As I blimblam around the country, I've been spending my time on airplanes reading (in addition to the usual histories of World War II -- I mean, just how big a jerk was Bernard Law Montgomery?), a new history/memoir about U.S. Army interrogation approaches in Iraq during that strange, disconcerting first year of the war. Pretty specialized I know, and pretty damn depressing. But this book, The Fight for the High Ground, written by Maj. Douglas Pryer and published by the CGSC Foundation Press, actually has a bright spot in it, because it looks at why some units didn't abuse or torture prisoners.
Pryer, who was there, concludes that the "root cause" of the abuses
... was not over-crowded detention facilities, untrained guars, immature interrogators, or any of the plethora of other reasons ... investigators have cited as the causes of abuse for a particular case. The fundamental reason why interrogation abuse in Iraq occurred was a failure in leadership. The answer is that simple.
He respectfully but explicitly calls out Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, now retired, as the key figure in that failure.
He also offers up this interesting quote from Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Groseclose, who he says won the Defense Department's "Top HUMINT Collector of 2003 Award." Groseclose, he reports, had only contempt for interrogators who beat, froze, or otherwise scared detainees:
For an interrogators to resort to techniques like that is for that interrogator to admit that they don't know how to interrogate. Personally, I'm offended by it."
Unless the Army does a better job in ethical teaching and training of soldiers, Pryer warns, it is likely to repeat the mistakes of Iraq. Anyone listening?
PS: New Monty facts: After World War II, he proved even more incapable of getting along with colleagues than he did during the war. And then he skipped his mother's funeral.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images
A friend with decades of experience in intelligence makes the prediction that Iraq eventually will cease to exist, perhaps just five years from now, with the big pieces swallowed up by Syria, Iran and perhaps Turkey and some other neighbors, and with an independent Kurdistan in the middle:
Within the next five years I see Syria moving into southern Mesopotamia, then being pushed south by the Kurds, further thwarted by the combination of the desert and home problems from Lebanon and Israel, to be stopped no further east than al Haibbaniyah by the threatening Saudis.
Iran will move on all fronts into Iraq except the southeastern corner around al Basrah where Kuwaiti and Saudi forces aided by the US will stop them . . . and in the northeast arrested by Kurds supported by the US.
Meanwhile, here is more from Joel Wing, known to fans of this blog's comment pages as Jwing.
(HT to Blake Hounshell, who has yet to appear on Great Satan's Girlfriend)
Many threads to ravel together:
What the early 2010s will definitely see is the rise of a relatively wealthy, Shi'ite-controlled Iraq friendly with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
(I loves me the interweb: On the other hand, a quick search shows that Pepe was the guy who wrote from Peshawar in, oh, August 2001 (!) that Osama bin Laden was washed up and the United States was paying too much attention to him and to al Qaeda, which he said was "in tatters.")
We have no [Awakening] checkpoints in the area anymore," said Sheik Shebib, who leads Awakening militias in the Arab Jabour area just south of Baghdad. "Now, al Qaeda is coming back and we are feeling more and more powerless."
(HTs to John McCreary's NightWatch and FP 's Blake Hounsell)
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images
I couldn't bring myself to write about the round of bombings in Iraq yesterday. More today. I have nothing useful to say about that.
Meanwhile, there is some word that payoffs to Awakening groups will stop at the end of this month. Interesting campaign move.
And once again foreign fighters seem to be slipping into Iraq from Syria.
Proven provider John McCreary's bottom line: "Day by day, the security situation is deteriorating ... [I]t will get much worse in the next few months."
I hope there is a special corner of Hell reserved for people who bomb schools, which happened today in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, killing at least seven students and wounding another 41.
In other news, there was renewed fighting in Tarmiyah, site of one of the more interesting battles of the Surge era in Iraq. Nasty little town.
The U.S. Army
Iraq's vice president, a Sunni Arab, says the recent killing of 13 people associated with a local political leader in eastern Anbar province was carried out by Iraqi army troops commanded by Colonel Raheem Kareem Resan. This somewhat undercuts the "those crazy Anbaris and their wacky tribal disputes" line previously issued by the Baghdad government.
Also someone is bombing the houses of policemen in Fallujah.
It looks to me like relations between Iraqi security forces and the people of al Anbar are deteriorating. If this is the wave of the future, fasten your seatbelts for 2010.
AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images
Someone killed 13 people in al Anbar province, many of them relatives of a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Is this more pre-election jockeying, or what? The Baghdad government is calling it a tribal dispute. That may be true -- but it certainly is what I would say if I wanted to just chalk it up to those rowdy Anbaris.
Anybody got a clue as to what is happening in Anbar?
KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI/AFP/Getty Images
In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group offers a good summary of why he thinks the coming year will be a turbulent one in Iraq. I think he is right -- and that 2010 will stand alongside 2003 and 2007 as a turning point. In short,
...just as Odierno will be pulling out his first combat brigades, starting in March, Iraq will be entering into a period of fractious wrangling over the formation of a new government. If Iraqi national forces fail to impose their control, an absence of political leadership could thus coincide with a collapse in security; if politicians and their allied militias resort to violence, the state, including its intelligence apparatus so critical for maintaining internal stability, could fracture along political, ethnic, and sectarian lines."
Fasten your seat belts. Meanwhile, here is a bunch of headlines from this morning:
One of the most interesting sub-genres of journalism is the article reporters write as they leave a country or beat. Often, they vent feelings and views they've kept pent-up for year.
Here is a classic of the type. As she leaves Iraq, Alissa Rubin of the New York Times summarizes the harsh lessons she learned from years of living in Baghdad:
. . . Army checkpoints -- legal ones -- are the only ones that stop you, but huge posters of Imam Ali punctuate the streets, a signal that this is now Shiite-land. Imam Ali is revered as a founder of the Shiite branch of Islam, but a poster of him is also a silent rebuke to Sunnis, a way of marking territory, of reminding them that the Shiites run things now. It is a sign of victory as much as peace.
And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.
In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down. Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality."
I think this is a good prism through which to view Iraq's upcoming national elections.
Photo: ALI YESSEF/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, someone dynamited the bridge outside Ramadi on the main highway that goes from Baghdad west to Jordan and Syria. There also were two bombings in Fallujah, one killing 11 Iraqi soldiers, the other taking down an Iraqi officer's house. Also 14 people were killed in the bombing of a mosque in Tell Afar. This is all so 2004.
This is an e-mail that is circulating about a recent confrontation in Baghdad between non-Iraqi bodyguards and Iraqi security forces. I haven't been able to confirm it, but I am told by a second party that it came from someone he trusts and is accurate.
If this is a portent of things to come, Iraq is gonna get mighty interesting real fast. Bodyguards may have to put up with this sort of treatment, but I don't think U.S. military would stand for it.
Subject: Here's what's circulating regarding PSD incident
The Entry Control Points (ECP) into the International Zone (IZ) have been increasingly difficult to deal with. It is nothing that is intolerable. However, in an increasing basis Protective Security Detail (PSD) teams have been instructed to exit vehicles for search, download weapons and such. That is okay, because after all, Iraq, like it or not, is its own country and sets the ground rules.
Well, a few days ago the antics were ratcheted up again. As a team was entering ECP4 (old CP12) the last vehicle of the motorcade was stopped, which is not uncommon. This time though, the vehicles crew was harassed to give over smoke grenades. Lately IA's/IP's have been asking PSD teams for everything from water, to ammunition, to money. In following the guidance from the Department of State (DOS), Regional Security Officer (RSO), the vehicle commander of the vehicle attempted to find out the name of the Iraqi in charge of the ECP.(Read on)
Here is a thoughtful note from an Army officer from the 1st Infantry Division who recently returned from Baghdad and is wondering just what he saw:
Just got back from a year in western Baghdad (by the way, we met briefly back in April at CNAS ... ). My battalion covered down on Kadamiya, Hurriya, Shulla, Karkh, and Ghazaliyah. Over the last month or so, our trouble spot became the western neighborhood of Ghazaliyah.
Ghaz, as you may know, is mainly Shia in the northern half and Sunni in the southern half. We closed the last JSS in Ghaz on Sept. 7 (it had been allowed to stay open past the 30 June deadline) and the day after it was closed the Iraqi army battalion in south Ghaz raided the South Ghaz (Sunni) SOI headquarters, confiscating weapons and equipment a US unit had supplied them back in 2007-2008. The JSS, which straddled the Shia-Sunni fault line across the middle of Ghaz, was basically the buffer for the Sunni in the south. SOI and local council leaders were reported to have fled the neighborhood, citing Shia militia threats. Keep in mind, directly to Ghaz's north is the Shia enclave of Shulla, a mini-Sadr City that is basically controlled by JAM remnant groups (and a heavily complicit Iraqi Army battalion). This Shia influence spills into north Ghaz and has been encroaching upon south Ghaz over the past several months.
Which brings me to today's news from Baghdad [about a spate of bombings]. ... It is unsurprising and confirms a steady and growing Shia influence throughout Baghdad. ...
