August 03, 2007
O'Hanlon & Pollack: Guilty of Rose Colored Glasses?
With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all involved. Asking who won most civil wars is a bit like asking who "won" the San Francisco earthquake. Unfortunately, we may soon be forced to confront how best we can avoid "losing" an Iraqi civil war.
--Kenneth Pollack "Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover From an Iraq Civil War" (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 11, January 2007)
The time may be approaching when the only hope for a more stable Iraq is a soft partition of the country. Soft partition would involve the Iraqis, with the assistance of the international community, dividing their country into three main regions. Each would assume primary responsibility for its own security and governance….unless the U.S. troop surge succeeds dramatically, a soft partition model may be the only hope for avoiding an all-out civil war. Indeed, even if the surge achieves some positive results, the resulting political window might best be used to negotiate and implement soft partition. As of writing, it is too soon to know exactly how the current approach will fare. We are highly skeptical of its prospects. But one need not have a final assessment of the surge to begin considering which “Plan B” might succeed it in the event of failure—or even a partial but insufficient success.
--Michael O’Hanlon “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” (The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper, Number 12, June 2007).
I quote the above not as ‘gotcha’ to try to embarrass Pollack or O’Hanlon, each reasonably competent foreign policy analysts. And aside from my discomfort regarding the dearth of "humility" issue, I will refrain from any heated accusations or personal broadsides here. I know neither of these think-tankers personally, and can only presume they wrote in this NYT op-ed exactly what they believe in good faith, despite their much more pessimistic (and very recent) views quoted above. But I thought I might respond to the O'Hanlon/Pollack piece on more substantive grounds, as I’ve not seen much criticism of it on that score elsewhere.
Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results, and they feel now they have the numbers needed to make a real difference.
It is well and good to say morale is “high”. But saying so doesn’t make it so. Take this report from August 1st :
U.S. troop morale is being put at risk by the lack of political progress in Iraq, the Pentagon's new top uniformed leadership said yesterday. Adm. Michael Mullen told his Senate confirmation hearing the Iraqi government must do better at national reconciliation, a theme the Bush administration has sounded with increasing urgency in recent months.
You have the nominees for Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joints Chief saying in open Congressional testimony, where you’d suspect they’re trying to put a brave face on, that morale is problematic, at best. But O’Hanlon and Pollack, fresh from a week in Iraq, assure us it’s “high”. I don’t doubt they met soldiers excited by Petraeus’ leadership, or varied localized successes on the security front, and perhaps even a new-found sense of mission. But this does not mean morale is high across the board, and it is irresponsible and misleading, in my view, to so suggest. For instance, is the morale of the men featured in this video “high”? Let’s us be wary of blanket statements, overly cheery diagnoses, all clears, no?
Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:
Everywhere, Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population, working with Iraqi security units, creating new political and economic arrangements at the local level and providing basic services — electricity, fuel, clean water [ed. note: do read this for context] and sanitation — to the people. Yet in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community. As a result, civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began — though they remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.
But what is “everywhere”? Is it Sadr City? Other parts of Baghdad military handlers didn’t take them because the security situation was overly problematic? Parts of Diyala and Niveneh provinces? Well, no, it appears Pollack and O’Hanlon were shepherded mostly around Mosul, Tal Afar, Ramadi and the Ghazaliya neighborhood of Baghdad (of which more below). This is quite a bit of ground, but it is not “everywhere”. Again, I am not trying to parse and play gotcha, I am trying to force us, now more than four years on in a conflict that has killed almost 4,000 of our country-men, not to mention tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to contain our enthusiasms and retain some sobriety.
To continue, what does it mean that “in each place, operations had been appropriately tailored to the specific needs of the community”? This almost sounds like bespoke suits were being rapidly put together on expedite from Saville Row storefronts, specifically fitted to a tee for each and every remote hamlet of Iraq, given the ebullient tone. But where is the concrete manifestation that “new political and economic arrangements” have been persuasively created by Army and Marine units at the “local level”, or that “electricity, fuel, clean water and sanitation” have been provided “to the people” (this almost reads like Soviet propaganda, in parts, so giddy the tone)? Put differently, what Pollack and O’Hanlon are really saying is that the “building” part of clear, hold, build is going very well. But even relatively optimistic accounts of the surge urge greater caution than O’Hanlon and Pollack would have it:
…Energy Ministry is unable to muster and protect enough repair teams to work on the frequently attacked transmission grid. As a consequence, Baghdad enjoys an average of only 8.4 hours of electricity a day, and less during the sweltering summer months. For similar reasons, the Oil Ministry was able to spend only $90 million of its $3.5 billion capital expenditure budget in 2006, and Iraq's oil production remains below paltry pre-war levels, despite the billions of U.S. dollars invested in infrastructure. Across all ministries, the Iraqi government managed to spend only about 20 percent of its $6 billion capital investment budget last year; the flow of government services dried to a trickle.
