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The Sisyphean Surge – Petraeus and the making a Greek Tragedy

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2007-03-01 01:49:27

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Like a white knight heading off the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, General Petraeus arrived in Baghdad to take charge as U.S. military commander in Iraq. Armed with a degree in international relations, he is accredited with having written the new U.S. handbook on counter-insurgency. At the hangover ceremony (sorry, read handover) he swept the audience away with rhyming platitudes about "rucksacks of responsibilities," of it being "hard but not hopeless," and so on. After all his studies, his most novel idea appears to fight suicide missions with suicide missions – he intends to make U.S. troops more visible (read vulnerable) by placing them in small outposts in the most dangerous. neighbourhoods!


Listening to Petraeus, one would imagine the war was just beginning and the task was winning hearts and minds still; but unfortunately the pages of the text book have moved on since then. Iraq is in a whole new volume and giving out sweets and drinking tea with the locals is not in the cards for the new phase of the operation. What is more tragic is this is all he seems to have to offer. Otherwise, and the operation already was underway before his arrival; things have not changed essentially from before. It's up the old hill again and back down.


Despite all the hype, Petraeus doesn't offer any new radical departure from the past conservatism and blinkered, linear thinking that characterizes Washington and the Pentagon. Petraeus. is a red herring put in because he is suitable to Washington; appearing to give them some gloss of novelty thinking for the critics. Don't be fooled; this guy has nothing new. Why? Because the U.S. has simply run out of options and there is no other way, but by repeating the same old strategy over and over and again.


On the other hand, moderate modes of thinking and fixed forms of behaviour in conditions of deep chaos and disorder, might appear to be sound judgment and just what is needed! But, in truth, it is so incongruous and inadequate that U.S. strategy almost begins to look more insane and irresponsible than that of the terrorists and insurgents. In truth, its conservative rigidity is total folly, because of its blatant inappropriateness and inefficacy in the face of reality's demands. Repeating the same behaviour over and over and getting the same results is often said to be the first sign of madness. And, what's crazier, is that the U.S. policy makers and all of U.S. know this is exactly what the U.S. is doing – it's the same old failed policy being repeated over and over again.


Denial always leads to repetitive, self-destructive behaviour. But there comes a point when that denial also becomes delusional. Then, we are really on the road to madness. The wooden heads in Washington have devised little more than a Sisyphean strategy for defeat. They push the rock up to the top of the hill and it falls back down. And like Sisyphus, they repeat the pointless process over and over again. The problem now is they rarely reach half-way to the top, before they have to go back down and start again.


Faced with one of most complex counter-insurgency situations in history, all that they can come up with is sending 21,000 extra troops to secure Baghdad. This myopic, straight-jacketed, linear thinking by the rulers of the world's greatest superpower beggars belief. Moreover, the notion that the Iraqi Army is going to be able take over the security of the country - within a few months - can only be entertained by those suffering from clinical delusion or practicing criminal deception.


At the beginning of February, a report by the U.S. government's Iraq National Intelligence Estimate painted a bleak perspective for the country, saying that the situation was, in many ways, classically similar to civil war and in others too complex to be defined as such. It considered that overall things could only get worse in the next 12-18 months and, de facto, gave little hope of the new "surge" making any real difference upon events.


The great Chinese general, Sun Tsu warned aginst attacking walled cities, but today's Iraq, is something Sun Tsu could have ever envisaged. This is because Iraq is largely an urban country and the modern city is a beehive of walled cities within walled cities. Every street, every high rise block or administrative centre becomes a smaller walled city which can be defended and has to be taken. Besieging walled cities is withering. It wears down the nervous system of the attacker five times more than it does the defender. Moreover, it polarizes attitudes into a sense of futility for the aggressor and sense of determination and doggedness for the defender. Amongst the assailed civilian population there is a mental and social closing of ranks as the most basic, the fundamental and last line of defence, the home, the symbol of security and family, is assaulted.


Fighting in such proximity to this especially in modern warfare and the growth of animosity and contempt for the aggressor is draining on the spirit and purposefulness of the troops. In fact, it is this, and not the physical tours of duty, which is bringing the U.S. Army to "breaking point," as their Generals have warned. The current strategy and tactics of the U.S. is toward a pointless and worthless end goal. There isn't the chance in hell of a "win-win" or even a "win-lose" outcome. There is nothing but "lose-lose" for the Americans and their soldiers know it. The situation for the Americans is an enigma of war. Formerly, they occupied the city, yet they have not conquered it. They patrol the streets, but cannot the scale the "walls." The U.S. is an elephant with chicken's legs. They cannot run and they cannot standstill.