When I was in Iraq, I read a bunch of books to include Robert Baer's The Devil We Know, which is about Iran's growing influence in the Mideast. Baer's first two sentences in Chapter 2, "How Iran Beat America," are: "Iraq is lost. Iran won it." Given what we've seen in classified reports and in the revolving door of Iraqi army commanders in select Baghdad neighborhoods, his thesis is spot on. Plus, Shia militiamen have melted into the army and police over the past few years making it much easier for them to create Shia havens throughout the city. It'll be interesting to see where Baghdad is in about 5 years.
In your book, The Gamble, you cite Ryan Crocker's comment that the most important events in Iraq have yet to happen. This is quite true and the troubling fact is that these events are going on right now and we don't even know what to do about them. Probably the better question is if can we do anything about them, especially given the constraints of the Security Agreement. It's especially tough to influence our ISF and council member counterparts via cell phone from Camp Liberty.
Anyway, forgive my rambling thoughts. Just thought I'd add to your Iraq "the unraveling" series. I must say, though, I am quite conflicted about our unit's efforts and sacrifices over the past year and the real reality on the ground right now. I mean how much of it is out of our control? How much can Chris Hill really influence Maliki and the Iraqi politicians? Do US interests line up with Iraqi interests? And how much of Iraq's interests are really Iran's? Much to think about ...
Among other things, his note makes me wonder just how much is going on in Baghdad that we aren't seeing or noticing right now.
The U.S. Army
In my book The Gamble I wrote about how the U.S. military approach to handling detainees was revamped in 2007. The new approach was built on the recognition that many people planted bombs for the insurgency to make money, so teaching them skills would lessen that motivation. One of the skills taught was brickmaking. A friend wrote to me that the brick factory at Camp Bucca recently collapsed. (Photo above is of another brick-making operation in Iraq. Apparently, there are brick factories in Iraq fueled by oil that seeps out of the ground.)
Meanwhile, for our less precise or perhaps slower readers, "unraveling" isn't a prediction, just a running commentary about what is unfolding every day before our very eyes. One is about the future, the other about the present. Big difference.
I ran into an old friend the other day who said Iraq really isn't unraveling because, he argued, the Iraqi security forces are more or less behaving. But I think this is a matter of degree. It isn't unraveling quickly, but rather in slow steps, as no political breakthrough occurs, as bombs are stockpiled in Fallujah, and as American influence wanes. As my friend and former colleague Anthony Shadid used to say, "The mud is getting wetter."
QASSEM ZEIN/AFP/Getty Images
The former mayor of Tel Afar, the northwestern Iraqi town that saw the first major successful counterinsurgency campaign in the war, has written a paper warning that Iraq may again be drifting toward ethno-sectarian conflict, which is to say, a form of civil war. This is particularly striking on a day when another round of bombings killed at least 50 people in the country.
Najim Abed al-Jabouri was mayor of Tel Afar when the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment took the city back from insurgents and terrorists in 2005-2006. He is now a senior fellow at the National Defense University, at which the study was written. It runs sharply contrary to the optimistic view lately advanced by some experts and observers in the United States that the chances of sectarian fighting have dwindled in Iraq.
In contrast to American views of the Iraqi security forces, or ISF he writes: "Iraqi assessments suggest that without separating the ISF from the incumbent ethno-sectarian parties, the ISF will be a tool for creating instability in the country. Iraqis realize that the reasons and justifications for a civil war are still at play in Iraq."
A major reason that the army and police can drive the country apart, he said, is that political meddling has created a divisive situation within those forces. "The majority of [Iraqi army] divisions are under the patronage of a political party," al-Jabouri asserts. Unusually, he then lists the political affiliations of various units:
Similarly, he adds, many of the forces of the Ministry of Interior actually operate beyond the control of that ministry and instead report to political parties. Officers who blow the whistle on the role political parties play in the Iraqi army risk losing their personal security guards as well as their jobs, he notes.
To my knowledge, word of the report was first published by the Washington Times.
Steven Pettibone/US Army via Getty Images
Colonel Timothy Reese's suggestion is appealing, of course. And he is good in listing everything that is going wrong. Reading his lists, you'd almost think the situation in Iraq is unraveling:
- The ineffectiveness and corruption of GOI Ministries is the stuff of legend.
- The anti-corruption drive is little more than a campaign tool for Maliki
- The GOI is failing to take rational steps to improve its electrical infrastructure and to improve their oil exploration, production and exports.
- There is no progress towards resolving the Kirkuk situation.
- Sunni Reconciliation is at best at a standstill and probably going backwards.
- Sons of Iraq (SOI) or Sahwa transition to ISF and GOI civil service is not happening, and SOI monthly paydays continue to fall further behind.
- The Kurdish situation continues to fester.
- Political violence and intimidation is rampant in the civilian community as well as military and legal institutions.
