The Iraqi Trap

IraqAn inadequate assessment in politics is as dangerous in terms of its consequences as a wrong diagnosis in medicine. The current situation in Iraq serves as vivid proof of this. The USA is investing growing sums in the normalisation of life and development of democracy there, but the results are disappointing and alarming. Americans and Iraqis are dying, buildings, armoured vehicles and oil pipelines are being blown up, and helicopters are being shot down nearly every day. Something went wrong in the US plans, but what?

From the very beginning, the USA tried to convince the world and itself that the deployment of troops in Iraq was part of the fight against global terrorism. The overwhelming majority of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein contributed to the elaboration of the September 11, 2001 terrorist actions and was an ally of Osama bin Laden. It was either deliberate misinformation by the authorities or, worse still, a mistake.

Saddam was a cunning, ruthless, bloody and unprincipled dictator. But however horrible his regime might have been, it was still a secular one and Islamic radicals were no less dangerous enemies to him than the West. It is no coincidence that he drowned the revolt of Shiite Arabs in southern Iraq in blood, using chemical weapons and claiming an incredible number of lives. Up until then, organised groups of Islamic radicals had been particularly strong in the Shia-dominated southern regions.

Eventually, the US struggle against global terrorism in Iraq resulted in a regime change and the launching of a pilot project of Iraqi democracy and market economy, which (provided it succeeds) is designed to spread throughout the Middle East. The plan was simple and, at first glance, logical. The fall of Saddam and his regime and the elimination of the persecution mechanism he created was supposed to destroy the roots and institutional basis for resistance to the USA forces. At the same time, oil revenues complemented with US dollar infusions would help to quickly stabilise internal situation and create a new state. After all, the methods were instrumental in fulfilling similar tasks in Germany and Japan after WW2. So, why not in Iraq?

But developments in Iraq clearly do not fit into this model. The Americans have caught the bulk of Iraqi generals and politicians who worked with Hussein, killed his children and banned the Baath party, but the armed resistance is becoming better organised and more effective. The media frequently say that the supporters of Hussein or active members of the Baath party have accomplished one more armed attack on the US convoy, an Iraqi police station, or a mission of an international organisation in Baghdad. But is this the case? Why then did not Saddam's generals organise military resistance when they controlled Iraqi cities and had tanks, artillery and well-trained divisions? How come their heroism and management talents have come to the fore only now when they have to act stealthily? And where did they get the weapons?

There is a saying, "Beware of what your wish." To put it another way, "Beware of things you speak about at length." The USA said persistently that it would fight international terrorism in Iraq. To all appearances, the USA has got its wish. And now the Americans are dealing not with a handful of disorganised Baathists, but with well-organised terrorist groups acting to a plan, who have spilled over into the country through its transparent borders.

The USA is fighting not Iraqis in Iraq (though there may be Iraqi citizens among Islamic radicals) but the enemy who delivered the strikes at New York and Washington in September 2001. The Americans have become more cautious and have reinforced their fortress since then and it has become much more difficult to attack them there. So now the blow has been directed at the US army in the deserts and cities of Iraq.

This is reminiscent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The USA thinks it won the Cold War under the wise guidance of President Reagan, while bin Laden is confident that the Soviet Union was thrown to "the garbage heap of history" by the ten-year-long Afghan war. That war cleansed the ideologists of international terrorism of the fear of the superpower status and they saw that one can fight a superpower and defeat it - that is, if you choose and force the right strategy of battle on the enemy. They are trying to implement that concept in Iraq now.

The USA sees that the situation is increasingly deviating from their scenario. Five Democratic senators led by Tom Daschle have written to President Bush urging him to search abroad for additional sources of funds for Iraq's restoration and to turn over the law enforcement and security functions to the Iraqi army without delay. But there is no Iraqi army and even if there were, it may not be an effective instrument in the struggle against Islamic radicals. And then, we should not expect powers to be quickly transferred to a civilian or military Iraqi administration. Only a fully elected authority is legitimate and early elections in Iraq would have only one result: the victory of Shiite Arabs (who by far outnumber all other ethnic groups) and their stronger and better-organised radical Islamic organisations. This would be a good form of support for the terrorist groups operating there.

The USA has fallen into a trap in Iraq and will hardly get out of it without outside assistance. What should Russia and Europe do in this situation? The first and logical reaction - at least, for Russia - would be to step aside and say with some satisfaction: We told you! You ignored our warnings and decided to act alone -- so now you are free to deal with your mess on your own, too.

This would be a natural and justified reaction, but a completely inadmissible one. The Americans made a gross mistake by launching a unilateral and badly planned military operation in Iraq. This is bad enough, but it would be worse still if they are defeated there and retreat because of unacceptable human losses, financial outlays and the failure of the project to build democracy in an individual Middle Eastern country.

One can dislike US policy - and it clearly needs changes. But the USA is the key ally of Europe and Russia in the struggle against international terrorism. If it is defeated in Iraq, it will be our defeat, too. And we will soon feel its consequences in Chechnya, Moscow, Paris and other European capitals. We must not allow this. Therefore, we must sit down and think what we, all of us in Europe, can do to save the USA from the Iraqi trap, into which it fell because of poor planning and excessive arrogance.

Alexander KONOVALOV, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments