October 03, 2007

What a Month: A Depressing September

Observing events in the U.S. this past September, I’ve rarely found myself so distressed by the sad state of the American polity. The festivities kicked off when General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker came to Washington to testify on the state of the Iraq effort. Given the rapturous acclaim and media circus that resulted, one might have been forgiven for thinking reincarnations of Napoleon and Talleyrand themselves had repaired to Congress to lend a steadying hand to the Iraq nay-sayers getting overly weak in the knees. The thunderous spectacle was even scheduled to take place on September 10th and 11th, in case anyone dared underestimate the critical import these testimonials on the Hill meant for the Global War on Terror (or as Rudy Giuliani has taken to calling it, the “Terrorists’ War on Us.”)

Public servants, not least in an era of unprecedented compensation on Wall Street (one seemingly uninterrupted by the merest pause to reflect on issues of grave import that have severely wounded our national reputation) should be honored for their service. And so like virtually every Congressperson and Senator, let me also say here at the outset that Petreaus and Crocker are trying mightily to do the best they can on the ground, despite the strategic vacuum they are operating within, not least given the mammoth ineptitude of their superiors. But while we may respect their service, we also have the right to question the accuracy of their testimony, to include criticizing them for too often putting the best light on a still awful situation without providing enough context and caveats. This does not mean they are cheap spin-meisters. They are not. They are able professionals. But it does mean they are working on behalf of an Administration and they must report within their respective chains of command, so it is only natural that they filter their data points in a manner that lends itself to a generally positive narrative.

Each of Petreaus and Crocker had a couple of core messages. For Petreaus, the “bottom line up front” was that the “military objectives of the surge…in large measure” were being met. And that to scale down overly precipitously or to re-orient the mission from population security to a more ‘over the horizon’ role would imperil the supposed gains effectuated to date. Regarding this last, Petreaus at least once mentioned the judgment of the August ’07 released NIE which stated: “(w)e assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far.” But what Petreaus failed to mention was that the NIE went on to say: “The impact of a change in mission on Iraq’s political and security environment and throughout the region probably would vary in intensity and suddenness of onset in relation to the rate and scale of a Coalition redeployment. Developments within the Iraqi communities themselves will be decisive in determining political and security trajectories.” In other words, no matter what localized improvements may result by surging men into Anbar Province, say—ultimately it is what happens politically that will determine whether longer-term stability is achievable (nor did the NIE seem to preclude a more gradual approach to a draw-down, and by “more gradual”, I don’t mean pre-surge levels a year from now, but something more expedited).

This in turn brings me to Ryan Crocker’s testimony, which despite the greater attention arguably paid to Petreaus’, was ultimately the more important of the two. His core messages were that success in Iraq was still achievable, defined as “a secure stable democratic Iraq at peace with neighbors”, and to help Iraq reach this stability “abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts” would assure an even greater debacle, meaning a failed state (rather than merely a “dysfunctional” one, ostensibly?), greater humanitarian catastrophe, larger risk of nefarious interventions by Iraq’s neighbors, and perhaps creation of an al-Qaeda safe haven on par with those existing in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Combining Petreaus and Crocker’s messaging the upshot was clear: population security is a prerequisite for political reconciliation efforts. And while the flailing Iraqi Government was failing virtually all the benchmarks (recall, these so-called benchmarks where the Administration’s, developed in consultation with Maliki’s government, not standards imposed by the Democratic majority on the Hill), both men urged that a not overly rigid approach be applied in judging the progress on matters like oil revenue sharing or re-Baathification (read: we’ve essentially failed our own tests, but give us more time…). In a word or two, you might say, ‘strategic patience’ was being urged, even at the cost of 60-80 American lives per month, and billions more out the door, with convincing ‘success’ a distant mirage at best.

If one had to pick one word that was used the most throughout each man’s testimony, it might well have been “Anbar.”(At one point, under questioning by Senator John Kerry, Crocker said: “(in) terms of Anbar—and not to overemphasize that one particular province, but there are things of broader significance…” which showcased well how Crocker realized much of his testimony was based on vague aspirations that the ‘Anbar Awakening’ could spell good news for the country generally). Yet the reality is likelier quite the opposite. The experience in Anbar points to how Balkanized the country has become. Local police forces that have been developed there are essentially ex-Baathists and/or Sunni insurgents who are now more concerned by al-Qaeda excesses, or the specter of Shi’a revanchism, so that they have forged a temporary entente cordiale with American forces. But if they do not receive requisite resources from the central government, in frustration they will most likely revert to a more aggressive posture (meaning as per Sunni radicals more of the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia variety), which will have them pointing their guns anew at the Americans (this time better trained, however), and/or of course, their Shi’a foes.

