq or in the Mid-East in general. Nor can legitimate democracy, by it’s nature be created from outside; it has to be voted into existence and supported from within.

The genius of democracy as a system of government is that derives legitimacy, thus sovereignty, from the populace, and the populace is generally unwilling to view itself as illegitimate. Insurrection only occurs in democracies when a sizable percentage of the populous become convinced they are disenfranchised, and even them their road to success is difficult, perhaps impossible.

The problems of democracy are the difficulty in implementing it, and its sometimes fatal tendency towards being irresolute or devolving to mob rule. Democracy must prove itself in Iraq be demonstrating that most valued of qualities — strength. Once that happens, the terrorists in Iraq are done for, but until it happens all our military success are just biding time because the terrorists will be able to use their legitimacy to replenish their ranks.

So we are attempting to follow a narrow and difficult course in Iraq. We can as undermine the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government both by doing too little and by doing too much. This, BTW, is I think the cause of al the fault finding and finger pointing on the part of the chattering classes, the armchair generals, and the Media. Everyone has a different view of what is too much or too little or whether democracy in Iraq is possible at all, and they make their arguments accordingly. For my part, I choose to leave the plotting of this difficult course to those who are there and walking this shifting ground. But that should in no way discourage the posting of contrary points of view.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow

I interrupt my usual quasi-politic posting to say that I have just seen Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow, and it is an absolutely brilliant tour de force. Stylistically pure with a uncompromising and utterly stunning esthetic, this is best movie released in a great while. The engine of this movie is a sly and wicked intelligence that does not obtrude but adds a delicious layer for those who are sensitive to it. At once innocent and wicked, satiric and exuberant, this movie is High Art masked as kid’s movie; an homage that tenderly skewers it inspiration; a well-orchestrated action flick that revels in the uncomplicated joy of cinematic whiz-bang while laughing quietly behind its hand at the pretentious.

None of this means you will enjoy it however. The movie makes no concessions to fashion, but pursues its vision with a relentless perfection that seems to have annoyed some critics. People who are used to being pandered to by the likes of Spielberg will find none of that here; no kowtowing to myopic modem canons on plot, character development, and PC Quotient. The creator appears blissfully ignorant of these, or rather innocent of them, but he is an innocent with a needle. The small-minded, the hidebound, and stuffy, and the clueless have all been pricked and their discomfort echoes in the imprecise criticisms that all too often dissolve into discordant rants; the mere noise of uninformed disapprobation. And for some, no doubt, it is merely not their cup of tea.

This is not a movie for everyone, but if you love the art of move making, you should see it. If you enjoy lush visuals and stirring action with a uncramped mind you will probably adore this movie, and if you appreciate that rare artist who can honor his inspiration while making gentle fun of it, you will love it. But view this movie through the busy filter of your preconceptions about what a movie should be and the needle will find you.

Update: Yes, if you were wondering, the 15 or so minutes of Angelina Jolie are absolutely worth the price of admission.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Beslan - The Real Cause for Concern

A horrific act like the terrorists massacre at Beslan calls for either hysteria or understatement; we have had some of both and in my title at least I’m going to opt for the latter. Whether the body of this post will veer into the former, I leave to others to judge. In truth, beyond the sickening feeling occasioned by the act itself, I cannot say if I am merely concerned, afraid, or very afraid. This is the core of my fear: that the Chechen terrorists have laid a trap and Vladimir Putin is walking into it.

If the trap is sprung, it represents perhaps not a turning point in the GWOT, but certainly a serious setback. I have not yet seen any appreciation of this possibility in the press or the blogosphere, even among thoughtful and learned commentators. I hope our government understands the potential peril and can counteract it, should it eventuate. But frankly I don’t know if they do, and equally frankly I do not know how right I am. But here follows my case.

The Beslan Massacre represents a new level of terrorism, even above that of 9/11, in that it involved the deliberate slaughter of children. The level of savagery has been much commented on and many have expressed incomprehension. It has been pointed out that such an act cannot be in the best interests of the Chechen separatists [not a unified block BTW] or the Chechen people, and this is true. But unfortunately, it is all too comprehensible if one understands Russians and the goals of the Chechen terrorists.

