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Teeth in the Jellyfish A Confirming Moment in Basra

A Confirming Moment in Basra


When Iraqi Prime Minister al-Kerensky sent his "army" to fight the Mahdi Army in Basra, President Bush called it "a defining moment." It turned out instead to be a confirming moment. It confirmed that there is no state in Mesopotamia.

One of the most common signs that America’s leadership is clueless about 4GW is the language they use. Fourth Generation war has few if any defining moments. Nor does it have "turning points," another common Bushism. In his testimony on Tuesday, General David Petraeus revealed the limits on his own grasp of 4GW when he said, "We’ve got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it (sic) there." 4GW opponents have no jugular. 4GW is war of the capillaries. What we have our teeth into in Iraq is a jellyfish.

If we are to see Iraq and other Fourth Generation conflicts as they are and not through the looking glass, we need to use words more carefully. Because there is no state in Iraq, there is also no government. Orders given in Baghdad have no meaning, because there are no state institutions to carry them out. The governmental positions of Iraqi leaders have no substance. Their power is a function of their relationship to various militias, not of their offices. (Mr. al-Maliki has no militia, which means he is a figurehead.) The Iraqi "army" and "police" are groupings of Shiite militias, which exist to fight other militias and which take orders from militia leaders, not the government. Government revenues are slush funds militia leaders use to pay their militiamen. All of these phenomena, and many more, are products of the one basic reality: there is no state.

The failure of Mr. al-Maliki’s "big push" into Basra put Iraq’s statelessness on display. Ordered to do something it did not want to do, the Iraqi "army" fell apart, as militias usually fall apart when given unwelcome directives. Iraqi "soldiers" and "police" went over or went home, in considerable numbers. Those who did fight had little fight in them; the affair reportedly ended with the Mahdi Army controlling more of Basra than it did at the beginning. Mr. al-Maliki, desperate for a cease-fire, had to agree in advance to any conditions Muqtada al-Sadr cared to impose.

American policy proved even more reckless than that of Mr. al-Maliki. To win in Iraq, we must see a state re-emerge. That means we should stay out of the way of anyone with the potential to recreate a state. Muqtada al-Sadr is at or near the head of the list. The al-Maliki "government" isn’t even on it.

So what did we do? Why, we went to war against al-Sadr on behalf of al-Maliki, of course. Our leadership cannot grasp one of the most basic facts about 4GW, namely that the splintering of factions makes it more difficult to generate a state. Should we have the bad luck to "win" this latest fight and destroy the Mahdi Army, we will move not toward but further away from that goal.

In the end, the Administration’s (and the Pentagon’s) insistence that the Iraqi state, government, army and police are real blinds only themselves. Iraqis know they are not. The American public knows they are not. The average Hottentot probably knows they are not. Do the members of the Senate Committees on Armed Services and Foreign Relations know less that the average Hottentot? So last week’s hearings might suggest, and such is the power of empty words.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.