Tag: the surge

The Iraq surge: vindicated then exposed?

We haven’t got all the details, but promptly after the departure of US combat troops the Iraqi Prime Minister is feuding badly with Sunni political figures, and a bomb blast suggests that Iraq may be escalating into more sectarian conflict.

If so, what does this say about the surge? On one hand, the relatively quiet withdrawal of American troops on Tuesday vindicated one objective of the surge: to create more stable conditions to that America could pull out quietly without it being humiliated and without the kind of chaotic flight to the exits that would polarize its society.

On the other hand, the major declared objective of the surge launched by President Bush II in 2006-7 was to depress levels of violence, secure the population and thereby create critical space in which there could be political progress and reconciliation.

Advocates of enlightened counterinsurgency and muscular state-building argued that Iraq vindicated their position. They argued that the combination of more troops and more restraint played a major role in depressing the levels of violence and giving Iraq a breathing space to recover from the communal bloodletting it suffered in the post-invasion years.

But if Iraq descends again into the traumatic violence of 2005-6, we must acknowledge that this approach had its limits. It bought time and got the issue off the front pages – no small thing for a superpower that has seen presidencies destroyed in the past by protracted small wars – but a new civil war of sorts would suggest that the surge did not achieve its most profound objective.

Its not actually obvious, historically, that gentler, more sophisticated ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns necessarily work, if we define success as marginalising insurgencies while leaving behind a strong state that governs in the interests of the departing occupier.

Successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the past relied on favourable geopolitical conditions and some pretty unsentimental techniques. Forced population resettlements, virtual concentration camps (albeit with well-run facilities), indiscriminate bombings, bribery on a massive scale, proxy violence, etc. Which is precisely one reason why I am uneasy with our countries doing this kind of campaign, given the dark price victory has often exacted.

In some ways, the Petraeus revolution mixed the fluffy, appealing liberal versions of hearts and minds (cultural literacy, heroic restraint, a population-centric view that you can’t kill your way out) with some hard-nosed methods, such as walling off warring communities, putting potential insurgents on the payroll, and sustaining a round-the-clock kill and capture programme.

And yet, car bombs are going off and there are new rumours of war.

Alternatively, there is the line being peddled that America should not have left. Making Iraq an indefinite commitment would be mightily expensive. And by shouldering this burden well into the future, it would come at other costs, putting the US in the eye of whatever storms were coming in the future.

Ultimately, Iraq showed in a brutal way how limited American power is. If the surge only bought some time and space, and postponed another round of internal conflict (possibly metastasizing into a wider regional one), then policymakers should not conclude that perpetual armed nation-building works if only we get our methods right. Ultimately, COIN just isn’t a venture that we should fatalistically accept as part of our strategic future.

Contrary to the late Christopher Hitchens, endless war is not only a bad idea. It is beyond America’s limited strength. And compared to its costs, its dividends, at least in this case, may be slight indeed.

Cross posted at Offshore Balancer.


Kajaki and Power Politics

Like the ancient Greco-Buddhist colossi of Bamiyan, the High-Modernist era Kajaki dam is a product of foreign influences and has been a mute witness as well as an occasional victim of domestic political disarray and failed attempts to integrate and incorporate Afghanistan into contending spheres of influence. Each alternate modern (i.e., capitalist, communist, islamist, praetorian) or anti-traditional/utopian fundamentalist (i.e., Deobandi) ideology has attempted to inscribe the future of Afghanistan on this palimpsest.

The dam was built from 1946 to 1953 as part of what became known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) project in Afghanistan.  It was funded initially by King Zahir Shah and later, as funds ran low, from loans by the United States (Washington Post 8/7/2011). The vast project was obviously modeled on the  Great Depression era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. The belief in the High Modernist era of development planning was that massive infrastructural investment was the key to setting off a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic growth. Although that model of development is highly discredited today for environmental and political as well as practical reasons, the dam, irrigation canals, and highways associated with the project did eventually help to transform the landscape into a fertile valley. By the mid-seventies, the dam had two Westinghouse 16.5 MW turbines to generate electricity for the entire valley. This project was for its time, one of the most expensive US foreign assistance projects in history.

With the Saur Revolution, insurrection, Soviet invasion, and civil war the dam naturally fell into a brief period of disrepair. The occupying Soviet forces prioritized linking Kabul directly to the Soviet power grid. However, they also built gas turbines and diesel generators in several other Afghan cities and towns. Czechoslovakia was given the task of restoring the dam and they provided much of the equipment to “modernize” the Kajaki dam and increase its irrigation capacity. By 1982, the dam’s power lines were restored and power flowed once again to Alexander’s city, Kandahar, in the neighboring province. Not surprisingly, the dam soon attracted several Mujahedeen attacks on Soviet and PDPA soldiers guarding the site. With the Soviet withdrawal and the warlord period, the dam and associated infrastructure again fell into disrepair.

