Tennessee: The state that never gives up

Readers will recall that Dayton, TN was where the celebrated Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution was held back in 1925. Well, that state is still fighting against the teaching of evolution.

The latest effort is chronicled in the newspaper the Nashville Postwhich reports on a resolution proposed by State Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville). The senator, a retired physician, clearly thinks he has come up with a clever way of putting the state’s Department of Education on the spot, presumably because they teach evolution without mentioning god. So Finney is asking the Senate to endorse certain questions that he would like to pose to the Department of Education. The department has to provide a response by January 15, 2008.

A Tennessee State Senate member has filed a resolution asking the Tennessee Department of Education to address a few basic questions about life, the universe and all that:

(1) Is the Universe and all that is within it, including human beings, created through purposeful, intelligent design by a Supreme Being, that is a Creator?

Understand that this question does not ask that the Creator be given a name. To name the Creator is a matter of faith. The question simply asks whether the Universe has been created or has merely happened by random, unplanned, and purposeless occurrences.

Further understand that this question asks that the latest advances in multiple scientific disciplines –such as physics, astronomy, molecular biology, DNA studies, physiology, paleontology, mathematics, and statistics – be considered, rather than relying solely on descriptive and hypothetical suppositions.

If the answer to Question 1 is “Yes,” please answer Question 2:

(2) Since the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught in Tennessee public schools?

If the answer to Question 1 is “This question cannot be proved or disproved,” please answer Question 3:

(3) Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?

If the answer to Question 1 is “No” please accept the General Assembly’s admiration for being able to decide conclusively a question that has long perplexed and occupied the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, educators, and others.

I am always happy to help out people. So in the spirit of pure charity, I offer free-of charge to the Tennessee Department of Education, the answers to the senator’s questions.

1. This is a question that cannot be answered scientifically. (This answer corresponds to his option of “This question cannot be proved or disproved” but I changed it slightly because his wording is awkward since you cannot prove or disprove a question.) So following the senator’s flow chart, we move on to question 3.

2. Not applicable

3. Because creationism is not science, it should not be taught in science classes.

No need to thank me, Senator Finney and the Tennessee Department of Education. I am happy to oblige.

This has been an edition of simple answers to questions.

POST SCRIPT: Editorial cartoons

Bob Geiger has the latest roundup.

Macho Christianity

It had to happen some time. I have written before about how most people’s knowledge of the Bible is a CliffsNotes version, just the sketchiest of outlines of what is says. This is convenient because it enables each group or individual within Christianity and Judaism to pretty much adopt any lifestyle and morals and values and claim that it is how god would want them to live.

But in actual practice there are some restrictions. In contemporary America, there has grown up the consensus that to be a religious means at the very least avoiding drunkenness and profanity and promiscuous sex. Dressing nicely, going to church on Sundays, being polite and nice to others, and shaking hands with strangers in the pews are highly recommended. This has to be limiting to people who like to think of themselves as ‘real’ men and want to drink and swear and run around but still want to be considered Christian. Such people are worried that Christianity is becoming a religion for wusses.
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The creeping immorality in public discourse

Sometimes I wonder what passes for brains and morals among some of our so-called ‘respected’ journalists. Take Ted Koppel, former host of ABC’s Nightline and now an analyst for NPR. In a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, he starts by taking a fairly sensible stand, that any sanctions imposed against Iran can be easily subverted and that the US does not have a realistic chance of preventing that country from obtaining nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so. Koppel says “What, then, can the United States do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology? Little or nothing. Washington should instead bow to the inevitable.” He continues: “If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it.”
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How relations with Iran were sabotaged

The surprising statement by Condoleeza Rice yesterday that the US was reversing course on its previously adamant insistence against having talks with Iran and Syria, and was willing to attend six-party talks next month hosted by Iraq that will include both countries, is being hailed as a welcome sign of change by the Bush administration to try diplomacy instead of war. I wish I could feel as hopeful but I have become deeply cynical of the motives of this administration.

