On War #270: Changing Horses in Mid-Stream

By William S. Lind

As the neo-cons celebrate a “victory” in Iraq that has yet to be won, they also proclaim the downfall of Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army militia and staunch opponent of the American occupation.  The headline of the August 5 Wall Street Journal announced, “Radical Iraq Cleric in Retreat.”

Well, maybe.  But I think something else is happening to the Mahdi Army, and it is a development of more than passing interest to those concerned with 4GW theory.  I think Muqtada al-Sadr is attempting to transition from leading a 4GW, non-state entity, the Mahdi Army, to taking over a state.

Like all changes of horses in mid-stream, the operation is delicate and can easily go awry.  But Mr. Sadr so far seems to be making all the right moves.  As the Wall Street Journal piece reports,

Mr. Sadr began moving away from military operations when he ordered a cease-fire last August after Mahdj Army members clashed with government forces in the southern city of Karbala during a Shiite religious holiday.  The fighting represented growing rivalry between Sadr followers and supporters of the main Shiite parties in government … In February Mr. Sadr extended the cease-fire for an additional six months.

If Muqtada al-Sadr wants to rule Iraq, he cannot let himself and his organization be drawn into Shiite-on-Shiite violence.  That would narrow his base when he needs to broaden it, and would also alienate the large majority of Iraqis who want order and security, not more war.  The cease-fire and its extension were wise.

The Journal quotes from a new brochure issued by the Mahdi Army leadership that lays out Sadr’s next move:

(The) brochure … states that the Mahdi Army will now be guided by Shiite spirituality instead of anti-American militancy.  The group will focus on education, religion and social justice… The brochure also states that it “is not allowed to use arms at all.”

Here, the Mahdi Army is clearly taking a page out of Hezbollah’s book.  Hezbollah’s strength comes from its effectiveness and honesty in delivering services to the community that the state cannot provide.  The Journal quotes Kenneth Pollack of Brookings as saying, “If the government fails to deliver on basic services and other needs of the Iraqis, Sadr followers could use their new organization to tell people they should look to them as the voices of change.”  Precisely so.  This is a key element of the struggle for legitimacy, which Mr. Sadr seems to understand will be decisive in determining who controls post-occupation Iraq.

Mr. Sadr has promised that small, well-trained elements of the Mahdi Army will continue to attack the Americans, but so far he has held off launching such attacks.  That too is wise.  He can maintain his anti-American credentials, another key to legitimacy, with less risk by working politically for the Obama-al-Maliki plan, under which the American occupation troops would leave Iraq by 2010.  If I were in Sadr’s position, I would be organizing massive street demonstrations to demand withdrawal by 2010 be the basis of any new status of forces agreement with the Americans.  That is a win-win position.  If the Iraqi government demands American withdrawal on that timetable, Sadr can claim the credit, and if al-Maliki crumbles under American pressure and allows the occupation to continue indefinitely, al-Maliki loses his only chance to gain some legitimacy.

The Mahdi Army will retain its ability to go to war with the Americans if it has to.  But that capability is most useful as a “fleet in being,” maintained as a threat but not employed.  The threat gives Mr. Sadr more leverage than armed action would buy him, because the Mahdi Army is not strong enough to force the Americans out and it could suffer a military defeat. More, war with the Americans would bring more chaos and suffering to the Iraqi people, for which they might blame Sadr.

Sadr’s change of horses in mid-stream may of course fail.  His movement could come apart under the strain, as militant elements that want to fight the Americans split off.  His failure is not in America’s best interest, not only because it would mean more American casualties but also because it would undermine the chance for a new state to arise in Iraq.  I continue to think Muqtada al-Sadr represents that best available leader for a new Iraqi state, because only someone who has opposed the occupation can have legitimacy.  America only wins in Iraq if and when a new state emerges there, a real state, not a fig-leaf to cover the reality of continued American control.

From the standpoint of Fourth Generation War theory, the Mahdi Army’s attempt to move from its status as a 4GW, non-state entity to an organization that can create and control a new Iraqi state is a hopeful sign.  If it succeeds, other 4GW entities may be tempted to do the same.  That brings them back within the state framework, a positive development in terms of the interests of the international state system.  It is the success and continuation of that system that is America’s most vital interest in the face of Fourth Generation War.  Not all 4GW entities will take that track, nor would it be in their interest to do so.  But if even some can be drawn back into the framework of the state, the 4GW threat will diminish.  Washington will never see it this way, because Washington cannot think strategically.  But those who can should pray that Muqtada al-Sadr continues to make all the right moves.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind

Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 5 responses so far

5 Responses to “On War #270: Changing Horses in Mid-Stream”

  1. Barryon 12 Aug 2008 at 9:57 am 1

    Listening to Mr. Lind explain how to strengthen the Iraqi state and then get out of Iraq would lead one to think this lack of a real state was an unintended consequence of Saddams overthrow.
    To know what Washington has failed to do it is essential to know what they were trying to do. Again, the divisions in Iraq that democracy has unleashed are common to many Arab countries. Iraq is the new Lebanon, and Lebanon is the special subject of many neocon advisors.

    (typo 4th line from end “in interest”?)

    [CR: Much obliged.]

  2. Tree Frogon 12 Aug 2008 at 3:30 pm 2

    Cock-up before conspiracy, Mr. Lind. al-Sadr has lost just about all of his support from the Shiite population in Baghdad, Basra and Maysan. His Iranian masters have publicly contradicted him several times over the last few months and he’s made a lot of noise without backing it up with much.

    I disagree with you about al-Sadr being the best leader for Iraq. He’s still a religious leader with a good-sized group, but no longer the power he was.

  3. senor tomason 12 Aug 2008 at 11:45 pm 3

    “Muqtada al-Sadr is attempting to transition from leading a 4GW, non-state entity, the Mahdi Army, to taking over a state.”

    Would be interesting to learn how the Saudis are reacting to this. The Wahabis and Salafists must be recoiling in horror at the prospect of having a Shia fundamentalist state on their northern border. Very likely they yearn for the good old days of Saddam.

    [CR: Indeed. Saddam had proven that he was no threat to them, and they had worked out ways to live with him. Until the First Gulf War, we used to see young Saudi men in hoards outside the Iraqi embassy. When I asked my driver, he said they were getting Iraqi visas because it was the cheapest place they could go for a “good time.”]

  4. Maxon 13 Aug 2008 at 7:38 am 4

    The question that begs to be asked at this point is,
    All things considered, Is Iraq as good as it will get at this stage,
    under US occupation ?

    M

  5. rmhitchenson 15 Aug 2008 at 12:03 pm 5

    I think Mr. Lind is probably correct about al-Sadr’s intention and we should be wise enough to recognize it as a good endgame for our Iraq misadventure. If events play themselves out in this fashion, our war becomes his war. He can probably exert control over Baghdad, the infamous triangle, and the rest of southern Iraq, but would lack enough real combat power to reassert control over Kurdistan. He would have a cordial relationship with Iran but probably resist an attempt at hegemony. Isn’t this a reasonable outcome from our perspective?