Earlier this week I ran into a friend who offered a correction on my comment that Iran has been the big winner in the Iraq war, gaining much influence inside its western neighbor and indeed across the region.
Yes, he said, Iran has certainly done well, and is more powerful than it was in 2003. But, he continued, the biggest strategic winner in the war so far is China. That's not only because the U.S. government financed the war with borrowings from China, but also because while we were distracted, Beijing has been a busy bee diplomatically, especially in East Asia.
I think my friend is probably right. Thanks a lot, W. (Sarcasm.)
Meanwhile, for all of youse who think this Google thing is just a PR move by that company, chew on this interesting roundup. On the other hand, I hear those who say we are crazy to let software engineers lead the way politically.
Almost every day, Aswat al-Iraq carries a news item about a bunch of people being arrested in Basra. But the articles never say who is being detained, or what the charges are, or what happens to those detained.
Anybody know? What is going on down there? Who is arresting whom?
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images
A Los Angeles Times article has this subhed:
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's camp warns of southern Shiites' threat to sever ties with Baghdad
The article goes on to quote Maliki homey Sami Askari, who says, contrary to Nir Rosen and his band of optimists, that, "The question is not who will be the prime minister, but what will be the fate of the country. Will we face chaos? Will we be an unstable country? This is the question."
(HT to BH)
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
Anthony Shadid in the New York Times on the nature of Iraqi politics:
There is an Iraq that is rightly celebrated these days: images that have almost become clichéd of millions heading to the polls to elect leaders who have so far fallen far short of the ambitions in choosing them. There is the reality, too: a country that still hews to an older notion of politics in which, in the words of one politician, there are "absolute winners and absolute losers." Eloquent rules are noisily broken, in a milieu infused with an impetus toward intolerance. The threat of violence, and often violence itself, is the discourse of politics, sometimes even celebrated as a means to an end in dividing spoils.
When in doubt, the rule goes, intimidate.
This is going to make it very interesting if the elections comes down to Allawi vs. the Sadrists.
ZIYAD FADEL/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Blair supposedly has reaped 20 million pounds since leaving office in 2007, some of it from advising the Kuwaiti royal family and from a South Korean firm making oil deals in Iraq.
Perhaps he can contribute a million or two of that to helping Iraqi refugees? It would be good to see him doing something to help clean up the mess he helped make. It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle's eye . . . .
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense chief congressional correspondent
Gen. David Petraeus, appearing before the Senate Armed Services committee on Tuesday, offered up several of his greatest hits. Most notably, he introduced a new Afghan-centric remix of his 2007 classic, telling the panel that, "The going is likely to get harder before it gets easy... the enemy will fight back." Several senators sang back-up.
Discussion of Iraq focused on the aftermath of recent national elections and the status of U.S. forces in the country. Asked by Sen. Jack Reed (D., RI) if he expects the new governing coalition to take many months to form, the CENTCOM chief responded, "Yes, we do." (Frankly, BG and L'il Wayne did that tune first, and better.)
During Sen. Lieberman's (I-Ct.) questioning, Petraeus detailed the possible addition of a seventh brigade headquarters in the northern city of Kirkuk beyond the August deadline while reaffirming the target force level of 50,000 troops by the end of summer.
Identifying Pakistan's western Federally Administered Tribal Area as "al-Qaeda's principal sanctuary," Petraeus promised a long-term American commitment to Pakistani counterinsurgency efforts against the Taliban. "We are going to be a steadfast partner. We are not going to do to Pakistan what we've done before, such as Charlie Wilson's War."
For an encore, Petraeus discussed his latest side project, Yemen, which he has been working on with his label-mates, the Special Operations Command ... Seeing Yemen as an emerging terrorist operations hub, CENTCOM has been expanding aid to Sana'a. The likely name of the new album will be "preventive counterinsurgency operations." Expect heavy support from Petraeus's label, which he said will "double U.S. security assistance to the country in the coming year."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
So I see over in National Review Online that Pete Wehner attacks me thusly:
Those like Joe Klein and Tom Ricks, who claimed the Iraq war was "probably the biggest foreign policy mistake in American history" (Klein's words) and "the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy" (Ricks's words), were wrong. Ricks went so far as to say in 2009 that "I think staying in Iraq is immoral."
The rest of my comment, of course, was that, "but I think leaving Iraq is even more immoral."
On the other hand, it is good for a journalist (or recent journalist, which is what I am) to be misrepresented on occasion, to remind one of how it feels. And I think we have an answer as to how intellectually honest Pete Wehner is. Or maybe he's just sloppy, because I recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about why I think we need to keep tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for many years to come.
But I do agree with him that Ryan Crocker is one of the heroes of this sad war. And I agree with Crocker that the war was basically a bad idea.
Here's the story in which Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, discusses the need to keep a combat brigade up there beyond President Obama's August deadline to get all combat troops out of Iraq. As reported here about two weeks ago, I might add.
What say you now, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell?
"We're going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it's likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren't going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments -- all of that's going to be on hold until you have a new government.
"That means that things aren't going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time."
That's Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on what to expect in the coming months in Iraq. I recommend the whole interview, which is here.
CEERWAN AZIZ/AFP/Getty Images
Here is an item from last July made more relevant by this movie winning a boatload of Oscars last night, including best picture, best director, and best screenplay:
My wife's idea of a good time last weekend was going to see The Hurt Locker, the new movie about Army EOD techs (explosive ordnance disposal guys-that is, the bomb squadders) in Iraq. So off we went, faster than an EFP in Sadr City.
It's a gripping movie, and I think it gets the emotions right. I also am guessing that it was good on the technical details of EOD work, since the credits listed an expert in that. The film was well-made, notably with persuasive bomb detonations -- not just the usual Hollywood explosions of a cloud of fiery gas, but big rumbling blasts with lots of rocks and dirt and dust hurled your way. Also, they got lots of the American military in Iraq right-the feel of a FOB (forward operating base), even the look of the latrines. And they do the heat of Iraq and its trashy streets right. I think it is the best movie made about the Iraq war so far -- the only one that comes close is The Situation, and that was more about journalists than about soldiers. Interestingly, both movies are set in the summer of 2004, when it was becoming clear that this thing was kind of a fiasco.
But there were enough mistakes on the details to keep me squirming in my seat:
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Here's a report from my CNAS colleague Matt Irvine on a conference he attended Thursday at which Colin Kahl demonstrated that being associated with CNAS sure doesn't mean we march in lockstep:
By Matthew Irvine
Best Defense chief think tanks correspondent
The United States and Iraq are on a path towards a peaceful long term partnership and current U.S. military drawdown plans will remain intact, a Pentagon official argued Thursday at a Washington conference.
Speaking at a session held by the Jamestown Foundation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East (and former CNAS senior fellow) Colin Kahl delivered a strong rebuttal to skeptics of the Obama Administration's Iraq policy. However, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other prominent Iraq hands were cautious to downright depressing about the future of Iraqi politics and security.
Kahl outlined what he called three "myths" regarding the United States and Iraq:
Myth #1: "Iraq is teetering on the edge of chaos and is going to unravel." Peddlers of this myth argue that large numbers of American troops will be required for the long term to prevent a return to the violent days of years past. They cite recent sectarian rhetoric, bombings and high profile political setbacks (such as recent de-Baathification efforts by Iraqi National Alliance) as evidence of Iraq's supposed unraveling. Kahl, by contrast, argues that "this ignores broader trends that Iraq is emerging as a largely self-reliant state." He supported that point with five observations:
First, violent incidents are at the lowest levels since the invasion. The United States has only had one combat fatality in Iraq in the last three months.
Second, there is no evidence of Sunnis and Shi'a returning to militias and insurgencies for protection.
Third, al Qaeda in Iraq is weaker than ever. Kahl went so far as to argue, "Al Qaeda in Iraq is no longer an insurgency capable of maintaining a high tempo of operations or holding territory.... In our assessment it does not represent a strategic threat to the government of Iraq."
Fourth, Iraqi Security Forces have stepped up. For the first time since the invasion there are fewer than 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq while violence levels have hit all-time lows.
Fifth, Iraqi counterterrorism forces are robust. So strong, Kahl says, "Iraq probably has the most robust and most capable counterterrorism forces in the entire Middle East."
Myth #2: We aren't paying attention to Iraq. According to Kahl, the administration has focused on Iraq, it's the media that hasn't. This myth comes from essays by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and recent articles in the Washington Times. "Iraq is the only place on Earth that President Obama has appointed the Vice President as a special envoy. Iraq is the only place on earth that the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have all been to."
Myth #3: We define success as disengagement. This myth is a legacy of the 2008 presidential campaign, and ignores the Obama administration's actual policies. Citing the president's February 27, 2009, speech at Camp Lejeune, Kahl outlined the American objective as a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant" Iraq. "With the drawdown our engagement with Iraq will increase." The Strategic Framework Agreement to be worked out with the new government (if there is one) will show this strong bilateral relationship.
Regarding the renegotiation of the SOFA, it is not going to happen. There is much flexibility in the Bush administration's original agreement and the force levels will be just fine. "The timing was recommended by General Odierno and he feels it gives him sufficient capabilities on the ground," said Kahl.
Not everyone at the Jamestown Foundation's conference was as optimistic as Kahl, the only current Pentagon official employee who spoke. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad speculated that "if the election produces a protracted period for negotiation, and there are various possibilities for things working and not working... then our timetable needs to have the flexibility to do what we can to assist Iraq and it's progress forward."
Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs said that, "I've changed from being an optimist about Iraqi politics a year ago and am now a pessimist. . . . People are being intimidated, they don't know if they are going to lose their jobs." Provincial leaders, he added, "are inventing de-Baathification processes every day. This comes from the Iraqi National Alliance, trying to use it to destroy the Dawa. . . . De-Baathification has been threatening the integrity of the election ever since it came on the agenda a couple of months ago."
There was a clear lack of consensus among participants over how Sunday's election will play out in the coming weeks and months, and where the United States and Iraq stand as partners. The only point of agreement was that the Iraqi civil war of 2005-2008 has not returned yet.
Tom again: Kahl's a smart guy, and also knows his music. I disagree with him. Why? Because I think a lot of Iraqis are just waiting for the Americans to get out of the way so they can start fighting again. And because I think the incentives that have led to violence in the past are still there. That is, none of the basic questions facing Iraq have been answered.