My skepticism is because there are reasons why this could be just a feint. Some members of Congress, alarmed by the war-like rhetoric coming out of the White House, have introduced a resolution expressly prohibiting an attack on Iran without their explicit approval. The suggestion of talks with Iran may be aimed at defusing those moves. Or it may be that the Bush administration thinks that before it initiates an air assault on Iran, it needs to show that it tried diplomacy and failed, and these talks are meant to suggest that they tried everything.

Whatever the reason behind this abrupt switch, this marks the latest shift of a turbulent relationship between the US and Iran. The February 19, 2007 issue of Newsweek has an informative article by Michael Hirsch and Maziar Bahari on how the US relationship with Iran has see-sawed. It had been clear for some time that Iran had sought closer ties with the US, after the low-point caused by the student takeover of the US embassy in 1979. Perhaps the best chance came at improving relations after the events of 9/11. Iran had arrested members of al Qaeda in that country and an Iranian official said:

“We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were interested in peace,” says Adeli. To his relief, Iran’s top official, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, quickly agreed. “The Supreme Leader was deeply suspicious of the American government,” says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. “But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America.”

Iran was opposed to the Taliban and thus did not oppose the American invasion of Afghanistan and even offered $500 million dollars (twice what the US was offering) in reconstruction aid for the country. They also worked with the US in November and December of 2001 in setting up the post-Taliban Afghan government structure.

But that was the high point of the collaboration and things fell apart soon after that. The trigger for the decline was Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002 that included the infamous ‘axis of evil’ phrase. Michael Gerson, Bush’s speechwriter at the time, said that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq but did not want to single out Iraq alone in his 2002 speech as that would make things too obvious. So they looked for other countries to include in the speech to camouflage their true intent and Condoleeza Rice suggested that North Korea and Iran be added. This labeling stunned the Iranians, completely discrediting those in the Iranian government who were pushing for closer ties with the US, and confirming the view of the chief Iranian cleric Ali Khamenei that the US simply could not be trusted. Relations never recovered after that.

The Newsweek article implies that this feint strategy to include Iran in the axis of evil was purely for domestic public relations purposes that had unintended and disastrous foreign policy consequences but I find that hard to believe. The neoconservative clique that has such a stranglehold on the Bush administration has always wanted to attack Iran and they must have been concerned at the rapprochement between the two countries. I suspect they were instrumental, through Rice, in including Iran, knowing that it would completely sour relations and increase the chances of hostilities.

But even after this there was a glimmer of hope when, after the 2003 attack on Iraq, Iran sent a fax to the US State Department offering talks on a wide range of issues. I wrote about this sometime ago but the actual fax is now available. Iran probably felt vulnerable because of the swift sweep of US forces into Iraq and thus offered to make concessions on almost everything, including its nuclear program. Condoleeza Rice now says that she cannot remember seeing the fax, an extraordinary admission about such an important development. It frankly seems far-fetched that Rice would not be aware of such a thing. One can only conclude that this administration, or at least key people in it, had decided that they were going to war with Iran and wanted to have nothing to do with anything that might deflect them from that course.

But this was another squandered opportunity, confirming to the Iranians that the US was not interested in improving relations.

I hope I am wrong in my cynicism about the latest warming trend, and that there will genuinely be a move back from the brink of another war and towards a better relationship between the US and Iran.

POST SCRIPT: The dark world of Dick Cheney

It used to be thought that Dick Cheney was the “grown-up” in this administration, there to provide gravitas and advise the inexperienced Bush. What has actually emerged is that Cheney is a man of appallingly bad judgment, almost paranoid in his fears about the threats to the US, and the most belligerent advocate for the neoconservative agenda of more and wider wars. It is suggested that it is no accident that the latest diplomatic overture by the US towards Iran occurred when he was out of the country and that on his return he might try and scuttle it.