By the late nineties as order returned across much of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hopes that their increasingly warm friendship with the US (which seemed all too willing to overlook Taliban abuses toward women and minorities at the time) would mean that Americans would return to Helmand to once again fix the dam’s power generating units and particularly the silted irrigation canals (Philadelphia Inquirer 1/19/1997). The irrigation canals associated with the HVA were now vital to the production of the world’s largest supply of opium and Afghanistan’s main export, even though the Taliban had officially announced plans to stamp out the crop.

When US assistance for the dam did not materialize a few years later, the Taliban turned to Pakistan and China for assistance.  The Pakistanis, who increasingly saw Afghanistan as a colony or at least a “gateway to Central Asia” after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse, were committed to restoring electricity and promoting a modicum of stability and development in order to consolidate the gains of their Taliban client regime. Under the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan planned to build a high voltage transmission line to connect the Afghan city of Jalalabad directly to Pakistan’s own electricity grid. In Helmand, the Pakistanis proposed to build new sluice gates to increase the power generation and irrigation capacity of the dam.  These plans obviously came to a screeching halt in September 2001.

During the initial US invasion of Afghanistan, the dam’s power station was deliberately targeted by American forces (Guardian 12/20/2001).  Once the US occupied Afghanistan, the teams switched sides and the dam became the target of the Taliban while the US played defense.  In 2003, a force of sixty Taliban were captured after firing three rockets at the dam — all of which missed the target (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/2003).

In 2006, the US gave $1.4 billion to two private contractors to increase the amount of power generated by the Kajaki dam by adding a third turbine and also repairing a large power plant in Kabul.  Adding the third turbine to the dam entailed a famous 2008 mission, Operation Kryptonite, in which 3,000 British troops protected 100 vehicle convoy as it hauled a gigantic turbine across a 180 km of insurgent dominated areas. Apparently between 15 to 200 insurgents were killed (depending on which account one believes) during this Hollywood style “Wild West” stagecoach mission.

The mission “succeeded” in reaching the forward operating base but repairs and installation of the new turbine was painstakingly slow – the third turbine has never been unpacked. Repairs to the dam were supposed to be finished by 2008. By mid 2009 auditors were complaining that the two plants (Kajaki and Kabul) combined were only generating 12MW instead of the originally contracted 140MW (USA Today 11/11/2009). Plans for adding the third turbine were deferred indefinitely after a Chinese subcontractor abandoned the site. US taxpayers have since paid a $1 million per month to guard the dam while the program was suspended to look for another subcontractor and to make the road to the dam “secure.”

In the interim, US and ISAF forces performed annual surges to tame the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.  An inattentive and uncritical American and European public was repeatedly told by blatant propaganda that this time the province had finally been secured, only to witness a repeated need for a surge of troops and bribes the next year. Despite these surges, ISAF soldiers soldiers openly admit that their influence does not extend beyond 500 meters of their security bases (see Daily Mail 10/8/2011).

The electricity grid once again became a priority issue for American generals during a surge in the neighboring province of Kandahar in 2010, when the generals realized that restoring electric power was critical to winning over the civilian population and defeating the Taliban. They took $106 million dollars in discretionary funding to pay for new generators and all the diesel fuel necessary to power the grid for four years (Globe and Mail, 7/11/11). No provisions were made for the Afghan government to restock the fuel after four years and the government lacked the staff to monitor or repair the system.

Finally, having failed to stabilize the province, much less fix the electricity supply, ISAF forces have simply declared victory and they have begun to hand over responsibility to ill trained Afghan Security Forces in preparation for a withdrawal in 2014.

In November 2011, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had dropped by 20 meters over several months endangering the ability of the dam to generate any electricity if another 5 meters were lost (Shamsad TV, 11/23/2011).  The electricity generation which had reached 20MW was now back down to 12MW. The drop in water also threatened the agricultural capacity of the valley which was already threatened by drought.

This week (12/13/2011) with a 50% cut to the USAID budget, the US is considering permanently deferring the installation of the third turbine and instead calling it a day after simply refurbishing the existing two turbines, power lines, and substations.  What was once seen as essential to winning hearts and minds is now on the chopping block of a cost-benefit analysis.

Thus, the dam remains a symbol of false promises and failed efforts to reorient decisively Afghanistan’s future. But even if the dam were made operational, it would still remain problematic. Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development. The broader failings of an unsustainable infrastructure-led development model were never unpacked and thought through. The dam represents a desperate hope that there is a short cut to development, prosperity, and peace.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]


Liar, hypocrite or partisan hack?

Dick Cheney’s memoir apparently verifies an interesting political point from George W. Bush’s memoir. Last November, I noted that the former President claimed that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had approached him in 2006 prior to the congressional elections in order to urge withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq. This might save the Republican majority, argued the Majority Leader, even though McConnell was publicly taking the position that the US should remain in Iraq for vital security reasons. After the election, of course, Bush famously increased the US deployment in Iraq (“the surge”).

