September 12, 2005

I Don't See Any Method At All, Sir

It would be hard not to notice that the latest Tal Afar campaign in Iraq—the military's third attempt, I believe, to reclaim the city from insurgents—looks just as quixotic as the previous campaigns. It looks like the whack-a-mole two-step all over again: Military rolls in, insurgents roll out, military leaves, insurgents return. Moreover, as Swopa points out, one major goal of this operation was originally to prevent Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters from sneaking out of Tal Afar; hence the military surrounded the city with barbed wire before storming in. Oops. Here's Col. H.R. McMaster, quoted in the Post five days ago: "We don't want them [the insurgents] to slip out." Col. McMaster, quoted in the Post this morning: "The enemy... decided to bail out. They knew they were being destroyed." Um.

But for an alternate, more enthusiastic view, both Bill Roggio and Belmont Club are putting the Tal Afar campaign in the context of what they see as a broader strategy for success: the military's trying to seal off the Iraq-Syria border, disrupt insurgent supply lines, and pacify the relevant cities with newly trained Iraqi soldiers—Tal Afar will be patrolled with 1,000 natives. Oh, and the government will fire up some grand reconstruction projects to win hearts and minds in the city—if they can find any contractors brave enough to come rebuild the place, that is. Meanwhile, an item on StrategyPage argues that chasing the insurgents hither and thither actually causes the insurgents to lose popularity, as it forces them continually to retake cities with the sort of brutal methods that all freedom-loving Iraqis everywhere loathe and abhor. (We're assuming, I take it, that the U.S. dropping 500-pound bombs left and right doesn't make us any new enemies.) So that's the sunny view.

Maybe it will all work. The campaign to retake Fallujah didn't work very well, but, you know, maybe there's something to this whole 'rat' line strategy. I doubt it, but I'm not an expert. On the other hand... against whatever success the military may have in disrupting the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq, we have to balance the fact that, as Juan Cole notes, a Shiite/Kurdish government and Shiite/Kurdish troops are now storming Tal Afar, a city filled with Sunni Turkmen who already weren't too thrilled with the new Iraq. Turkmen have recently taken to mobilizing against the new draft constitution, given that it would essentially dispossess them of oil wealth in Kirkuk. This latest military incursion probably doesn't help matters. Meanwhile, Turkey has now and again threatened to take action against the Kurds if they continue to violate the rights of ethnic Turkmen in Kirkuk, Tal Afar, and elsewhere, so that gets thorny. Civil war, here we come.

But again, I don't know. It would be marvelous if we could get some reporting on whether or not the people in charge have actually thought these things through or not, and whether they're concerned about fomenting ethnic strife or not, and whether they have some sort of grand master plan here or not, or if everything we fear is true and the military really is just endlessly and pointlessly chasing insurgents up and down the desert. More than anything else, this seems like the major limitation of the media's Iraq coverage—we don't get very many grand overviews of what, exactly, the military's trying to achieve, why its plans could succeed, why they could fail, etc. The Post couldn't even remember that only five days earlier, the military had bragged about preventing insurgents from escaping from Tal Afar. That's not really a criticism—big-picture stuff can obviously be difficult for a reporter to do when there are ninety-million other things to worry about—just a thought.
-- Brad Plumer 3:27 AM || ||