Friday, December 29, 2006

"Surge" May Already be Happening

There has been a lot of talk lately about a possible surge in the number of troops deployed to Iraq. U.S. commanders have alternated their support for this option, while several congressmen have made their opposition or support of a surge their primary message regarding the conflict in Iraq. Much in the same way that earlier debate was framed around withdrawing or "staying the course", the Iraq policy debate seems to have centered over the question "to surge or not to surge." As Anthony Cordesman of CSIS points out, "to surge or not to surge, is not the question." Adding troops is not a strategy. There is so much more to what is going on in Iraq; a military solution is no longer feasible, assuming it ever has been. Instead the U.S. ought to concentrate more on the economic dimension of the conflict. I have already mentioned this several times, so I won't go into too much detail.

Anyhow it seems that despite Bush's refusal to publicly announce his new strategy for Iraq, he seems to have already answered The Question, irrelevant as it may be. Yesterday the Washington Post reported that a brigade of U.S. Army troops will deploy to Kuwait early next month. You can draw your own conclusion, but to me it looks like the Bush administration is preparing for "the surge."

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Training Iraq's Troops

Perhaps the most catastrophic error committed by the United States in the post-conflict period was to dismantle the Iraqi army and police forces. It seemed the U.S. was unable to distinguish between Saddam's Sunni regime and the security forces, which were in fact 90% Shia. This created an enormous security vacuum and is largely to blame for the present situation.

In response to this crisis, the Iraq Study Group and many others have recommended that the U.S. Army shift from conducting combat operations to advising and training Iraqi security forces. This is of course a great idea as besides reducing American casualties, it will allow the U.S. to responsibly withdraw from Iraq without fear that that security situation will decline precipitously. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al Hashimi fully supports this recommendation, declaring that once Iraq has a fully operational and effective security force, "the U.S. must leave Iraq".

The keyword here is "effective." While the numbers of trained security forces are rising, they remain politically unreliable, often contributing to the sectarian strife rather than containing it. Today's New York Times reports:
"The soldiers who came upon the car in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad were part of a joint American and Iraqi patrol, and the Americans were ready to take action. The Iraqi commander, however, taking orders by cellphone from the office of a top Sunni politician, said to back off: the car’s owner was known and protected at a high level...This time, it was a Sunni politician — Vice Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie — but the more powerful Shiites interfered even more often."
Prime Minister al Maliki has on several occasions allowed his loyalties to al Sadr to compromise Iraq's security, most recently lifting a roadblock around Sadr City that was immobilizing some of Iraq's most notorious death squads.

According to Brookings' Iraq Index, only 10,000 of the 115,000 trained and equipped Iraqi forces are politically reliable.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Iraq in Numbers

A chart compiled from the Iraq Index:
(note: if you are only seeing part of the chart, enlarge your browser window)


Nov. 2003

Nov. 2004

Nov. 2005

Nov. 2006

U.S./Other Foreign Troops in Iraq (in thousands)





U.S. Troops Killed





U.S. Troops Wounded





Iraqi Army and Police Fatalities





Iraqi Civilian Fatalities





Multiple-Fatality Bombings





Number of Insurgents





Strength of Shiite Militias





Daily Average of Inter-Ethnic Attacks





Number of Foreign Fighters





Iraqis Internally Displaced Since April 2003





Iraqi Refugees Since April 2003





Iraqi Doctors Murdered or Kidnapped/Fled Iraq (total)





Iraqi Security Forces Technically Proficient





Iraqi Security Forces Politically Dependable





Oil Production (in millions of barrels per day; prewar: 2.5





Household Fuel Available (as % of estimated need)





Electricity Production (in megawatts; prewar: 4,000)





Unemployment Rate (percent)





Per Capita G.D.P. (in dollars; prewar: 900)





Read the accompanying article.

Some Catching Up

Hope everyone had a good holiday. Here are some of the stories from the past few days that caught my eye. For a more complete account I would go check out Today in Iraq. My commentary is in italics.