Related, and excuse the colloquialism, but Crocker basically put lipstick on the proverbial pig by dressing up the thin gruel that is virtually non-extant relations between the secretive, conspiratorial minded Shi’a Dawa government sitting in Baghdad and provinces like Anbar. How many times did we hear that the Central Government was going to increase the budget for Anbar Province by $70MM for ’07, or that $50MM had been pledged for compensation for losses in Anbar suffered as a result of battles with al-Qaeda (an intrepid reporter should circle around and see if there is real follow through here?). At one point Crocker stated: “(n)o longer is all-powerful Baghdad seen as the panacea to Iraq’s problems”, saying that “those living in places like Anbar and Salahuddin are beginning to realize how localities having more of a say in decision-making will empower their communities.” Sounds great, yet as Crocker admits: “(o)ne of the key challenges for Iraqis now is to link these positive developments in the provinces to the central government in Baghdad. Unlike our states, Iraqi provinces have little ability to generate funds through taxation, making them dependent on the central government for resources.” And there’s the rub. Despite all the talk of ‘bottom-up’ reconciliation, you still need a real central Government if you want to avoid an increasingly failed state, one that is cooperating well with the provinces. To this end, and despite the admirable exertions of Crocker’s Embassy, the bridging of the divide between the center and provinces like Anbar has proven rather pitiable.

There was much more by way of, at best, incomplete testimony. Why did no one more readily acknowledge that the Anbar Awakening would have occurred even without the surge, even if admittedly on a shakier foundation? Why did no one acknowledge that the experience of Anbar, even if you thought it positive in terms of ultimately helping lead to a central government via the pain-staking ‘bottom-up’ process (which I don’t), wasn’t necessarily exportable nation-wide? In Diyala, for instance, where the sectarian mix is more complex so that competition for local resources is more of an issue than in Anbar, ‘success’ along the lines we saw in Anbar is proving more difficult:

U.S. effort to recruit former Sunni insurgents north of Baghdad — considered crucial to expanding the fight against extremists — is in danger of collapse because the government has been unable or unwilling to accept the volunteers into Iraqi security forces.

The potential breakdown in Diyala — described by U.S. and Iraqi officials in interviews this week — underscores the challenges of copying the military-militia alliances that uprooted al-Qaida in Iraq and other factions from strongholds in Iraq's western desert.

It also could threaten some of the gains of the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad and surrounding areas, including the important battleground of Diyala where al-Qaida in Iraq claims the capital Baqouba as its base...

…I worry this (tension) is going to explode, and we'll revert back to these individuals supporting al-Qaida," said Col. David Sutherland, the U.S. military commander in Diyala province. "It weighs heavily on my mind."

This very same pattern could well re-emerge in Anbar as well, once local resources increasingly get exhausted and if significant funds from the central government don’t replenish local Anbari coffers. And, of course, we are discussing here the relative success stories, namely Anbar and, per Crocker, nascent Anbar-style progress in Diyala. Note however that there was little talk about the south of Iraq, say, where the four provinces are effectively not under any centralized authority, whether Muthanna (where the Governor was recently assassinated), or Dhi’Qar (where Petreaus in his testimony acknowledged coalition air support is still required to back up local authorities), or Maysan (where the Marsh Arabs don’t answer to central government directives), or Basra, where the British have essentially been defeated and the Fadhila Party, Badr Corps, Mahdi Militia and others vie for power in a unruly struggle. (Petreaus waved these issues in the South aside, stating: “(t)hese are Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems”). Fair enough, but this doesn’t address ensuring a viable state via sound central government-periphery relations, and begs the question why “Iraqi solutions” might not be applied to other parts of the country too (though admittedly conditions are arguably even more challenging where the ethno-sectarian mix is more complex).

