Goldman: The Dr. Frankensteins of Foreign Policy|
David P. GoldmanAug 22, 2021 11:16 AM ET
Over dinner, in 2015, Admiral Luo Yuan told me that “General Petraeus created ISIS in order to destabilize China.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said.
“It is not ridiculous in the least,” Luo continued, in the benevolent tone in which one instructs especially slow students. “There are ISIS leaders whom we have identified and tracked, who were trained by Petraeus during the ‘Surge,’” the counter-insurgency campaign that Petraeus conducted in 2008–2009 to contain a Sunni rebellion against the majority Shi’ite government that the United States had helped bring to power in 2007.
I took a deep breath and explained: “This was a comedy of errors. The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration believed in majority rule as a matter of dogma, so the US held elections in 2007 and the Shi’ite minority won. Then the Sunnis who used to run Iraq under Saddam Hussein resisted with guerilla war and terrorist attacks. Petraeus was just a careerist looking for another star, and he told the Bush Administration that he could fix the Sunni problem by paying off the Sunni tribal leaders. He handed out hundreds of millions of dollars to the Sunnis and gave them weapons and training through the ‘Sons of Iraq’ and the ‘Sunni Awakening.’” When Obama took US forces out of Iraq, a lot of the same Sunnis who took money from Petraeus faced the same Shi’ite state, and became non-state actors, that is ISIS. And the CIA’s support for Sunni jihadist opponents of the Assad government in Syria made matters worse, as the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in a notorious 2012 report.”
Of course, I wasn’t quite that coherent, but that was the gist of my reply.
My Chinese interlocutor was not impressed. “You’re trying to tell me that the people who run the world’s great superpower are complete idiots who don’t think about the consequences of their actions?”
Memo to heads of state: beware the clever general who turns up at a tough moment, and says “Leave it to me: I can fix it for you.” Two examples come to mind. The great field marshal of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, Albrecht von Wallenstein, taught armies to live off the land, and succeeded so well that nearly half the people of Central Europe starved to death during the conflict.
General David Petraeus, who heads America’s Central Command (CENTCOM), taught the land to live off him. Petraeus’ putative success in the Iraq “surge” of 2007-2008 is one of the weirder cases of Karl Marx’s quip of history repeating itself first as tragedy second as farce. The consequences will be similar, that is, hideous.
Wallenstein put 100,000 men into the field, an army of terrifying size for the times, by turning the imperial army into a parasite that consumed the livelihood of the empire’s home provinces. The Austrian Empire fired him in 1629 after five years of depredation but pressed him back into service in 1631. Those who were left alive joined the army, in a self-feeding spiral of destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the 8th century. Wallenstein’s power grew with the implosion of civil society, and the Austrian emperor had him murdered in 1634.
Petraeus accomplished the same thing with (literally) bags of money. Starting with Iraq, the American military has militarized large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of pacification. And now America is engaged in a grand strategic withdrawal from responsibility in the region, leaving behind men with weapons and excellent reason to use them.
Petraeus’ “surge” of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the “Sons of Iraq,” or Sunni Awakening. With American money, weapons and training, the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned into a fighting force far more effective than the defunct dictator’s state police. And now the American military is doing the same thing in Afghanistan, and, under General Keith Dayton, in Palestine. America is pouring money – which is to say weapons – into disputed areas of Afghanistan, and building the core of a Palestinian army. The latter’s mission is to impose a pro-Western Palestinian government on a population of whom two-thirds oppose the two-state solution. It more likely will end up fighting Israel.
Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites by reconstructing the former’s fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that – for the first time in Iraq’s history – Sunnis and Shi’ites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces. “Nation-building” in Iraq failed to construct any function feature of civil society – a concept hitherto unknown to Mesopotamia – except, of course, for the best-functioning organized groups of killers that Iraq ever has had.
The Iranians had no interest in disrupting the surge. If they had, the American military would have made short work of their local proxies, who never could outfight the US Marines. Iran is patient, playing for time, possibly to acquire nuclear weapons – which Washington has all but conceded – and until the Americans withdraw, which they must sooner or later.
An old Israeli joke says that you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. An October 16, 2007, report describes the first meeting between the then commander of American forces in Iraq, Major General Rick Lynch, and his superior, Petraeus, with Sunni tribal leaders:
One mentions weapons, but the general insists: “I can give you money to work in terms of improving the area. What I cannot do – this is very important – is give you weapons.”
The gravity of the war council in a tent at the US forward operating base at Camp Assassin is suspended for a few moments as one of the local Iraqi leaders says jokingly but knowingly: “Don’t worry! Weapons are cheap in Iraq.”
“That’s right, that’s exactly right,” laughs Lynch in reply.
That was then. American forces now are trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan, except that they are unable to distinguish between tribesmen-for-rent and the Taliban itself. The New York Times reported April 3:
Since their offensive here in February, the Marines have flooded Marjah with hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. The tactic aims to win over wary residents by paying them compensation for property damage or putting to work men who would otherwise look to the Taliban for support. The approach helped turn the tide of insurgency in Iraq. But in Marjah, where the Taliban seem to know everything – and most of the time it is impossible to even tell who they are – they have already found ways to thwart the strategy in many places, including killing or beating some who take the Marines’ money, or pocketing it themselves.
Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms, the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear.
At some point the whole sorry structure will collapse, and no-one knows it better than Petraeus. There are many possible triggers. The Iraqi government might collapse, leaving the political agenda to the men with guns. Iran might acquire a deliverable bomb and turn its dogs lose in Iraq after the Americans withdraw. Iran and Pakistan might come to blows over the fractious province of Balochistan on their mutual border, or over Iran’s covert support for Pakistan’s Shi’ites, who comprise a fifth of the country’s population. Or the Israelis might strike Iran’s nuclear program, or Syria, or the Hezbollah clients of Syrian and Iran in Lebanon.