There is now a growing awareness that Cheney is a dangerous and reckless man, who is willing to disregard evidence and say anything to further his agenda. Matthew Yglesias argues that Cheney has become both a national joke and a national nightmare, “a man whose track record of dishonesty, catastrophically poor judgments, and world-historical stubbornness makes the rest of the Bush administration look reasonable.” And Josh Marshall adds that “outside of the hardcore of Bush dead-enders, people know he’s at best an incompetent fool.”

This telling cartoon suggests that more and more people are coming round to the kind of view.

The Failure of Intelligent Design Creationism

On Monday I attended the talk given by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) at Strosacker. The program consisted of a talk for about an hour by Behe followed by a 20-minute response by Professor Hillel Chiel of the Biology Department at Case.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite familiar with the IDC program, having read Behe’s book and other IDC literature, written about the topic extensively, and debated Behe and other IDC advocates in 2002 in Kansas and again in Michigan. So I was curious to see what new developments had occurred since my last encounter with him.

Michael Behe gives good talks and the full auditorium had an enjoyable evening. He has an engaging manner, good sense of humor, and presents his ideas in a clear way. But I already knew that having heard his talks before. What disappointed me was that there was absolutely nothing new in his talk, which was entirely a rehash of the same things he was saying five years ago. The examples he gave in support of intelligent design were the same as in his book that was published in 1996. The only new things since that book were his rebuttals of some criticisms of his book, but even those were things that he said in his 2002 talks. I recognized all the quotes and examples.

Behe made the familiar line of argument of IDC: 1. We immediately know when we see designed systems. (The Mount Rushmore example, a standby of IDC advocates, was once again evoked. See here and here for my earlier postings about this.) 2. There seems to be clear appearance of design in many biological systems. 3. Some of these systems are “irreducibly complex” in that if you take away any single component, the system fails to function. (He brought out the familiar mousetrap analogy and the flagellum and the blood-clotting examples). 4. Evolution by natural selection and its gradual approach to change cannot explain these phenomena and evolution advocates resort to implausible and hand-waving explanations. 5. Hence the existence of such systems implies a designer.

In his brief response, Chiel addressed all these arguments. Chiel said that the reason IDC is not science is that it does not provide any hypothesis to be tested and thus does not provide the basis for any research program. (The very fact that IDC has not produced anything new for over a decade is evidence of that.) On the other hand, evolution by natural selection is the basis of research in almost all of biology. He gave the example of his own research and also how bacteria, in order to develop drug-resistant strains, actually generate more random mutations so that there is a greater chance of producing a resistant strain that will survive due to natural selection. Scientists try to prevent these mutations from occurring as part of their struggle to prevent these strains from emerging. Thus Darwin’s theory provides the basis of such scientific work.

Chiel also made a very important point about the whole irreducible complexity argument. Behe’s “irreducibly complex” systems are those that have many interlocking parts so that taking any one component away destroys the functionality of the system. Since it is unlikely that all the parts could have evolved separately and then come together in one fell swoop to create the functioning system, Behe infers that they must have been designed in some way.

Chiel pointed out the flaw in this argument. How a system gets built cannot be inferred from what happens if you take away something from the system after it is built. It is quite possible for a complex system to be built gradually, piece by piece, such that when you take something away from the final object, it fails completely. To use an example of my own, it is like a house of cards. You build it up carefully one card at a time. But once built, take away almost any card and the whole system collapses. This is because in the process of constructing complex things, some parts initially play the role of scaffolding or some other auxiliary purpose. But with a change in functionality in the final system, a part that was initially an option can become essential.

For another example, take cars (this is also my example, not Chiels’s). They have evolved gradually to be the complex machines we now have. Currently, GPS guidance systems in cars are an auxiliary device that are sometimes installed as a convenience but are not essential. If you have one in your car, you can remove it and the car is still functional. But in the future we could have a transport system where cars do not need drivers but run under their own remote controlled navigation and steering systems. Suddenly the GPS device is no longer an option but becomes crucial to the functioning of the car. Chiel said that complex biological systems are like that, co-opting things as needed to perform desirable but optional functions which can later become essential components.