There were many other issues with their testimony. We heard on multiple occasions that while immunity hadn’t been granted to most former Sunni insurgents (per the benchmark requirement), de facto “conditional immunity” had occurred with the 1,700 former Sunni insurgents in the Abu Ghraib area west of Baghdad reportedly accepted into the police force by Shi’a dominated authorities. (Speaking of police forces, why did neither Crocker nor Petreaus deign to mention the police was meant to be a national force, but that even despite possible salary payments emitting from the central government the ‘concerned citizens’ committees’ sprouting up were anything but ‘national’ in spirit?) Or that progress on oil revenue sharing was afoot, when in reality the first U.S. oil contract with Iraq runs at cross-purposes with our strategy given its Kurdish-centric approach. Why did Crocker make such a big deal of the August 26th communiqué among Iraq’s “five most prominent national leaders”, when it was painfully apparent this was mostly eyewash these Iraq actors had reluctantly offered Crocker just in time for his testimony, and that no real movement buttressed this Potemkin exercise? Why did no one deign to mention that ethno-sectarian violence in Baghdad might arguably have lessened, not least, because massive ethnic cleansing had already taken place, some Sunni neighborhoods were walled off, and so on. Why was the existence of some 2 million internally displaced and another 2 million refugees worth nary a mention (and that such displacements were continuing post-surge?). Or that Mahdi militia controlled large swaths of Baghdad still? And, most important perhaps, why didn't anyone mention the prospect that our rapprochement with Iraqi Sunnis will likely lead to greater tension with the majority Shi'a, including even a renewed conflagration?

And so it went, with the fundamental strategic reality little acknowledged, namely, that Iraq cannot be stabilized without political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia, that Kurdish federalism (notably Kirkuk) remains a massive sleeper issue, and that no regional diplomatic approach to integrate our Iraq efforts into the larger strategic situation was being addressed with requisite seriousness. But little matter, Petreaus festooned with medals looked good, as did the no-nonsense demeanor of Crocker. The upshot: we’d keep surging then (like the gravity-defying markets, no one can keep Surge Nation down)!

Time constraints prevent me from discussing further depressing episodes that occurred this September past, whether the Brezhnev-era type Brit Hume interview of the two men, the mostly lame Congressional interrogatories of them, the sad MoveOn.org ad that precipitated so much attention from our representatives, as bills on little matters like the restoration of habeas corpus and Iraq troop deployment levels almost seemed to languish attention-wise compared to the mindless harrumphing surrounding the asinine ad, with all of this capped off with the hysterical over-reaction to Ahmadi-Nejad’s New York visit (this last I do plan on addressing shortly in more detail). Anyway, and as I say often, more soon, I hope. (Regulars may have surmised I'm under intense time pressures on various fronts, thus the very light blogging...).

Posted by Gregory at October 3, 2007 12:26 PM

In the present case Greg, quality more than compensates for quantity.

Posted by: Eric Martin at October 4, 2007 11:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, thanks for the review of events and commentary.

Sounds like we will simply wait until something significant happens in Iraq - for good or ill.

Posted by: Quiddity at October 5, 2007 03:01 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You could also have mentioned the despicable Rush Limbaugh and his smearing of US soldiers. What an arsehole!

And then I learn he is broadcast on US armed forces radio! Aye carumba! What next, a little light opera from David Duke?

Americans, you are an odd bunch at times!

TCH (A Brit)

Posted by: The Common Humanist at October 5, 2007 07:47 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Hey! Greg makes my morning! A post!

I remember how my work suffered in the year after my daughter was born. I'm amazed (and thankful) that you're able to keep this site up at all.

Posted by: Jeff at October 5, 2007 11:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks for taking the time to review the testimony and summarize for us. Always makes my day to see your post.

Yes, it is to weep. Add in the Sy Hersch article, the Kyl-Lieberman vote and new secret torture memos. One is tempted to say that the good news is it's going to get worse before it gets better. The bad news is that it's not going to get better.

We have endured corrupt, incompetent leadership. The grown-up Republicans seem unable to moderate, or even offer a balanced perspective. But have we ever had such a pathetically impotent, calculating opposition party in the face of such outrages and public outcry? Hillary's equivocation on Iraq, her vote on Kyl-Lieberman, and her pandering to AIPAC (e.g. on Jerulalem) are not encouraging.

There are apparent divisions within the military command that bear watching. And who is talking to Jim Webb?

Hey, the market's up. Happy days are here again.

