Dec 18, 2007

'Shadows of the Images': The Allegory of Iraq

The current issue of Strategic Insights [Center for Contemporary Conflict, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School] includes a piece titled 'Shadows of the Images': The Allegory of Iraq, by John Tirman [6-page pdf].

An excerpt:

The Bush Administration’s perceptions of the Iraq War bring to mind Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in The Republic. Nothing illustrates this more than the shadows and echoes brought before Congress in September by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Their shadow play, whether intentional or not, fails to convey a picture of Iraq that can move us toward stability and (relative) peace.

What was missing from the performance, and indeed from nearly all reflections about Iraq, are two key variables: the scale and effect of the violence that continues to ravage the country, and the role of the neighbors in promoting or stemming violence and instability.

The Iraq Study Group’s report of late 2006 had recommended regional discussions to move toward a solution to the mounting, multipolar violence in Iraq. At the time, the Bush Administration seemed to completely dismiss the ISG’s views, opting instead for the troop surge and benchmarks strategy that, by most independent estimates, has had mixed results at best. Diplomacy remains low on the list of priorities, and the few contacts with neighboring states have been unproductive, indifferent, or hostile. Petraeus and Crocker’s appearances on Capitol Hill brace the Administration’s tendencies to favor military action over diplomacy -- a fraying, old script.

On the role of the neighbors, for example, notable attention is given to Iran, but few others. The activities of Iran in the war, moreover, have the look of a felony indictment rather than an overall assessment. That is, Petraeus and others in the Multi-National Force command have made allegations about weapons coming in from Iran to be used by militias against U.S. troops. “It is increasingly apparent,” Petraeus told Congress, “to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Qods Force, seeks to turn the Iraqi Special Groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.” In the same appearance, Ambassador Crocker, U.S. envoy to Iraq since March 2007, echoed Petraeus’ comment and offered little in the way of other regional actors offering concrete ideas or steps to stabilize Iraq.

Among the maps Petraeus displayed at the hearings was one, “Major Threats to Iraq,” purportedly showing the sources of violence in Iraq. Nearly all identified sources had to do with Iran or their supposed proxies. And all violent actors coming from outside Iraq originate in Syria or Iran. But as Ahmed Hashim, among others, has described in his Insurgency and Counter-insurgency in Iraq, that among those violently fighting the U.S. military and the Iraqi state, “the foreign element is miniscule.” To the extent there is a foreign element, he describes a first wave to be Palestinians from refugee camps, and a second, larger wave of “mostly Islamic militants recruited throughout Europe and the Middle East and then sent to Iraq through the same elaborate human pipeline the mujahideen used to send volunteers to the Balkans, Chechnya, and Afghanistan.” Hashim has noted that a high percentage of foreign fighters caught in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries apart from Syria, a calculation reflected broadly in other empirical accounts. Nor have the repeated attempts to link Iran to supply of weapons to insurgents to kill American soldiers, particularly roadside bombs or IEDs, been convincing.

None of this is reflected in Petraeus’ or Crocker’s assertions, or those of their superiors in the U.S. Government. What we do see in Administration depictions of the war is a broad and persistent misperception of a chaotic battle environment and chaotic policy processes. “The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources,” Petraeus argued in his testimony. “Foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals all push the ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Malign actions by Syria and, especially, by Iran fuel that violence.”

The violence is significantly blamed on outsiders—Iran, Syria, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (another dimly glimpsed force)—rather than on ungrateful, bumptious Iraqis themselves, who are merely engaging in competition for power and resources, or on the coalition forces, a topic discussed below. But these broad depictions of foreign influence make it seem as though the principal activity of the neighbors is to attack Americans and supply the intramural “competition,” which by nearly every independent reckoning would reject as, to put it kindly, an incomplete picture.

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