The good thing is that we will now in the coming months who is right. I hope I am wrong. Let's see how the formation of the new government goes.
Bottom line, there are a lot of things going on in Iraq right now that feel to me like early 2006. Let's hope Kahl and the Gang do better than Feith and the Stooges.
***Here's an update with some comments from the Hon. Kahl, and a counter-response from the Hon. Irvine:
Colin Kahl responds:
Two small but important corrections from Matthew Irvine read-out. Matthew writes that I said: "The Strategic Framework Agreement to be worked out with the new government (if there is one) will show this strong bilateral relationship."
This is not actually not what I said. As you know, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) exists and does not need re-negotiation with the new government. In my remarks, I noted that the SFA provides the foundation, moving forward, for continuing our strong bilateral relationship, including a strong security assistance and cooperation relationship. The exact quote from my speech was: "The precise contours of that long-term relationship with Iraq, including our security relationship, are beginning to take shape as we move forward in implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement, signed with the Iraq government at the same time as the Security Agreement in November 2008, and will be further defined in the coming months once a new Iraqi government is formed and is ready to have more detailed conversations."
Matthew also reports: "Regarding the renegotiation of the SOFA, it is not going to happen." In my remarks and during Q&A I did not say anything about renegotiating or not renegotiating the SOFA. What I said was that the drawdown of our forces, consistent with the current Security Agreement (or SOFA), was on track, and that General Odierno is comfortable with how the responsible drawdown is proceeding.
Matthew Irvine then responds:
Secretary Kahl is right to point out that the Strategic Framework Agreement has already been inked. However, as he states, much of its implementation remains undefined. The outcome of Sunday's election will determine our Iraqi partners, or lack thereof, in the ongoing SFA process. Kahl was optimistic that the elections and these discussions will demonstrate the strong bilateral U.S.-Iraq relationship. Others are more skeptical of those chances for success.
Secondly, although there was no explicit reference to recent debates over the renegotiation of the SOFA agreement or General Odierno's troop request/non-request, it was my interpretation that Kahl was to have none of it. Myth #1 rejected the assumption that large numbers of troops will be required for the long term. In addition, emphasizing that General Odierno himself recommended the existing withdrawal timelines and troop levels seemed to be a clear refutation of recent media reports to the contrary.
Tom again: Colin's phrase "further defined in the coming months" could prove to be mighty interesting.
Last night I was reading a very thorough analysis of Iraqi politics by Judith Yaphe, who has forgotten more about Iraq than I will ever know. She made one point in particular that struck me:
Regardless of who wins the election, Baghdad will not have a military capable of defending it against external threats by the time the SOFA expires [at the end of 2011, when all U.S. military forces are supposed to be out of Iraq]. It will have no real control over its air space . . . .
Think of that. On Jan. 1, 2012, when, some say, there will be no more Status of Forces Agreement, there really will be very little to prevent Israeli aircraft from zipping right through Iraqi air space and onto targets in Iran. And if American forces are out, no one can blame the Americans for allowing it to happen . . . . But if Iraq re-opens the SOFA and negotiates a substantial continued U.S. presence, the door for potential Israeli air strikes stays closed.
I can just see the commander of the Quds Force telling Iraqi officials, "Hey, you got to get President Obama to have them stay."
I also was struck by Yaphe's assessment of Iraq's oil future. Bluntly put, OPEC would just as soon Iraq stay out of the market as a supplier. If and when Iraq comes on line, she implies, oil prices are gonna plummet. Hence, "Iraq is . . . vulnerable to threats from neighbors seeking to thwart its export ambitions." So, it seems to me, Iran and Saudi Arabia both have an incentive to see continued turmoil in Iraq. Kuwait doesn't even need an excuse to find ways to undercut Iraq. (But I would like to open a bar in Kuwait one day called "The 19th Province.")
Meanwhile, I see that Ms. Helene "Sugar Beach" Cooper and one of her posse have caught up, sort of, with my item from last week about Gen. Odierno asking for more combat troops in Iraq after the August deadline. She is a good soul so I am not gonna cavil about her taking a week to get it, sort of. But it isn't a "contingency plan," it was a request.
I am sorry to see the three bombings that killed at least 29 people in Baqubah today, but I am not using the "unraveling" title on this because I think the current bombings in Iraq are simply an attempt to scare people before this Sunday's election. They may get media attention but don't seem to me necessarily to represent any long-term trend.
The big question in my mind is what happens in the three months after the election. How long will it take to form a government? And will that process exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions? If we don't see an Iraqi government by June 1, I will be very concerned.
It isn't a "dark victory," either. For fun, read aloud this Newsweek piece and substitute "Vietnam" and "Saigon" for Iraq and Baghdad. Reads like a Luce product circa 1967. Or maybe China 1946, for that matter. Funny how a Western symphony orchestra and a store selling Johnny Walker are such perennial signs of a breakthrough in a land war in Asia. All we need is a scholarly Asian president who enjoys reading Shakespeare in his rare moments of relaxation. Speaking of the Lucites, Time magazine does a much better job of describing the outlines of post-occupation Iraq. And the AP reports that a new warrant for the arrest of Mookie has been issued. Interesting timing.
And Karl Rove has written a book that says, kind of, that they might have handled this whole Iraq thing badly. You think?
