During one of the so-called Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century the Chinese military forces suffered repeated defeats. But officials in Beijing were not downcast by these humiliating setbacks because they believed China possessed a secret weapon which would ultimately compel the British to negotiate.
The confidence of the officials in Beijing was based on their mistaken belief that that they had a world monopoly on the supply of rhubarb. They were convinced furthermore that, without the consumption of rhubarb, no natural bowel movements could take place. Cut off the supply of rhubarb to Britain, so argued the wily courtiers attending the emperor, and the British would be faced with the prospect of mass constipation. Regardless of the state of play on the battlefield, they would be forced to meet Chinese terms.
New White House plans to win a victory in Iraq are at about the same level of puerile idiocy as the scheme of those ill-informed Chinese officials 150 years ago. The plan, to be announced this week, comes just after the gruesome and semi-public execution of Saddam Hussein. Seen by Iraq’s 5-million-strong Sunni community as a sectarian lynching, aided and abetted by the US, his killing will ensure that the Sunni insurgent groups will be flooded with more recruits than they can handle.
At the heart of President George Bush’s scheme to stave off defeat is the famous “surge” in US troop numbers of some 20,000 to 30,000 men, in addition to the 145,000 soldiers already in Iraq. These extra forces are somehow expected to gain control of greater Baghdad–with a population of 7 million–and central Iraq, something the US army has failed to do in three and a half years.
It is one of the most long-sustained American myths in Iraq that if they had had significantly more combat brigades in the first year of the war, the insurgency would have been swiftly crushed. Generals in the Pentagon critical of the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and eager to put all the blame on him for the débâcle, claim all would have been well had he sent a bigger army. A rash of best-selling books in the US published last year–much of their information leaked by those same generals–take it as a proven fact that a central reason for US failure to control Iraq then was lack of troops. Essentially, the same argument is used to justify the temporary dispatch of reinforcements today.
As a means to victory the “surge” is likely to be as effective for the US army as cutting off the supply of rhubarb was for the Chinese. Belief in the utility of sending reinforcements ignores one of the main lessons of the war in Iraq. The Iraqis do not like being occupied any more than anyone else.
Most were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein but they never welcomed the occupation. The Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker understood this. It pointed out that 61 per cent of Iraqis favor armed attacks on US- led forces, according to reliable opinion polls.
The occupation has always fuelled the insurgency. More US troops means more resistance. Everybody in Baghdad wants armed men they can trust from their community protecting their street. A friend in Sunni west Baghdad told me: “The Mojahideen (insurgents) have ordered all the young men in our districts to take their guns and organize shifts so we are permanently guarded.”
It is doubtful if the US can make a dent in the ever-growing strength of the Sunni guerrillas. But the extra troops might be used for an ever more dangerous purpose. They could be used to take on the Mehdi Army, the followers of the nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whom the US currently believes to be the source of so many of its woes.
The US government has shown an extraordinary inability to learn any lessons from its failures in Iraq. The last time Muqtada al-Sadr’s men fought the US, on two occasions in 2004, they lost a lot of militiamen but gained greatly in credibility in the eyes of Iraqis. This time round they will be much stronger. They also have far more legitimacy for Iraqis than many of the returned exiles, the so-called “moderates” that Washington is ceaselessly trying to promote despite their dismal showing at the polls. The one certainty about the “moderate” government Washington is seeking to install is that it would be more dependent on the US than that of Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister.
There is a hidden history to the US and British occupation of Iraq. In 1991 President George Bush senior did not want to overthrow Saddam Hussein for fear that he would be replaced by Shia religious parties sympathetic to Iran. The same dilemma faced George W. Bush, the son, after 2003. When the US was compelled to hold elections in 2005 the 60 per cent of Iraqis who are Shia voted for these religious parties.
Ever since, the US has been trying to divide the Shia political alliance and keep the Iraqi government under its effective control. Mr al-Maliki says he cannot move a company of soldiers without US permission. The US army said it was handing over security control of Najaf to Iraqis–and a few days later killed the representative of Muqtada al-Sadr in the city. Just possibly the US might succeed in allying itself with the Badr Organisation–the Iranian-trained militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq–against the Mehdi Army. But the result would likely be an intra-Shia civil war in addition to Sunni-Shia war and the Sunni-US war.
While the White House pretends that American defeat can be avoided in Iraq, real measures to end the fighting languish. The building blocks for peace should include the appointment of a peace envoy: probably a senior official from the Arab world trusted in the US and the Middle East and acting on behalf of the UN. He should start talks about calling an international conference at which all the players inside and outside Iraq can meet.
A central theme of the conference should be the total withdrawal of US and British forces from Iraq, leaving no bases behind. Any final agreement should be in the shape of an international treaty including guarantees for minorities such as the Iraqi Kurds and Sunni. Finally Iraq should be neutralized like Austria in Europe in the 1950s.
There is no chance of this happening under Mr Bush. The reversal of policy would be too great and the admission of failure too humiliating.
Instead he is responding to failure like a First World War general on the Western Front, sending another 20,000 to 30,000 surging over the top in the vain hope that they will finally make the vital breakthrough which will lead to victory.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, published by Verso in October.