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State Destruction

I agree with Robert Farley that America’s involvement in the “Anbar awakening” business needs to be understood as an abandonment of real state-building goals in Iraq, but I’m not sure the name “anti-state building” works. We’re not, after all, building an anti-state. We’re unbuilding the already barely-there Iraqi state. It’s state destruction.

Looking back at it, I always thought this was the flaw in Thomas Ricks’ otherwise brilliant book, Fiasco. In order to highlight the destructive nature of the policies pursued during the early phases of the war, Ricks will often shed light on some localized successes where smart commanders build sound relationships with existing actors. Counterinsurgency done right, in other words. What Ricks never gets into is the question of whether or not such approach ever had any hopes of long-term viability. I tend to have my doubts. The problem is that the local elites over here tended to have visions of Iraq that were incompatible with those of the local elites over there. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs wanted — and by all accounts still want — Sunni supremacy. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Shiite Arabs really did want far-reaching de-Baathification and other anti-Sunni measures.

At any rate, you might think I’m wrong about that counterfactual. Maybe factional feelings wouldn’t have hardened as much if the whole thing had been better-organized in the first place. But I think it’s a reasonable concern. And given that we didn’t organize it that way in the first place, and that feelings have now hardened after years of civil conflict, I think it’s a crucial one. Under the circumstances, Petraeus’ strategy amounts to fueling several of Iraq’s main conflicts.

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