Sunday, April 26, 2009

"We cannot ... let this go on any further"

So said Hillary Clinton (in an interview with Fox News) about the advance of the Taliban in nuclear--armed Pakistan. Pakistani government forces have apparently launched an offensive, and are claiming major death counts and a determination to root out the Taliban. But her words, if taken at face value, beg the question of what might the US do if the Pakistani military isn't up to the task (and it's by no means clear that they are. Their nuclear deterrent was developed because of their fear of India. It's of no use in a domestic insurgency, especially when enemy leaders are holed up in their big cities, like Karachi.).

And speaking of the efficacy of the military . . . the US military in Iraq has evidently stepped into a mess as well, with a raid that the locals say killed an innocent man and woman and also resulted in the detention of several others. The US says the raid - which targeted what the US calls "special forces" (= Shiite militias sponsored by Iran) was authorized by the Maliki government. The raid was conducted in the southern city of Kut. Coincidentally, Kut was the site of a major British defeat at the hands of Ottoman forces during the early years of World War I. More recently, many of its citizens have supported the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM in US military acronymese) fought several pitched battles with US forces in Najaf early in the occupation of Iraq. The JAM has been mostly lying low in recent months, but many experts believe that they may be biding their time to rise up against the Maliki government, whose army is dominated by members of a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, with which the JAM has also had violent confrontations over the years. Lately, Maliki has reached out to Muqtada as a fellow nationalist. It will be interesting to see how this spins out.

And it will also be interesting to see whether the JAM will see this as a provocation and, like the recently resurgent Sunni insurgents, decides to become more active against US forces in southern Iraq (and Baghdad, where Muqtada still has tremendous support) as they continue their pull-out from Iraq's big cities.

And as a recent draft report from Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS suggests, the JAM (and other internal groups) remains a significant threat to the Iraqi security forces, which he says are hardly ready to stand against them on their own and will need continued support from the US. Rememberm according to the status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, US combat troops are supposed to be out of the country by end of 2011 (although some elements of the US military will remain, and the Iraqi government also has the prerogative to ask that combat forces stay longer). There's a big "game" (hardly the appropriate label, I know, given the stakes and lives involved) of beat-the-clock in progress.

UPDATE: Thomas Ricks at his Foreign Policy site posts an extremely informative and insightful comment from a source "in the know" about the internal politics of the Maliki government, especially the rivalries among different Shiite groups and politicians. The potential for open conflict among them remains high for many months to come. Also noted is the reintegration of a large number of Iraqi army officers from Saddam's army, which was dominated by a Sunni officer corps, most of them Baathists at least in name.

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