By arresting a layer of the leadership and second-in command of the insurgents and militias, the U.S. shows it hasn't learned any of the lessons of the "Palestinian syndrome", where such actions by the Israelis have only served to enrage and embolden new more radical elements. New generation of leaders spring up in as rapid succession as they can be jailed or killed. Anyhow, arresting a few dozen or a few hundred of their leaders won't set back their operations for any serious amount of time. The Sunnis are well-trained and experienced, and the Shias have been catching up with the aid of Iran.


In fact, the U.S. has learned nothing about the lessons of counter-insurgency in Iraq. They are particularly blind to lessons of the Israelis in Palestine, where the most experienced force with regard to urban counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism is the U.S.A's closest ally Israel. The Palestinian insurgency began proper with the second intifada beginning in 2000. In the course of it, the Israeli forces have killed some 4,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 20,000. Another 28,000 insurgents have been arrested and 8,000 Palestinians remain in prison. But despite the colossal repression, the insurgency shows no sign of stopping 6 years on. Were the Americans to employ the same intensity of counter insurgency in Iraq, it would mean having to arrest about 190,000 insurgents and to kill or wound another 140,000. Clearly, this is not feasible or achievable.


The Papier-Mβchι Government & Army


To make matters worse, the Iraqi government the U.S. Army is fighting on behalf of weak, unpopular, unreliable government, is likely to crumble at any moment. The governing exiles, like Maliki, are total novices when it comes to power politics and totally unreliable when it comes to personal interests over national ones. They are in way over their heads; they have no feel for the situation, no touch for the masses, nor finesse in anticipating and handling delicate and explosive issues. They lack any foresight as to the real situation and especially with regards to the consequences of their own actions. They are little more than narcissistic novices led by greed for personal power, prestige and the plundering of the state purses and lucrative kickbacks. They lack any moral ballast or integrity. In brief, the majority of Iraqi government ministers are inexperienced, irresponsible, myopic and thoroughly egotistic. Worse still, they show a sectarian mentality verging on humanitarian criminality.


Maliki and others, like the cleric Abdul-Aziz Al-Hakim, are hoping that the U.S. will still continue to strike mostly at the Sunnis and also weaken Muqtada al-Sadr sufficiently to secure their government's future. They hope that by the end of the operation in the summer, when U.S. troops will withdraw to barracks, the Iraqi Army can be systematically taken over by their own militias and will provide a force strong enough to concretise a Shia-led state. Al-Hakim is now going one-step further and hedging his bets, in case the U.S. cannot destroy the Sunni insurgency and Al Qaeda in Anbar province, by calling for a thinly veiled three-state-solution in the cloaked form of "federal regions."


But one shouldn't underestimate their capacities for optimism and imagination. While they espouse plans for the future, it is not at all sure they will last out in office till spring, let alone summer. Indeed, only days before Maliki was demagogically committing himself to the iron fist of militia disbandment, he was publicly talking of resigning! In reality, it will take only one major mishap for Maliki to jump ship. It will not be long before the Iraqi government collapses in the coming situation. In reality, it has long ago lost any public legitimacy. Even amongst the Shias its support is wafer thin. Their positions and future are no more secure than the general situation and somewhat weaker in fact. In truth, the government is simply a theatrical puppet show, a shadow court commanding a phantom army over the carcass of a country.


The Iraqi Army is generally an unreliable and contradictory force. From a purely military standpoint they are almost more of a liability than a support to the U.S. They are also poorly trained and poorly motivated. Desertion, absenteeism, apathy and unreliability are rife. In truth, most units couldn't repulse an attack by the Swiss army on bicycles. Furthermore, despite a formal mix of Sunnis and Shia in the officers' corps, the rank and file are obviously overwhelmingly Shia reservists. This has suited the U.S. until now, because most of their efforts have been against the Sunni insurgents. But if they attempt to use the Iraqi Army against fellow Shias and especially the Mahdi Army, the Americans could quickly find the bulk would go over and turn their weapons against the U.S. This is even more so for the police, whose jobs are little more than a fresh change of clothes for the militiamen.


Soon, the U.S. could find itself fighting an insurgency on behalf of nobody but themselves, with no elected government and no army or police. In essence, the Iraqi state is already just a rickety "Punch and Judy Show" held up the U.S. Army. Within weeks there could be no state at all. Like the myth of Sisyphus, the U.S. policy will become nothing more than a myth, a policy based on a fictitious rock and an imaginary mountain. The strategy to escape the mountain by the tactic of rolling a great rock up to its pinnacle turns out to be a worthless tactic, based on a false strategy. And as Sun Tsu warned, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."



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