Dr. iRack over at Abu Muqawama has emerged recently as an authoritative analyst of the Iraq War (and everything that term implies), so I recommend this rundown of the current situation that he posted over the weekend. Without getting too much into the details of his post (which is pretty comprehensive), it’s reassuring to see that I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to make any meaningful sense out of the various narratives and counter-narratives that are now coming out of Iraq. Glass half-full or glass half-empty depends to a great deal on the observer.
But I’d venture to say that in many ways, some of them doctrinal and some of them practical, it no longer matters. We’ve entered a phase, both in the Iraq War and in the theory of warfare in general, that I’d characterize as quantum, where every tactical action has a multiplicity of possible significances and outcomes. And it’s only the final strategic outcome that will eventually determine which particular meaning, in retrospect, was the correct one. In this case, the final outcome of a stable, pro-Western Iraq will signal strategic success, and anything else failure. That in turn will allow us to determine which events along the way were decisive and which anecdotal. But progress can no longer be measured with certainty along the way.
The implications for policy are obvious. Interventions must be very carefully weighed from the outset and the desired outcome very clearly identified, because once engaged, they become not only military quagmires, but political ones as well. Victory or defeat will always be just beyond the next car-bombing or IED attack, depending on one’s point of view, and the arguments for pressing onward or withdrawing subject to second-guessing. Those conditions were obviously not met with regards to this war. But if we fail to recognize the nature of the changes taking place in warfare itself, it’s unlikely that they’ll be met with regards to the next one either.
Update: Very good schematic of the Iraqi political landscape by a guest poster over at the other Abu (Aardvark). Again, little in the way of answers, but the questions are noteworthy.