- The Vice President received a rather cool reception this past weekend and was publicly told that the internal affairs of Iraq are none of the US's business.
1. If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. US combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it.
2. The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the ISF is incapable of change in the current environment.
a) Corruption among officers is widespread
b) Neglect and mistreatment of enlisted men is the norm
c) The unwillingness to accept a role for the NCO corps continues
d) Cronyism and nepotism are rampant in the assignment and promotion system
e) Laziness is endemic
f) Extreme centralization of C2 is the norm
g) Lack of initiative is legion
h) Unwillingness to change, do anything new blocks progress
i) Near total ineffectiveness of the Iraq Army and National Police institutional organizations and systems prevents the ISF from becoming self-sustainingj) For every positive story about a good ISF junior officer with initiative, or an ISF commander who conducts a rehearsal or an after action review or some individual MOS training event, there are ten examples of the most basic lack of military understanding despite the massive partnership efforts by our combat forces and advisory efforts by MiTT and NPTT teams.
The question the colonel's memo begs is just how bad it gets after we leave, and whether Turkey, Iran and more intervene more than they have already. What are the chances of a regional war? Feeling lucky, punk? Well, are you?
What happens after we leave? How do we mitigate the damage done? I really don't see how hanging a "mission accomplished" banner would work any better for the Obama administration than it did for the Bush administration.
I think that the current wave of bombings in Iraq, with 41 dead today but not much noticed here (I didn't see anything on the Washington Post's home page about it until late morning), was to be expected. I still think that a long-term unraveling is likely, but I think it is likely more to be a matter of Iraqi forces operating in a divisive, sectarian matter, and of militias re-emerging. For example, Stars & Stripes reports today that some Iraqi units are saying they have been instructed by the Ministry of Defense not to conduct combined operations. So I will not get real concerned about the current bombing offensive unless it continues, widens and intensifies.
The New York Times does take notice: "Attacks in Baghdad and a city in northern Iraq killed at least 41 people and wounded dozens more on Thursday, the worst violence since Iraq celebrated the withdrawal of American troops from cities and towns last month."
MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images
The note below is from a reader of the blog who takes issue with the "unraveling" thread. I am quoting this with his permission and leaving out his name at his request. This is a guy who knows what he is talking about. His comments are especially interesting because the New York Times recently tagged Fallujah, near where he is operating, as one of the places where things are unraveling. He disagrees.
This officer's interesting bottom line: "we have taken it as far as Americans can."
Here it is:
24 June, 2009
We are now more than halfway through our stint here in eastern Al Anbar Province, just west of the greater Baghdad area. Things have been going well, all things considered, and the days are moving along quickly now. We are living at a relatively large base with all of the amenities of an occupying force: laundry, plenty of food, gym, internet, phones, and (unique to this base) a small man-made lake that was once Uday Hussein's vacation retreat. The base is called Camp Baharia...
My battalion currently operates in the Fallujah, Saqlawiyah, and Karmah regions, a space once occupied by a force about ten times ours. We arrived as one of the first battalions to operate exclusively under the new guidelines set forth in the Status of Forces Agreement signed last fall.
Early on our mission was to pair with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), which includes the Iraqi Police, Iraqi Army, and the Provincial Security Forces (a national guard of sorts) to conduct counter-insurgency and capacity building. We soon found that our ability to influence enemy activity was severely restricted as we could no longer detain suspects and we could no longer immerse ourselves in the population through the use of combat outposts within the cities.
This forced us to work through the ISF. Instead of doing the work for them we came to think of ourselves as instructors, not concerned with the who-did-what-to-whom, and more concerned with how they conduct police and security operations.
This means we are less concerned with who the high value individuals are (the really bad guys; our obsession last year) and are more concerned with the ISF's ability to conduct an investigation, obtain a warrant from the (albeit corrupt and feckless) local judge, handle evidence, handle detainees, conduct questioning, and develop a case to be heard at a higher court.
This has been halting and frustrating work. I have worked with our Battalion Staff Judge Advocate (lawyer), a very smart guy who speaks Arabic, to try to develop the ISF understanding of proper evidence and the judge's understanding of warrants and trials. It has been a bit like Law & Order: Iraq, but without the happy ending and closed case. The greatest hurdles we have are out of our control at the District level in Fallujah and the Provincial level in Ramadi. Even when we do everything right at the local level there are hundreds of stories of a tribal leader paying off judges and police to release his wayward son who promises never to commit a crime again. Many of the local ISF won't know one of their detainees is released until they see him on the street the next week.
