Tuesday, March 18. 2008
There was a gathering in a park here in Wichita last Saturday to mark the 5th anniversary of the Bush invasion of Iraq. Laura Tillem gave a short speech, and this is what she said:
The point about collaborators is one that we've been thinking a lot about lately, partly because of Neve Gordon's review of Hillel Cohen's book, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration With Zionism, 1917-1948. Actually, collaboration is an essential concern in any counterinsurgency. No foreign occupation can stand without considerable support from the local population providing information about insurgents and assuming roles in support of the occupation. Conversely, no insurgency can possibly succeed without persuading, by force if necessary, the local population not to collaborate.
This is a constant theme throughout the dozen or so cases of insurgencies that William R. Polk surveys in his recent book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq. In the case of the American Revolution, Polk points out that at the start of hostilities, only about 2 in 10 Americans were against the British, 2 in 10 were loyalists, the rest were undecided or unconcerned. In that context, the insurgents fought not only the British troops and crown, but also anyone who might collaborate with the British. (If you watched HBO's John Adams series, you've seen some examples of this, including tar and feathers.) In the end, the British didn't lose the military engagement so much as they lost any chance of restoring loyalty.
So this is key: the American Revolution was from its very start, and necessarily so, a civil war between Americans against and in favor of the British crown. These same dynamics force every insurgency into civil war, and that civil war persists as long as the insurgency fights and is opposed. Polk's examples show that insurgencies only end under two cases: when the foreign occupation withdraws, or when the insurgency accepts some sort of accommodation -- possibly because the insurgency is exhausted, but even then usually with some sort of tangible gains. (The IRA in Northern Ireland is an example of the latter.)
It shouldn't be had to see how Iraq fits into all of this. Iraq was primed for an insurgency before the US invaded. There were many reasons for this which hardly need to be listed given that the insurgency (or several) actually happened. The first thing the insurgency did was to divide the country between the insurgents and those who collaborated with the occupation, and that was the start of the civil war. In other words: the occupation was met with an insurgency which in turn engendered civil war. The civil war would have happened even in a completely homogeneous population where the only difference was collaboration, but it really took off given the existing fault lines, which were readily manipulated by the occupation and the insurgents.
Of course, it's possible by now that the Iraqi civil war will take on a life of its own, following the grim cycle of atrocity and revenge. But what started it all was the US invasion and occupation, the revolt of a self-sustaining number of Iraqis against that occupation, and the struggle of both sides for the collaboration of the people. There is no chance that this will end in the submission of all Iraqi resistance to US hegemony. That leaves only one way to end the conflict, which is for the US to bow out, to give up on struggle for collaborators.
Some people will argue that the US has been making headway in recruiting collaborators, and that the more this happens, the more marginalized the "dead enders" become, the closer to "victory" we are. The levels of violence don't support any such optimism: Iraq is still far too dangerous to make any sort of reconstruction and economic recovery. The terms that the US has accepted to gain collaboration also appear to be exceptionally temporary: the Mahdi Army agreed to a truce, the Awakening to fight limited skirmishes while building up its own armed strength. For now, all sides have reasons to bide their time. This is mostly because the American people, unlike Bush and McCain, see little or no reason to cling to a thin and tattered tissue of sovereignty in Iraq. For all the talk about "staying the course," the inevitable course has always been that sooner or later the US would quit Iraq. The vast destruction that we have wrought only starts with the bombs and bullets the US has spent there. More profound is how we've deranged the country, split it into civil war camps, by coercing and/or tempting collaborators. Needless to say, the longer we stay, the more such damage we produce, and the harder it will be to heal.