Pollack and O’Hanlon then write that, as a “result” of the successful ‘building’ function being performed by U.S. forces, “civilian fatality rates are down roughly a third since the surge began.” But was it Disraeli who famously quipped: “There are lies, damn lies - and statistics”? O’Hanlon has made something of a cottage industry crunching Iraq stats and having graphic designer types help provide accompanying imagery to plop into the Sunday Times now and again, so I’m not going to quibble with the factual accuracy of this statement given his wealth of experience with these numbers, save to say, according to this report at least, civilian fatalities sharply increased to 1,653 in July ’07 from 1,227 in June.
Yes, O’Hanlon is using some other metric, ostensibly allowing him to feel comfortable stating that civilian fatality rates are “down roughly a third since the surge began” (the official date of the surge’s commencement, of course, a matter shrouded in rather a lot of obfuscation and spin). And yet, again, let us contain our enthusiasm, as at least 1,653 civilian Iraqis died last month, well up from June (in fairness to Pollack and O’Hanlon, they do write that fatalities “remain very high, underscoring how much more still needs to be done.”)
Elsewhere in the op-ed, where O’Hanlon and Pollack are striving to highlight positive stories, they unintentionally reinforce that bad news is still more the underlying real story.
Take this statement:
In Ramadi, for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit.
I am sure, when high profile visitors are being spirited through a barracks with U.S. forces obviously eager to have said personages leave with a good impression, the Sunni police company and Shia Army unit must have been behaving rather well so as to appear the very picture of “harmony”. But the fact that the police in Ramadi are all Sunni, rather than integrated, and the national army majority Shi’a, points to the festering danger of sectarian conflict rearing its head at any moment. These dorm-mates could turn on themselves quite violently indeed, certainly when (as is inevitable), U.S. forces in the area will have to begin to withdraw, and there is little we can do about this, alas, save agreeing to sign on for a decade plus long committment. Put differently, there exists no truly national Police, nor Army, and an excited Captain (one of course appreciates his pride in the progress he's trying to achieve) showing Pollack and O'Hanlon around a 'success story' in Ramadi doesn't change that undergirding dynamic, I'm afraid.
Similarly, Pollack and O’Hanlon write:
In Baghdad’s Ghazaliya neighborhood, which has seen some of the worst sectarian combat, we walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers. The Sunni residents were unhappy with the nearby police checkpoint, where Shiite officers reportedly abused them, but they seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish Iraqi Army company patrolling the street. The local Sunni militia even had agreed to confine itself to its compound once the Americans and Iraqi units arrived.
Well, of course, the local Sunni residents “seemed genuinely happy with the American soldiers and a mostly Kurdish…company patrolling the street.” For if they weren’t there, the Shi’a officers would be, at best, abusing them, and at worst, massacring them. The presence of the Americans is their main source of security, but again, we cannot stay there forever, however much this is difficult to countenance. In this vein, the notion that the local Sunni militia “even…agreed to confine itself to its compound” is no miracle that should precipitate such seeming surprise, rather it is realism that the Kurds and Americans can protect them, so why not retreat and hold their powder dry (at least for now)?
As for the larger state of affairs in Ghazaliya, other reports suggest matters mightn’t be so rosy:
In some Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad, such as Ghazaliya, some residents who were initially excited about the outposts and joint security stations have grown dissatisfied. They say the Americans are doing too little to stop attacks by Shiite militias. "The Americans won't come out to help unless they have orders," said Abdul Rahman, 29, a chemist. "They don't prevent the Mahdi Army from attacking us."
Here is another recent report (like the one above, also from July ’07) from Ghazaliya:
At one plant, all four delivery drivers quit last year after warnings that sectarian gangs would kill them if they continued to drive across the invisible but all-too-real lines dividing Baghdad's Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.
Michael and Kenneth tell us they “walked a street slowly coming back to life with stores and shoppers” in this neighborhood. Perhaps they did, albeit doubtless with heavy security, and I fear with a good dollop of attendant Potemkinism in the air. Regardless, and at very best, the picture appears much more mixed, if the reportage of the LA Times and IHT is to be believed.
Pollack and O’Hanlon continue:
We traveled to the northern cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. This is an ethnically rich area, with large numbers of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. American troop levels in both cities now number only in the hundreds because the Iraqis have stepped up to the plate. Reliable police officers man the checkpoints in the cities, while Iraqi Army troops cover the countryside. A local mayor told us his greatest fear was an overly rapid American departure from Iraq. All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.