District by District, Shiites Make Baghdad Their Own- As the United States debates what to do in Iraq, this country’s Shiite majority has been moving toward its own solution: making the capital its own. (Bush is apparently going to announce his grand new strategy for Iraq in the new year, but Iraq isn't waiting. Each indecisive day hundreds more Iraqis and American soldiers are killed or injured, and militias further cement their power.)

Iraqi Court Says Hussein Must Die Within 30 Days- An Iraqi appeals court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence against Saddam Hussein and ruled that the man whose brutal reign began in 1979 and ended with the American-led invasion in 2003 must go to the gallows within 30 days.

Hundreds Disappear Into the Black Hole of the Kurdish Prison System in Iraq- The entire inmate population had either been denied trials or had been held beyond the terms of their sentences, they said — lost in legal limbo in the Kurdish-controlled region of Iraq. (The legal system in all of Iraq, not just Kurdistan, is a joke. Usually, the accused are granted a farce of a trial; they are provided with an underpaid lawyer who rarely even meets with the accused and who generally fails to mount any sort of defense. The trials last on average about 15 minutes after which most defendants are found guilty. Please read this article for more. But how can we expect the Iraqis to hold just court proceedings if we can't?)

U.S. Says Captured Iranians Can Be Linked to Attacks- The American military said Tuesday that it had credible evidence linking Iranians and their Iraqi associates, detained here in raids last week, to criminal activities, including attacks against American forces...Iraqi leaders said last week that the site was the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite political leaders... A spokesman for Mr. Hakim said he had not heard of a raid on the compound. (While al-Sadr has refused to have any sort of relationship with the United States, al-Hakim has met with Bush at the White House and it appeared as though the U.S. would be backing al-Hakim in order to undermine al-Sadr. But with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's rejection of the U.S. backed plan to build a coalition across sectarian lines, it seems that the U.S. has decided to apply some pressure on al-Hakim and SCIRI.)

Marines Charge 4 With Murder of Iraq Civilians- Four marines were charged yesterday with murder in the killings of two dozen Iraqi civilians, including at least 10 women and children, in the village of Haditha last year, military officials said at Camp Pendleton, Calif. (For related blog entries go here, here and here.)

Expect more posts throughout the day.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

After Baker-Hamilton: What to do in Iraq

One of the most important contributions of the Iraq Study Group was that it cleared the way for a more honest debate on Iraq. The International Crisis Group has joined the debate with its recently released report, "After Baker-Hamilton: What to do in Iraq." ICG's premise is that while the ISG report is important it is insufficiently radical if Iraq’s collapse and an unprecedented regional war are to be avoided. Here are the report's main recommendations:

1. A new forceful multilateral approach that puts real pressure on all Iraqi parties. The Baker-Hamilton report is right to advocate a broad International Support Group; it should comprise the five permanent Security Council members and Iraq’s six neighbours. But its purpose must not be to support the Iraqi government. It must support Iraq, which means pressing the government, along with all other constituencies, to make necessary compromises. Contrary to the Baker-Hamilton report’s suggestion, the government and security forces should not be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered. They are but one among many parties to the conflict and not innocent of responsibility for much of the trouble. It also means agreeing on rules of conduct and red-lines for third-party involvement. Sustained multilateral diplomacy, not a one-off international conference is needed.

2. A conference of all Iraqi and international stakeholders to forge a new political compact. This is not a military challenge in which one side needs to be strengthened and another defeated. It is a political challenge in which new consensual understandings need to be reached. A new, more equitable and inclusive national compact needs to be agreed upon by all relevant actors, including militias and insurgent groups, on issues such as federalism, resource allocation, de-Baathification, the scope of the amnesty and the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. This can only be done if the International Support Group brings all of them to the negotiating table, and if its members steer their deliberations, deploying a mixture of carrots and sticks to influence those on whom they have particular leverage.

3. A new U.S. regional strategy, including engagement with Syria and Iran, end of efforts at regime change, revitalisation of the Arab-Israeli peace process and altered strategic goals. Mere engagement of Iraq’s neighbours will not do; Washington must clearly redefine its objectives in the region to enlist regional, and particularly Iranian and Syrian help. The goal is not to bargain with them, but to seek compromise agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which all can live.

