The conflagration America ignited in Iraq parallels Western wildfires

August 30, 2006|By Bennett Ramberg

LOS ANGELES -- What do Iraq and wildfires have in common? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Here in the West, major brush and timber blazes are an annual occurrence this time of year. As a metaphor, they can help us to better understand the literal and figurative flames engulfing Iraq.

Iraq - like so many countries that suffered political collapse in recent decades - must first "burn itself out" before rebirth can begin. In the interim, try as it might, the United States cannot extinguish the firestorm it unleashed in 2003. What it can do is assist neighboring countries to build firebreaks to prevent the conflict's deadly metastasis.

Consider the wildfire. The phenomenon requires an initiating incendiary, a congenial environment (heavy and dry under- and overgrowth, low humidity, prickly winds) and the failure of firefighters to reach the locus within minutes. Under these circumstances, blazes "explode" and spread exponentially. Fire crews try but cannot extinguish the vortex. Often, they do not even try. Rather, they focus on perimeter "containment" to prevent breakouts or ember leapfrogging.

Now consider the conditions Washington found in Iraq: national, ethnic, religious and tribal "kindling" that Saddam Hussein suppressed through brutal "brush clearing" - routine execution and arrests of thousands. These actions were punctuated by more wholesale methods to combat flare-ups, including gassing the Kurds in the 1980s and using helicopter gunships against the Shiites in the 1990s. Left in the rubble were embers of revulsion and revenge that one day would lure foreign jihadists.

In collapsing the Baathist regime in 2003, America oxygenated these pent-up embers. Had U.S. forces overwhelmed the occupation with sufficient "firefighters," arguably it could have snuffed out the eruption. Instead, Washington mistakenly believed that "shock and awe," Iraq's lust for liberation and a significant if underwhelming military "footprint" would contain the risk.

Hubris ignored history. The British after World War I committed more than 100,000 troops to bottle up a population of 3 million. Despite some harrowing moments, the result stamped out revolts. In 2003, Washington gambled that 150,000 better-equipped and more mobile troops could dominate a country of 26 million. It was a bad bet.

The United States may hope to sway events but cannot now extinguish the flames of Iraq. Arguably, its presence generates additional fuel.

Washington's most critical challenge at this juncture is to build firebreaks that prevent the migration of the wildfires into neighboring states. Indeed, these nations already have responded. Saudi Arabia has become far more aggressive in tracking down jihadists. Following recent terrorist acts, Jordan has done the same.

The U.S. can help. It already shares intelligence. The monitoring of the Iraqi frontier to prevent the entry of jihadists must now focus on halting the blowback to their native countries. U.S. air power can strive to secure neighboring states against large infiltrations while also enforcing Iraq's borderlands against land grabs by these same nations.

Every Boy Scout knows the danger of an open flame near dry timber. And yet Washington ignited a conflagration in Iraq. One hopes that when American decision-makers are presented with the next temptation to intervene with significant ground forces, the lessons of Iraq will give them pause to examine the combustibility of the trees before they decide to enter the forest with a lighted match.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. He is the author of three books on international security. His e-mail is

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