Pentagon officials view Wednesday's horror in Fallujah as the Iraq war's Mogadishu incident: a disaster that may be a turning point for American policy. We will not flee, as we did in Somalia, but Fallujah should teach even the administration's most die-hard optimists that the mission is deeper and muddier than they'd imagined, that the country they have conquered is far uglier and far less pliant than they hoped, and that a new course of policy is necessary if we want to sustain the occupation.
Many are wondering how President Bush will retaliate for the brutal slayings of the four American contractors who were shot, beaten, dismembered, dragged down the street, and strung up on bridge poles. The universal feeling is that some response is necessary to let the insurgents know they can't get away with this. The question is what kind of response?
Do we know who the killers are? Do we know, more broadly, who the insurgency's leaders are, where they hang out, or what they value (and, therefore, what they would regret losing)? Probably not. It is unlikely that U.S. intelligence has any sources in Fallujah. By all accounts, the elation of the Fallujah crowds—as clearly and alarmingly seen on videotape—reflects a widespread anti-Americanism.
So, what do we do? Bomb the place till the rubble bounces? The U.S. Air Force briefly tried this approach last November with Operation Iron Hammer, in which we bombed buildings that the insurgents had been using, to no effect. The Israelis have been raining missiles and bombs on their own local terrorists for years, also to no effect. The danger of massive bombardment is that it kills the wrong people, angers their friends and relatives, and sires new insurgents as a result.
Do we cordon off Fallujah? To what end? To keep terrorists from entering? That assumes that the insurgents come from elsewhere, when most of them seem to be natives. Fallujah has long been the hot point of the Sunni Triangle, a stronghold of pro-Saddam sentiment. At least since last April, when U.S. soldiers killed 15 Fallujah residents in a demonstration, the city has been bitterly, hatefully anti-American. Besides, we don't have enough troops to close off the borders.
Do we send in more troops to "pacify" the Sunni Triangle? From where? As several Army generals warned before this war started (prompting ridicule and, in one case, the dismissal of the truth-telling commander), Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's battle plan did not provide enough troops. As it turned out, there were enough troops to defeat the Iraqi army and occupy Baghdad—but not enough to accomplish the war's strategic goals. One year later, American forces are stretched thin throughout Iraq, throughout the world for that matter. (Check these grim numbers on the globalsecurity.org Web site.)
The proof of a troop shortfall is the very presence of the four dead contractors—retired special operations officers (three Navy SEALs and one veteran of the Army's Delta Force) who went to work for a private firm called Blackwater Security Consulting, which had been contracted to provide protection for food convoys into Fallujah. That's what it's come down to: U.S. troops are so stretched, the Pentagon has to pay private contractors, at much higher pay scales, to do what soldiers and Marines normally do.
Paul Bremer, chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, said of the murdered contractors, "Their deaths will not go unpunished." Maj. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq, said today there will be a military response. "We will not rush in to make things worse," he said, wisely. But he added, the response, when it comes, will be "deliberate, it will be precise, it will be overwhelming." If Bush officials can devise a response that can be all that—without inflaming and enlarging the ranks of insurgents in the process—they will prove themselves more agile than they've otherwise shown the past year.
If there is a way to deal with the insurgents, it will be fundamentally political—and it will have to take shape in the next few months. Two things are necessary. First, the occupying "coalition" must be broadened, and the occupation authority must be turned over to some international body. The Bush administration seems to realize this—hence Bremer's recent urgent calls for the United Nations to mediate internal disputes in Iraq. Will an international organization—the U.N., NATO, the Arab League, or whatever—be more effective than the U.S.-led CPA? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be more legitimate.
Second, somebody—the U.S., the U.N.—must devise a policy toward the Sunnis. It doesn't much matter whether the insurgents are local Baathists or foreign terrorists. The key thing is that vast majorities in the Sunni Triangle are so bitter about the occupation, and about their perceived place in the new Iraqi order, that they are willing, even happy, to give the insurgents refuge. Juan Cole, a specialist in Iraqi politics at the University of Michigan, makes the point eloquently in his excellent blog today:
[T]he guerrilla violence will continue for years, since it has a firm class base in the Sunni Arab rentiers who had benefited from Sunni dominance in the Baath and to whom the best jobs, infrastructure and most power had been thrown. They are not going to be quietly reduced to a small, powerless, and much less wealthy minority… [They] have to be convinced that they are not playing a zero-sum game…where…if your rivals get a bigger piece of the pie, then your piece will inevitably shrink... The Iraqi economy has the potential to expand greatly. So the pie won't stay the same size, and Shiites could get richer without robbing the Sunni Arabs. Likewise, in a parliamentary system, the Sunni Arabs could make coalitions with Kurd and moderate Shiites in such a way as to be a key player and to retain a great deal of political power and to forestall the radical Shiites from taking over… Unless the Sunni Arabs are drawn into parliamentary politics and convinced that the new game is not a zero-sum game, the bombs will continue to go off.