Another brick in the wall

Can the tactical mistakes get any worse? Building a wall around Baghdad’s communities, starting with Al a’zamiyah, or Adhamiya? The prime contractor may as well have been Arbeit Macht Der-Frei Gmbh as the idea of partitioning any part of the city devastates any chance for peace, or “victory” if you prefer. This is another brick in a different kind of wall, the wall of moral legitimacy and strategic appreciation of the requirements to succeed. Neither political nor military doctrine or logic can justify this folly.

These “gated communities” may provide a tactical reprieve against violence, but they do not satisfy any strategic requirements of creating confidence and legitimacy. In fact, they are likely to increase violence as differences are recognized and sanctified despite words to the contrary:

Brig. Gen. John Campbell, the US deputy commanding general in Baghdad, said in a press release on Saturday that temporary concrete barrier walls will be built in selected neighborhoods around Baghdad in an attempt to help protect the Iraqi population from terrorists, adding that protecting people is the primary reason behind the concrete barriers. “The intent is not to divide the city along sectarian lines. The intent is to provide a more secured neighborhood for people who live in selected neighborhoods,” Campbell said.

Is this part of the “diplomacy of deeds” the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes has embraced as a new dogma? Surprising to me as it is to hear Hughes was at the take-off of the Iraq mission, perhaps she has a hand in this: “let’s prove to some people we can make them safe — some of the time.” By the way, where is she in the most important information arena for the United States? I can’t believe she is helping formulate public diplomacy in Iraq — remember Hughes is only about talking, not listening, and passive hope that others realize the “power of our ideals… [and] given a fair hearing, I am sure they will prevail”.

About the communication of the wall, besides apparently not letting the Iraqi government know, that the reaction caught the US military and Iraqi authorities “off guard” is not believable. How could Petraeus or Kilcullen not have anticipated visceral linkage with Israel’s wall in the West Bank by the audience in the Middle East or the Berlin Wall by Europeans or even the peacelines in Ireland to our most important coalition partner? There are three possible reasons: it was not their call, they really didn’t expect the brouhaha, or they weren’t paying attention. Options one, two, and three are all bad. I eliminated a fourth option — they didn’t know about it — because that just paints a terrible picture of the command structure (let’s not talk about the war “czar”, the simple suggestion of which indicates a far deeper systemic problem).  

At best, this is an attempt to recreate the strategic hamlet program from Vietnam, and even British fortresses in the Sudan and Afghanistan a century and a half ago. But this isn’t the countryside and these are not autonomous units to be caged. To say there are “serious problems” with the gated communities, as Anthony Cordesman puts it, is an understatement. Cordesman notes partitioning in Ulster and the Balkans brought security but at a significant cost. Sadly, Ambassador Crocker defended the plan as a means “to try and identify where the fault lines are and where avenues of attack lie and set up the barriers literally to prevent those attacks.” A tactical tool at best, al-Hayat quoted several Iraqi officials who defended the strategy, claiming that building such walls will “give security forces a bigger chance of executing their military missions.”

This is nonsense given this is not a military mission, it’s political and it’s nearly always been political, even before Saddam’s statue was toppled four years ago this month (if you want to count that as the end of “war” and the beginning of “peace”). In the struggle for legitimacy, from the point of view of the various insurgent and criminal groups, war is politics and our role in war is political at every step of the way. How then does the wall further the political aims of moral legitimacy over the population?

It’s depressing to read Moktada al-Sadr’s allies have a better read on the impact of the wall than we do:

On Sunday, the Sunni Arab Iraqi Islamic Party and the Shiite group linked to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr both announced that they opposed dividing Baghdad by sect. In sharp statements, they said the wall would increase sectarian hatred and fuel efforts to partition the country.

“Surrounding areas of the capital with barbed wire and concrete blocks would harm these areas economically and socially,” the Islamic Party said in an e-mail message to news organizations. “In addition, it will enhance sectarian feelings.”

I agree with hardening market places and public areas that are gathering points, but the protection of protected residential neighborhoods does nothing to isolate the insurgents from their support that we’ve have spent four years nurturing with our own deeds Hughes has ignored. On the contrary, it will feed the information operations of the numerous insurgent groups and turn allies against us. Should we continue to give ammunition to those critiques?

I cannot fathom this plan was blessed by David Kilcullen, the Aussie counterinsurgency expert mentioned often in the blog. It simply does not resonate with his 28 Articles, allegedly a core document of the surge. See 21 (“exploit the single narrative… counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support”) and 25 (“Fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces”) in particular and keep in mind the point of the insurgents: delegitimize anything American or Coalition sponsored (“they cannot protect you, they don’t want to protect you, they only want our oil”, etc) and they seek to divide anything resembling an Iraqi coalition for peace. (If you are inclined to read an “annotated” 28 Articles, see the Small Wars Council’s blog: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)

If we are trying to build a state, we cannot afford to create the image or partitions for the sake of short-term security that will, in reality, not materialize but backfire. We need security, but we need the backing of the people to achieve it. We need solid institutions. We spent nearly four years ignoring this fundamental requirement, fueling religious-based movements in a society that had a national identity. 

Arguments that successful insurgent breaches of the wall support this argument are, with all due respect, laughable. Protecting neighborhoods does not require hermetic seals but support by the population.

What is the alternative? No course of action that is potentially winnable is attractive at this point. Our window of opportunity was squandered long ago with fantasies “build back better” with no-experience partisans. Today, we need a massive infusion of peacemaking and nation-building civil-military teams with the bricks of cash that was also squandered long ago with a commensurate deep commitment to success that comes only from a strong mobilization of the people. The Bush Administration, unfortunately, has lost credibility not only at home but also in Iraq. Gated communities won’t help for many of the reasons Cordesman lays out. It’s just another brick in the wall to divide the people of Iraq.

A friend (RS) threw together some numbers on what this wall might cost:

1 T-wall = approx. $1500
Transportation for 1 T-wall (from Irbil to Baghdad) $800
Labor/Equip. to install one T-wall = approx. $800
Total for 1 T-wall = $3100
T-wall dimensions = approx. 1.2m wide
3 miles = 4830 meters = 4025 T-walls
4025 X $3100 = $12,477,500

This doesn’t include Security, Project Management, Administration, Transportation, Fuel, Iraqi tribal bribes, and misc other expenses.

13 miles of surrounding Texas Barriers

Using GoogleEarth, I drew what amounted to exactly 13 miles of perimeter around this first community for a good visual (kmz here).

I’ve often wondered that if instead of spending bricks of Benjamin’s on whatever the CPA spent money on and instead created well-paying legal, judicial, and police positions with transparent oversight (including local media) would we better off? In the case of the wall, what $12.5 million dollars buy? If kids get $150 to fire an RPG, which they take because their parents don’t have a job, and VA Tech massacres happen daily (killing hope as well as friends and relatives), what do you think this cash could buy? Probably more than the temporary security of yet another Sunni enclave.

Update 24 Apr 07: The Chicago Tribune is reporting construction on the wall is, as should have been expected, being halted. That does not change the emphasis of this post, however, as my point was the impact of the perception and the wall’s relative value.

Cross-posted at Danger Room.

2 thoughts on “Another brick in the wall

  1. Whatever the “diplomacy of deeds” is, the reality of deeds counts for more. The US, as part of its counter-ethnic-cleansing “surge” campaign, attempted to provide at least physical defense for the Sunni Arab population . The Shia, especially the Shia militias (like the suddenly humanitarian Moktada al Sadr) recognize this, and so oppose the wall. Likewise, the Shia Prime Minister, who acts in every way as if he wants a Shia Baghdad, opposes the wall.

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