Another key part of our job has been to facilitate the transfer of the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program (also known as the Iraqi Civilian Watch) to Iraqi control. This US-founded program hired thousands of disenchanted, largely Sunni, male youths, gave them a weapon, and told them to stand post. It worked spectacularly well, largely by giving a population of potential insurgents a better alternative. But now the US is done paying for it, so it is left to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior to handle. We helped with the security of these operations, though we have done our best to take the backseat. Attached are some photos of the pay operations, which are at once chaotic, joyous, and hot (it's averaging around 110 these days) affairs.
In addition to the capacity building and SOI payments, we have been a part of the gradual release of detainees from US custody. The US prison in Bucca has been releasing its less-threatening inmates to Iraqi custody for the last year now. Our job has been to smooth the transition and ensure that the local security forces are aware of the releases.
Capacity building, hands-off security, and detainee releases all means that the average infantry Marine has been pretty bored this deployment, which is, of course, a good thing. The Marines, to a man, would rather be in Afghanistan a conflict they see as simpler than the legalistic, restrictive environment here. But they have done a terrific job at staying busy, conducting training, and staying active.
Despite recent reporting, the area is stable, while still not completely safe. The attacks mentioned in the article are not part of a mounting trend, but are normal and to be expected from time to time in this environment. If we want Iraq to return to normal it will necessarily mean making itself more vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.
But we have taken it as far as Americans can. In my opinion, anything we do now may do more harm than good in delaying the inevitable and reinforcing their, at times, crippling malaise. The only enduring role for Americans is to provide the safety net to prevent complete collapse, chaos, and civil war; three things that I do not believe will happen in any event."
It seems to me that he is saying that he doubts an unraveling will occur, but if it does, there isn't a whole lot we can do to prevent it at this point, so we might as well leave.
Department of Defense
On the eve of the pullout from cities, everything appears calm. Except in Mosul, which is a special case. As is Basra. And Kirkuk. And now east Baghdad.
A friend passes along this day report from the Iraqi capital:
1. Three mortar rounds landed in Abu Nawas Street close to the 14th of July bridge, the mortars landed on the residential area known as the solar energy apartments wounded three civilians and caused material damages to parked cars.
2. An IED exploded in Al Hurria Square in Karradah resulted the injury of three civilians
3. An IED exploded in Al Baladiyat area of E Baghdad targeting on foot patrol of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Army officer was killed and two civilians were injured
4. IED exploded in Orfali sector of Sadr city without casualties
5. An IED exploded near Al Shaab football stadium of E Baghdad targeting US Army convoy without knowing if it caused casualties
6. An IED exploded in AL Bayaa Bus Station of SW Baghdad resulted the death of 2 and injury of 4
7. An IED exploded near Al Shaab Football stadium also targeting US Army convoy in the same spot, resulted the burn out of one Humvee.
8. An IED in Ur injured two civilian injuries, and a magnetic IED attached to a van blew up and injured three more civilians. No end to it today, it seems."
I sure am glad this war is over.
Here is a guest column by Adam Silverman*, who was in Iraq last year, explaining why he thinks the war there isn't over or won. This reinforces my view that the transition to Iraqi forces that is supposed to happen this year generally will be just one more instance of prematurely transferring security responsibilities to Iraqis. Back in the Bush days, doing that was called "rushing to failure." I am not sure what the Obama-era term will be. Btw, there was a truck bomb near Kirkuk on Saturday that caused more than 250 casualties, and a string of smaller bombs in in Baghdad yesterday.
Anyway, here's Adam:
Just a word regarding your post from CNAS about GEN (ret) Keane and LTC (ret) Nagl: I'm not so sure that things are won. In fact I'm not sure you can really win a COIN fight, you can definitely lose one, but winning -- how would you define it? Here's why I disagree with their conclusions:
1) As U.S. Forces pullback at the end of this month into a new form of overwatch, one we've got little to no experience with anywhere in Iraq, the local, provincial, and national authorities are supposed to step up, including ISF, but they're in no way broadly capable of doing that yet. While some units are, not all of them are.
2) The opening or space that the combination of the 2006 Awakenings, the Sunni/Shia cleansing of Baghdad and other once mixed urban areas, and the hard work of the military and civilian allies in the Surge created or allowed for was squandered by the Bush Administration both politically and diplomatically. The opening was supposed to be used for the reconciliation of societal elements, so that there would be tethering, both horizontally to each other and vertically to the state, in order to achieve actual progress in Iraq. The Bush Administration squandered that opening by trying for a pie-in-the sky SOFA agreement that media reports indicated would have kept large numbers of troops in Iraq in perpetuity on huge bases located to stage for Iran and Syria. The Iraqis rolled us on this, then rolled us and IHEC/UN on the Provincial Elections. So our official occupation status ran out and we're now there on sufferance. And if you missed it, MSNBC reported last Wednesday, and I saw NO other coverage of this, that the Iraqi Parliament has appropriated the funds for the referendum on if we stay in Iraq. If they call that referendum we will most likely lose!