A local columnist in Louisville has identified a key passage in Cheney’s memoir that apparently confirms Bush’s account, based on the former Veep’s recollection of a July 2007 dinner he hosted (p. 462):

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walked over to me. Mitch had been one of the most concerned of the Republicans. He was up for reelection and had suggested to the president that he needed to begin a withdrawal in order to avoid massive defection of Republican senators.

As my original post noted, McConnell’s opposing public and private positions certainly make him look bad.

Was he lying when he said US troops were vital for security? Was he simply acting as a hypocrit? Or, and you can feel free to pick more than one choice, was he overtly expressing his partisan preferences in each situation, regardless of the security implications?


Sailing up stream….

Last week appeared to be Development Week at Foggy Bottom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her long-promised “Development” speech. The next day, Dr. Rajiv Shah was sworn in as the new administrator for USAID. In his speech, he identified four key priorities for his tenure:

1. To improve lives and fight poverty,
2. To expand human rights and economic opportunities,
3. To build democratic institutions and improve governance
4. To advance U.S. foreign policy to enhance our own prosperity and security.

Both Clinton’s speech and Rajiv’s appointment seem to me to strike the right notes, i.e, that development and diplomacy are as essential as defense in the conduct of American foreign policy.

Of course, as my friends at the National Priorities Project (based here in Northampton, MA) routinely point out, development and diplomacy aren’t even in the same league with the Pentagon.

Take the Afghanistan surge, for example. Jo Comerford, the head of NPP wrote an analysis of it over at TomDispatch.com. She notes that Obama’s decision for 30,000 additional troops will cost roughly $1million per soldier — about $30 billion total (that would be $57,077.60 per minute for us taxpayers). She writes:

For purposes of comparison, $30 billion — remember, just the Pentagon-estimated cost of a 30,000-person troop surge — is equal to 80% of the total U.S. 2010 budget for international affairs, which includes monies for development and humanitarian assistance. On the domestic front, $30 billion could double the funding (at 2010 levels) for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. (My emphasis)

Or think of the surge this way: if the United States decided to send just 29,900 extra soldiers to Afghanistan, 100 short of the present official total, it could double the amount of money — $100 million — it has allocated to assist refugees and returnees from Afghanistan through the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Leaving aside the fact that the United States already accounts for 45% of total global military spending, the $30 billion surge cost alone would place us in the top-ten for global military spending, sandwiched between Italy and Saudi Arabia. Spent instead on “soft security” measures within Afghanistan, $30 billion could easily build, furnish and equip enough schools for the entire nation.

Given the deeply embedded domestic structural factors (political and organizational) that routinely fuel increases in defense spending and ridicule development assistance, it’s hard to find much promise in Clinton’s proclamation that:

It’s time for a new mindset for a new century. Time to retire old debates and replace dogmatic attitudes with clear reasoning and common sense. And time to elevate development as a central pillar of our foreign policy and to rebuild USAID into the world’s premier development agency.

Yeah, well, good luck with that….


Selling the Afghan Surge

As you might expect, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the prospects for the so-called “Afghan surge.” Boosters like to point to the alleged success of the Iraq surge, but many of them ignore some salient points.

For example, the U.S. also changed its military tactics in Iraq even as it implemented the surge. The military embraced counterinsurgency tactics, something it had been reluctant to do since Vietnam.

Moreover, the surge coincided with the so-called Anbar awakening. Sunni tribal sheikhs split from al Qaeda and ended up working with the U.S. military instead of against it. A lot of money apparently changed hands to grease this process.

Matt Yglesias had a fine post Monday noting that the Iraqi national security advisor at the time is not willing to credit the surge with success in his country. Plus, as Yglesias notes, Afghanistan was falling apart even as Iraq was gaining some stability:

Iraq is definitely in better shape than it was three years ago and Afghanistan is definitely in worse shape. It’s not clear that that’s a net strategic gain for the United States nor is it clear that our dispatch of troops to Iraq was really decisive in leading to the improvements.

So, can the surge in Afghanistan work, coupled with COIN tactics?

As I’ve blogged previously, there’s no guarantee that anything like the Anbar Awakening can occur in Afghanistan. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that American troops are not popular in Afghanistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan are extremely unpopular there. Thus, we cannot be assured that either a simple surge in troops or a change in military tactics can work in the Af-Pak context.

Yglesias suggests that the biggest success of the Iraq surge has been in PR — proponents created a narrative that allowed for the forthcoming U.S. exit. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for in Afghanistan as well.