Kenneth Miller’s review of Behe’s book provides a detailed example of how systems that satisfy Behe’s description of being “irreducibly complex” actually evolved.

The three smallest bones in the human body, the malleus, incus, and stapes, carry sound vibrations across the middle ear, from the membrane-like tympanum (the eardrum) to the oval window. This five component system fits Behe’s test of irreducible complexity perfectly – if any one of its parts are taken away or modified, hearing would be lost. This is the kind of system that evolution supposedly cannot produce. Unfortunately for “intelligent design,” the fossil record elegantly and precisely documents exactly how this system formed. During the evolution of mammals, bones that originally formed the rear portion of the reptilian lower jaw were gradually pushed backwards and reduced in size until they migrated into the middle ear, forming the bony connections that carry vibrations into the inner ears of present-day mammals. A system of perfectly-formed, interlocking components, specified by multiple genes, was gradually refashioned and adapted for another purpose altogether – something that this book claims to be impossible. As the well-informed reader may know, creationist critics of this interpretation of fossils in the reptile to mammal transition once charged that this could not have taken place. What would happen, they joked, to the unfortunate reptile while he was waiting for two of his jaw bones to migrate into the middle ear? The poor creature could neither hear nor eat! As students of evolution may know, A. W. Crompton of Harvard University brought this laughter to a deafening halt when he unearthed a fossil with a double articulation of the jaw joint – an adaptation that would allow the animal to both eat and hear during the transition, enabling natural selection to favor each of the intermediate stages.

Chiel also debunked the notion that there is a “controversy” over Darwin’s theory and that therefore the controversy should be taught. He said that there was no scientific controversy among scientists and that therefore neither IDC nor “the controversy” belonged in any science curriculum. However he said that IDC should be taught as part of a humanities or social sciences curriculum

He pointed out that scientists practiced methodological naturalism as a necessary element of their work but that did not entail philosophical naturalism (which is atheism). (See here for an earlier posting on this.) He pointed out that if in the future Darwinian evolution turns out to be an inadequate theory, there was still no requirement to adopt IDC because there would be other alternative naturalistic theories.

In his talk he also made the point that IDC is not only not science, it is also bad theology because linking one’s religious belief to one scientific theory is dangerous. He posed the hypothetical question of what would have happened to someone whose religious belief was based on Newtonian physics (or to its flaws). When relativity and quantum mechanics came along, their faith would have been seriously undermined.

What was interesting is that Hillel Chiel, in addition to being a first-rate scientist, is a very observant Orthodox Jew, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and its commentaries. I have known him for many years and he and I are in almost perfect agreement on almost everything about the nature of science. This illustrates my point that amongst scientists, their position on religious beliefs (or philosophical naturalism) is totally irrelevant. All that is required of a scientist is a commitment to methodological naturalism in their work. Some scientists like Chiel choose to reject philosophical naturalism and are devoutly religious, while others (like me) choose to accept it and become atheists. But those choices have no effect on the scientific work of either group. Chiel is far more religiously observant than most scientists I know, including (I suspect) Behe. And yet I think Chiel and I have far more in common that Behe and me, because we both share a commitment to methodological naturalism in science, which Behe does not.

The problem with IDC is that it is a sterile theory, producing no mechanisms or predictions or research programs. I suspect that most of the people who were in Strosacker Auditorium on Monday probably agree with Behe that god somehow acts in the world in some mysterious way that they do not know. Where Behe gets into trouble is in trying to assert that this belief has a scientific basis. That claim is simply not credible.

The forces pushing for war with Iran

Most rational people view the idea of the US going to war with Iran as downright insane. To create another horrific situation for the people in Iran similar to what the Iraqi people are currently undergoing would seem to be unthinkable to any humane person. But even for those lacking in such humanitarian impulses and who only think in terms of political calculations (especially when the suffering is borne by others), it still would not seem to make any sense. Here we have the US military bogged down and stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US government isolated internationally. Why would Bush take on Iran as well, knowing that it would, at the very least, alienate large segments of the Shia community in Iraq when it desperately depends on that group to prevent the anti-US insurgency initiated by largely by the minority Sunni groups to become a full-scale and widespread revolt which the US would be unlikely to withstand?
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Another Gulf of Tonkin coming up?