This is a very important report as it completely eviscerates any illusions that Washington may still have about Iraq after the Baker-Hamilton report. And it goes beyond the ISG's recommendation to engage Iraq's neighbors by explaining how the U.S. can realistically achieve this. For more on this I would direct you to my recent entry on "Dealing with Iran" which highlights a paper written by Flynt Levrett of the New America Foundation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Pentagon Report Released: Violence Up, Jobs Needed

The violence just keeps getting worse. According to a just-released Pentagon report, injuries and deaths among US and coalition forces in Iraq rose 32% during the period from mid-August to mid-October over the previous three months. The average number of attacks each week and the average number of people killed or wounded in those attacks were at their highest levels since the United States handed over power to the Iraqi government in June 2004.

The Pentagon report places much of the blame for this increase in violence on the rise of ethnic and sectarian militias and other armed groups. The report specifically refers to the militia led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr noting that it has replaced al-Qaeda as the biggest security threat in Iraq.

In terms of the economy, the Pentagon once again acknowledges the importance of job creation:
"High unemployment continued to feed sectarian, insurgent, and criminal violence. Although definitive data are not available on the actual unemployment rate, it has been an issue that has had a significant effect on the security environment. The Iraqi government, along with Coalition and international help, must create an effective strategy to provide jobs. This program must be seen as fair and non-sectarian by common Iraqis. It must produce tangible results for a plurality of Iraqis or it may decrease the legitimacy of the Government of Iraq and have little effect on the level of violence."

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Pentagon has been proactive in this regard. For the past 6 months, the Pentagon has been going around and preparing to open approximately 200 factories located all over Iraq, including in some of the most dangerous cities. Oil production and electricity services are still hampered. The report also makes mention that reconstruction efforts have boosted capacity to provide drinking water to 5.2 million people. However as Justin Rood of TPM Muckracker notes, a GAO report released this past Friday claims that 60% of that water is lost due to leaking, contamination and theft.

Another interesting tidbit from the report: While most organizations, pundits and politicians have already adopted the term "civil war,"the Pentagon says the situation in Iraq is "far more complex than the term 'civil war' implies." It goes on to say, "However, conditions that could lead to civil war do exist, especially in and around Baghdad," and the Iraqi people are fearful of civil war.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dealing with Iran

One of the key proposals of the Iraq Study Group's report was that the U.S. engage Syria and Iran over Iraq. Syria has come out saying it supports this proposal whole-heartedly, only because complementary to this recommendation is the notion that Israel give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Israel of course is not to happy with the idea of the U.S. undermining its negotiations with Syria, nor with the idea of handing back the Golan Heights in the first place.

Iran, unlike Syria, seemingly has no reason to negotiate with the U.S.; its influence in the region continues to grow, the majority population of Iraq (Shia) have a close connection with Iran giving Iran considerable power within Iraq, its nuclear enrichment program continues undeterred and its President is certain that the 12th Imam will soon return- "a certitude that leaves little room for compromise" as Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor explains. Besides which, many Sunnis in Iraq will surely frown on increased Iranian intervention. (The same can of course be said of the Kurds in regard to Turkey and the Shia in regard to Jordan.)

Secretary Rice has repeatedly declared that the U.S. will not negotiate with Iran, arguing that the "compensation required by any deal might be too high." And that, ""If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they [Iran and Syria] will do it anyway."

The U.S. doesn't want to engage Iran and vice-versa, so what's the point? Well Flynt Levrett, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation argues that the United States must deal directly with Iran in order to prevent Iranian development of nuclear weapons and to resolve other political and security issues. He recommends a "grand bargain" that would include economic incentives and a guarantee that the U.S. not attack Iran. In exchange the U.S. would gain limits to Iran's nuclear activities and a termination of Iran's support for terrorism in Iraq. This deal could also provide the foundation for a establishing a regional security framework in the Persian Gulf.

He makes an interesting argument and I suggest those interested read the full report; however, I believe the points I make above are still valid. Even if the U.S. does for some reason extend its arm to Iran, who is to say that Iran will reciprocate. Everything seems to be going Iran's way as far as Iran is concerned anyway. Also, when one is pursuing a course of action based on one's messianic beliefs, it seems unlikely that logic will hold much sway.