Interpreting the surge in Iraq

I have a longstanding apathy towards State of the Union addresses. If a President says anything important (like declaring states part of an “axis of evil“), then I figure that the text serves just as well. My actions are bipartisan — I don’t watch anyone named Bush give these addresses and I didn’t watch Bill Clinton either. And I generally didn’t watch Ronald Reagan’s efforts.

However, there’s a case to be made that I should have watched the address this year — not because of what Bush said, but because of how specific members of the audience reacted.

After all, both of the remaining Democratic rivals for the presidential nomination are U.S. Senators and had the opportunity to agree or disagree with the current occupant of the White House. They could clap — or not — whenever the President made a policy point or arrived at a conclusion. In an extreme case, the candidate might even stand and clap. Arguably, such a move sends a clear signal to potential voters.

The Hill, January 29, provided this news about what I missed:

Obama and Clinton seemed to see eye to eye on Bush’s domestic agenda, sitting firmly on their hands through most of the first half of his speech…

Clinton and Obama’s divergent views on the troop surge in Iraq, however, were plainly visible.

When Bush proclaimed, “Ladies and gentlemen, some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt,” Clinton sprang to her feet in applause but Obama remained firmly seated.

Kevin Drum is skeptical that this means anything, but Mark Kleiman believes it signifies a great deal.

I tend to side with Kleiman on this — largely because I do not think the surge has been a success. Thus, I do not think that any public figure, but perhaps especially Hillary Clinton — who already mistakenly voted for the war — should be clapping about the continued prosecution of the war.

The post I’ve just linked mentions that the civilian violent death rate in Iraq has declined to 2005 levels, which were worse than 2004 levels. This month, about 24 people per day are dying violent deaths. The January 2008 number will likely be between 700 and 800 dead.

These numbers are dramatically down from the war’s peak from June 2006 through August 2007 when more than 2500 people were dying each month.

The December 2007 civilian violent death toll in Iraq was 902.

Context: While the President defines that as success in Iraq, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has been trying to mediate an exploding crisis in Kenya. The US envoy to Africa has called the situation “ethnic cleansing.” Yet, since December, “only” about 900 people have died. Press reports place the January death toll at around 800.

Do the math:

A good month in Iraq = a burgeoning political crisis in Kenya.

Since Kenya‘s population is about 10 million greater than Iraq‘s, the death toll in Iraq is a larger portion of the population.


Post-surge offensive

Wednesday, in Slate, Phillip Carter looked at what he called the first post-surge offensive by the U.S. military. Roughly 10% of American forces in Iraq are conducting operations in the the Diyala province. However, as Carter cautions, this is “an attempt to clear an area without there being a sizable number of troops available to occupy it afterward.”

Carter documents that this is a sizable offensive force — bigger even than what the US employed in November 2004 during the second assault on Fallujah. Unfortunately, the size of the force will not guarantee mission success:

One truism about the surge has been that where we deploy sufficient numbers of U.S. troops, we prevail. There is no doubt that this quantity of U.S. troops will clear this small area of insurgents and al-Qaida fighters. The only question for the near term is whether our troops will kill, capture, or merely push those fighters out of the breadbasket. This has been the pattern for U.S. military operations since 2003, and yet the insurgency continues. The more important question is whether the U.S. military—and its partners in the Iraqi army and police—can secure the area for the long term, and do so with fewer and fewer U.S. troops as the surge ends.

Though the local civilians — and presumably the insurgents — could monitor recent helicopter activity in the area to predict the offensive, the US military apparently did not tell the Iraqi military about it and is apparently not making much use of Iraqi forces in the fight.

Didn’t the surge emphasize cooperation between US and Iraqi forces?

The most recent news reports, in fact, show that this attack is modeled after the war’s start — shock and awe. From The Washington Post, January 10:

U.S. warplanes unleashed one of the most intense airstrikes of the Iraq war Thursday, dropping 40,000 pounds of explosives in a thunderous 10-minute onslaught on suspected al-Qaida in Iraq safe havens in Sunni farmlands south of Baghdad.

The mighty barrage _ recalling the Pentagon’s “shock and awe” raids during the 2003 invasion _ appeared to mark a significant escalation in a countrywide offensive launched this week…

Maj. Alayne Conway, a spokeswoman for troops in central Iraq, said the amount of ordnance dropped in 10 minutes nearly exceeded what had been used in that region in any month since last June.

Conway said the air attack “was one of the largest airstrikes since the onset of the war” in March 2003.

Given these events, Carter rightfully calls this a post-surge operation. The troops are not on the ground, living among the people, providing order. They are not working with local populations. Here’s what General Petraeus said just a couple of days ago:

“Relationships are what this is all about. I think, in truth, relationships are what everything is all about, whether our own home life or international relations,” he said. “And all we are trying to do is, sort of, one handshake at a time or one smile at a time, one Beanie Baby at a time, to add a little joy and strength to this relationship.”

So why is the US bombing parts of Diyala back to the stone age?


