Impasses in Iraq and Afghanistan

Submitted by martin on 7 September, 2010 - 11:37 Author: Martin Thomas

On balance, the US military withdrawal from Iraq still looks on course, but Iraq's semi-parliamentary quarter-democracy looks very shaky.

On 31 August the USA announced the end of "combat operations" in Iraq and a reduction to 50,000 troops there. It reaffirmed US plans to remove all troops and hand over all bases by the end of 2011, though a huge US civilian presence, tens of thousands of "security" mercenaries employed by US contractors, and large US bases just over the border in Kuwait will remain.

But six months after Iraq's election on 7 March 2010, talks for a new government remain stalled, with no breakthrough in sight. The longer that impasse continues, the more probable becomes a military coup, maybe a "soft" one given some degree of assent by Iraqi politicians. The precarious civil liberties won by Iraqi workers - mostly "de facto", with clear legislation still only a promise - become more precarious.

Still, an average of about 250 people a month in Iraq are killed in bombings, shoot-outs, and other sectarian or "resistance" violence. It is a hellish rate, exceeding for example the killings in Northern Ireland during the "long war", which averaged out to a rate which, scaled up to Iraq's larger population, would be about 160 a month.

It remains, despite some spikes, steadily a lot lower on average than the 4000 per month of 2006 and early 2007.

There is some improvement in civil administration. 50 Iraqi military or police are killed per month instead of 300 at the peak. There is now maybe one attack a month on oil pipelines and other facilities where there used to be an average of 30.

Electricity generation has run at about 6000 MW/day since January 2009, where it was about 4000 early 2008. Baghdad's electricity supply is now rated as 19 hours per day, up from 7 in early 2008 (all figures from Brookings Institute reports).

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Kandahar on 3 September, as the "surge" of 30,000 extra US troops in Afghanistan neared completion.

Even for the occasion of Gates's visit, the local US military commander, David Rodriguez, second-in-command of Nato and US forces, could not be persuaded to paint an optimistic picture. Asked by journalists whether he expected US troops to make "significant progress", he replied: “Significant; I’m not sure that’s the right word". Things would be "hard and slow and tough".

The recurrent pattern in Afghanistan is that the US can defeat the Taliban in a setpiece battle for a particular area, but then either the US military has to keep the area under semi-permanent US military rule (very unpopular), or it hands over to the Kabul government (corrupt, discredited, weak) and sees the Taliban regain ground.

Saying that there was “lack of confidence” among the Afghan population in the ability of the Kabul government, Rodriguez confirmed that the dilemma still holds.

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