“They will get overrun”

“THEY WILL GET OVERRUN”….A couple of weeks ago I linked to a story about the initial troop drawdowns in Iraq and expressed surprised that they were taking place in Baghdad rather than in outlying provinces. Today, the LA Times reports that the military has had second thoughts about this too:

In a change of plans, American commanders in Iraq have decided to keep their forces concentrated in Baghdad when the buildup strategy ends next year, removing troops instead from outlying areas of the country.

….The shift in deployment strategy, described by senior U.S. military officials in Iraq and Washington, is based on concerns that despite recent improvements, the capital could again erupt into widespread violence without an imposing American military presence.

That’s not especially good news. But if that’s the way it is, then that’s the way it is. We stay in Baghdad.

Later in the article, though, the local U.S. commanders provide a rationale for leaving the provinces that’s surprising in its honesty:

The day-to-day commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and his staff believe that the increasing competence of provincial security and political leaders will put pressure on the government in Baghdad that “will breed a better central government,” said his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson.

….”The grass-roots level will force change at the top because if they do not act on it, they will get overrun,” said another senior military officer responsible for Iraq war planning.

In other words, our “bottoms up” strategy — which, you’ll recall, was adopted out of necessity as a response to the Anbar Awakening — is creating competing power centers in the provinces that are becoming ever better equipped to successfully challenge the central government. And that’s deliberate. Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen fessed up about this months ago in a little-noticed piece on the Small Wars Journal blog, and apparently U.S. commanders are now talking about it more openly too. The message to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is: get your act together or else the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and Diyala are going to get it together for you.

Kilcullen called the revitalized Sunni tribes “competing armed interest groups,” and expressed the hope that their existence would create a stable “intra-communal balance of power.” That was a pretty strained piece of spin from the start, and now even that thin curtain is being stripped away. Today, we’re all but admitting that the more likely result of “competing armed interest groups” is civil war, and if the Maliki administration doesn’t get this, “they will get overrun.”

In fact, I imagine the Maliki government and its allies get this perfectly well — and they’re undoubtedly preparing for it. Unfortunately, that preparation probably doesn’t include making concessions to their Sunni adversaries. More likely, it means making sure they’re the ones who get overrun.