Political judgment: Iraq edition

In January, I was skeptical about the prospects for the new Iraq strategy, commonly called “the surge.”

As everyone knows, the strategy was built around securing Baghdad:

The Bush administration asserts that the violence in Iraq, “particularly in Baghdad,” has reversed the political gains that were reflected in the 2005 elections. By stabilizing the situation in and around the capital, they assert, the U.S. can help the current government control Iraq — and then presumably prepare to bring American troops home.

Here’s what I wrote about the prospects for that strategy:

In my view, it means the U.S. will at best replicate the initial “success” widely acknowledged in Afghanistan. If Hamid Karzai was only “Mayor of Kabul” long after the fall of the Taliban, then it would seem that the Bush administration plans only to make Jalal Talabani Mayor of Baghdad in 2007.

…Iraq January 2008 will probably look a great deal like Afghanistan, October 2006.

Obviously, I was too cynical and thus was proved wrong about that specific prediction.

While Jalal Talabani remains President of Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is actually the mayor of Baghdad. I thought he might have lost power by now.

Otherwise, the latest news indicates that my prediction is accurate. From the LA Times, December 10:

“Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation — totally unplanned, of course — with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.”

The Times reporter, Ned Parker, provides much more detail about the outlying areas:

The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country’s civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country’s bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq’s disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

This is not an isolated report by one reporter.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, December 10, via Monsters and Critics

Hamid Fadil, a professor of political science at Baghdad University …is among Iraqi analysts who say that, underneath the veneer of improved security, they see their country turning into a cellular nation divided into rival constituencies, and failing to achieve compromise on key issues.

Among such issues are the much-needed consensus on 20 vital legislations, such as the oil and gas law and the return of thousands of Baath Party members from the Saddam Hussein era to government jobs.

So far the national government has been held together by a shaky coalition of Shiite and Kurdish parties. However, the withdrawal of many ministers belonging to the Shiite Sadr Bloc, the Sunni Iraqi National Accord and the secular Iraqi List has brought the cabinet nearer to collapse.

This development is further exacerbated by the provinces which are increasingly involved in power struggles and often see the central government as irrelevant.

The article discusses ongoing violent conflicts in Kurdistan and Basra. It also references the Iraq NIE, which “warned that US support for them [Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere] could strengthen the provinces and weaken efforts to impose Baghdad’s central authority.”

Sam Dagher reports in the December 10 Christian Science Monitor that even Baghdad’s residents do not yet enjoy the good life:

While many here are grateful for the newfound calm, they say the price is an increasingly segregated city that is starting to feel like a collective cage. In many cases, the US military is keeping tabs on male residents by collecting fingerprints and retinal scans.

“One road in and one road out, that’s it,” says Ghazaliya resident Muhammad Rajab. “Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” he adds wryly.

Maybe I should have predicted that al-Malaki would be Warden of Baghdad?


The decline in Iraqi violence

Dan Drezner calls this piece in today’s New York Times “the story that will occupy the blogosphere for today — Baghdad is safer.”

Then, Dan excerpts a bit of the story by Damien Cave and Alissa J. Rubin that makes a point I’ve been stressing since General Petraeus made his optimistic report in September. Fewer Iraqis are dying because they fled the war zone:

About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.

The last figures I saw suggested that 60 to 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing Baghdad per month — the return of 20,000 is background noise in that context.

Incidentally, though this story (like much of the right blogosphere) credits “the surge” with the reduction of violence in Iraq, two other credible theories are floating about:

First, in Iraq’s second largest city of Basra, violence may be down precisely because British troops have withdrawn. The AP, November 15:

Attacks against British and Iraqi forces have plunged by 90 percent in southern Iraq since London withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, the commander of British forces there said Thursday.

The presence of British forces in downtown Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, was the single largest instigator of violence, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns told reporters Thursday on a visit to Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“We thought, ‘If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?'” Binns said.

Britain’s 5,000 troops moved out of a former Saddam Hussein palace at Basra’s heart in early September, setting up a garrison at an airport on the city’s edge. Since that pullback, there’s been a “remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks,” Binns said.

“The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets,” he said.

That’s a polar opposite explanation than the one offered by the US.

Second, Iran has been a moderating force in Iraq. This is from another Rubin story in The New York Times November 18:

The Iraqi government on Saturday credited Iran with helping to rein in Shiite militias and stemming the flow of weapons into Iraq, helping to improve the security situation noticeably.

The Iraqi government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh…said that that government had helped to persuade the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr to ask his Mahdi militia to halt attacks. Mr. Sadr ordered his militia to stop using weapons in early September, and officials say that the militia’s relative restraint has helped improve stability. They say it also seems to have helped decrease the frequency of attacks with explosively formed penetrators, a powerful type of bomb that can pierce heavy armor.