Here is a comment delivered by a St. Bernard from the high peaks of Colorado:
By Matthew Valkovic
Best Defense chief Alpine sports and sectarianism correspondent
David Ignatius' recent column about Iran in Iraq was quite interesting to read. This little nugget especially stood out for me:
"For the Iranians, maintaining a compliant government in Baghdad is a crucial matter of national security, especially for the generation that survived the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. Tehran is still settling scores for that conflict. According to U.S. intelligence reports, the Iranians two months ago circulated a list of 600 Iraqi officers who are targeted for assassination because of their role in the Iraq-Iran war. Asked what the United States was doing to counter these killings, a commander responded: ‘We notify people who are on the list.'"
What's ironic about this list is that my old Iraqi army civil affairs and media officer counterpart (yes, they have them in the ISF -- mainly through our advisory efforts), who happens to be a Sunni, showed my civil affairs and PSYOP team and me a similar list around June/July of last year, if I recall correctly.
My counterpart's list, however, was of Shia Iraqi army officers and soldiers who worked for the Iranian Quds Force in Iraq. He didn't say if the Shia officers were being "targeted" or not but did suggest that senior Sunni Iraqi army officers certainly knew who they were and who they worked for.
Many of the officers on that list, my counterpart pointed out, were Iraqi army battalion intelligence officers assigned to mainly Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad. "Ahh, look, here's captain so-and-so from 2nd battalion," my counterpart would say, pointing to the list typed in Arabic script. The senior NCO in our partnered IA brigade's S-2 shop was also on this list -- and his office was just down the hall from my counterpart's! So that Sunni-Shia fault we straddled in Kadhimiya . . . . yeah, it was also running through our partnered IA brigade's own building.
ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images
Here is an interesting note from commenter "Tintin":
. . . the division has three deputy CGs instead of two, which is unorthodox. More interesting is the background of all those generals. One of the three DCGs has a traditional background -- BG Ralph Baker spent some time in light units but his big Iraq assignment was as commander of 2/1 AD.
The others are more interesting. The CG, MG Terry Wolff, spent most of his career in normal command assignments, including taking 2nd ACR to Iraq in 2003, but more recently he commanded the CMATT at MNSTC-I. The second DCG, BG Kevin Mangum, who is in charge of U.S. troops in western Baghdad, is a career special operations aviator (he commanded the 160th SOAR) who also used to run the SOF advisory section of MNSTC-I -- very out of the ordinary. The third DCG is BG Kenneth Tovo, a career SF officer -- he commanded at every level in SF, including commanding 10th Group and CJSOTF-AP on multiple tours, and he used to be the senior SOF officer on the MNF-I staff.
Even two years ago, a command team like that would probably have been completely impossible for 1st AD, don't you think?
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
It's a fact, Jack: Only two people have appeared in all three of my non-fiction books (for the slow ones in the back row, that's Making the Corps, Fiasco and The Gamble). Both these men are thoughtful, innovative, articulate Marine infantry officers who fought in Vietnam but rose to influence later. One is Gen. Anthony Zinni, now retired. The other is Col. Gary Anderson, also retired, who just got back from his a year-long tour working for the State Department in Iraq. Gravelly voiced Gary has been prescient about Iraq in the past-he actually publicly predicted the insurgency, in a piece he wrote for the Washington Post that was published just before the fall of Baghdad. To my knowledge, he was the first person to do so.
Here is his take on the current situation:
By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense western Baghdad bureau chief
One of the problems with asking questions in Iraq, is that you get answers that are usually in the form of questions, usually followed by a sermon. One day last month, I was having a glass of tea with a shopkeeper in Khan Dari, a small town in the Abu Ghraib district of Iraq's Baghdad Province. It is the actual site of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison -- which since it became world-famous has been renamed. My friend fought in the Iran-Iraq War as an infantryman under the Saddam Hussein regime. The main objective of my visit was to ask him if he intended to vote in the upcoming March 7th election.
When I finally got around to asking the question, he looked me in the eye and asked, rather dryly, "How does it feel to have fought for seven years so Iran can take over Iraq?" This was followed by a litany of complaints regarding corruption in the administration of Prime Minister Maliki, and by his belief that all of Iraq's politicians are crooks and incompetents. When he finished his tirade, I reminded him that he had not answered my question. "Of course I'll vote," he said, "how could I not?" My friend, by the way, is a Shiite.
He was less circumspect than most, but his answer was typical of the over 200 people that I polled in the three months leading up to my departure from Iraq in mid-February. The vast majority of the respondents to my question said they would vote, but then alleged that the vote will be rigged by Iran and its stooges in Maliki's government. This was true of Sunnis and Shiites alike. Even though I never asked who they would vote for, about a third volunteered anyway. Several went on to say that their entire neighborhood would vote for the Allawi bloc (the main challenger's alliance), but were fully expecting that once the votes were counted, they would find out that they had "overwhelmingly" endorsed Maliki's crowd. None of those respondents volunteered that he was voting for the Maliki ticket.
