Politics of the rebound

ON FRIDAY, August 25, the Washington Post published a startling story from its Baghdad bureau. I can do no better than to quote its opening paragraph: "British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday and prepared to wage guerrilla warfare along the Iranian border to combat weapons smuggling, a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr called the first expulsion of US-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban centre.

By M. J. Akbar

Published: Mon 28 Aug 2006, 9:24 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:26 PM

‘This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier!’ trumpeted a message from Sadr’s office that played on car-mounted speakers in Amarah. ‘We have to celebrate this occasion!’" They did. They celebrated a holiday and thanked God.

There was an exploding mine wherever I looked in that opening paragraph. The British Army was going to abandon a base to undertake "guerrilla" operations? Against insurgents who thrived in the shadows? Weren’t the British supposed to be the heroes and role models who had won the war in the south while the Americans were swatting moles all over the rest of Iraq? Details painted the larger picture.

Local resentment had boiled into anger when British soldiers entered a mosque to make arrests. Insurgents, clearly loyal to Sadr, began shelling the British base, Camp Abu Naji, which had 1,200 soldiers and was on the border of Iran. In simple language, the British withdrew from the camp, which was looted when they left, so clearly the withdrawal was less than orderly. The decision may have been encouraged by the fact that "the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Army’s 4th Brigade mutinied". In the British military dictionary this was called "repositioning". In the Arabic military dictionary this is called "defeat".

The story went on to say that local Arabs of Amarah called on Sadr’s soldiers all day to congratulate them on their victory. And just in case you were wondering, Moqtada Sadr was one of the leaders who were instrumental in the formation of the present government in Baghdad. Are you confused enough, or would you like some more information? The only stark, non-confusing facts on the Post page were in the list of American dead that was placed just beside the story, based on a Pentagon notification. There were seven more American names, bringing the total of American deaths to 2,617. On the Op-Ed page, columnist David Ignatius reported from Baghdad that in July more than 1,500 Iraqis had died in Baghdad alone. He added, however, that tough action by the Americans had led to a marked improvement. Far fewer Iraqis were dying.

The British retreat from Amarah is not the beginning of the end. That would be an exaggeration. But, as was remarked of a different war, this does seem to be the end of the beginning. It is an assessment that suits Washington as much as Baghdad. You get a strong sense that the beginning that George Bush made, along with Tony Blair, five years ago in Afghanistan and three years ago in Iraq has come to an end, and they do not know which way to turn.

Bush and Blair look deflated. Their faces are tense, not intense. The question was always dominant, but is now consuming America: Why are American troops in Iraq? What precisely is their mission statement? Surely America has not made this huge investment in men, money and national credibility in order to become the policeman of a chaotic Baghdad? Bush’s answers change as regularly as the seasons. He now thrusts his jaw in the vague direction of television cameras and asserts that American troops will never leave Iraq under his watch, that he will never cut and run. Why? Because the job is not finished. What is the job? If he does not kill terrorists in Iraq, he says, they will come to America to kill Americans.

Unfortunately, where Bush sees terror, most Americans see quicksand. This narrative cannot be propelled even by the discovery of plots by British intelligence. The 9/11 Commission has now debunked one of the key arguments that took Bush to Iraq, by clearly stating that there was no link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. Bush has responded with an unbelievable assertion, that he never said so.

Certainly Dick Cheney did, when he alleged that Mohammad Atta had met an Iraqi intelligence agent. You can perhaps get away skating on such thin ice when the voter gives you the benefit of the doubt. It was benefit of doubt that re-elected Bush. But now the doubts have multiplied, and the benefit is streaming in the opposite direction. Bush still has loyalists who sincerely believe that he did not lie before his Iraq misadventure; but they now concede that he was misled. The distinction is not going to be very clear to the thousands upon thousands of young men, both Iraqi and American, who have died because Bush was either deceived, or he deceived the world.

The difference is going to be lost on those Iraqis who were tortured and raped and killed during this war without a mission, as America’s finest journalists are revealing in news reports and books of chilling horror, like the just-published bestseller, Fiasco.

Inevitably, the price of war has reached the American middle class: Through daily images on television, through a deficit that has crossed $5 trillion, through gas prices that have jumped and house prices that have dropped. The middle class has kept Bush and the Republicans in power, and there are increasing signs that it is no longer buying the Bush narrative. For five years Bush and Blair have rather enjoyed their leap into history. Suddenly, in the last few weeks, the politics of the rebound has reached their doorstep.

Blair might have the easier journey as he exits that doorstep, for the parliamentary system has sufficient flexibility for change. By next summer, unless he is blessed by extraordinary luck, Blair will be an ex-prime minister. Bush will not be ex-president till January 2009, but by next summer he just might be wishing that America had a parliamentary system and he could retire to his ranch. If the Democrats win even one of the two Houses of Congress this November, they will start impeachment proceedings against Bush for misleading America into the septic morass of a war without horizons. When the objective keeps changing, so does the definition of victory. American soldiers have been more confused than clear in the various campaigns of Iraq, since no one knows who is an enemy and who is a friend.

America is beginning to recognise the price, but the greater cost will of course be borne by Iraq and the region. The war that has been restarted is one without either boundaries or mercy, since the fire that is heating this cauldron is wild. All we need is a few more noble intentions, like the current favourite of some American policymakers: To divide Iraq into three independent nations, for Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

The day a Kurdistan begins to look possible, Syria, Iran and Turkey will send their armies to smash the thought. They will not be squeamish about the blood they will shed. The Kurds are living so far in a zone of calm, but it is the calm of a dead sea. What options does Bush have? The best option is the most obvious. All the nations of the region, who are staring at a growing disaster, need to sit at a table to discuss what can be saved from this wreck.

America needs to be at this table as well, along with France and Russia, and Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. America can bomb rock and sand, draw blood each day from the shadows and comfort itself with passing lullabies, but will not bring peace. Peace will come through collective will and this can only be determined when nation-profiling ends, and diplomacy begins.

Eminent Indian intellectual and author M J Akbar is editor-in-chief of The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle newspapers. He can be reached at mjakbar@asianage.com

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