Mr. Dabbagh’s comments echoed those of the American military here, who in recent days have gone out of their way to publicly acknowledge Iran’s role in helping to slow the flow of weapons into the country.

Dabbagh explicitly credited Iraqi diplomacy for this development, not “the surge.” Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki visited Iran in August and met with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Where’d you hide the body?

Bloggers on the right have been trumpeting the apparent decline in Iraqi civilian deaths as a clear sign that the surge is working. Apparently, we do body counts now that we like the numbers.

However, I’ve been arguing since September that civilian deaths may well be down because Iraqis feel insecure and have simply fled their homes. Such self-segregation is a classic response to ethnic war and there’s new evidence suggesting this viewpoint is correct. From the AP’s Lauren Frayer on November 5:

Deadly rivalries have forced Shiite and Sunni Muslims to flee once diverse neighborhoods across Iraq’s capital, leaving the city with clear boundaries between sects. More than 60 percent of those forced to flee were in Baghdad, the report said… In some places like Shiite-dominated Hurriyah in northwest Baghdad, fighting has subsided because there are literally no more Sunnis left to kill.

Representative David Obey of Wisconsin: Insurgents “are running out of people to kill.” Even General Petraeus acknowledges that this is part of the explanation for the reduction in the death rate.

The Iraqi Red Crescent reports that nearly 2.3 million people fled their homes but remained in Iraq, up from less than 500,000 at the beginning of the year. These “internally displaced persons” now outnumber refugees who have crossed state borders for Jordan or Syria. The AP again:

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, some 2 million Iraqis have fled their country. Of these, 1.2 million are in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Persian Gulf countries.

Altogether, adding the IDPs and the refugees means that nearly 4.5 million Iraqis are no longer living in their former homes.

Make that 5 million counting the war dead — or nearly 20% of the July 2007 estimated population.

More bodies: the U.S. military has already suffered more dead soldiers in 2007 than in any other year of the war.

Post title inspired by James McMurtry.



General Petraeus finished delivering his prepared remarks to the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees not long ago — and I’ve already been interviewed about them by the local NPR station (WFPL).

Basically, I concluded that his report was not surprising. Most analysts expected an optimistic assessment that would not call for a substantial reduction in American troops. The General is only talking about returning the US troop level to pre-surge levels by mid-July 2008. A modest proposal, eh?

I also noted a few points that General Petraeus did not address (though many in the blogosphere have):

  • What about seasonal violence? Yes, violence is down since the surge began in mid-June. But violence goes down every summer when it is hot. How much different was it this year?
  • What about the refugees? How much of the decline in ethnic violence is attributable to the fact that up to 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing the country every month?
  • What about winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis? Petraeus did not mention the latest ABC/BBC/NHK poll finding that nearly 60% of Iraqis think it is acceptable to target American troops. How can counterinsurgency succeed in such a context?

In short, I wasn’t shocked, or awed.


Iraq as Shakespearean Tragedy

How many ways, how many times, can one say that the US is @#$*&% in Iraq?

Today, two of the better military correspondents following Iraq (each with a must-read book on Iraq) dispense key insights as to how problematic Iraq is for the United States.

Michael Gordon in the NYT reports that:

The top American military commander for the Middle East has warned Iraq’s prime minister in a closed-door conversation that the Iraqi government needs to make tangible political progress by next month to counter the growing tide of opposition to the war in Congress.
In a Sunday afternoon discussion that mixed gentle coaxing with a sober appraisal of politics in Baghdad and Washington, the commander, Adm. William J. Fallon, told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that the Iraqi government should aim to complete a law on the division of oil proceeds by next month.
The admiral’s appeal, which was made in the presence of Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, a senior political adviser to the command and this reporter, elicited an assurance from Mr. Maliki that he hoped to make some progress over the coming weeks. But he also offered a lengthy account of all the tribulations facing the Iraqi government, including tenuous security, distrustful neighboring Sunni states and a complex legal agenda.

The US, now driven by domestic politics opposing the war, wants yet another quick fix to the problem of governing Iraq. Time and again, the US has pushed for institutions, events, and milestones hoping that the country would catch up to its ‘leaders’ while ignoring the large-scale political processes necessary to legitimate such institutions of government that allow them to function. Gordon’s pearl of wisdom:

At times, the two sides appeared to be operating on two different clocks. While Admiral Fallon emphasized the urgency of demonstrating results, Mr. Maliki cast the political process as a long journey from dictatorship to democracy.

Therein lies the rub. We need a quick fix for Iraq, but there is nothing quick about fixing things in Iraq. The US is part of the problem, and yet, the US leaving is also part of the problem. Staying allows the Iraqi government to put off the really tough choices it needs to make about how it will govern and who will be part of the governing coalition. Leaving opens the door for a whole host of political factions to vie for power in what could easily devolve into a civil war. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Hell of a way to run a war.

