Douglas Macgregor is a retired Army colonel and a decorated Persian
Gulf War combat veteran who was an active duty officer (and Pentagon
advisor) until 2004. He has authored three books on modern warfare and
military reform. His latest is Transformation under Fire:
Revolutionizing the Way America Fights. Macgregor writes for the Straus
Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in
Washington, D.C. He recently replied by email to a series of questions
about the current situation, and future prospects, in Iraq.
1. How big of a change has there been in recent months in the
military situation in Iraq?
The situation on the ground has definitely changed, but not for the
reasons the Bush Administration and its generals claim. The main reasons
include cash-based deals with Sunni leaders and Shiite leader Muqtada al
Sadr’s independent decision earlier this year to temporarily restrain
his Mahdi army from attacking U.S. forces. There have also been improved
force protection measures–increased commitment of emergency ordnance
disposal units to clear mines from roads–and increased use of unmanned
combat aerial vehicles. As a result, American casualties have declined
in the last 90 days to the levels experienced in 2006.
2. Has the “surge” in troop levels played an important role
here as well?
Not really. Where once there was one country called Iraq, there are now
three emerging states: one Kurdish, one Sunni, and one Shiite. More than
two years of sectarian violence have left districts in and around
Baghdad completely Sunni or completely Shiite, and that has
significantly reduced violence in those districts and resulted in fewer
bodies in the streets. This new strategic reality, combined with huge
cash payments to the Sunni insurgent enemy, is what has given U.S.
forces a respite from the chaos of the last four years. The introduction
of a few thousand additional troops into Baghdad’s neighborhoods was
never going to result in any kind of strategic sea change.
3. So is the problem in Iraq one of refining counterinsurgency
The Sunni Arab leadership has suspended its rebellion against the U.S.
military occupation because the White House and its generals in Baghdad
have given Sunnis independence from the hated Shiite-dominated
government and money–lots of money. When U.S. casualties were rising
last spring, General David Petraeus issued directives to coalition
forces to extend the model of Anbar province by offering cash payments
to more and more Sunni Arab leaders outside of that region. One army
officer on his second tour summed up the change this way: “Since we
refuse to leave and are much more powerful than al Qaeda, they are
siding with us. They call this the ‘great awakening’.” The tactic
of paying your enemy not to fight is not a new one, but it has
limitations. If the plan is to leave Iraq, it’s a good solution. If
the plan is to stay in perpetuity, and that seems to be the case with
the Bush Administration, history says it’s dangerous. Eventually, the
underlying hatred for the foreign presence overwhelms greed.
4. How will this play out in terms of Iraqi political
One of the unspoken assumptions that underpins the “great awakening”
is that U.S. occupation forces will place untold thousands of Sunni
insurgents on the U.S. government’s payroll, which will allow them to
rearm and recuperate inside Sunni-pure enclaves while U.S. forces open a
new front in the war of occupation against the Shiite militias. The
question now is whether the Shiite militias will launch the kind of
campaign against U.S. forces that the Sunnis waged for nearly four
5. What’s the likelihood of a future full-out clash between
Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites?
No one knows because selected Shiite Arabs also benefit from U.S.
military action and subsidies. From the beginning of the American
intervention, the United States backed the Islamic Supreme Council of
Iraq (ISCI) in its struggle for power with Muqtada al Sadr, despite the
ISCI’s Iranian ties and origins. The problem for U.S. forces is that
Sadr has a far stronger base of support inside Iraq’s Shiite
population than the ISCI. But it is doubtful that Sadr will stand idly
by while U.S. forces halt operations against the Sunnis, the Shiites’
old enemies, and allows them to rebuild. Sadr may well step up attacks
on Americans, assisted, of course, by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi
Security Forces. What the majority Shiite Iraqi army would do in these
circumstances is another unknown.
6. What’s Iraq going to look like five years down the road?
The current Administration wants to stay in Iraq with the object of
controlling it and removing its oil wealth with the help of American and
British oil companies. But it’s unclear whether the United States can
sedate the Sunni population with cash while exploiting their fear of
Iran–for example, by promising that giant American bases like the
30,000-man U.S. Air Base in Balad will form an anti-Iranian Maginot line
stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Turkish border. This may be the
Bush Administration’s strategic ploy to win the support of neighboring
Sunni Arab countries for continuing the U.S. military occupation of Iraq
long after Bush leaves office. But there are lots of variables the
United States does not control, both internal and external. The Muslim
Arab populations of the region do not want U.S. forces permanently
stationed in their countries. In addition, future Turkish intervention
in Northern Iraq, especially with Iranian and Syrian support, would
leave the United States in a very dangerous position. We can only hope
that the next Administration realizes it can buy the oil without parking
a tank on top of the oil wells