Forecasts for the American Expedition to Iraq

By Fabius Maximus

November 30, 2005

What comes next in Iraq? Here are some straight-line extrapolations. Nothing certain, but these seem like good bets.

  1. American public support for the Iraq War has evolved to the tipping point -- the critical level at which mainstream politicos move to explicit opposition. In this sense Iraq is a second Vietnam: a foreign war in which a US President arrogantly attempts to outlast strongly-rooted local opposition.

  2. The US will begin a major withdrawal of its forces, probably in the first half of 2006. The key election date is not December 17 (Iraq’s Parliament), but November 4, 2006 (US Congress).

  3. Once we begin large-scale withdrawals, probably also relocating our remaining forces to bases in the Iraq deserts, our influence in Iraq will rapidly disappear.

  4. The Iraq "National" governing structure will not long survive our departure, as they lack sufficient loyal troops to keep them in power. The ethnic militias pretending to be parts of the Iraq Army will revert to their true roles, serving local, ethnic, or sectarian interests.

  5. Power will move to regional leaders with armed militias. Many previously powerful political and religious leaders will find themselves marginalized, as ethnic and religious hierarchies adjust to accommodate upstarts commanding young men with guns.

  6. Neither Sunni nor Shiite Arab militia leaders have any need for our support, nor want foreign infidel armies on their soil. The Kurds will no longer need us. Hence all parties will call for rapid US withdrawal of forces once we become “lame ducks” in Iraq. This will remove any remaining support for the Iraq Expedition among global governments and the US public. Combined military action against Coalition forces is possible should we linger too long.

What can we expect in Iraq after the Coalition exits?

Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy.

Gandhi, May 1942

Guesses in such matters typically depend on the historical template one uses. Consider ways in which post-US Iraq resembles post-colonial India.

  • Both had a bitter history of rule by minority groups – Muslims in India, Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

  • The US, like UK in India – and Saddam in Iraq – attempted to divide and rule. This inflamed internal divisions, creating a hot foundation on which to build a new State.

  • Both “colonial” powers had close ties to some groups, and hostile relations with others. The US has the support of the Kurds and Shiite Arabs. In India the Muslim League strongly supported the UK during WWII while the Hindu-led Congress Party banned any support for the UK.

The 1947 Partition of India occurred at the cost of many lives. Ethnic cleansing created 15 million refugees. Widespread rioting destroyed entire communities. Contemporaneous accounts describe “ghost trains” crossing the new border – both ways -- containing bodies of the dead. Sometimes mutilated. Sometimes containing piles of women’s breasts.

Large-scale civil war might erupt following our withdrawal from Iraq. As this threatens the interests of powerful regional religious and ethnic leaders, we can expect both internal and external pressure for a settlement. In this situation reliable predictions are impossible, no matter how many credentials drape the would-be prophet.

Here is one of the many possible scenarios, perhaps the best we can reasonably expect:

  • a weak Iraq national government,

  • strong regional governments,

  • ethnic "cleansing" (relocations), and

  • a formula for sharing of the oil revenue.

Like Germany after the Thirty Years War, local rulers might determine religious customs in their territory. Cujus Regio, ejus Religio – the Religion of the Prince is the Religion of the People -- one of the timeless political solutions to religious conflict.

What might be the consequences if these guesses prove correct?

We will have invested lives and money on an immense scale in a project that largely failed. That is, we replaced a Bathist-Sunni tyranny with a secular Kurdistan (nature yet unknown) plus some form of Islamic fundamentalist State(s) in the south.

The first is bad for our good ally Turkey. The second most benefits that Charter Member of the Axis of Evil, Iran – and threatens the Saudi Princes, whose oil mostly comes from Shiite tribal areas.

Perhaps the biggest losers: Iraq’s women. Iraq was the major secular state in the Middle East. A tyranny, but after Saddham’s death it might have evolved to become more like western States. As a result of our ill-thought-out meddling, a fundamentalist Islamic revolution has already begun in the Arab regions of Iraq.

We killed the only seed in the Middle East with potential to flower into an Islamic reformation.

Who are the big winners in this scenario?

First, our partners in the Coalition. Their willingness to follow our lead likely will be greatly reduced. Given how poorly we are managing our foreign affairs, this might be a good thing.

Second, the US people. A crusading fever has taken hold of the Center-Left and Center-Right elements of the political spectrum (Much of the extreme Right considers this idiotic. The extreme left considers it evil). Having seen the results, American public support for future expeditionary actions probably remains low for another generation.

Third, the US military. Thirty years after defeat in Vietnam, they still cannot successfully fight a fourth generation war. Our soldiers became clay pigeons, targets for enemy IEDs. All our General could do in response is boast about our Body Count.

The debate is over, and it’s back to the drawing board. Both the US and its enemy conducted a Revolution in Military Affairs. Theirs worked. Ours did not.

History suggests that our two thousand dead soldiers will not have died in vain IF we learn from this experience. This might prove cheap tuition for the US as we enter the era of Fourth Generation Warfare.

Implications of this forecast – what should we do next?