What do you think? First off, should the U.S. engage Iran over Iraq and secondly how successful do you think said negotiations would be? Should Iraq's neighbors even be involved in the peace process?

Friday, December 15, 2006

SIGIR Saved....For Now

Though not yet officially in the majority, the Democrats have already started their campaign to reform Iraq-related legislation. Late last week, the House and Senate passed a bill extending the life of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) through to 2008, giving it the authority to examine the $32 billion spent on reconstruction. The New York Times reports that Bush is likely to sign the bill. This is great news. EPIC has long been an active proponent of the work SIGIR has done.

Since its inception in 2004, SIGIR has saved US taxpayers approximately $405.1 million and its investigations have led to several convictions of American occupation officials on bribery charges. Its latest report, published in October, which I discussed extensively in an earlier blog posting, provided a detailed analysis of what progress has been made on the ground and where the most significant problems lie. SIGIR’s investigations of Halliburton alone uncovered tens of millions of dollars of wasted funds and found that the company has been exploiting a federal loophole to keep its activities in Iraq confidential.

Photos From the Frontline

I recently stumbled across a selection of photos taken by Christopher Brangert for the New York Times and was so impressed that I thought I would share them. The NYT has put together a little slideshow featuring narration by Brangert here. If you want to see more of his photos, check out his website. Some really amazing stuff.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vice President of Iraq in DC

Just got back from an event hosted over at USIP featuring Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, thus the delay in posting. I'll try and insert some analysis later, but I wanted to quickly relay some of the more interesting points he made.First here is a quick intro to VP al Hashimi taken from the Iraq Study Group Report:
"Hashimi is one of two vice presidents of Iraq and the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Muslim bloc in parliament. Hashimi opposes the formation of autonomous regions and has advocated the distribution of oil revenues based on population, a reversal of de-Baathification, and the removal of Shiite militia fighters from the Iraqi security forces. Shiite death squads have recently killed three of his siblings."
1) the U.S. wrongly dismantled Iraqi army and police forces thinking the entire regime was Sunni when in fact 90% of soldiers are Shia. This created an enormous security vacuum and is largely to blame for the present situation. The U.S. must correct their mistake by funding, equiping and training a new Iraq army and police

2) Once Iraq has a fully operational and effective security force, the U.S. must leave Iraq. Iraq will bear the burden of any further bloodshed

3) the insurgency has been mis-characterized. It has no ideological basis and as such should be considered in terms of a resistance group. Its only purpose is to force the U.S. to leave Iraq. Once the U.S. complies, the "insurgency" will disappear

4) the solution to the crisis in Iraq is political. Once a constitution and government is set up that features input from all parties/sects within Iraq and is agreeable to all parties/sects the violence will end

5) When asked about the Iraq Study Group's recommendation that the U.S. engage Syria and Iran over Iraq, VP al Hashimi replied that other countries cannot decide Iraq's future. Besides he added jokingly, Iran and the U.S. really have enough to talk about, he wouldn't want to burden them with the Iraqi crisis as well.

Let me add that al Hashimi seems genuine in his desire to unite all Iraqis regardless of sect and he has shown in the past, particularly when he signed the constitution despite their being little Sunni input, that he is willing to compromise his own party goals to achieve stability in Iraq.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Community Action Program

The reconstruction effort in Iraq have thus far been predominantly unsuccessful in revitalizing the county or stemming the conflict in Iraq. We have all heard the stories of corruption, waste mismanagement, etc. There are however several groups involved in reconstructing Iraq that achieve success on a daily basis, but due to security concerns cannot publicize these successes.

Most of these organizations are part of the Community Action Program (CAP) funded by USAID. These organizations are on the ground in Iraq supporting community organized and implemented programs that make a notable difference in the respective communities. CAP organizations contract all work directly to Iraqi firms, thus offering the thousands of employed Iraqi youth an alternative to militias and criminal syndicates. They provide Iraqis with the opportunity to have a say in their own future by identifying their own needs and developing programs that will address them.