Tom Ricks dispensed his wisdom in one of the Washington Post’s regular on-line chats about Iraq, Q & A style (with me paraphrasing the longer Q’s, but his answers in full). His central insight:

I think the beginning of wisdom on Iraq is to understand there are no good answers available. So the question is, What is the least bad answer?

Question: Is there a way to get out without making things worse?

That is very much the vibe that I picked up in Baghdad in recent weeks–that there are different ways of getting out, or reducing the US military presence, and that we could do it in ways that intensify the violence, or we might be able to do it in ways that lessen the violence, and that we should starting thinking through these courses of action.

As one officer put it to me, “Just because we invaded Iraq thoughtlessly doesn’t mean we should leave it that way.”

Question: Does that mean we we’re in for another 18 months, until Bush is out of office?

18 months? That’s optimistic. In my view, this is a Shakespearean tragedy. His works had five acts, and I think we are only in Act III.

When I was writing ‘Fiasco’ I’d sometimes look out the window at about 3:30 in the afternoon and see a group of kindergarteners being led from the elementary school down the street to a nearby day care center. On my pessimistic days (most of them), I’d think, “One of those kids is going to fight and die in Iraq.”

I do think that is a possibility. I don’t like it. But I think that Iraq is a tougher problem for the US government, and people, than the Vietnam War was. We could walk away from that one. Yes, it was awful if you were Cambodian, or a Vietnamese who had cast your lot with the Americans. But the United States as a nation could pretty much wash its hands of Vietnam. I don’t think it will be as easy to walk away from Iraq.

It is too bad we didn’t have this conversation in the summer and fall of 2002, huh?

Question: So will Iraq ever be able to govern / secure itself?

This question gives me a headache. That doesn’t mean it is a bad question, it is just that it points to how damn difficult the Iraq situation yes.

No, there is no guarantee that Iraqi security forces will be competent–or even-handed. Again, that is another reason US planners are thinking about a “post-occupation” presence, because Sunni leaders might ask for such a force to guarantee that Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police forces don’t attack them. But just how do we guarantee that? Do we attack the Iraqi government? Do we post soldiers to protect Sunni enclaves?

I think the fingers-crossed answer we will get from American officials is that political accommodation should ease the security situation, and so lessen the need for US intervention. But that’s a hope, not a plan.

Iraq doesn’t seem to get any easier, does it?

Too bad there are no candidates from Hope running in this election (sorry, bad pun!).

Here’s the heart of the matter– for all those on the far left or far right who think the the ‘only way’ to go in Iraq is to either get out now or stay the course (it doesn’t matter which)–its high time to recognize that neither is much of a solution–its “a hope, not a plan.” Unfortunately, trying to sell a bad anwer to Iraq is a sure loser in any election, which is why no one wants to do it. But its pretty clear that we have painted ourselves into a corner from which there is no easy way out. The honest answer is to admit as much.



Last August, Senator John McCain famously used the phrase “whack-a-mole” to describe and criticize the Pentagon’s “old” strategy in Iraq.

What I worry about is we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole here. We move troops, it [insurgency] flares up, we move troops there.

Based on that metaphor, McCain concluded that the US needed more troops in Iraq. The logic is simple: more US troops can whack more insurgent moles and reduce the places in Iraq safe for them to appear.

Putting more troops in Iraq also theoretically means creating larger-and-larger zones of security in Iraq. Indeed, McCain now defends President Bush’s troop “surge” as counter-insurgency strategy that could work. Potentially, the surge begins to implement the so-called “oil spot” strategy, which is named for the gradual expansion of safe spots on the map — winning the “hearts and mind” of local populations as it succeeds.

Is this realistic?

Well, to begin, McCain certainly isn’t the only — or first — person to describe the insurgency in Iraq as a whack-a-mole problem. Many foreign policy and military analysts employ the term and some argue that no strategy based simply on establishing small geographical security zones can work. Unless the US floods Iraq with troops, these skepitcs argue, insurgents can still too readily pop up almost anywhere else in Iraq.

Think of the obvious parallel. Hamid Karzai has long been considered merely the “mayor of Kabul” because that city is essentially the only secure part of Afghanistan — after five and a half years. There are too few troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much more.

Last September 6, ABC News’ Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto blogged critically about what was then the latest Pentagon strategy in Iraq:

Operation Together Forward, the main thrust of the new strategy, involves establishing pockets of security in select neighborhoods and then slowly adding more. These latest numbers add substance to fears Together Forward creates a whack-a-mole effect: that is, secure one area and the violence will pop up somewhere else.

Sound familiar?

The latest “surge” strategy in Iraq, designed essentially to secure Baghdad neighborhoods, is built around the exact logic as last year’s failed strategy.

Does the latest Iraq strategy amount merely to an even grander version of whack-a-mole?

For answers to empirical questions about the war, I turn to the “Iraq Index,” produced by Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbell of the Brookings Institution.