Posted by: Adams at October 5, 2007 12:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Come on, you know Duke's in Ahmadinejad's amen corner; he probably doesn't mind the tales of Macbeth, Wright, Beauchamp,
Massey &. Delgado; the real phony soldiers. Seriously Greg, Brezhnevism is more appropriate to those who genuflect before
Arab potentates, like Assad, Mubarak, & the Sauds. Hersh was last heard giving his two cents to Iranian state television. Any comments about "Witness D" allegation regarding the esteemed
Mahmoud's role in the murder of Quassemlou in Vienna. Or his role in the administration of detention facilities in Evin Prison in the mid 80s. I know it's indelicate to bring that issue up I know you can't insult a political leader unless he's a Republican; who happens to be a Christian.

I know you don't personally have no experience of this; dealing with those who blow up Americans, & Lebanese presidential candidates because of their purported 'occupation' issues; Armitage was the one who brokered the bridge to the Palestine Branch of the Syrian Mukharabat;where Maher Arar disappeared to; whose deportation came as a result from the same
Mukharabat. Of course we were blamed for following up the tip; and then letting him stay there. One has to admit the Syrians have gotten those techniques down pat; they were trained by the likes of Alois Brunner, and Soviet KGB. At the outset of the Iraq campaign; Syria was providing sanctuary for all kinds of Baathist riffraff including the Tikriti twins; Uday & Qusay. Later they looked away as Salafist and Wahhabis used Damascus as a way station to the border outposts of Daws e Zawr, and Al Quaim. Wait a minute, isn't that he same place where the North Koreans had their
weapons platform, until last months.

Posted by: narciso at October 5, 2007 09:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The assassination of Sattar Abu Risha really highlights the disastrous nature -- even the one little corner into which the US pours all its money and military might can not be secured. :(

The Blackwater scandal is another instance of a highlight of how utterly lawless the streets of the "capital" city are, as well.

I wish there were some kool-aid I could drink, that didn't require giving up many IQ points.

Posted by: Joe Fortuna at October 6, 2007 01:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It doesn't take much skill to set off a car bomb; whether in the Yazidi strongholds of NorthWestern Iraq(an area featured in Raymond Khoury's new novel the Sanctuary) or even in Ramadi . (Where three generations ago, a fellow very much like Petraeus or his aides McMaster and Mansour, John Glubb; routed a Wahhabi Ilkwan force encouraged by the prompt departure demanded by the likes of the "Get Out of Mesopotamia Committee" of which Greg wants to reconstitute apparently, We know the consequences of leaving Iraq in the 20s specially with the Sunni dominated ruling class; The Assyrian massacre of 1932, the rise of the Golden Square fascist movement and the Ghailani coup of '41; a bid
for a Vichy proxy in the Middle East; which required a rejoinder
by Churchill sending an expeditionary force; the Battle of Habbaniya and the farhud of the Jewish residents of Baghdad; remembered by the late Elie Kedouri.

It is regrettable that Sheik Sattar was murdered by cowards; but
it does reinforce the resolve of the Anbar tribes; in an area that
was given up for lost; a year ago. Did the Blackwater team over
react after the first carbomb; well seeing what the standard operating procedures are for insurgent operation, it's not so surprising. Time magazine's Joe Klein, tells us not to worry about
Ahmadinejad's gestures and very action. It's true in the end we
can defeat him; the only question is the cost to civilians and soldiers alike all through out the region.

Posted by: narciso at October 6, 2007 09:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Narciso, I understood your Blackwater reference to make the argument that we should not be surprised if the Blackwater people murder somewhat indiscriminately, because their opponents murder extremely indiscriminately.

I think you are correct; indiscriminate murder (and torture) lead the victims to favor indiscriminate murder (and torture) in response.

But it might be an open question as to whether it is good policy to to allow this type of tit-for-tat, or brutality-for-brutality, or torture-for-torture, to be accepted as standard operating procedure, especially in the particular arena of colonial rule/insurgent suppression.

Some have argued well that brutality is an essential component of maintaining colonial control. Some now argue otherwise. It is an interesting debate.

The British maintained a far-flung empire, and certainly they employed both components over and over -- the component of rule-by-terror & intimidation, and the component of coopting local leaders in order to rule by cooperation.

Posted by: Jay Blackweather at October 7, 2007 08:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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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