Taking these points in reverse order, the goals of the Chechen terrorists are very simply to drive the Russians [and probably their sympathizers] out of Chechnya and ultimately to destroy Russian influence over the Caucasus. It has also been suggested that they wish to unify all the North Caucasus — the purported mastermind of Beslan, Shamil Basayev, has long been a proponent of this. To what extent these goals are congruent with the wishes of the people of Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and indeed, to whether or not they would be good for them does not disturb Basayev’s thinking.

I will interject here that it is impossible to condone or downplay either Basayev’s terrorism or the Russian atrocities that he says are to blame for it. The Russians have behaved deplorably in Chechnya for centuries but this does not justify acts like Beslan. Unfortunately, that distinction is neither here nor there; the Chechen terrorists have opened a new chapter in the tragedy and are waiting for the Russians to play their historical part.

Basayev may or may not be involved with Beslan — statements from the Russian FSB [reported by InterFax and ITAR-TASS] linking him to the massacre should not be relied upon; nor should reported "testimony" by a surviving terrorist or even the recent email — but it certainly sounds like him. Basayev has made something of a habit of threatening Russia with an unrestricted terrorist war. He has taken responsibility for introducing suicide bombing into the Chechen terrorist arsenal, he has ties to al-Qaida, and he is almost certainly the one playing host to the Wahhabi fundamentalists from abroad. Finally, I expect he is only one in Chechnya with the sheer guts to plan such a thing an pull it off [that is not a compliment].

Basayev [accepting that it was him] understands the Russians and his methods are the result of cold calculation. He understands that Russia’s great weakness is it’s fixation on strength. But Russia is not, and has never been, strong. To be strong requires embracing the rule of Law, a concept that is wholly foreign to Russia and is still not taken root there. In Russia, what passes for strength is simple brutality.

Russia’s stature in its own eyes and in those of its neighbors depends entirely on how brutal Russia can be and is willing to be. In the words of the song, Russia must be the "baddest man in the whole downtown." Being "second baddest" is to be nothing.

Shamil Basayev has made it his mission to show that the Russian are no longer the "baddest" people around. He has escalated his terrorism to send the message that he is more brutal, vicious, and ruthless than they are and he expects them to challenge him on this. That is, he is trying to goad the Russian into committing a series of atrocities that will strengthen his terrorist movement, even if it kills him, and weaken Russia internationally. Yet if the Russians fail to respond, their hold over Chechnya, perhaps the whole North Caucasus, will be threatened. This is the nature of Basayev’s trap.

To Basayev, this looks like a win-win situation. Furthermore, he probably perceives it as low risk and he is probably right. The fact of the matter is that while Russia still has an international reputation as a "major power", it is militarily impotent. Russia simply cannot respond in the measured effective lethal way that the US can. Their military is ill-equipped, badly trained, and often poorly led. Russian options to respond with force are limited, and all of them are likely to result in large numbers of innocent casualties.

Nor do they work. Some have gone so far as to suggest that "If it takes out wiping out an entire county to get Shamil, then the county should be wiped out, as long as they're sure they're going to get him." I understand the sentiment, but it is unlikely to be an acceptable price for dispatching a regional terrorist and more to the point, it could easily fail. The Russians have taken a fair whack at wiping out Chechnya on several occasions during their history, without notable success. They took a shot at Afghanistan as well, and we all recall how that turned out. Russia simply doesn’t have the capacity to "wipe out" countries, unless it resorts to nuclear weapons and maybe not even then. But an attempt to do so would play straight into Basayev’s hands [to say nothing of al-Qaida].

If Russia can’t effectively attack Basayev, neither can it defend itself against him [or anyone else]. It is hard to imagine a more perfect terrorist target than Russia. Corruption and the pervasive presence of organized crime mean that almost anything is for sale. Corrupt Russian military officers sell their unit’s supplies and weapons, even their labor. They are not picky about their customers, which have included the Russian Mafia, Islamist terrorists, and Chechen fighters. The security forces, having little else, sell themselves. Large numbers of them moonlight, so the distinction between a cop, a Mafia enforcer, and gun runner for terrorists is largely one of time of day.

Even if corruption could be rooted out of the security forces; if they could be better equipped and trained [and I have little knowledge of how much Putin has been able to improve these things in the past 2 years, but I expect not much] they would still have major problems, because they are badly out-numbered. The inability of the Russian state to provide security has led to a huge private security industry: many if not most sizeable corporations and [especially] financial institutions maintain their own security forces. So do the various organized crime groups. These forces are, in effect, private militias. They can supply cover, intelligence, supplies and weapons, and security to terrorist operations and many will for the right price.