The April 23, 2007, Iraq Index report includes a section entitled “EFFECTS OF OPERATION FARDH AL-QANOON ON AREAS OUTSIDE OF BAGHDAD AND AL-ANBAR PROVINCES” (caps in original):

There has been roughly a 30% increase in offensive actions and attacks in Diyala province (March 9, 2007)…Over the past five months, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops have increased 70% in Diyala province (April 16, 2007)

The Pentagon is responding by sending more troops to Diyala.

Is this a repeat of whack-a-mole?

Some journalists report that violence in Tal Afar is up as well.

Given this data, why is President Bush already claiming partial victory?

Yet the first indicators are beginning to emerge — and they show that so far, the operation is meeting expectations. There are still horrific attacks in Iraq, such as the bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday — but the direction of the fight is beginning to shift.

All of the data about the surge is tentative, of course, as even President Bush acknowledges. Iraq commander General David Petraeus told Bush “that it will be later this year before we can judge the potential of success.”

If the surge fails, don’t expect some better strategy down the road.

President Bush to interviewer Charlie Rose
, yesterday: “The Plan B is to make Plan A work.”

One early forecast: several hundred thousand US troops on the ground in Iraq.


The Last Best Chance for Iraq

Yesterday as I was driving home, I caught the better part of President Bush’s interview with The News Hour’s Jim Lehrer (full transcript here).

I found it quite interesting– a very different Bush than I had heard before. Different in tone, different in style, and somewhat different in substance. Here, Bush admitted openly and honestly that he and his administration made real mistakes in Iraq:

Part of the failure for our reaction was ourselves. I mean, we should have found troops and moved them.

The purpose of the interview, along with others he’s been giving this week, is to sell his new Iraq plan of sending in a “surge” of 21,000 additional US troops. While the prime-time national television presentation of the plan wasn’t great, in the interview, Bush’s plan sounded reasonably compelling.

More importantly, and I think this is what Bush is banking on politically, as I listened, I wanted him to be right. I don’t think that anyone is rooting for the US to fail in Iraq– as Rodger pointed out in his Monday post, the tragic consequences of failure in Iraq bring tremendous death and suffering.

But, as I listened, I shook my head in disappointment and disbelief. Where was this speech two years ago? In 2004 or 2005, perhaps this kind of plan might have made a real difference. But now, given past failures of operations like Together Forward and the increased sectarian violence, it may well be too-little, too late. You don’t get a “do-over” in foreign policy.

Then I heard the real “faith-based” presidency come through in this exchange:

MR. LEHRER: General Casey said yesterday that the commander said that it may be spring or even summer before we have any signs of success from the new program –


MR. LEHRER: — from the new strategy, and even then I can’t guarantee you that it’s going to work. That’s the general; that’s the guy who is the commander.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I – look, I mean, I think that’s a –

MR. LEHRER: That’s –

PRESIDENT BUSH: — that’s a sober assessment. Well, it’s a sober assessment. I think he’s not going to stand up and make guarantees that may or may not happen, but he is also the general who felt like we needed more troops, and he’s also the general that believes this is the best chance of working. I think he’s giving a realistic assessment for people.

I also said in my speech you can expect more killing. In other words, it’s still going to be a dangerous environment because the enemy is likely to step up attacks to try to discourage the Iraqi government and to discourage the American people.

MR. LEHRER: Well, Mr. President, how can there then be a strategy based on trying to attain success if even more people are going to die – Americans as well as Iraqis?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, the – the purpose of the strategy, Jim, is to settle Baghdad down, is to secure neighborhoods, is to give the Iraqi people a chance to live in peace, which is what they want. And the way to do that is to send troops into neighborhoods to clean the neighborhoods of insurgents and terrorists, and it’s to hold the neighborhoods. And the problem in the past, there weren’t enough troops to hold the neighborhoods after neighborhoods had been cleared….

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think – you know, I – I didn’t listen to General Casey’s comments. The only thing I can tell you is what he told me. He said this has got the best chance of working. And we thought about what is the best way to succeed, and this is the best way to succeed in his mind and in my mind.

The “sober” and “realistic” assessment of the in-country General is that this gives us the best chance to win. Casey did not say it would work, he said that of all the options, it has the best chance of working. Bush can’t seem to articulate that he understands the difference–best chance does not mean will work.

I just don’t think that this “chance” is all that high. The plan counts heavily on the Iraqis to step up and provide security. As the NYT reported Sunday:

But the signs so far have unnerved some Americans working on the plan, who have described a web of problems — ranging from a contested chain of command to how to protect American troops deployed in some of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts — that some fear could hobble the effort before it begins.

Sober generals usually have a “Plan B” for when their last best chance becomes a SNAFU. Unfortunatley, this administration won’t allow talk of a Plan B.


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