Archive Logo.jpg

January 03, 2005

Two important views on what is happening in Iraq.

Those of Tom Friedman, center-left opinion maker and General Abizaid - US commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the length of the post below this one, I'm putting the bulk of this one in the Flash Traffic (extended post).

Tom Friedman of the NYTs gets it, he understands the stakes - and while he may not like how we got there, he understands the criticality of winning this fight - and the nature of the enemy. But he's nervous about our commitment, as he should be - for as General Abizaid points out - this isn't a short war. Not really.

Friedman's crie-de-coeur was crystallized by this incident, shown in this picture:

There is much to dislike about this war in Iraq, but there is no denying the stakes. And that picture really framed them: this is a war between some people in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world who - for the first time ever in their region - are trying to organize an election to choose their own leaders and write their own constitution versus all the forces arrayed against them.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the Iraqi gunmen in this picture are really defending their country and have no alternative. The Sunni-Baathist minority that ruled Iraq for so many years has been invited, indeed begged, to join in this election and to share in the design and wealth of post-Saddam Iraq.

As the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum so rightly pointed out to me, "These so-called insurgents in Iraq are the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age." They are a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force and rip off its oil wealth for themselves. It's time we called them by their real names.

However this war started, however badly it has been managed, however much you wish we were not there, do not kid yourself that this is not what it is about: people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that. That is all that the insurgents stand for.

The whole thing is in the extended post.

Mr. Friedman also answers a question recently asked by a friend of mine:

Abizaid was a plebe in my company when I was a firsty. He stood out for being particularly bright, earnest, and committed to being the best cadet he could be. I hardly remember any of his classmates, but I remember him.

As I was reading this analysis, I asked myself, "Don't the Europeans get it? Where are they when the need is so pressing and the stakes so high?"

Mr Friedman observes:

We may lose because most Europeans, having been made stupid by their own weakness, would rather see America fail in Iraq than lift a finger for free and fair elections there.

This is not a Neocon speaking. On to the General.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post did a piece on General Abizaid, the US commander in Iraq. The General has some persepctive the somewhat nervous Mr. Friedman does not, and wherein lies the danger when democracies go to war - the danger that Mr. Friedman does recognize.

Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says, because the enemy won't wave a white flag and surrender one day. Success will instead be an incremental process of modernization of the Islamic world, which will gradually find its own accommodation with the global economy and open political systems.

America's enemies in this Long War, he argues, are what he calls "Salafist jihadists." That's his term for the Muslim fundamentalists who use violent tactics to try to re-create what they imagine was the pure and perfect Islamic government of the era of the prophet Muhammad, who is sometimes called the "Salaf." Osama bin Laden is the best known of the Salafist extremists, but Abizaid argues that the movement is much broader and more diffuse than al Qaeda. It's a loose network of like-minded individuals who use 21st century-technology to spread their vision of a 7th-century paradise.

The rest of that bit is in the extended post, below Friedman's.

Wahabism Delenda Est.


This is the whole Tom Friedman piece. Below it will be Ignatius' piece on General Abizaid.

New York Times December 23, 2004

Worth A Thousand Words

By Thomas L. Friedman

There has been so much violence in Iraq that it's become hard to distinguish one senseless act from another. But there was a picture that ran on the front page of this newspaper on Monday that really got to me. It showed several Iraqi gunmen, in broad daylight and without masks, murdering two Iraqi election workers. The murder scene was a busy street in the heart of Baghdad. The two election workers had been dragged from their car into the middle of the street. They looked young, the sort of young people you'd see doing election canvassing in America or Ukraine or El Salvador.

One was kneeling with his arms behind his back, waiting to be shot in the head. Another was lying on his side. The gunman had either just pumped a bullet into him or was about to. I first saw the picture on the Internet, and I did something I've never done before - I blew it up so it covered my whole screen. I wanted to look at it more closely. You don't often get to see the face of pure evil.

There is much to dislike about this war in Iraq, but there is no denying the stakes. And that picture really framed them: this is a war between some people in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world who - for the first time ever in their region - are trying to organize an election to choose their own leaders and write their own constitution versus all the forces arrayed against them.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the Iraqi gunmen in this picture are really defending their country and have no alternative. The Sunni-Baathist minority that ruled Iraq for so many years has been invited, indeed begged, to join in this election and to share in the design and wealth of post-Saddam Iraq.

As the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum so rightly pointed out to me, "These so-called insurgents in Iraq are the real fascists, the real colonialists, the real imperialists of our age." They are a tiny minority who want to rule Iraq by force and rip off its oil wealth for themselves. It's time we called them by their real names.

However this war started, however badly it has been managed, however much you wish we were not there, do not kid yourself that this is not what it is about: people who want to hold a free and fair election to determine their own future, opposed by a virulent nihilistic minority that wants to prevent that. That is all that the insurgents stand for.

Indeed, they haven't even bothered to tell us otherwise. They have counted on the fact that the Bush administration is so hated around the world that any opponents will be seen as having justice on their side. Well, they do not. They are murdering Iraqis every day for the sole purpose of preventing them from exercising that thing so many on the political left and so many Europeans have demanded for the Palestinians: "the right of self-determination."