If there is to be an attack on Iran, the Bush administration will have a harder time selling it to the US public, mainly because of the growing realization that the public was willfully misled about the reasons for going to war against Iraq. Some observers argue that convincing the skeptical public to go along will require the equivalent of a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. This was the infamous event, manufactured by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he falsely alleged an attack by North Vietnamese forces on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to push through a resolution in Congress that gave him almost unlimited powers to wage war in South East Asia. It was later revealed that the ‘retaliation’ launched by the US was actually a plan that had been created some time earlier and needed a trigger which this ‘incident’ conveniently provided. The media then, like the media now, did not critically evaluate these claims but joined the rush to escalate the war, resulting in a quagmire that caused immense suffering for the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people and led to the eventual US defeat in 1975.
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The war of words against Iran

There has been an escalating war of words by the US against Iran. The latest was the allegation that the top Iranian leadership is directly involved in supplying the Iraqi insurgency with refined IEDs called EFPs (for ‘explosively formed projectiles’) that can penetrate even the armored US vehicles. What is interesting is that the ‘evidence’ for this allegation was provided at a briefing where the US officials insisted on anonymity, recalling the infamous days before the invasion of Iraq when major media outlets, especially the New York Times, uncritically reported unsourced allegations by administration officials and Iraqi exiles saying that Saddam Hussein possessed all manner of dangerous nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. After the Colin Powell UN speech fiasco, it seems as if no one wants to be fingered if this too turns out to be bogus. The actual PowerPoint presentation that was shown by the anonymous Pentagon briefers in Baghdad can be seen here.
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Disentangling the key players in Iraq

To make better sense of what is going on currently in Iraq, we need to identify the major players. Everyone is by now is familiar with the Shia-Sunni religious divide in Islam, one of those hair-splitting and absurd enmities between sects that plague religions. The extreme devotion of each of these groups to their particular form of religion, and their willingness to see members of the ‘other’ side as an enemy, is typical of the insanity of the tribal mentality. We now see a process by which militant members of each group are seeking to drive wedges between them even deeper to the extent of eliminating mixed-residence regions. Already it is reported that 10 of the 23 mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have become exclusively Shia. So the Sunni faction of the insurgency is fighting the US while at the same time attacking the rival Shia, or defending the Sunnis from the Shia, depending on your point of view.

But a complicating factor that is emerging is that there is an important split within the Shia group that makes this into a three-way conflict.

One of the major Shia political groupings is the SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) which has its own armed militia called the Badr Brigade. The SCIRI group, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has long been affiliated with Iran and, according to A. K. Gupta writing in Z Magazine (February 2007), is conspiring to form a Shia ‘super-region’ in southern Iraq adjoining Iran, where the major oil reserves are concentrated. When Saddam Hussein was in power, SCIRI leaders spent their years in exile in Iran and were recognized as the Iraqi government-in-exile by Iranian clerics. Also, the Badr brigade was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The other major Shia group is the more publicized (at least in the US) one led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr and which also has its own armed militia called the Mehdi Army. This group has historically not been close to Iran and in fact has opposed increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Sadr has great credibility in Iraq as a nationalist. As Patrick Cockburn writes, Muqtada’s father and two brothers were fierce opponents of Saddam Hussein and were murdered by him because they were perceived as threats, and while many other Iraqi leaders left for exile, Muqtada al Sadr stayed behind. Like his father, he was angry at the US because the economic sanctions on Iraq by the US had brought ruin to the people of his country. All these factors give him an immense nationalistic credibility.