So it is hard for me to see Putin coming up with an effective response to Beslan, his options being so few. Yet he seems intent on walking into the trap. He has stated that the attack was a result of weakness, and one his generals has stated that the Russian military is ready to launch pre-emptive strikes at terrorist bases anywhere in the world [as if they could]. This rhetoric must be music to Chechen terrorist [and probably al-Qaida] ears because they understand that any such action and its consequences will now reflect on the GWOT and most particularly on the US.
This is new development that either the Russians don’t recognize or [more likely] fail to care about. Russia was able to treat its depredations in Chechnya in 1994-96 and it’s second incursion in 1999 as internal matters. The US disapproved of Russian methods in both cases but was not directly involved. We could and did tut-tut and no one suffered but the Chechen and Russian victims.

But now the case is altered. Russia has managed to internationalize the Chechen situation and the US has officially recognized it as such. By linking the Chechen situation to the GWOT, Russia has made the US de facto responsible for it. Bloody and irresponsible Russian actions against the Chechen terrorists will now be done "in our name".

However, restraining the Russians risks "breaking" the global anti-terror coalition and handing the terrorists a major psychological victory. Thus, by attacking Russia so viciously, Basayev and the Chechen terrorists [and by extension al-Qaida] have a chance to deflect the focus of the GWOT from fighting the US to fighting the inept Russian third-stringers. This is bad because they’ve already beaten the Russians once or, if you count the fact that some of the same people were in Afghanistan, twice.

To put it more succinctly, Basayev’s trap — and his gamble — involves making Russian both a victim to their own bad impulses and a shield to the Chechen terrorists; they expect to gain their ends through an unrestricted terror campaign against Russia while counting on the Russians, who still want to treat Chechnya as an internal matter, to prevent the US from taking any truly effective action. As much as that sickens me, I don’t think it’s a bad bet.

If Russia were the Philippines, or Ivory Coast, or Bhutan, none of this would matter so much. But Russia is still regarded as a major power and an important ally in the GWOT, however wrongly. A Russian defeat at the hands of the Chechen terrorists, either by overreaction or retreat, could repair the fortunes of the Islamic terrorist movement in terms of funding, manpower, and influence that have been badly disrupted by the Bush Administration over the last 3 years; it could even advance them.

As bad as this assessment sounds, the situation may not be unsalvageable. When I said the Russians managed to link the Chechen situation to the GWOT, I did not mean to imply that it was not, but that it was in a special way. It is thus because however much he consorts with, accepts aid from, and co-operates with al-Qaida, Basayev is not an al-Qaida stooge or a the vanguard of an international Islamist movement. He is a Chechen, first a foremost, and his interest in the broader issues of international Islamist revolution is wholly subordinate to determination to establish a unified Islamic government over the North Caucasus.

This means Basayev and his followers are more like the Taliban than al-Qaida; their aspirations are regional, not international. Like the Taliban, they are not popular in the most of the North Caucasus and while Basayev was regarded as a national hero in Chechnya after the first Chechen War, his star may have faded somewhat in recent years. They may not be sorry to see him go, and indeed some recent elections are said to have given an indication of this.

Like Afghanistan under the Taliban, Chechnya is a failed lawless "state" that harbors terrorism because of its chaos, not because the people widely support terrorism. It is therefore likely to be amendable to a similar solution: an operation that eliminates the terrorist elements specifically followed by a security operation of long duration that bring some sense of stability and helps rebuild the country.

The main problem of course is that the Russians are incapable of either of these operations, and likely to be unwilling to allow the US to conduct them, or to do anything that to strongly implies Chechen independence. Further, I doubt Putin’s motives. Putin has moved more and more toward autocratic rule, basically keeping only the pretense of democracy, and now with his suggestions that regional governors be appointed, not elected, he seems bent on dispensing with the pretense too. So I think it is a fair question whether Putin is more interested in combating terrorism or reestablishing Soviet-style autocratic rule in Russia; perhaps he is interested in both equally.

If the Russians hold the their canon of strength, or if Putin is more interested on using terrorism to forward his own agenda than on combating it, this problem will be insuperable. But if Putin can be made to see how untenable his position would become if he follows his predilections and can be offered some face-saving arrangement, he may allow himself to be guided. I think it will take a miracle of diplomacy on the part of the US [that is, Pres. Bush] and some great good luck.