Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Sink or Swim" in Iraq

It took me awhile, but I've finally read the entire ISG report.

There's nothing earth-shattering in their analysis of the current situation -- though they flatly reject "stay the course" and note that terrorists are a small part of the problem -- and nothing paradigm-shifting in their proposed solutions. But both are very solid, very reasonable. I came away with two impressions:

1. The report's biggest contribution may be a shifting of the debate, because it rather authoritatively makes assertions about various things that have been bones of contention for years. War opponents will be unhappy with its conclusion that Iraq is of critical interest to the U.S.; war supporters will be unhappy with a whole slew of things, mostly relating to the reality on the ground and the prospects for certain pet strategies. The analysis will be familiar to anyone who frequents centrist sites. So in a way, the ISG report is another triumph for moderates.

2. The fact that the conclusions are obvious, reasonable and workable says volumes about the alternate reality the Bush administration has been living in. Because it didn't take a genius or an expert to write this report; many, many bloggers and other observers have come up with many of the same recommendations. This is common sense stuff -- and the administration somehow missed it.

I have quibbles with some of their points, and questions about the workability of others, but the overall strategy looks solid -- and it's in large part the Democratic "fixed timetable" strategy, though I prefer to think of it as the "Sink or Swim" approach.

The report calls for "enhanced" (read "serious") diplomacy with Syria and Iran to tamp down the chaos in Iraq, along with efforts to resolve the overall Israeli-Arab conflict and reach a comprehensive peace involving Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Israel. Specifics include Israel returning the Golan Heights to Syria, Syria ceasing aid to Hezbollah, Syria ceasing to meddle in Lebanon, and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist.

It calls for gradually pulling out U.S. combat forces while increasing the number of troops embedded with Iraqi units. At the same time, the Iraqi government must meet certain milestones to show that it is progressing toward a time when it can stand on their own. The intent is to send a message to the Iraqi government: we are pulling out regardless. We will continue to support you if you show yourself willing to take on your responsibilities, but we will not make an open-ended commitment of troops. And if you fail to meet the milestones, we will reduce our support accordingly.

Side benefits would include an increase in the resources available for Afghanistan (a tacit admission that the invasion of Iraq did, in fact, divert resources from Afghanistan), a lessening of the Arab anger provoked by our presence and a cost structure that the American people are more likely to support.

The specific milestones ISG recommends are laid out on pages 62 and 63 (overall, pages 80 and 81 of the pdf). They envision a legal dismantling of militias by May 2007, followed by provincial elections in June. Security-wise, it calls for Iraq to take over the Army in April, take control of all provinces by September, and be self-reliant (with U.S. support) by the end of 2007.

Given the pace of developments up until now, those are very ambitious goals, but I can support them. Best of all, the ISG suggests adhering to the withdrawal timetable even if Iraq doesn't meet its milestones. The net effect is that U.S. combat forces would be gone from Iraq by the end of 2007, leaving only advisors and trainers behind.

Some of the more explosive conclusions in the report involve intelligence and civilian-military relations.

The report gently but clearly states that the administration is in the habit of ignoring the advice of its generals, and making it clear that contrary views are unwelcome. Recommendation #46 reads: "The new Secretary of Defense should make every effort to build healthy civil-military relations, by creating an environment in which the senior military feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the President and the National Security Council, as envisioned in the Goldwater-Nichols legislation."

The commentary on intelligence is more scathing.

On readiness: "We were told that there are fewer than 10 analysts on the job at the Defense Intelligence Agency who have more than two years’ experience in analyzing the insurgency."

On telling the truth: "There is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

In other words, the administration set up the system to produce results it liked, rather than results that were useful.

Lots to chew on. My prediction: The Democrats will embrace the ISG plan and use it as a blueprint. Politically it's a godsend for them: a credible, bipartisan group coming up with a proposal that looks a lot like what many Democrats have been suggesting. War supporters will use the "cut and run" rhetoric at their peril now that the idea of a fixed timetable has received the imprimatur of the Baker Group. Bush will be hard-pressed to resist them, since "stay the course" clearly isn't working and his credibility on Iraq is about zero.

Some specific quotes and interesting points from the extended report, along with comments from me:

In general: "However, the ability of the United States to influence events within Iraq is diminishing. Many Iraqis are embracing sectarian identities. The lack of security impedes economic development. Most countries in the region are not playing a constructive role in support of Iraq, and some are undercutting stability."
Comment: Yep.

How important is Iraq? "Iraq is vital to regional and even global stability, and is critical to U.S. interests. It runs along the sectarian fault lines of Shia and Sunni Islam, and of Kurdish and Arab populations. It has the world’s second-largest known oil reserves. It is now a base of operations for international terrorism, including al Qaeda."
Comment: I'm not sure critical is the right word. No more critical than Israel, for example. If we pull out we will still have an interest in Iraq, but our national interest is not imperiled by a pullout. And I strongly disagree that Iraq will become a base of operations for terrorists. The Iraqis will clean house on those jokers once they don't have us to shoot at. Shiite Iran and the Shiite majority in Iraq simply have little use for Sunni fundamentalists, and the Sunni Iraqis tend to dislike extremist foreigners.

What about the terrorists? "Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq."
Comment: Demonstrating once again how badly the administration has debased the word "terrorist."

Death toll: "Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month."
Comment: That's 36,000 civilians a year by this conservative estimate. Saddam killed fewer people. And it's a huge number in a country of 26 million. Proportionally, it's as if 415,000 Americans were killed each year in political violence.