Why vote then? Most voter registration in Iraq is tied to ration cards, and there is a feeling among many that they will somehow be punished for not voting by a reduction in their ration allocation; this is an interesting alternative to an appeal to civic virtue. Almost all of the Iraqis I know think that a return to strong man rule is inevitable, and most hope that that dictatorship will not be preceded by civil war. Some openly hope for a military coup. The Iraqi Army is the most trusted element in society, and it is nationalistic. One Sheikh volunteered that there will not be enough piano wire in Iraq to hang Chalabi and his Iranian traitor friends when the army takes over. Ahmed Chalabi is a pro-Iranian legislator who recently led a committee that disbarred over 500 Sunni and Shiite candidates from the election on the grounds that they are former members of the Baath Party. My Iraqi acquaintances are quick to point out that that the other thing the disbarred candidates have in common is that they are anti-Iranian nationalists. Chalabi's last gig was as an American agent who gave us much of the false evidence that led us to war in 2003. As one nationalist Iraqi army officer friend commented to me, "he betrayed you once --- and us twice."
The precedent is being set for sham elections in the future. Maliki has used the Iranian ploy of getting rid of candidates who might threaten him. He has also shut down bars and nightclubs as a sop to his most conservative Shiite supporters, and he is encouraging the Iraqi Army chain of command to urge soldiers to vote for him. The disgusting images of atrocities committed by Sunni extremists shown on Iraqi television by far-right Shiite parties would make an American snuff film producer wince. These ads are clearly designed to re-ignite sectarian passions.
We Americans want an election in Iraq badly, and we are going to get an election ... badly. So what do we do about it? This election, and American support for it, reminds me of an old "Our Gang" movie short from the ‘30s in which Spanky and his friends decide to put on a play and, by gosh, there will be a play, no matter how awful.
There is enough slime collecting for us to repudiate the election and encourage the UN to join us in doing so. We should work for a new election preceded by a vetting of the disbarred candidates by an impartial foreign third party group with a simultaneous investigation of Chalabi and his cronies for potentially treasonous activities. These actions would go a long way toward building some faith the electoral process which is now missing in Iraq.
Barring radical U.S. and foreign disapproval of this electoral travesty, Iraq is on its way to coup, civil war, and one man rule -- and perhaps all three. The only winner in the current Iraqi electoral situation is Iran.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel. He recently left the State Department after completing a year-long tour in Iraq as the Governance Advisor with an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Tom again: Also, good old Juan Cole offers a good roundup of the latest pre-election allegations of fraud and pre-emptive arrests. Meanwhile, young Steve Myers of the New York Times reports that Maliki's path has become "increasingly uncertain, his campaign erratic and, to some, deeply troubling." And the always interesting Reidar Visser comments, "We are barely a week away from the 7 March parliamentary elections in Iraq, but the electoral campaign just does not seem to be going anywhere useful."
Friends, I ask you: What could be more imperialistic than invading a country pre-emptively on false premises and then leaving many years later in a selfish, callous and clumsy manner?
We may not get an answer as Sullivan has taken a week off. I do not believe this has anything to do with my arguing with him.
When asked yesterday about General Odierno's request for more combat troops for Iraq after this August, Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, denied that anything of the sort has happened:
Q: Has General Odierno requested a combat brigade remain in Iraq after the August deadline?
MR. MORRELL: General Odierno has made no such -- no such proposal; nor has one been approved by this department. It is still very much our plan here in this building to meet the president's policy guidelines to have our U.S. forces in Iraq down to 50,000 by the end of August.
Q: It's all combat troops out, right?
MR. MORRELL: Combat units -- combat units, BCT's out, replaced by advisory-and-assistance brigades. But regardless of what the units are, the total number, as the president has mandated, is no more than 50,000. That is what we are planning for, that's what we are on target for, and that's where we are headed.
. . . there has been no request made. There has been no request approved. We are going to be at 50,000 forces come the end of August, as we can now foresee it.
Q: But will the secretary support General Odierno, if he does come back and say that?
MR. MORRELL: Will he support --
Q: (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: There has -- as I said a couple times previously, there has been no such request. So let's see if there is such a request, then what the response would be.
How can I respond to something that has not happened and that is a hypothetical at this point?
This is what is going on: Odierno has told people he has made the request. But I should have been clearer about the procedure: He informed officials that he plans to file formal papers about this in a couple of months, probably June. Bottom line: He has been clear about what he wants. The president got it, and acknowledged the request. But apparently Geoff Morrell didn't, or is pretending he didn't.
It is like you see a friend at work and he says, "Hey bub, we're gonna have a going-away party for Joe on Saturday night, I'll e-mail you the details later." Would you say you have been invited to the party? Apparently Mr. Morrell would say not.
Speaking of the future of Iraq, this is the most impressive conference lineup I've seen in some time. It all goes down this coming Thursday March 4.
Also, catching up: David Ignatius had a good piece in yesterday's Washington Post about Iran's influence in Iraq. Among his nuggets: the head of Iran's Quds Force meeting with Chalabi to discuss the merger of slates of Shiite candidates. I thought the column was especially good because the role of Iran in Iraq is one of the biggest mysteries to me about the war. I suspect Tehran's presence has been more pervasive than we suspect.
Paul J. Richards-Pool/Getty Images
I am a big fan of Andrew Sullivan, and read his thoughtful blog every day. But I am tempted to give him one of his Von Hoffman-ish awards for his item criticizing me for advocating keeping 35,000 or so troops in Iraq for many years to come. Andrew asks:
When will this madness end? Do we really have to go completely bankrupt and be forced to withdraw from these anachronistic pretensions? Are seven years not enough?
