Below are excerpts from my 2010 essay, originally published in Asia Times Online May 4, 2010.
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….
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.
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.
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.
Because Petraeus sold the “surge” to former president George W Bush, allowing the Republicans to claim a certain degree of success for the largely unpopular Iraq War, his influence vastly exceeds that of a career officer. He became a Republican hero for pulling the party’s political chestnuts out of the fire. American conservatives lionized him; this month the American Enterprise Institute will give him its Irving Kristol award, named after the intellectual architect of modern conservatism. Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary magazine and the dean of Jewish conservatives, wrote in his book World War IV, “It took Lincoln three years to find Sherman and Grant. It took George Bush three years to find Petraeus.”
All this leaves the region in an icy calm, as all the players wait to see who will make the first move. Thanks to American money and American training, the next round of the game in Iraq will be played for keeps. And if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon — as it could do in the absence of military intervention — the doll’s-house balance of power built by the United States will disappear.