The Best Defense

Iraq: the unraveling?

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on March 30, 2009.

I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly. It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.

Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:

"As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage."

That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?

Here is a quote of the day:

"If they don't release Adil Mashadani, all the Awakening in Iraq will rise up like our uprising today," he [a local Awakening Council spokesman] added.

Along with the bombings in west Baghdad lately, the street fighting over the weekend doesn't quite form a trend. But it points toward one possible series of events. That is, the Maliki government is putting the screws to the Awakening movement (for those who just arrived, that's a mainly Sunni group of about 100,000 people, many of them former insurgents, who in late 2006 and 2007 arrived at ceasefires with the U.S. military presence in Iraq). The American plan was to integrate about 20,000 members of Awakening groups into Iraqi security forces, and help the rest find other work. Meantime, the Baghdad government was supposed to take over the payments to the groups, which when I last checked totaled about $30 million a month.

But the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government never really liked the idea. Indeed, the first deals were cut by U.S. officials behind the back of the Iraqi government. So Maliki's guys are:

-Arresting some leaders of the "Sons of Iraq" (the American term for Awakening forces)

-Attacking others

-Bringing only 5,000 of the ex-insurgents into the Iraqi security forces

-And stiffing others on pay,with some complaining they haven't been paid in weeks or even months

I think Maliki's gambit is to crack down on the Sunnis while American forces are still available in sufficient numbers to back him up. This is a turning into a test of strength, Sunni vs. Shiite.  

There's more. If the Awakening fighting spreads, I wouldn't be surprised to see Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite militia re-emerge. I've always thought the Sunni Awakening forced him to go to ground, because he didn't want to be the only guy taking on American forces. But if the Sunnis are on the attack again, it might be game on for him as well. I am reminded of Ambassador Ryan Crocker's worry, expressed in my new book and elsewhere, that the future of Iraq was something like Lebanon. That is, it has a government, but it is shaky, and there is violence in the streets, with some political parties having armed wings that are outside the control of the government.

The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid calls this all "potentially worrisome." When Shadid begins to worry, we all should. He's the guy who back in early 2004 used to encourage me to take taxis around Baghdad.

Proven provider John McCreary of NightWatch fame is even more emphatic:

"This is a pre-cursor of the second round of the Sunni-Shia civil war to follow."

Question of the day: What should I say the next time someone tells me the surge "worked"?


The Best Defense

Is it time to ask Joint Chiefs of Staff to have a meeting with Initech's 'Bobs'?

By Jim Gourley

Best Defense military culture correspondent

If there is one cult classic film that has contributed to the military's language of inside jokes over the years, it's Mike Judge's "Office Space." The structure and culture of fictional company Initech could have been drawn directly from that of any higher headquarters staff. The movie has all but supplanted Catch-22 for the modern military in characterizing the monotonous absurdity of how the professional organization is managed. But maybe after 13 years of botchery in military leadership, it's time to dispatch with the endless Congressional hearings on the litany of malfeasance in military leadership and invoke one of the film's more prominent but less-referenced characters -- "the Bobs."

"The Bobs" are two consultants hired by Initech to fire employees based on their relative uselessness to the company. Their catch phrase was "what is it you'd say you do here?

This seems a perfect moment to ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff exactly that question. At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq. Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces. The cost of the war alone accounts for 10% of the current U.S. national debt, and cost 176,000 lives by conservative estimates. Throughout, the military has repeatedly bungled the care of its service members and their families, wounded and otherwise. Psychological care failed to meet the need of service members, and progress was delayed predominantly by stigmas among leadership all the way to the top ranks. And even after the Walter Reed scandal we now learn that problems within the military health care system not only persisted, but also extended to service members' families across the entire force. Attitudes among service leadership have also been noticeable in their backward resistance to accepting changes in and adapting to the views of the society it represents and protects. Our top leaders opposed changing the rules on gay service members even as it became obvious the majority of society and even active duty personnel supported openly gay service members. As if they deliberately meant to top their tone-deaf response to that issue, the entire gang assembled before Congress to deliver, as Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) told the assembled military leaders, a "stunningly bad" round of answers on the issue of sexual assault in the ranks. For an encore, they gave us the Jeff Sinclair trial.

But even worse than the military's management of employee healthcare and human relations is its budgeting. The only thing the military seems to do well when it comes to money is ask for more. After losing billions of contract dollars in Iraq and squandering millions on the most comedic fashion show in history, the military continues to run headlong into some of the most disastrous-looking acquisitions projects in all of military history, and at a time when the premium is placed on fiscal conservatism. The Navy seems to be purchasing the littoral combat ship in the belief that it will stop adversaries with shock and confusion. Likewise, the Air Force has entrenched itself so deep around the F-35 that one wonders if they can even see the sky anymore, which is just as well since the plane itself can't reliably get off the ground after years of development and "fixes." And even as we saddle ourselves with technological albatrosses, we find that the defense department is perhaps one of the least competitive organizations in the United States for attracting new employees.

So let's recap. Our leadership can't figure out how to win a war. It can't responsibly manage or supervise the application of people or money in the conduct of war. It cannot adequately meet its promises to care for its employees or their family members. Its strategy for maintaining technological parity with its global competitors is questionable. The current morale among its employees has never been lower since 9/11. Its ability to maintain an edge in human capital is in peril of disaster in the very near future. Fighting and winning our wars while maintaining the health of our armed forces is the responsibility of its leadership. We have fought poorly, lost, and our health is in decline.

So, top military leaders: What is it you'd say you do here?

via Stephen Cummings/Flickr