Tom responds: Good questions! I wish you had posed them before you supported the invasion, Andrew. The decision to attack Iraq may was one of the biggest blunders in American history, and is going to cost a lot more. This thing is far from over, and I am surprised that you think you can just walk away from it now. You are an interesting moral thinker -- how can you justify that?
CMU International Relations & Politics/flickr
Our chief canine correspondent has absconded to Costa Rica. While extradition procedures are underway, here is a guest contribution from a Marine officer who wishes to remain anonymous:
I arrived in Iraq in November of 2007 on a Marine Military Transition Team. We were embedded with an Iraqi Army battalion in Al Anbar province where we lived on a small, American compound inside the perimeter of a larger Iraqi Army compound. The whole base had been infiltrated by insurgent stray dogs that preyed on our trash and were rumored to have attacked people when in groups.
But only one dog lived in the American compound, Socks (named so because his front paws were white while the rest of him was mostly black). Socks lived with the Americans and earned his keep as a guard dog. If Americans would enter the compound, he wouldn't bat an eye. But whenever an Iraqi approached he would raise the alarm by barking. Our team's Equal Opportunity Representative had a talk with him about this, but he persisted.
His most important function was to coordinate and lead night movement-to-contact patrols. Our latrines were located outside the American lines but inside the Iraqi perimeter, in an area controlled by the Iraqis during the day and by the insurgent stray dogs by night. Whenever a team member would make a move to go on a micturation patrol, Socks would bark, summoning two allies from the Iraqi barracks across the street (two yellow-haired mutts that seemed to be his only canine friends). This fire team would form a tight wedge formation and recon the area in front of the American, pushing the insurgent dogs back from the latrines. This frequently resulted in dog fights where Socks was frequently wounded in action. At times, we thought he wouldn't survive his wounds, but he always did. Occasionally he would run his own presence patrols during the day, always returning wounded but victorious.
After living under Socks's protection for only a month, our battalion was moved to Diyala Province. Three months later, we got the chance to pass through our old compound again. Socks was nowhere to be found. The IA rear party had not seen him in weeks. He either took off for Diyala in our wake, or his number finally came up and he went out fighting under a pile of matted fur and slashing teeth, as he would have wanted.
Got a memory of a good dog you knew in a bad place? Send it along, with photos if possible.
A Best Defense Exclusive:
In a move that could force President Obama to break his vow to get all combat troops out of Iraq by August of this year, his top commander in Iraq recently officially requested keeping a combat brigade in the northern part of the country beyond that deadline, three people close to the situation said Wednesday.
Gen. Raymond Odierno asked for a brigade to try to keep the peace in the disputed city of Kirkuk, but only got a polite nod from the president when the issue was raised during his recent meetings in Washington, according to two of the people familiar with the discussions. If the brigade in northern Iraq is indeed kept in Iraq past the deadline, there will be a fan dance under which it no longer will be called a combat unit, but like the six other combat brigades being kept past the deadline, will be called an advisory unit. I can imagine the press releases that will follow-"Three U.S. Army soldiers were killed last night in an advisory operation . . . ."
The feeling in the corridors of the White House is that the general is asking the right questions, but a bit clumsily, and certainly too early for political comfort, especially in Iraq, which is about to hold a national election. So I suspect the administration's bottom line for Odierno was, Hey, Shreko, put a sock in it until after the Iraqi elections, because what we need is a new Iraqi government to be formed so it can quietly begin talking to us about re-visiting some of those 2008 SOFA agreements about future troop levels.
This debate is just beginning. I expect that Obama actually is going to have to break his promises on Iraq and keep a fairly large force in Iraq, but of course that won't be the first time he's had to depart from his campaign rhetoric on this war.
Speaking of which, CNAS, the little think tank that could, plans today to post a report (Update: now posted) by me titled The Burden about the way forward in Iraq. It argues that we need to think about keeping troops there for many years, not because I think it is a good answer, but because I think it is the least bad one.
Let's open the betting: How many U.S. military personnel will be in Iraq four years from today--that is, Feb. 25, 2014? The person who guesses closest gets a signed copy of any of my books. My guess: 28,895. Not "combat" troops, of course! Goodness no. Just "advisory" troops who carry M-16s and call in airstrikes and such.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
I have a piece in the New York Times today that contends that we need to think about keeping at least 30,000 troops in Iraq for many years to come, instead of getting them all out at the end of next year. Yes, I know the SOFA (see page 15) would need to be reopened but I think this will happen. Do you know anyone who thinks that Iraqi forces will be able to stand on their own at the end of next year? Uh-huh, me neither.
As I note in the article, it doesn't make me happy to say it, because I think that invading Iraq was a huge mistake, perhaps the biggest error in the history of American foreign policy. I mean, invading a country pre-emptively on the basis of false information? That would get you thrown out of night court. But I think that staying beats the hell out of the alternatives. We've had too much rushing to failure in the Iraq war.
More on this tomorrow.
This blog knows all too well that no one is right all the time, and that it is important to listen to people who know their stuff and disagree with you. So when I saw Nir Rosen, a fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security, make some comments that sharply disagreed with my pessimistic views on Iraq, I asked him to write a guest post for Best Defense explaining his take on the situation. Nir, who has been knocking around Iraq lately, graciously did so.