So given that the US considers Iran part of the ‘axis of evil’ and is currently making warlike noises against it, if the US had to choose between allying itself with the Iranian-backed SCIRI and the nationalist Sadr group, you would think that it would support Sadr. But you would be wrong. Every indication is that an important part of the surge strategy is to crush Sadr politically to the extent of even killing him, and destroying his Mehdi army militarily. Why? Because as a fierce nationalist who opposes all foreign occupation, including that of the US, he represents a more immediate threat to US. His group in the Iraqi parliament has managed to get almost half of that body to sign a petition calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Since, as I have argued before, the US is clearly intent on occupying Iraq permanently, Sadr and all he represents has to be destroyed, since it seems hard to co-opt him to be fully subservient to US interests.

So what has emerged is a de facto alliance between the US and the Badr brigade against the Mehdi army. The Badr brigade has deeply infiltrated the Iraqi military and police forces under the patronage of the Interior Minister and are operating ‘death squads’ that operate with impunity, carrying out attacks on Sunnis and the followers of Sadr, with the US giving them political and even military cover.

So as part of the current offensive, we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on Sadr’s stronghold in what is known as ‘Sadr City’ in Baghdad, an enclave of about 2 million people. What happens then depends on the response of the Mehdi army. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004 when the US army went into Sadr City, the Mehdi army directly confronted it and received heavy losses. Since then, the militias seem to have learned the lesson that it is better to fight the US indirectly. The next time the US confronts the Mehdi army in Sadr city (which is likely to happen very soon or some reports indicate is already underway) what is likely to happen is that the Mehdi army will melt away and not offer much direct resistance. Sadr himself, expecting to be targeted for killing has reportedly gone into hiding.This would result in a lull in the level of violence but it is unlikely to be permanent as long as the basic instability exists in the political structure of that country.

Another strategy being adopted is for the militia members to sign up to join the Iraqi security forces that the US is creating and training and arming. That way, they can gain access to weapons and supplies and intelligence as well. But this results in the Iraqi military not serving the government (shaky though it is) but advancing the interests of whatever sectarian groups make up its caadres.

As a result, the security forces are not seen by the population at large as protecting the people but as extensions of the death squads that are terrorizing the population. It has also led to criminals and thugs getting access to the Iraqi security forces and acting with increasing impunity such as this case where they force their way into people’s hopes, brutalize them, and take their valuables.

So in a nutshell, the US strategy seems to be to ally itself with one faction of the Shias (the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades) to try and crush both the Sunni insurgency and the Shia opposition led by Muqtada al Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi army. Meanwhile, the US is taking an increasingly confrontational tone with Iran, which is the very sponsor of the US allies in Iraq, and it is not clear to what extent the US’s other allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan all of whom are Sunni) will tolerate the assault on their Sunni kinsfolk in Iraq. Bush seems to be trying to appease them by playing up the threat posed by the Shia Iranians

It seems as if the US is succumbing to the danger that befalls all occupying armies when they stay too long and that is getting more and more entangled in local politics, forging short-term alliances of convenience and getting mixed up in shifting regional conflicts.

This is the mess that the US finds itself in, all of which will likely lead to long-term complications.

POST SCRIPT: Another Johnny Cash classic

This song Sunday morning coming down has some wonderful lyrics.

The Spring of Our Discontent

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, we had better brace ourselves for some bad news in the various wars that the US is currently involved in.

In Afghanistan, as is well known by now, the Taliban has its strongholds in the northwest frontier territories of Pakistan that borders southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has pretty much relinquished any attempt to control this area and has left it under the control of the local warlords, many of whom have long-standing ties, ethnic and even familial, with the Taliban. This is rugged, mountainous territory and it is believed that the Taliban has been regrouping and strengthening its cadres in that region and that as the snow thaws, it is expected that cross-border infiltration will increase leading to a spike in violence. It is clear that the Afghan government in Kabul and the US and NATO forces in that country are waiting to see what is going to happen.

Furthermore, it is now reported that after being disorganized and fragmented and rudderless for awhile, al Qaeda leaders are rebuilding their operations in that same region, re-establishing a chain of command with their loose federation of foot-soldiers around the world.