Because the specific work these organizations do cannot be publicized, it is not unusual for them to simply be lumped in with all the other reconstruction organizations such as Halliburton and Parsons. Nothing could be further from the truth. CAP programs are run quite efficiently and have a high rate of success. For example while the Halliburtons of Iraq spend up to 50% of their budget on security, CAP organizations spend only a negligible amount for the simple reason that there do not have to fear attacks from the community. The communities are the ones who devise and implement the development plans and so they are very much in support of the CAP programs. Bruce Parmelee, the Middle East Director of CHF International who has spent the last 4 years working with CAP, explains:
"Before we could do anything, the community would have to agree. I would tell them, 'It's for your community. You're the Iraqis. You can pave the way for this to happen.' And they did that. It was never a case of some American saying, 'This is what you need in your country.' People won't attack projects that they feel ownership of."
Also, according to the US government's own auditors the CAP programs have a success rate of 98%. Thus far the CAP program has helped:

* build/repair 830 schools;
* repair 337 roads;
* complete 325 water resource projects;
* launch 298 health-related initiatives; and
* improve 292 electric utility centers.

Yet despite being among one of the only things going right in Iraq today, CAP organizations must constantly fight with the administration for funding. In January, Bush will again ask for supplemental funds, but it is still unclear what funding CAP will receive if any. I do know that EPIC and many other Iraq-minded NGO's will be fighting to include substantial funding for CAP.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pentagon is Doing Something Right After All

With so much bad news coming from Iraq everyday to the point that it can hardly be considered news in the man bites dog sense, I feel it is especially important to highlight what is going right in Iraq.

It seems the Pentagon has finally discovered how intrinsic the jobs crisis really is to the level of violence in Iraq.
Army Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the top U.S. field commander in Iraq, states:
"We need to put the angry young men to work. One of the key hindrances to us establishing stability in Iraq is the failure to get the economy going. A relatively small decrease in unemployment would have a very serious effect on the level of sectarian killing going on."
As many groups, including EPIC have argued, widespread unemployment -to the tune of 70% in some areas- is primarily fueling the insurgency and crime syndicates. Lacking alternatives, many of Iraq's unemployed, the youth especially, are being recruited into these dangerous positions. However, most Iraqis do not consider militias or criminal syndicates sustainable occupations, and would readily trade their guns in for a hammer.

For the past 6 months, the Pentagon has been going around and preparing to open approximately 200 factories located all over Iraq, including in some of the most dangerous cities. This effort would employ tens of thousands of Iraqis in the coming months. Furthermore, as each Iraqi supports a family of around 13, this employment drive would have an exponential effect on the welfare of the country.

Not only will Iraqi men no longer be compelled to join militias and crime syndicates, but by being able to provide for their family they will no longer have to rely as much on militias such as Muqtateda Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army which has been known to take care of the basic needs of many Iraqis. These militias will thus have less influence on Iraqis and their power will certainly diminish as a result.

Sure this should have happened a long time ago, but let us still be thankful that is finally happening.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Army Still Sending Unfit Troops to Iraq

You may remember reading about the case of Staff Sgt. Bryce Syverson:
"Syverson, 27, had landed in the psychiatric unit at Walter Reed after a breakdown that doctors traced to his 15-month tour in Iraq as a gunner on a Bradley tank. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and was put on a suicide watch and antidepressants, according to his family. Today, Syverson is back in the combat zone, part of a quick-reaction force in Kuwait that could be summoned to Iraq at any time.

He got his deployment orders after being told he wasn't fit for duty.
He got his gun back after being told he was too unstable to carry a weapon."
Well it seems that the US army is still sending troops to Iraq that have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Hartford Courant has the story of Damien Fernandez, who after being diagnosed with PTSD and rated 70% disabled by the US.
"When the FedEx letter from the Army arrived Nov. 28, he calmly told his mother and girlfriend, "I got my orders," staring hard at them with vacant eyes.

That night, he snapped. He told his girlfriend, Riella Darko, that he wanted to die and asked her to take him to the emergency room of St. Mary's Hospital, where he was placed on a suicide watch. He has since been transferred to a locked ward in the Northampton VA Medical Center in Massachusetts.