Nir Rosen is a writer and Fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security. He has spent over four years in Iraq since 2003. His first book on Iraq, In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, was published by Simon and Schuster early in 2006. His new book on Iraq and the region will be published later this year by Nation books. His work can be found on www.nirrosen.com.
By Nir Rosen
Best Defense guest Iraq political commentator
It's been frustrating to read the latest hysteria about sectarianism returning to Iraq, the threat of a new civil war looming, or even the notion that Iraq is "unraveling." I left Iraq today after an intense mission on behalf of Refugees International. My colleague Elizabeth Campbell and I traveled comfortably and easily throughout Baghdad, Salahedin, Diyala and Babil. We were out among Iraqis until well into the night every day, often in remote villages, traveling in a normal Toyota Corolla. Our main hassle was traffic and having to go through a thousand security checkpoints a day. Stay tuned for our report next month about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq (which deserves more attention than political squabbles) and the situation of Iraqis displaced since 2003. Stay tuned for my own article about what I found politically as well. And finally stay tuned later this year for my book on the Iraqi civil war, the surge, counterinsurgency and the impact of the war in Iraq on the region.
From the beginning of the occupation the US government and media focused too much on elite level politics and on events in the Green Zone, neglecting the Iraqi people, the "street," neighborhoods, villages, mosques. They were too slow to recognize the growing resistance to the occupation, too slow to recognize that there was a civil war and now perhaps for the same reason many are worried that there is a "new" sectarianism or a new threat of civil war. The US military is not on the streets and cannot accurately perceive Iraq, and journalists are busy covering the elections and the debaathification controversy, but not reporting enough from outside Baghdad, or even inside Baghdad.
Iraqis on the street are no longer scared of rival militias so much, or of being exterminated and they no longer have as much support for the religious parties. Maliki is still perceived by many to be not very sectarian and not very religious, and more of a "nationalist." Another thing people would notice if they focused on "the street" is that the militias are finished, the Awakening Groups/SOIs are finished, so violence is limited to assassinations with silencers and sticky bombs and the occasional spectacular terrorist attack -- all manageable and not strategically important, even if tragic. Politicians might be talking the sectarian talk but Iraqis have grown very cynical.
When you talk to people they tell you that the sectarian phase is over. Of course with enough fear it could come back, but Shiites do not feel threatened by any other group, and Sunnis aren't being rounded up, the security forces provide decent enough security, and they are pervasive, there is no reason for people to cling to militias in self defense and besides militiamen are still being rounded up, I just don't see enough fuel here for a conflagration -- leaving aside the Arab/Kurdish fault line, of course. (Though if Maliki went to war with the Kurds that would only further unite Sunni and Shiite Arabs.) The Iraqi Security Forces like Maliki enough, even if they prefer Alawi. The Iraqi army will not fall apart on sectarian lines, it would attack Sunni and Shiite militias, if there were any, but these militias are emasculated. They can assassinate and dispatch car bombs but they can't hold ground, they can't engage in firefights with checkpoints. The Iraqi Security Forces might arrest a lot of innocent people, but they're also rounding up "bad guys" and getting a lot of tips from civilians. The Iraqi Security Forces might be brutal, sometimes corrupt, but they no longer act as death squads, they take their role very seriously, perhaps too seriously, but these days anything is better than the recent anarchy and sectarian massacres.
Of course Maliki is in the end still a Shiite sectarian actor and has a core constituency, as Chalabi cleverly forced him to reveal, but Maliki is not pro-Iranian (though Iran is too often demonized as well as if the dichotomy is pro-American and good or pro-Iranian and bad). It's not a dichotomy of pro-Iranian or nationalist either.
It's not about whether Iraqis are sectarian or not. They are, though the vitriol and hatred have decreased. It's that they are not afraid of the other sect anymore. Fear is what led to the militias taking power and to the political and military mobilization along sectarian lines. There are attempts by some Shiite and Sunni parties to scare people again but in my conversations I feel it is failing. The fear is gone and the Iraqi Security Forces fill the security void, even if it's not pretty.
There is concern about Sunnis being disenfranchised or getting the shaft. But they have been disenfranchised since 2003. In part they disenfranchised themselves but anyway none of them expect to get unshafted. It's already done. The government is in Shiite hands and now it's a question of whether it will remain in the relatively good Shiite hands of Maliki, who provides security and doesn't bring down an iron fist on you unless you provoke him (sort of like Saddam), or the dirty corrupt and dangerous Shiite hands of Maliki's rivals -- Jaafari, Hakim, etc. I think these elections mean a lot more to Americans (as usual) and maybe to Iraqi elites than they do to Iraqis.
Besides, what can Sunnis do? Nothing, they're screwed and they have to accept it, and they have. The alternative is far worse for them. Sunnis in the region will not go to war alongside the Sunnis of Iraq. That moment came and went in 2006. Iraqi Sunnis don't even have a single leader who is charismatic and has real appeal, they're divided among themselves and these days your average Iraqi just isn't that into politics. I've heard it hundreds of times by now, they blame the religious parties, they say they got fooled and now they understand. Now that's not completely true, but the militias were able to mobilize people because of a security vacuum. These days it doesn't matter how remote and shitty the village I visit is, there are Iraqi Security Forces, and people have good things to say about them. Compared to the first three years of the occupation, Sunnis seem downright docile, maybe bitter or wistful, maybe angry, but their leadership is emasculated, in jail, abroad, just trying to survive, or just trying to make money.
