Monday, August 2, 2010

The US's Iraq Dilemma

As was noted here yesterday, Iraqi deaths from political violence are skyrocketing, but the US is doing its best to put a happy-face on things - including strongly rejecting the Iraqi government's tally of the numbers killed as inflated.  As summarized by the AP's Hamza Hemdawi (in a customarily excellent report), the Iraqi says 532 killed; the US military says, nah, it was only 222.  Meanwhile, according to the AP,

at least 350 Iraqis were killed in July, but this figure is considered a minimum, based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.

Bottom line: As the US forces withdraw and hand off security tasks to the Iraqis, Iraq's indicators are moving in the wrong direction.  As Hemdawi notes, this has implications for Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama's timeline calls for US forces to begin leaving in about a year:

The troubled transition to full Iraqi control serves as a warning for the U.S. and NATO as they pursue the same broad strategy in Afghanistan. In both countries, the war plan calls for weakening the insurgents on the battlefield while building up local forces capable of handling security while politicians pursue a political settlement.

Recent bloodshed in Iraq, where the transition is farther along, raises questions about how it will work in Afghanistan, where the challenges are far greater.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no tradition of strong central government. The country is made up of numerous ethnic groups speaking different languages with no ethnic community in the majority. Smaller groups — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — harbor deep grudges against the Taliban, whose support comes from the Pashtuns.

That raises the possibility that if the coalition leaves too soon, the country would descend into civil war as it did following the Soviet pullout in 1989.

Among many Iraqis is the sense that the US is leaving with the job there unfinished, and not only in terms of security.  As Stephen Lee Myers reports in the NY Times, the US is departing with the country's electrical grid - a major benchmark of progress - still a mess, with even the capital city getting only 5 hours a day.

That has generated disillusionment and dissent, including protests this summer that, while violent in two cases, were a different measure of Iraq’s new freedoms.

“Democracy didn’t bring us anything,” Mr. Farhan said in his newly darkened shop. Then he corrected himself. “Democracy brought us a can of Coke and a beer.”

The overall legacy of the American invasion today, like that of the war itself, remains a matter of dispute, colored by ideology, politics and faith in democracy’s ultimate ability to take root in the heart of the Arab world.

Even Iraqis suspicious of American motives hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring modern, competent governance. Still, the streets are littered with trash, drinking water is polluted, hospitals are bleak and often unsafe, and buildings bombed by the Americans in 2003 or by insurgents since remain ruined shells.

What is clear is that Iraqis’ expectations of a reliable supply of electricity and other services, like their expectations of democracy itself, have exceeded what either Americans or the country’s quarrelling politicians have so far been able to meet.

It has been noted often that both Pakistanis and Afghans harbor a deep mistrust of the US because of the frequency with which the US has intervened in their affairs, then bugged out, abandoning them to civil war, dictatorship, and economic ruin.  It remains to be seen how Iraqis 20 years from now will feel about the US's "intervention" in 2003 and after, but at this point, all the signs point to a rerun of the Pakistani and Afghan experiences: a long-continuing, deep resentment after being abandoned.  If Iraqi politicians are able to reach some compromises, cobble together a working government, and create enough internal stability for the country to cash in on its oil wealth, perhaps Iraqis' long-term view of the US will improve.  Unfortunately, at this point in time, it seems just as likely that that won't happen.  Iraq seems destined to be mired in misery for the foreseeable future; and the US will be held responsible (and justifiably so).

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