His callback orders have not yet been rescinded.

Fernandez is one of 8,262 soldiers who have left active duty but have been ordered back under a policy that allows the military to recall troops who have completed their service but have time remaining on their contracts. About 5,700 of those called up have already been mobilized, with Fernandez among about 2,500 ordered to report in the coming weeks."
Apparently, Fernandez is one of thousands of soldiers who have left active duty only to be ordered back under a policy that allows the military to recall troops who have any time remaining on their contract. On average a soldier will be on active duty for 2-6 years for an 8 year contract. Now it seems the US is pushing to get every minute possible out of soldiers, regardless of their condition.

Thanks to Mike over at Born at the Crest of the Empire for pointing me toward this article.

Iraq's Unused Billions

In early November I discussed some of the key findings of a report put out by the
Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction. One of the more interesting finds
was that the Iraqi government had spent a negligible amount on reconstruction despite
having a budget of $6 billion. Certainly an odd revelation considering the urgent need Iraq has for more funding.

Today the New York Times examines the Iraqi government's inability to spend money and
offers a very interesting explanation.
"The country is facing this national failure to spend even as American financial
support dwindles. Among reasons for the a strange new one: bureaucrats are so fearful and confused by anticorruption measures put in place by the American and Iraqi governments that they are afraid to sign off on contracts.

...the stringent measures they had favored to slow the rampant corruption may be
especially daunting for bureaucrats who have little experience with Western-style
regulations and oversight. Those officials say that Iraqis who have seen their
colleagues arrested and jailed in anticorruption sweeps are reluctant to put their own name on a contract."
Other factors include a high government turnover, security problems, actual corruption and a lack of Iraqis skilled at writing contracts and managing complex projects. As the New York Times notes, these are the same issues that plague the US reconstruction effort.

This problem, if not addressed, will surely undermine future international fund-
raising efforts as countries and organizations will understandably be reluctant to provide Iraq with funds if they believe Iraq will be unable to use them.

Thus far, the government has been able to spend only 20% of its 2006 budget.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Bush Discusses the ISG Proposals

In a joint press conference with PM Blair, President Bush discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group.
"The thing I liked about the Baker-Hamilton report is it discussed the way forward in Iraq. And I believe we need a new approach. And that's why I've tasked the Pentagon to analyze a way forward. That's why Prime Minister Blair is here to talk about the way forward, so we can achieve the objective, which is an Iraq which can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and be an ally in the war on terror."
In other words: thanks, but no thanks. He goes on to say:
"The Congress is not going to accept every recommendation in the report, and neither will the administration. But there's a lot of, you know, very important things in the report that we ought to seriously consider."
Regardless of whether the proposals suggested by the ISG have merit, one thing is clear: the study is meant to be taken as a whole. It addresses issues that are inextricably tied together and as such a strategy that favored only select recommendations is liable to fail.

It's not really news at this point, but Bush went on the record again to reject the idea of negotiating with Iran and Syria. On Iran specifically, Bush declared that he would not even begin to consider entering discussions with Iran as long as it pursues its nuclear enrichment program. While it is certainly true that negotiations with Iran are likely to go nowhere at this time, success in Iraq must involve its neighbors, and the U.S. cannot afford to slam the door on Iraq's most influential neighbor. I intend on posting more about the difficulties of negotiating with Iran and Syria later.

addendum: Many newspapers have been reporting that Bush has also rejected the report's other main recommendation, namely the pullout of troops in early 2008. The thing is, the report doesn't actually recomend that the U.S. redeploy its troops in Iraq at this time. It only states that it would be nice if the U.S. "could" do so.
"By the first quarter of 2008 … all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq. At that time, U.S. combat forces in Iraq could be deployed only in units embedded with Iraqi forces."
Certainly all of their proposals seem geared towards achieving a responsible withdrawal in the near future; however, they never give a timetable for when the U.S. "should" withdraw its combat troops from Iraq.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Iraq Study Group Releases Report...Will Bush Listen?