I wonder about these somewhat airy sounding locutions, like “stepped up to the plate”, smacking of the naivete of a Pyle say, the character in Graham Greene’s Quiet American. But regardless, if the Iraqi Army and “reliable police officers” have “stepped up to the plate”, then why are local mayors so fearful that all hell will break loose when the Americans leave? Answer? Because the Iraqi Army and Police have not reliably “stepped up to the plate”, of course. Take this report, from August 1, via the Stars and Stripes paper:
U.S. military officials have talked of a possible drawdown in Iraq’s north, but two local Iraqi commanders here say they aren’t yet ready for such a plan to take hold. Iraqi army Lt. Col. Abdulkhaliq Hamed, commander of an outpost in what he and U.S. Army officials call the most dangerous part of the old section of Mosul, and Iraqi police commander Abid Hamad Hasan, who runs six stations in the central and northern area of the dense city, say they aren’t ready to take over security duties solely on their own. “There should be no type of any withdrawal — we are not ready yet,” Hamed said through an interpreter during an interview Saturday at his outpost offices in western Mosul. The Iraqi police commander’s comments were similar. “We have heard the notion in the media [of a withdrawal], but for us, we are still in need [of] the forces,” Hasan said through a translator Sunday in his station offices in central Mosul. “If there is a sudden or gradual withdrawal — I expect civil war here.”
Doesn’t sound like a resounding call to pull out the victory bugles, eh, or even a ringing of the “sustainable security” bells and whistles? And to the Iraqi police commander's statement that "we are not ready yet", why should we think he'll be ready in 3 months, or 6, or 12, or 18, and so on?
Pollack and O’Hanlon then write:
American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).
“American advisors”. “The American high command”. Some quick number-crunching on the composition of the Iraqi Army’s “highly effective” Third Infantry Division. Of late, “only a few sectors” with commanders complaining about the quality of the Iraqi Army units. Sounds great, and yet—is it only me who is bothered by O’Hanlon and Pollack’s huge reliance on MNF sources for the above cheery news?
There are other problematic parts of the op-ed, such as, A) a simple declaration that there exists “no more whack-a-mole”, without any hard evidencing thereto; B) a contention that the Mahdi Army has seen an “outpouring of popular animus” aimed against it (albeit to a “lesser extent” than that aimed at al-Qaeda, still a very debatable, indeed likely erroneous, proposition); C) a tacit acknowledgment, somewhat glossed over, that Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are undermanned, and so on.
But even in the midst of this rah-rah call to summon our collective resolve ("Americans need to understand: we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq...") to keep the surge going “at least into 2008”, Pollack and O’Hanlon are nevertheless forced to concede the Iraqi National Police remains “mostly a disaster” (but I thought they'd "stepped up"!), that the “situation in Iraq remains grave” (add a deteriorating to this, and you’d have the Baker-Hamilton description of conditions in Iraq as “grave and deteriorating”), that we face “huge hurdles” on the political front, that politicians of all stripes “continue to dawdle” and avoid even basic steps towards accommodation, let alone reconciliation.
O’Hanlon, in an op-ed in the WSJ on July 13th of this year wrote that: “politics are 80% of any counterinsurgency operation”. Well, no less than the Chairman and Vice Chairman designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have declared the political track very problematic indeed, and we know Petraeus has had his fights with Maliki, and that Ryan Crocker wants to do away with benchmarks, so arduous the political challenges ahead (see this informative article for more on the political stalemate). Nor do Pollack or O'Hanlon deign to investigate growing Shi'a-U.S. tension, still an under-reported phenomenon, but likely the big story of coming months (as relations with beleaguered Sunnis continue to improve, in large part at least, relations with Shi'a will worsen).
In short, there is a breeziness and a cocksureness to this op-ed I found disconcerting. Something akin to think-tank apparatchiks, smart and well-meaning ones, knowingly throwing a bombshell into the Iraq debate by, as supposed left-leaning Brookings types, providing high-profile fodder for the Administration and its defenders that the surge is a viable strategy. But I continue to believe, in the absence of a major regional diplomatic initiative, undertaken in tandem with the appointment of high-powered non-American envoys to negotiate among Iraqi factions within Iraq, we are seeing only short-lived localized tactical improvements, with the overall strategic situation at best a status quo, and very likely to worsen in the days ahead.
Regardless, I hope O'Hanlon and Pollack are right, I really do. But to say I'd be surprised if they were would be an understatement, as no military victory per se is possible, only a political settlement among Iraqis can ultimately provide "sustainable security" (one involving Iraq's neighbors too, including the ones we don't deign to talk to at high enough levels, and in sustained enough manner). And neither David Petraeus, nor the bravest among his men, can force such an accomodation on the Iraqi people themselves, absent massive diplomatic efforts both regionally and within Iraq, aimed at complementing (a still under-manned) surge, something I fear is well beyond the abilities of this Administration, putting it politely.
About Belgravia Dispatch
Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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