Thursday, November 02, 2006

How US intellectual fads mirror, in a dream-like way, the military "strategy"

When in late 2003 the rose-petals-and-candy theory of the occupation was starting to lose its appeal, Iyad Allawi and a colleague travelled to Langley to plan with the CIA for the establishment of an Iraqi intelligence service. Its first head was Muhammed Shehwani, an associate of Allawi in his Iraqi National Accord group. (This and the Chalabi-led group called Iraqi National Congress were the two main US-sponsored pro-invasion groups).

A related initiative, also taken in December of 2003, was described by the Washington Post as follows: "Two weeks ago, the U.S. occupation authority decided to form a paramilitary unit to track down insurgents. The unit, composed of Iraqi militiamen from the country's five largest political parties, will work with U.S. Special Forces soldiers, and their operations will be overseen by U.S. military commanders. Since the summer, the CIA has recruited and trained some former Iraqi intelligence agents to help identify the insurgents."

The reason: ""The intelligence community doesn't understand what's going on in Iraq and has decided to put a whole bunch of analytical manpower on it," one intelligence official said. "They definitely didn't think this would happen as it has," the official said, referring to the resilience of the insurgency."

And what was this insurgency, which the "intelligence community" was having such difficulty understanding? A substantial part of it was probably coordinated by the Iraqi National Alliance (post 2003 known as the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance) headed by Abdul Jabar al-Kubbaysi, who described his group in a 2002 interview as in agreement with the Saddam regime in broad Arab-Nationalist terms, but differing on the issue of freedoms. Unlike the Allawi and Chalabi groups, this Iraqi National Alliance opposed the invasion, in fact leaders of the mostly ex-pat group came to Iraq to try to coordinate with Saddam measures to protect the country against the US attack in 2003, then devoted themselves to the resistance--I beg your pardon, the insurgency.

In the very broadest terms, what was evolving was a covert confrontation between the US and the mostly Shiite militia on the one side, and the largely Baathist but not Sadaamist resistance on the other. And calling the shots for the American side was its famous "intelligence community." The declared enemy: Sadaamist dead-enders. The US allies: Local militias, mostly Shiite.

Fast-forward to late 2006, and people in the US and Britain are losing patience with the occupation, which leads to speculation about withdrawal of the occupation troops. In America, where the "intelligence community" is out of favor, the new source of authority is the political- and social-science community. Where the US had once fomented the Shiite attack on the mostly-Sunni "insurgency", and anchored this in the supposed expertise of the "intelligence community", the position has now shifted. Now the US struggles to justify its troop-presence as a bulwark against a Sunni backlash (the "civil war"), and now the case is anchored in scientific studies by the political-science community.

The nutshell history: The initial perceived task for the US as it evolved in 2003 was to assist the Shiite militias against the unexpectedly strong Sunni resistance to the invasion. Now that the fun is out of that, the assignment is going to be to protect the country against the Sunni backlash, for basically humanitarian reasons. Troops will still be needed. And just when they are needed, a "community" of experts emerges to provide a conceptual underpinning. Of sorts. Just to give you the flavor, a recent contribution to this by one Jim Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford University, says US troops could be useful in keeping the peace during an interim period of what the social-science community is calling "ethnic demixing". There will be many variations on this theme.

What is striking is the way this shift in US intellectual and media fads mirror in a dream-like way the actual Iraqi situation. In a lengthy opinion piece in Al-Quds al-Arabi, Islamic historian Bashir Nafie divides the US adventure in Iraq into two main parts: The first was the attack on the Sunna by Shiite groups under the protection and sponsorship of the Americans, and the second, now beginning, the fear-mongering, as he sees it, about a Sunni-backlash threat. His main point is that the "common consciousness" of the Sunni community as a whole, is nationalist and not sectarian. The Baath party had substantial Shiite participation. A lot of problems that the Americans painted in Sunni-Shiite sectarian colors were fundamentally political and not religious-sectarian. There was never chronic Shiite-Sunni violence until the Americans arrived and triggered it. It is true that some Sunni individuals have fallen into the trap of revenge. But by and large, the Sunni community has been responsible, and will continue to be so. The US justification of troop-presence based on guarding against a Sunni backlash is as divisive and spurious, he says, as was the original decision to help Shiite groups go after the resistance.

From an American academic perspective, what is remarkable is the sudden emergence of the social-science community to prominence at just the right time. I do not recall social scientists warning against the invasion, or warning against the evolution of the Shiite-versus-Sunni character of the occupation thereafter.

Bashir Nafie? Recently a professor of Islamic history at Birkbeck College of the University of London. Here's how the Al-Ahram weekly described him in connection with an interview in 1999: Bashir M Nafi is a half-Palestinian, half-Egyptian academic who was educated in Cairo, London and Reading. He lives in England, where he is a senior lecturer in modern Islamic history. Professor Nafi has published extensively on the modern history of Islam, the Arab world and the Palestinian question, both in Arabic and English. His book Arabism, Islamism and the Palestine Question, 1908-1941: A Political History, was published by Ithaca Press last year, while his study The Rise and Decline of the Arab-Islamic Reform Movement, is to be published by the SISS Press this year.

(John Ashcroft, the distinguished American patriot and singer-songwriter, was not impresssed with these credentials, and named Nafie a co-conspirator with Sami al-Aryan in a terrorism case for which the British refused to extradite Nafie, and the case ended in aquittal anyway.)


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