After 9 months of deliberation the Iraq Study Group finally released its report today. You can view the full text here.

The report's makes 2 fundamental recommendations: Change the primary mission of U.S. forces in Iraq to allow combat forces to leave the country responsibly and, adopt a new regional diplomatic approach. The keyword in the former recommendation is "responsibly."

A quick withdrawal from Iraq would almost certainly result in an all-out civil war that could destabilize the entire region. Instead the report suggests that combat troop remain in Iraq until early 2008 after which only a smaller force responsible for training, rapid-response operations and advising would remain. According to a New York Times article printed yesterday, US troops in Iraq have already began shifting to advisory roles. Unfortunately, as incidents such as this demonstrate, it could take a while before the Iraqi army will be ready to secure their country without the combat support of US troops. Whether approximately two years will be enough time is questionable; however, there is no question that if there is any chance for the US to withdraw combat forces responsibly in this time-frame, Iraq's neighbors must be included.

As Baker, one of the chairmen of the Group explained in today's press conference:
"Both Iran and Syria have a lot of influence... Iran has the single greatest influence in Iraq today. You can't solve these problems without talking to them. You cannot look at Iraq and treat it as separate in the region... For 40 years, we talked to the USSR when they wanted to wipe us from the face of the earth."
These countries are inextricably tied to the conflict in Iraq, and as such any meaningful peace in Iraq will need to involve them. Unfortunately, Bush has repeatedly rejected calls to engaged Syria and Iran, and as long as Cheney and Rove have his ear, this will likely continue to be the case. There may be some hope, however, with the nomination of Robert Gates to the position of Defense Secretary: Gates has long been a proponent of engaging Iran in a dialog. There is of course the possibility that Gates may change his position on the matter as soon as he takes office, after all Cheney also supported talks with Iran before he came to office. I'll give Gates the benefit of the doubt here considering his admission yesterday that the US, contrary to what Bush has said in the past, is in fact losing the war in Iraq- but only time will tell. Either way there is still no telling as to whether Bush would even listen to Gates should he recommend regional diplomacy.

Though Bush originally embraced the Iraq Study Group, as it became clear that the group's recommendations would diverge from White House policy, Bush been downplaying the significance of this report. The report has now become simply one of many others:
"It's very hard for me to, you know, prejudice one report over another," Bush said in an interview Monday with Fox News Channel. "They're all important."
Except this one was drafted by a bipartisan group over the course of nine months and enjoys the support of much of Congress.

Just last week, Bush told PM Maliki that "this business [referring to leaks from ISG report] about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it." It has been reported that Bush is in favor of embedding US troops with the Iraqi army, however, as the report makes clear, the recommendations are offered as a comprehensive approach- one cannot simply pick and choose which ones to apply if one hopes to be successful in Iraq. Then there is the other study group which Bush commissioned in mid-November which is almost certain to recommend Bush stay the course in terms of Iraq policy. This group is due to release the report fairly soon as well, though I haven't heard much since the group's inception. So all in all it seems unlikely that Bush will enact the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, not willingly anyway.

More on this later.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Good Reading

Since the amount of embedded reports has dropped to almost nil, it is no surprise that the main stream media is able to offer little in regards to the on-the-ground situation in Iraq. Fortunately, a great deal of soldiers have been actively writing about their experiences in Iraq, offering the public a unique window into the Iraqi conflict.

The Nation recently published a very interesting article written by Major Bill Edmonds, a US Army Special Forces Officer who served in Iraq for one year advising Iraqi intelligence officers. Maj. Edmonds laments the cultural divide that seperates Iraqis from US soldiers and is frsutrated by the latter's reluctance to even attempt to overcome it.
"I have come to realize that we isolate our soldiers from the societies in
which we operate. We airlift and sealift vacuum-sealed replicas of America to
remote corners of the world; once there, we isolate ourselves from the very
people we are trying to protect or win over."
He found that this lack of awareness was a huge contributing factor to the insurgency.
"'It is how you act," he [a captured Iraqi insurgent] says, 'and how
we are treated that makes me fight. For many Iraqis this anger at you is just an
excuse to kill for money or greed. But for most others, they truly feel they are
doing what is right. But you give them this excuse; the American military gives
them the excuse.' So now terrorist leaders pretending to be pious Iraqis target
this very common base anger, Iraqis fight and civilians raise their fists to
salute the Holy Fighter."
Make sure to read the entire article.