Maliki will probably emerge the victor in the elections. His more sectarian and corrupt Shiite rivals are discredited and unpopular, but more importantly, he is an authoritarian ruler in the Middle East, he would have to be really incompetent if he couldn't stay in power. If Karzai could do it, then Maliki should be able to as well. Of course there is nothing uniquely Middle Eastern about this. In fact maybe looking at post-Soviet states is useful -- that is, the new ruler will not readily relinquish control, even if he has to bend the rules a bit, or operate outside the constitution. This has happened in Asia, Africa, and other places in transition. I hate to admit that I hope Maliki wins. He's the best of all the realistic alternatives. It's not like a more secular candidate is likely to win, so if it's not Maliki it will be Jaafari or Chalabi. Frankly this is a rare case where I hope Maliki violates the constitution, acts in some kind of authoritarian way to make sure he wins the elections, because the alternative is fragmentation, or a criminal, sectarian kleptocratic Shiite elite taking over, and then Iraq might unravel. For now it's still "raveling."
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
On Saturday, the leading Sunni party said it had decided to withdraw from Iraq's March 7th national elections. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi went to Saudi Arabia to confer with its king and its intelligence chief. And the Iraqi vice president met with the Egyptian ambassador. And Iranian troops acted pushy along the Iraqi border at volatile Diyala province, which I am told is the Maliki faction's preferred overland route to Iran. What up with all that?
I am getting very puzzled. Some friends of mine say not to worry, the Sunnis understand they have lost and are going to suffer for a generation. Other friends of mine, equally knowledgeable in Iraqi affairs, predict civil war or a military coup by September. (And a third friend says that a military coup would be a good outcome.) They can't all be right.
The experts' predictions are all over the map in a way I haven't seen since about late 2005. This is not a good sign.
My friend retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, who was a planner in the middle of the surge and then on the staff of the National Security Council, thinks it all boils down to why you think security improved in Iraq in 2007:
If you think that in 2007 the Surge really [just] ‘froze the factions' and that the primary agency belonged to the United States, then logically our withdrawal means that we should expect everything to fall apart. If you think that in 2007 the Iraqis decided they had enough of this and (with a lot of US help) arrived at a modus vivendi (an ‘Iraqi good enough' one), then you would expect that our exit would have little effect and may even be stabilizing (down to a point -- leaving some type of residual force, even in an robust Office of Military Cooperation, is important).
Tom again: I think this is a good analysis. I tend to come down on the side of believing that American intervention (both directly, with troops, and indirectly, with money) was key to the events of 2007.
Meanwhile, here's the debate between well-informed Reidar Vissar and less so U.S. Amb. to Iraq Chris Hill. Guess who wins? Maybe the guy who knows something about Iraq? This isn't entirely fair to Hill, who doesn't get a chance to rebut. My favorite Vissar jibe: "In this paragraph, Hill actually goes as far as embracing the jurisprudence of Ahmad Chalabi."
On the other hand, I am not sure how Vissar now views the situation. (Like I said, the experts are all over the place.) I thought he had been pretty copacetic with the situation in Iraq, but here he sounds alarmed: "Only a massive voter turnout on 7 March can now reverse the negative trend in Iraq and prevent the country from falling prey to rapacious regional forces."
SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images
I thought I was a pessimist about Iraq until I read this comment by a U.S. military official in today's Washington Post:
All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005. ... The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we're sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing."
Ugh. I think 2005 was my least favorite year of the war Iraq, when things were falling apart and the American officials were insisting that they weren't. 2006 was bloodier but at least by the end of the year, it was clear that something had to change.
The official's comment in the Post reminds me of when, a few months ago, a top American expert in Iraqi affairs took me aside to warn me that I was dangerously optimistic. I asked him if he misspoke and mean that I was too pessimistic about the prospects for Iraq. "No," he said, shaking his head. "You are too optimistic. You think a civil war in Iraq is avoidable. It is not. It is inevitable."
Meanwhile, General Odierno is calling out Chalabi and others as tools of Iran. Good for him.
When Matt Valkovic finished his tour of duty in Iraq, he got out of the Army, hung up his captain's bars, and became a "temporary ski bum." I asked him for his thoughts from the slopes of Colorado about the land between the rivers-or, as he put it, his reflections from the lift line on the Sunni/Shia fault line. Here they are. And remember that the guy in the chairlift next to you might just have finished a tour of duty.
By Matthew Valkovic
Best Defense chief Alpine sports and sectarianism correspondent
I've been home from Iraq for about five months after having spent a year with my battalion in the northwest Baghdad district of Kadhimiya. I'm also out of the Army (well, IRR to be exact) with plans to work and attend graduate school in DC. I'm lucky enough to be spending some down time in Colorado, living the ski-bum life, before jumping into a new job and a new life. Sometimes, though, riding up the ski lift, I think about where I was and what I was doing a year ago and then wonder what's going on today in my old corner of Baghdad.
MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images
The Iraqi army prevented the council of Salah al-Din province from meeting, apparently on orders from Prime Minister Maliki. I suspect this sort of confrontation is the wave of the future.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.