Page 1 of 2 General Petraeus' Thirty Years War
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
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.
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:
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.
Petraeus made his reputation on the surge, and needs someone to blame for its
prospective failure. His choice is Israel. A great deal of ink has been spilled
over Petraeus' March 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee,
in which the CENTCOM commander blamed the Israel-Palestine conflict for
inflaming Muslim sentiment against the United States. Petraeus stated in his
Enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its
neighbors present distinct challenges to advance our interest in the AOR (Area
of Responsibility). Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and
large scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment,
due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the
Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with
governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate
regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit
that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the
Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.
National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy wrote in an April 8 essay:
The upshot of
this could not be clearer: Petraeus is echoing the narrative peddled
incessantly by leftists in the government he serves and by Islamists in the
countries where he works. According to that narrative, Israel's plight is not a
struggle for survival against immovable foes spurred by an Islamist ideology
that must be discredited and defeated. To the contrary, this view holds, it is
the result of a mere political conflict. It could be resolved, so the theory
goes, if only Israel weren't so intransigent - ie, if it would just stop taking
so seriously its need to secure its citizens against enemies pledged to its
destruction. Israel's stubbornness (which is to say, its insistence on existing
as a Jewish state in what Muslims regard as Islamic land) creates tensions that
"flare into violence" (Palestinian terrorist attacks undertaken with the
approval and encouragement of the region's most influential Islamic