Soldiers are also well poised to analyzes the current situation in Iraq. In an article for CSIS, Lt. Col. Stephen Sklenka, USMC discusses the perils of withdrawal. Col. Sklenka argues that U.S. troops in Iraq are serving two very important purposes: (1) stemming the influence of Iran in Iraq and thereby forbidding Iran from become a regional hegemon and (2) preventing a genocide.

The former argument is more or less common these days; however, I haven't heard too many people using the term "genocide" yet. Though his analysis may seem a bit alarmist, Col. Sklenka's overall argument is quite persuasive. Here is an excerpt:
"In the quest for political and economic supremacy, there are strong indications
that Shi’a leaders are not just aiming for dominance over the Sunni, but rather,
full and complete subjugation of their traditional antagonists. The only
thing preventing fulfillment of their unspoken goal is the presence of US and
coalition forces. If those troops, serving in a de facto mediating
capacity, are removed from Iraq, the already high level of violence will
potentially rise to unspeakable levels of horror as Shi’a death squads assert
their newfound dominance. If the current rate of killing is occurring
while American forces are still in Iraq, one can only conclude that removal of
US forces from that country will be accompanied by an exponential increase in
violence. "
I have a bit of problem with this argument. I'm not sure whether it is fair to say in certain terms that removal of US forces will result in exponential increase in violence. Sure it is likely, but arguments that the presence of US troops incite a great deal of violence are not entirely without merit. Moving on:

In fact, it is not beyond reason to forecast those levels of violence
approaching, if not actually assuming, religio-genocidal proportions as Shi’a
seek to exterminate their Sunni adversaries. For those who dismiss the likelihood of sectarian violence reaching such an extreme, it is important to remember how the various groups in Iraq tend to view themselves.

Unlike their neighbors to the north who consider themselves Kurds first and then
Sunnis, the vast preponderance of Shi’a and Sunni identify with their sectarian
affiliations first and embrace their secular identities a distant second.
That distinction is important because it lays the foundation for understanding
the cultural-ethnic dynamics that have existed in the region for hundreds of
years, long before the concept of an Iraqi nation was articulated.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Iraq's Refugee Crisis

Refugees International (RI), a respected refugees advocacy group, has just posted a brief survey documenting the human costs of displacement and the lack of an adequate international response. They echo the sentiments of policy experts such as Ken Pollack and Dan Byman, noting that the violence in Iraq is creating a refugee crisis that is exporting instability to the entire region.

Every Iraqi who can, has already left or as an Iraqi journalist chillingly puts it:
"Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die."
RI recommends that the US lead an international initiative to support Middle East countries hosting Iraqi civilians, and that donors increase support to UNHCR. If allowed to continue unchecked, the refugee crisis can only continue to grow as a threat to the Middle East.

RI has also posted several stories of Iraqi refugees that are truly heart-wrenching; Putting a human face on a crisis that has thus far been represented mainly by figures in the morning news. Here is one story in full:
"In August 2006, Ali was driving from Beirut to Baghdad and was stopped by a militant group near Fallujah.He was kidnapped when his Iraqi papers were reviewed and identified him as a Shi’ite religious leader.He was then sold to a Sunni militia, where he awaited execution with dozens of other Shi’a, told by his captors that killing a Shi’a got them closer to heaven.After two months in captivity, the Iraqi National Guard raided the compound, freeing Ali.He returned to Lebanon in November of this year to reunite with his family, who were told that he had been killed.Suffering from mental trauma, Ali can not work.Nada is beginning beauty school to support the family, and they hope to raise $10,000 to buy fake documents to move to Europe.In the meantime, they live in a small apartment in Beirut, and lack electricity because they cannot afford it.Their two children are in school thanks to the generosity of neighbors who are taking collections to pay for uniforms and school supplies."

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