3) The Iraqis recognize this and that's why the violence has been creeping up. I think very highly of LTC (ret) Nagl and his work, don't know anything about GEN (ret) Keane, but everything I've seen while deployed in Iraq, seen in secondary sources, and know about the dynamics there, as well as how COIN works, tells me that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better -- if they ever do. And this doesn't even take into account the effects of what's happening in Iran on Iraq, which is basically an Iranian subsidiary."
*Here is the required disclaimer: "Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Social Science Advisor for Strategic Communications for the US Army Human Terrain System and was deployed in Iraq in 2008 as a Field Social Scientist and Team Lead for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 and served as the Socio-Cultural Advisor for the 2BCT/1AD. His views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army Human Terrain System, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, the 2BCT/1AD, or the the US Army." Or Joe Torre.
Over the weekend I was reading from a forthcoming book that has a section detailing the decline of security in Mosul in 2004, after then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus packed up and left with the 101st Airborne, turning northern Iraq over to a much smaller replacement force. Over the course of several months, deals Petraeus had cut began to fall apart, and Iraqis he had brought on board were assassinated. These days the city is one of the most troubled in Iraq.
So I began to wonder: Is what we are seeing in Iraq now is a larger and slower version of those events? That is, the deals that Petraeus patched together as the top commander in Iraq in 2007-08 have begun unwinding slowly, and the momentum promises to accelerate with the sharp decline in U.S. troop levels scheduled for early next year.
I asked a senior officer about this, and he responded:
I don't think that's what we're seeing, though there certainly are plenty of challenges facing Iraq -- among them continuation of agreements Iraqi leaders have made about taking care of Sons of Iraq members, observing international conventions regarding the Mujahideen el Khalq, not inflaming tensions with the Kurdish Regional Government, a budget crunch (due to the fall in the price of oil), Sunni-Shia tensions, and intra-Shia competition, among others. By no means were all the agreements reached on Petraeus' watch (he left in early Sep 08, albeit to go to CENTCOM which still oversees Iraq), of course, and many are in the realm of political or diplomatic issues, vice military. Beyond that, and despite the periodic sensational attacks causing concern in recent months, the level of violence has remained at the low levels that have characterized the past 6 months -- between 10 and 15 attacks per day, on average, vice the 160 attacks per day at the height of the violence in June 2007.
Looking back, Mosul actually hung together better than any other area of Iraq during the April 2004 "uprising," when the Iraqi forces elsewhere in the country collapsed in the face of Sunni insurgent and Shia militia violence. (Petraeus and the 101st Abn Div left Mosul in Feb 04, and the ICDC they trained did reasonably well in Apr 04.) Beyond that, most observers assess that the spiral downward in Mosul began with the assassination of the governor of the province at the end of June 2004, following which many of the Sunni members of the provincial council walked out over the process followed to select the next governor, obviously not something over which Petraeus had any influence. Over time, this led to an increase in Sunni rejection of the situation and support for the insurgency that undermined security to the point that the police collapsed in Mosul in the face of an attack by AQI intended to draw attention away from the ongoing operation to clear Fallujah in November 2004.
Despite his first sentence, I don't think his observations really say that the pattern I am seeing is incorrect.
The news this morning that three U.S. soldiers and 12 Iraqis were killed by a roadside bomb in Doura hit especially hard because at CNAS lately I have been writing an introduction to a paper of how security was improved in that south Baghdad neighborhood in 2007-2008. It is an inspiring study of how to bring safety to a beleaguered civilian population, which makes it all the more disheartening to see those improvements erode.
John Moore/Getty Images
From an article over the weekend in good old Stars & Stripes about the Baghdad government not paying and otherwise disrespecting the Sons of Iraq:
I think the Iraqi government is not capitalizing on the momentum," said U.S. Army Capt. Jason Dudley, who works closely with "Sons of Iraq" leaders in northeast Baghdad. "I think it's a huge blow to the momentum we've created."
This quotation also echoes the findings of the Silverman study I blogged the other day that concluded that there is widespread distrust of the central government not only among Sunni leaders but also among Shiites:
All the politicians who are working with Iran are controlled by Iran, who tells them to create problems with the 'Sons of Iraq,'?" said Sheik Ali Mijbil al-Ghrayn, a Shiite "Sons of Iraq" leader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kuwaiti Village.