Rather than focus on what to do next, our political elites remain locked in a debate over responsibility for past mistakes.

Rome did well by avoiding these, even in the worst depths of the Punic Wars.

They executed the occasional general -- often for insufficient aggressiveness, almost never for failures (e.g. Cannae). But typically with no interruption in the process of crushing their enemies.

Perhaps we should turn for advice to those who warned against the Iraq Expedition. Some of this small group have recommended “exit strategies,” and here we encounter another anomaly: experts who advised against the Iraq Expedition, see that it has failed, but still search for a method to make it work on some level.

Perhaps it is an American characteristic to combine hope with tenacity. "Can do, Sir!"

Professor Juan Cole is a poster child for this.

I'd get most of the US ground troops out, and just cede Tal Afar to whoever is in Tal Afar. But I think the US [or somebody, and unfortunately that means the US] has a duty to maintain a couple of air bases in the area along with some Special Ops forces to forestall a Himalayan tragedy in the near to medium term. Over time the US will be able (and will be forced) to leave altogether.

Of course, I'd be much happier if we could get US ground troops out on a short timetable and have the peace-enforcing done by the United Nations or even NATO. But that isn't going to happen, so the use of air power to stop a full-fledged civil war falls to the US.

Despite its repeated failure – going back to the use of strategic bombing in WWII – many Americans still love Air Power. Even so, Professor Cole’s faith that air power can “forestall tragedy” in an Iraq civil war seems especially bizarre.

William Lind's On War #138, provides another example of American tenacity.

First, announce that we will leave Iraq soon, and completely.

Second, open negotiations to set a date by which we will be gone.

Third, while we will cease our useless “sweeps” and other clearly offensive actions, we will also quietly institute the “ink-blot strategy” in some mixed Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish areas. While the ink-blot strategy (like the CAP program in Vietnam) represents a strategic offensive, which allows us to keep pressure on the Sunnis to make a deal, it requires de-escalation on the tactical level, so as not to alienate the local population. That should help reduce both Sunni and American casualties while negotiations proceed.

The first two recommendations are consistent with Lind’s previous – and prescient – writing, the latter seems problematical.

The US Marines Combined Action Platoons (CAP) consisted of squads of Marine each dropped into a Vietnamese village. It proved effective in Vietnam’s large, neutral (i.e., apolitical) rural zones.

Iraq is mostly highly urbanized and highly politicized, with a far more politically "mobilized" people than Vietnam’s rural peasants circa 1960s. Dropping a squad of Marines in an Iraq village seems to me either ---

  • a waste of effort, if in a peaceful Kurd or Shiite area (i.e., already run by the locals), or

  • suicidal, if in a village run by the insurgents.

I doubt there are many intermediate situations, except for what are in effect urban war zones. Like Baghdad.

There are three reliable solutions for defeating an insurgency. In the words of Gary Brecher, The War Nerd:

… guerrilla war has no technical solution. Or even military solution. The only effective CI techniques are torture, reprisal and, ultimately, genocide.


As we will not use any of these three “solutions,” success will likely remain beyond our grasp. Hence we have only one remaining option, and a window in which to use it: withdraw, and quickly.

Let’s admit the obvious. In the immortal words of the Emperor Hirohito, "the war situation has developed not necessarily to our advantage."

How to Exit: important lesson from the Athenians at Syracuse

The Syracusans were already preparing their surrender when they unexpectedly received reinforcements from Corinth and Sparta, commanded by Gylippus . … This was the decisive moment: it was now obvious that the Athenians could not invest Syracuse, which would always be able to obtain supplies.

Nicias was unable to formulate a real response. … He now concluded that it was best to break off the siege. It was a disgrace, but there was still an opportunity to minimize the losses. …

Unfortunately, during the night of 27 August 413, when the Athenians were supposed to sail away, there was a lunar eclipse, which Nicias thought was a very bad omen. He ordered to stay another month.

It became almost immediately apparent that this was a serious mistake. The Syracusans now started to block the entrance of the Great Harbor. The Athenians tried to break out, but were defeated in the final naval engagement. Now, finally, Nicias decided to leave his position. In fact, almost everything was lost, because the Athenians had no ships to return home. …

This was the end of the Sicilian expedition, and the beginning of the end of Athens itself . Those survivors who belonged to the Athenian alliance, the Delian League, were sold as slaves. The Athenians were forced to work in a stone quarry, where they died from malnutrition and exposure.

After the Athenians realized they were defeated at Syracuse and had to run, they lingered to discuss the details. This confidence – that they had ample time -- was unwarranted. Their enemies blockaded the harbor. All that remained was death in battle or capture, followed by slow death in the quarries.

We have made mistakes in Iraq on every level: strategic, tactical, and operational.

Fortunately, we still have an opportunity to exit with minimal losses. I recommend that we take it. Let’s not copy the optimistic arrogance of the Athenians at Syracuse.

Some of Professor Juan Cole’s writings on an Exit Strategy

September 23, 2005

September 25, 2005

TomDispatch, October 18, 2005

October 28, 2005

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