The U.S. faces a quagmire in Iraq. The U.S.-backed Allawi government has lost control of Falluja and Ramadi, along with other cities in the area around Anbar province. The dilemma is precisely that insurgents use these cities, Falluja in particular, as bases from which to launch attacks elsewhere in Iraq, while fears of a political uproar over high civilian casualties prevent the coalition from trying to retake the city. The strategy of the insurgency has a good chance of success. With generous funding from Tehran and perhaps Damascus, the insurgency — in a perverse and self-destructive twist on the Bush administration’s own doctrine — has launched a pre-emptive strike designed to scuttle the American goal of a free and prosperous Iraq.
The insurgents are disrupting reconstruction because they fear that an economic recovery, lower unemployment rates and general stability would set the Iraqi state on its intended course — a course that promises very little to the insurgency. Now the United States has begun to redirect funds originally destined for an Iraqi Marshall Plan to security. With reconstruction grinding to a halt, the insurgents can finally turn their full attention to discrediting the January elections in the hopes that closing off enough areas from voting could delegitimize the winners. They’re already having some success. According to The New York Times, the percentage of Iraqis who describe themselves as “very likely to vote” has declined from around 88 percent in June to only 67 percent now. Unless security gets under control, this trend will only worsen. If a small enough percentage of Iraqis turns out at the polls, the elected government risks being dismissed as unrepresentative and illegitimate.
The insurgents are well-positioned. Securing the Sunni triangle for voting means another American offensive along the lines of the one started last week in Samarra that will aim first at Ramadi and then later at Falluja. And there is every likelihood that an American offensive will draw more insurgents to those cities, just as others were drawn to Najaf during Sadr’s rebellion earlier this year. But unlike Najaf, where the cleric al-Sistani intervened to demand the withdrawal of Sadr’s militia, there is no reason to believe any clerics will step in to broker a compromise this time. Nor would a compromise that leaves terrorists free to act do anything more than delay the inevitable. The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars is by no means embarrassed by its cooperation with the insurgents, and for the time being has ruled out participation in the elections. A siege would therefore face enormous resistance, generate huge collateral damage, and risk alienating support for an Allawi government already lacking a strong legitimacy. Moreover, many of the insurgents in the Sunni triangle, in contrast to Sadr’s militia, adhere far more to radical ideology than to self-interest. It seems likely then that a siege on Falluja would play right into the insurgents’ hands, creating a carnage of civilian deaths that would rightly or wrongly alienate ordinary Iraqis instead of marginalizing and defeating the terrorists.
When faced with two options — trying to take Falluja or letting it be — both of which, if pursued, would not only lead to the demise of U.S. hopes for Iraq, but would also mean fighting the terrorists on terms of their own choosing and from their own playbook, it seems only natural to look in desperation for ways of escaping the quagmire. In the March 2003 invasion, the United States went straight to Baghdad, bypassing the majority of cities like Falluja to avoid costly urban guerrilla warfare. It should do the same now. Only this time, the cancer has to be contained.
Building a wall around Falluja that would isolate the city from the rest of Iraq may be the best form of containment. A system of checkpoints could be set up to let in little more than food and medical supplies. This solution may not be perfect, but few responses to quagmires are. History is replete with examples of fencing off problems that do not admit political solutions, from the U.S.-Mexico border and the Korean DMZ to the Berlin Wall and the Israeli wall in the West Bank. The Israeli wall’s phenomenal success at putting a stop to terrorist attacks is undeniable, regardless of one’s view on the political prudence of its exact geographical location. Unlike the Berlin Wall, which restricted access to free countries, an Iraqi wall would restrict terrorists from aborting democratic elections and hijacking Iraq’s future. Like the Berlin Wall, it could be hastily constructed, first quickly and provisionally, then followed by more durable fortifications.
The wall could stand at least until the January elections or longer if it served as a bargaining chip against Falluja’s leaders, limiting guerrillas in their movements and preventing them from infiltration into other cities. Attacks might then be directed against the wall, lessening the need for urban strikes on terrorists that necessarily entail high collateral damage. In the meantime, if other areas could be secured, then credible elections could go forward, as could reconstruction. There is every reason to believe that an elected Iraqi government would be more successful than the present one at dealing with the Falluja insurgents. The insurgents’ refusal to negotiate with a U.S. “puppet” Iraqi government will be less politically tenable when the government has actually been elected. Even unsuccessful talks with the insurgents would at least shore up support for the new government and create resolve to carry on the fight. Building the wall is the only way of cutting off attacks from Falluja without actually entering Falluja. In quagmires, the next best alternative to good is minimizing evil.
Phil Uhde is a sophomore in Branford College.