WASHINGTON -- It just keeps getting stranger, doesn't it? In these contradictory weeks leading up to the American elections, only one "answer" has been offered to the Iraqi civil war that so many predict is just over the horizon.
The more controlled voices, such as President Bush and man-on-the-spot Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, present that answer as the 135,000 or more Iraqi police, military and national guardsmen we are urgently training. This is the "cool" answer: "Our" security forces will gradually take over, a reasonably workable new state will form, and the insurgencies will wither away. Terrorism will have been defeated there, not here.
But if this is the only solution to Iraq's increasing nihilism and chaos, then we are in deeper trouble than we think. Even those original neocons who believed in some utopian Iraqi "democracy" are no longer cool and certain.
On CNN this week, Professor Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins University -- a wonderful Arab-Islamic scholar before he, like so many others, got bit by the imperial power bug -- said: "Bush knows that all our good choices were to be found only at the front end of the war. There are no good options now. The only exit we have is the Iraqis (being trained for duty) ... to see if they turn out to be true patriots!" He then literally cried out, "There is NO RELIEF! No one shall come TO OUR RESCUE!"
So much for the idea that, as we sink deeper into this mess of our own making, the United Nations will step in brightly to run the elections and the Germans and French will send the numbers of troops our Pentagon civilian planners refused to send.
Let's consider what we know about these Iraqi forces, supposedly poised on the edges of fractured Baghdad and Fallujah, of fractious Najaf and Ramadi, to come galloping in to save American soldiers (nearly all of the latter are now carefully sequestered in their highly protected zones where they never meet actual Iraqis).
Can Iraqi forces, as the "cool" version of the story goes, go in and stabilize volatile areas after U.S. troops clean out insurgents? When this approach was tried last spring in Fallujah, Iraqi forces broke under the strain and many simply left, with some even attacking their U.S. mentors. The Marines exited Fallujah after creating a brigade of Iraqi fighters to control the city; but they started shooting at the Americans, and at least one Marine commander was quoted as saying it was a "fiasco." That experience posed the uncomfortable question: Are we also training the insurgents?
This week, the American military in Baghdad announced it had arrested a senior commander of the nascent Iraqi National Guards, Brig. Gen. Talib Abid Ghayib al-Lahibi, a former Baathist officer based in the troubled Diyala Province, for "having associations with known insurgents." Next, an American hostage, Scott Taylor, appeared on CNN, telling how he was passed from one insurgent group to the other, mostly in the northern Turkish areas, before being released when the Turkish government intervened. The stunning part of his testimony was that Baathists, foreign jihadis, local Turkmen and even the police took part equally in his capture and release. Other hostages have told the same story. The idea that all these groups are operating separately, and against the police, is simply a fairy tale.
One has to ask: Why would most Iraqis fight for a hated foreign occupier, allowing themselves to be put in the dangerous position of fighting against their own families, tribes, clans and religions? Some will do it out of desperation for work, some because they believe in a different Iraq. And some do it for very different reasons.
In his newest study, "The Critical Role of Iraqi Military, Security and Police Forces," scholar Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes that the Pentagon overstated the size, quality and progress of Iraqi police and military forces because as many as half are of "uncertain loyalty and capability." It would take until perhaps mid-2006 for the Iraqis to take over security missions.
Not only did Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledge this week that the rebellion(s) inside Iraq were intensifying, thus contradicting recent statements by the president, but he added that it would get worse up to the elections scheduled for January. Tim Spicer, chairman of Aegis Defense Services, which has trained many of the contractors and others in Iraq, predicted that there will be a "lost" period between now and January when the insurgents will do everything possible to make the country ungovernable.
Meanwhile, in recent months the United States has raised by one-third -- to 135,000 -- the size of the Iraqi police force it says will be needed to secure the country. Yet only about one-fifteenth of those are trained in any way; 750 officers have already been killed, along with countless recruits, and it is clear that the insurgents have fingered them for special grisly attention. And if those who are already working for the insurgencies get in the way and die, well, that's the way that Iraq has always been.
The percentages of Iraqis who want the U.S. to leave -- now, regardless of virtually anything -- continues to rise, along with the lack of trust in the new Iraqi forces and political parties. Where does all this leave us?
It is possible that these false starts with the Iraqi forces were just that -- and that there is a chance, step by excruciating, expensive and painful step, for those forces to gradually become the backbone of a reasonably and unevenly stable authoritarian Iraq that can keep the Middle East from crumbling around it. But there is also that other chance, the one most predicted by the leading analysts -- that the country could collapse into civil war, with Iraqi troops defecting and American troops having to fight their way out of that hellhole that is, and since the 10th century, always has been Iraq. At least the choices are rather clear.
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