By the way, here is what General Odierno had to say Friday about how this ends:
And it's not going to end, okay? There'll always be some sort of a low-level insurgency in Iraq for the next five, 10, 15 years. The issue is, what is the level of that insurgency? And can the Iraqis handle it with their own forces and with their government? That's the issue. "
I think that is a good summary of the issue.
If you haven't yet reviewed the papers from the Midwest Political Science Conference, here's a little gem that will tell you more about Iraqi politics than a dozen Pentagon PowerPoints. It goes by the deceptively sleepy title of "Preliminary Results From Voices Of The Mada'in: A Tribal History and Study of One of Baghdad's Six Rural Districts," and is by Adam Silverman, who was an advisor to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq last year, but who emphasizes that his views, opinions, and conclusions are his, not the brigade's, the division's, the Army's, the Pentagon's, Joe Torre's, or anyone else's.
More bombings today in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a knowledgeable Capitol Hill staffer worries that we may see violence between Shiia factions later this year. He writes:
In the provincial elections, Maliki did very well, but it was largely at the expense of ISCI. ISCI, realizing this, reacts by doing a couple things-first, they reach out to their traditional constituency as any decent politician does (even in Iraq). Fine so far. Second, they try to frustrate Maliki's plans to prove him a weak leader. They really only have one great lever to do that (peacefully)-money. Maliki got votes because people saw him as a strong leader (justice and security) and because he's done a reasonable job spreading money around through tribal support councils, hand-picked ministers with buckets of cash to spend after certain conflicts (Basra, Mosul, Sadr City, couple other places). ISCI currently holds the keys to future funds because they control the Finance Ministry (Bayan Jabr, a lovely sociopath-not sure if you've ever had the pleasure of meeting him. He was the Interior Minister who had torture chambers in the basement. He got punished by being promoted to Finance Minister) and we are already seeing signs that, ostensibly due to budget cuts, support for Maliki's tribal councils and a couple other initiatives is being reduced. (By the way, a fun side effect of this is that the budget cuts have also provided an excuse to not absorb more SOI into the security forces. Not that huge numbers were going in already, but that trickle has generally stopped).
Maliki's problem is that he really only directly controls a couple things-the Special Forces (CTB) and the Operations Cells that have been set up in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and I think one or two other places. But really, at the end of the day, he only controls the Special Forces and two, maybe three, Army divisions who's commanders he has on speed dial on his cell phone. The rest of the Army is Kurd or has heavy levels of former Badr Brigade folks or whatever, and the Interior Minister is developing into a political rival. So, his main avenues of response are likely to be to try to leverage US aid (and the embassy and MNF-I are being a little leery of this so as not to seem to be picking winners) or to go after some of his opponents. There have been a couple raids and heavy handed use of Iraqi Special Forces, and some of it seems to have been aimed at Maliki's political opponents, including ISCI supporters/officials (it's a little unclear).
If I am right, the budget crisis brings to a head, probably quicker than we would wish, some of the potential longer-term conflicts between the Shi'a groups, right before national elections (or even after). (By the way, I personally am expecting large numbers of allegations of election fraud in December/January-my belief is that the only reason everyone didn't try to fix the provincial elections is that all parties convinced themselves that they were going to win). So, question is, what do we do about it?
Some things seem obvious -- keep a tight leash on our embedded folks with ISOF, Iraqi intel agencies, and other forces, sign up a huge number of election monitors, and find ways to ameliorate some of the budget cuts. But on the last point, there is little appetite in DC to spend lots more money on Iraq reconstruction (for a variety of reasons). So I don't see a lot of good options on that front.
Thoughts? I realize this somewhat goes against the "Maliki as strongman" view, in that this analysis he doesn't actually control all the levers of power and won't until he wins more on the national level or takes decisive action with the security forces, which is difficult with us there and without securing his flank (like getting the Kurds on board). But I don't see that he has lots of other options if he wants to stay in power and "win" (however defined) the national elections. I'm not sure I see a good "win" for us out of this however it goes."
I'd be interesting in hearing from people who know Iraqi politics about this. I've been more worried about Maliki as a strongman, but I find this argument pretty persuasive.
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Today I ran into an expert on Iraq who argued that I am being too optimistic, that a civil war is inevitable. He agreed that American troops are the glue holding the place together, but said that the American people will demand they be withdrawn, no matter what the possible consequences.