What is terrifying is that the noble sacrifice of our soldiers, while never in vain, may not be enough. We may actually lose in Iraq. The vitally important may turn out to be the effectively impossible.

We may lose because of the defiantly wrong way that Donald Rumsfeld has managed this war and the cynical manner in which Dick Cheney, George Bush and - with some honorable exceptions - the whole Republican right have tolerated it. Many conservatives would rather fail in Iraq than give liberals the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Rumsfeld sacked. We may lose because our Arab allies won't lift a finger to support an election in Iraq - either because they fear they'll be next to face such pressures, or because the thought of democratically elected Shiites holding power in a country once led by Sunnis is anathema to them.

We may lose because most Europeans, having been made stupid by their own weakness, would rather see America fail in Iraq than lift a finger for free and fair elections there.

As is so often the case, the statesman who framed the stakes best is the British prime minister, Tony Blair. Count me a "Blair Democrat." Mr. Blair, who was in Iraq this week, said: "Whatever people's feelings or beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that, there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror. On the one side you have people who desperately want to make the democratic process work, and want to have the same type of democratic freedoms other parts of the world enjoy, and on the other side people who are killing and intimidating and trying to destroy a better future for Iraq."

David Ignatius on General Abizaid:

Washington Post December 26, 2004 Pg. B1

Achieving Real Victory Could Take Decades

By David Ignatius

Gen. John Abizaid probably commands the most potent military force in history. The troops of his Central Command are arrayed across the jagged crescent of the Middle East, from Egypt to Pakistan, in an overwhelming projection of U.S. power. He travels with his own mini-government: a top State Department officer to manage diplomacy; a senior CIA officer to oversee intelligence; a retinue of generals and admirals to supervise operations and logistics. If there is a modern Imperium Americanum, Abizaid is its field general.

I traveled this month with Abizaid as he visited Iraq and other areas of his command. Over several days, I heard him discuss his strategy for what he calls the "Long War" to contain Islamic extremism in Centcom's turbulent theater of operations. We talked about the current front in Iraq, and the longer-term process of change in the Middle East, which Abizaid views as the ultimate strategic challenge.

"We control the air, the sea and the ground militarily," Abizaid told one audience, and in conventional terms, he's unquestionably right. From its headquarters near the huge new U.S. airbase in Qatar, Centcom's military reach stretches in every direction: To the west, the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet has its base in Bahrain; to the north, the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman and its task force are steaming on patrol in the Persian Gulf; to the east, more than 17,000 troops are working to stabilize postwar Afghanistan; to the south, about 1,000 troops are keeping a lid on the Horn of Africa. And to the northwest lies the bloody battlefield of Iraq, where nearly 150,000 of Abizaid's soldiers are fighting a determined insurgency.

For all of America's military might, the Long War that has begun in the Middle East poses some tough strategic questions. What is the nature of the enemy? If the United States is so powerful, why is it having such difficulty in Iraq? What will victory look like, in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world? And how long will the conflict take?

The costs of war came home for America this past week. On Monday, President Bush conceded that the Iraq insurgents "are having an effect," and that U.S. efforts to train Iraqi security forces have had only "mixed" success. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber savaged a mess hall in Mosul in the deadliest single attack since the war began 21 months ago. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to fend off calls for his resignation because of setbacks in Iraq.

It was a week that focused attention on gut-level issues, reminiscent of the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago: Why are we in Iraq? What kind of conflict is the United States fighting there? How can we win it? Abizaid offers the best answers to these questions I've heard from any official in the U.S. government. In addition to being the military's top commander in the Middle East, he has an intellectual and emotional feel for the region. He's of Arab ancestry -- his forebears came to the United States from Lebanon in the 1870s -- and he learned to speak Arabic during a stint in Jordan 25 years ago. Like many of the best U.S. Army officers for generations, he's a well-read man who analyzes contemporary issues against the background of history.

Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says, because the enemy won't wave a white flag and surrender one day. Success will instead be an incremental process of modernization of the Islamic world, which will gradually find its own accommodation with the global economy and open political systems.

America's enemies in this Long War, he argues, are what he calls "Salafist jihadists." That's his term for the Muslim fundamentalists who use violent tactics to try to re-create what they imagine was the pure and perfect Islamic government of the era of the prophet Muhammad, who is sometimes called the "Salaf." Osama bin Laden is the best known of the Salafist extremists, but Abizaid argues that the movement is much broader and more diffuse than al Qaeda. It's a loose network of like-minded individuals who use 21st century-technology to spread their vision of a 7th-century paradise.

Salafist preachers see themselves as part of a vanguard whose mission is to radicalize other Muslims to overthrow their leaders. Abizaid likens them to Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders. During a gathering of foreign-policy experts in Washington last October, he posed a haunting question: What would you have done in 1890 if you had known the ruin this Bolshevik vanguard would bring? At another point, he urged the audience to think of today's Islamic world, wracked by waves of violence, as akin to Europe in the revolutionary year of 1848. The Arab world's spasms of anarchy and terror, like those in Europe 150 years ago, are part of a process of social change -- in which an old order is crumbling, and a new one is struggling to be born.