Meanwhile, we have the escalation of US troops in Iraq (especially in Baghdad) along with the appointment of a new commander of the forces in that country General David Petraeus. Petraeus is a student of counter-insurgency, being the main person responsible for writing the manual that is being used to train US troops. He has also been very adroit at self-promotion, using as his main vehicle reporter Michael Gordon of the New York Times, the very reporter who jointly authored with now-discredited Judith Miller all the fantastic allegations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that led to public acceptance of Bush’s illegal attack on that country. Gordon is now doing exactly the same thing with the escalating rhetoric against Iran (more about that later).

The shape of the new Iraq operation is becoming clear. Petraeus seems to be a believer in a ‘clear and hold’ strategy, which he carried out in his earlier stint in Iraq where he was in charge of the Mosul region. In this strategy, you divide up a region into small units, then send in troops door-to-door to ferret out fighters and weapons caches. Once a region is cleared, then you move to the next region while stationing enough troops in the cleared region to prevent re-entry by the insurgent forces. While Petraeus managed to get favorable publicity for his approach to that city, the plan itself failed and “the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division’s departure.”

But this approach is going to be repeated in Baghdad, with the city being divided into 11 zones:

The soldiers will aim to create mini “green zones” – cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge – guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.

To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.

The response of insurgents and guerillas to this type of US strategy is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed this type of warfare. They will likely not directly challenge the much better armed and organized US troops and will move away from that region and either launch attacks elsewhere or lie low until the occupying troops eventually leave. This is always the problem faced by an occupying foreign force. The local fighters know that you have to leave at some point and the question then becomes who has the most patience.

The key to the success of this strategy lies in two things. One is to have enough troops to both clear new areas while holding on to the old ones. The second is that since a key goal of insurgencies is to create instability, to keep the troops in place long enough to allow a normal life to develop in those areas, thus causing the insurgents’ momentum to dissipate and become discouraged.

How many troops are enough for this? Classic counter-insurgency theory has a rule of thumb that says that in an occupation you need one soldier for every 50 civilians in the region. This works out to 500,000 troops for the Iraq population of over 26 million. This is the basis on which former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated in 2003 that the US would need about “several hundred thousand” troops to occupy Iraq, for which prediction he was eased out of office since that was not the answer wanted by the Bush administration. Baghdad alone has a population of about 5 million, which would require 100,000 troops, and yet currently there are about only 15,000 combat troops there. And the numbers are worse than it looks since the 50-to-1 estimate of troops is based on a fairly peaceful occupation, not a raging insurgency/civil war like what we are seeing. Clearly even the current ‘surge’ is not enough.

Recall also that even though there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq, only about a third of them are actual combat troops, the rest being support personnel (engineers, mechanics, cooks, medics, clerks, and the like). This ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio of combat troops to support personnel is a surprisingly hard figure to pin down, which is why estimates of how many troops are necessary seem to vary wildly. But under all calculations, the numbers currently in place are insufficient and already there are hints of a further escalation in the works to meet this deficiency. This is also why re-creation of the Iraqi military is such a high priority for the US, since there will never be enough US troops for a successful counter-insurgency.

As more US troops go on patrol and engage with the insurgents as part of this clear and hold strategy, they are likely to suffer additional casualties from snipers and IEDs. But even allowing for this, it is quite likely (for reasons to be given in the next posting) that the current policy will produce a short-term reduction in the overall levels of violence, as the forces opposed to the occupation scatter to parts outside of Baghdad and regroup. This will likely occur soon and extend into the spring and the lull will be interpreted by the Bush administration as a vindication of its ‘surge’ strategy. The question is whether this lull can last and what political strategy the Bush administration is pursuing in parallel. And this is where things start to get messy.

Next: Disentangling the key players in Iraq

POST SCRIPT: I Walk the line

Johnny Cash had a great voice. Here he is singing his big hit I walk the line.

This is a difficult song because each verse shifts to a higher key, until the final verse is back in the original key. Between verses you can sometimes hear him humming the starting note so that he comes in correctly.