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Juan Cole's blog has a good essay by Adam Silverman, who deployed to Iraq last year as an advisor in the 1st Armored Division. Here is his conclusion about how the Maliki government is undermining American goals in Iraq. (In it, "SOI" means "Sons of Iraq," the official U.S. government term for turned insurgents, while "GOI" means "government of Iraq" and "ISF" means "Iraqi security forces"):
All of these attempts to erode the Awakening Council and SOI, all clearly part of the politics and politicking within and around the GOI, seriously undermine the transition from Coalition Forces' control to Iraqi control. While the SOI are hardly perfect, in many neighborhoods and areas they were perceived as being an important component to establishing and enhancing security, and have often been well regarded by their local ISF counterparts. The GOI's unwillingness and/or inability to properly incorporate them into the ISF and the GOI structure, will make progress going forward that much harder, risks the hard won and expensively fragile stability that has developed, and risks destabilizing Iraq as US and Coalition Forces began to pull way back and transition out of theater over the next twelve to eighteen months."
Meanwhile, former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thinks that Iraq is "on its way to becoming a strategic asset" of the United States. Someone in Baghdad who didn't get that memo set off a bunch of car bombs that killed about three dozen people today.
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I checked in yesterday when retired Col. Pete Mansoor, who was Gen. Petraeus's executive officer in Iraq during most of the surge. I had been told that Mansoor had warned in Baghdad that signing the Status of Forces Agreement could lead the United States into fighting the Sunni "Awakening" units also known as the "Sons of Iraq," or SOI.
Mansoor, who is now retired and a professor of history at Ohio State, confirmed in a note that he did indeed express such a concern. Here is his note, which I am quoting with his permission:
As I recall what I said was that the status of forces agreement would put U.S. forces into a position where they could not intervene to stop the government of Iraq from attacking the SOI. If the Iraqi Security Forces needed help once engaged against the SOI, U.S. forces could be drawn into the fight against the very people who helped us turn the war around.
I certainly hope this doesn't come to pass, but given what we've just seen happen in Baghdad, the possibility is disturbing.
I think it is significant that one of the people closest to Petraeus in Iraq during the surge foresaw the kind of fighting we have saw in the streets of Baghdad over the weekend. (Private note to "PW in DC": I also think former regime elements who have been dumping on Joe Klein might want to start composing notes of apology.)
Along the same lines, Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group, who knows Iraq, warns how things could fall apart if U.S. troops are withdrawn without more sustainable political deals:
Absent the glue that US troops have provided, Iraq's political actors are likely to fight, emboldened by a sense they can prevail, if necessary with outside help. Obama should make sure that the peace he leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush's war of choice turn into his war of necessity.
Meanwhile, Ali Wyne of the Carnegie Endowment sends this insightful analysis weighing the success or failure of the surge. I quote it with his permission:
Conventional wisdom holds that the United States is shifting its focus back to Afghanistan now that the war in Iraq has been won. The suggestion -- which has, by now, been internalized in mainstream discourse -- that the surge of American troops into Baghdad has been a success is dubious on two grounds.
First, there are factual difficulties. A September 2008 report by researchers at UCLA found that "violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning." They concluded, therefore, that "the surge has had no observable effect, except insofar as it has helped to provide a seal of approval for a process of ethno-sectarian neighborhood homogenization that is now largely achieved." That is, the surge occurred after the tinderbox that it was intended to eliminate had mostly been defused. Furthermore, according to a recent wire story, the apparent stability in Baghdad results from "fear," which "keeps the peace."
Second, there are moral considerations. Approximately five million Iraqis, or 20% of the Iraqi population, have been displaced from their homes; Human Rights Watch reports that "no structure exists to meet [their] humanitarian needs." According to recent statistics, 88% of Iraqis do not have access to electricity; 70% do not have access to clean water (a new report found that 36% of Baghdad's drinking water is unsafe); and 43% live on less than a dollar a day. One in five Iraqi women suffers physical violence, and one in three Iraqi children is hungry. It strains credulity to suggest that victory has been achieved in Iraq even though the country's social services apparatus is dysfunctional, most Iraqis cannot access basic provisions, and the rule of fear substitutes for the rule of law. Because the surge "is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state," concluded a respected analyst, "the recent short-term gains [in stability] have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq."
The dichotomous debate over Iraq -- one side supports (even if tacitly) indefinite occupation on the grounds that a full-scale civil war will erupt if the United States withdraws prematurely; the other supports a phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq on the grounds that the occupation is increasingly a strategic liability - excludes moral considerations. Members of the former camp should ask themselves: is it right for the United States to stay in Iraq if it does not accord at least as much priority to the welfare of Iraqis as it does to its own strategic interests? Members of the latter camp should ask themselves: given how greatly Iraqis have suffered as a result of the war, is it principled for the United States to abdicate its humanitarian obligations to them under the banner of "ending the occupation?" Although each camp claims the moral high ground, the reality is that they both avoid the considerations that must underlie any moral posture.
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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.