Abizaid's historical analogies are helpful because they stretch our thinking. People tend to see current problems as unique and overwhelming, and that has been especially true for America in the traumatic years since Sept. 11, 2001. But through the long lens of history, contemporary problems come into better focus. The wealthy Saudi jihadist bin Laden begins to seem a bit like 19th-century anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, who similarly wanted to use revolutionary violence to purge what he viewed as a corrupt order. On this broad canvas of historical change, the time horizon isn't years, but decades.

Abizaid didn't draw for me any specific lessons from this history, but several conclusions seem obvious: If the United States is fighting an ideological vanguard similar to the Bolsheviks -- whose leaders will never surrender or negotiate -- then it will have to capture or kill them. That suggests a dirty, drawn-out conflict in which each side tests the other's will and staying power. It's not the sort of war that democracies are usually good at fighting, but among Abizaid's team of advisers, you hear the same phrase repeated over and over: "A lot of bad guys are going to have to die."

Yet because the battlefield is society itself, the United States cannot think of the struggle in purely military terms. Centcom's 1,000 troops who are digging wells and performing other reconstruction tasks in the Horn of Africa may be a better model for success than the 150,000 soldiers hunkered down in Iraq. And because it is a war of transformation, comparable to Europe's hundred-year process of modernization in the 19th century, the United States must above all be patient.

Abizaid argues that this enemy is especially dangerous because it has fused an atavistic Salafist ideology with the most modern tools of technology. "The enemy has a virtual connectivity we haven't seen before with guerrilla groups," he says. "They use the Internet to pass along techniques, tactics, procedures, advice." He believes the jihadists have been clever in using the global media -- both to spread their message among followers and to intimidate adversaries. Indeed, the media are their best weapon.

The Salafist vanguard seeks victory through what Abizaid calls "weapons of mass effect" -- the 9/11 attacks, the suicide bombings in Baghdad, the gruesome beheadings in Fallujah -- which seek to destabilize the United States and its allies through the media. "We have nothing to fear from this enemy other than its ability to create panic," he argues. "This enemy is like water -- it seeks an unguarded path. They'll go for the place they can use a weapon of mass effect -- and gain a media victory."

Given the importance of the media front, Abizaid is frustrated that Arab journalists haven't provided a more critical picture of life in places where Islamic insurgents have gained control, such as Fallujah. He's convinced that if ordinary Arabs could see the cruelty and repression of these Taliban-style jihadists, they would reject them. Indeed, at several stops during our trip, he urged his listeners to push Arab media to report more about the insurgents' brutal tactics.

"They are the most despicable enemy I've ever seen," he told European and Arab leaders who gathered in Bahrain to talk about Persian Gulf security. "They operate from mosques, they behead people, they have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims."

Abizaid believes the winning strategy, in Iraq and across the Islamic world, is to isolate the Salafist vanguard from ordinary Muslims who want the better, freer life that prosperity and connectedness can bring. That means breaching the gaps between rich nations and poor ones, and preventing terrorists from establishing bases of operations, in the way bin Laden did in Afghanistan. "The clear military lesson of Afghanistan is that we cannot allow the enemy to establish a safe haven anywhere," he says.

One of Abizaid's top deputies, Vice Adm. David Nichols, summarizes the nature of the Salafist threat. Nichols, who commands the 5th Fleet, asserts that the enemy is mounting "a cultural, not just a physical attack." For enemy leaders, the clash of civilizations is the organizing principle of life, Nichols argues. They tell Muslims that there are only two camps, and that "peaceful coexistence is not possible." The goal of America and its allies, says Nichols, must be to convince the average Muslim that the jihadists are wrong. It's not "us" vs. "them," but a connected world in which everyone will gain by isolating and destroying the extremist fringe.

This strategy of isolating the religious extremists has been embraced by Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi -- to the point of making contact with Baathists who were part of Saddam Hussein's regime and are now on the fringes of the insurgency. It reflects a judgment by Allawi -- one that Abizaid would certainly share -- that the Baathists in the long run will make an accommodation with America and the modern world. The Salafist extremists, in contrast, will never do so.

My travels with Abizaid ended with a stop in Mosul, at the same camp hit by a suicide bomber last week. Mosul is a case study in what America is facing in Iraq, and in the Long War. Over the past year, the city has gone from a model of stability to a new Fallujah, where insurgents have used terror tactics to halt collaboration with U.S. forces. The measure of success here will be the return of normal life. "It won't ever be over completely, where you wake up one morning and the enemy has surrendered," says Abizaid. "But one day you'll wake up and there will be more food, more security, more stability."

That's what victory would look like in Abizaid's Long War, too. In the broad arc of the world where Centcom operates, life would feel modern, connected, free, relaxed, ordinary. It would feel like a hand that is no longer clenched in a fist. It's a fight where the Muslims masses would win, without the United States losing. But this past week, those images of connectedness and success seemed a long, long way off.

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Post.