Scope of the violence: "Four of Iraq’s eighteen provinces are highly insecure— Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. These provinces account for about 40 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million."
Comment: And don't forget the 3.4 million internal and external refugees.

State of the Iraqi army: Units lack leadership, equipment, personnel, and support.

State of the Iraqi police: Substantially worse. Besides being riven by sectarian groups, they can't control crime and aren't equipped to deal with insurgents.

State of the Iraqi government: Riven by sectarian factions. Further, it appears uninterested in reform. "Maliki has publicly rejected a U.S. timetable to achieve certain benchmarks, ordered the removal of blockades around Sadr City, sought more control over Iraqi security forces, and resisted U.S. requests to move forward on reconciliation or on disbanding Shiite militias." And it's ineffectual. "The Iraqi government is not effectively providing its people with basic services: electricity, drinking water, sewage, health care, and education. In many sectors, production is below or hovers around prewar levels. In Baghdad and other unstable areas, the situation is much worse." Why? Five reasons. Services are sometimes provided on a sectarian basis; security is lacking; rampant corruption; not enough skilled technocrats; and a weak judiciary.
Comment: Which is why the government must prove it is both capable of governing and worth saving.

Economy: The good news: growing currency reserves, growing consumer imports, lots of new businesses and construction in secure areas. The bad news? tepid economic growth, 50 percent inflation, unemployment that is anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent, and very little foreign investment. All if it worsened by corruption.

The region: "No country in the region wants a chaotic Iraq. Yet Iraq’s neighbors are doing little to help it, and some are undercutting its stability. Iraqis complain that neighbors are meddling in their affairs. When asked which of Iraq’s neighbors are intervening in Iraq, one senior Iraqi official replied, 'All of them.' "
Comment: It didn't help that when we invaded we openly boasted that a free and democratic Iraq would eventually transform the region. Guess what? The current players don't want to be transformed. That pretty much guaranteed they would oppose the venture with more vigor than they might have otherwise.

Iran and Syria: Generally supports the conventional wisdom that Iran is actively meddling while Syria engages in "malign neglect", looking the other way as weapons and fighters cross its border into Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf States: Haven't supported the Iraqi government in any substantial way.

Reconstruction aid: U.S. has committed about $34 billion to Iraq, but has gotten limited results and is reluctant to send more. International donors have pledged about $13 billion but so far delivered just $4 billion.
Comment: The foot-dragging from donors is traditional if detestable. In addition, the lack of security in Iraq makes reconstruction a difficult undertaking.

Immediate withdrawal: Would be morally wrong, would produce greater sectarian violence, and could lead to regional instability.
Comment: The question, though, is whether staying will change that. Many observers think that a civil war is inevitable, almost necessary. If we pull out it will be short and very bloody. If we stay it will be drawn out and very bloody, with our troops caught in the middle and serving as a distraction. I agree with the "morally wrong" part, but on that basis I'm only willing to remain if there are signs the Iraqi government is shaping up.

Staying the course: "Current U.S. policy is not working, as the level of violence in Iraq is rising and the government is not advancing national reconciliation. Making no changes in policy would simply delay the day of reckoning at a high cost."
Comment: Smackdown!

More troops: "Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation.... Meanwhile, America’s military capacity is stretched thin: we do not have the troops or equipment to make a substantial, sustained increase in our troop presence."
Comment: What they fail to say -- because they're looking forward, not back -- is that this could have been avoided if we had provided adequate security to begin with, post-invasion, and prevented those sectarian differences from being given voice through the barrels of guns. Now it's too late.

Split Iraq into three parts: "The costs associated with devolving Iraq into three semiautonomous regions with loose central control would be too high.... A rapid devolution could result in mass population movements, collapse of the Iraqi security forces, strengthening of militias, ethnic cleansing, destabilization of neighboring states, or attempts by neighboring states to dominate Iraqi regions."
Comment: It still might be the least bad option available. And it may end up happening naturally as a resolution of civil war. But I agree it shouldn't be a policy we consciously pursue.

Diplomacy: "The United States should embark on a robust diplomatic effort to establish an international support structure intended to stabilize Iraq and ease tensions in other countries in the region. This support structure should include every country that has an interest in averting a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors—Iran and Syria among them.... it is clear that the Iraqi government cannot succeed in governing, defending, and sustaining itself by relying on U.S. military and economic support alone."
Comment: Gee, maybe Bush shouldn't have flipped off the rest of the world three years ago when we invaded.

The Arab-Israeli conflict: Get a permanent peace based on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
Comment: This hasn't been settled in 60 years, so it seems like an unnecessary complication to try to settle it as part of our Iraq strategy. But the ISG is correct that the Israel issue is at the heart of many Arab grievances, and until that problem is solved we'll continue to have problems in the Mideast. Their proposals are conventional, but the underlying message is clear: we took our eye off the ball when we invaded Iraq; we need to get back in the Arab-Israeli game to prevent further deterioration.

Iraqi milestones: "It should be unambiguous that continued U.S. political, military, and economic support for Iraq depends on the Iraqi government’s demonstrating political will and making substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security, and governance."
Comment: Agreed.

Permanent bases: "The President should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq."
Comment: That seems prudent. I wonder why we haven't done it already?

De-Baathification: "Political reconciliation requires the reintegration of Baathists and Arab nationalists into national life, with the leading figures of Saddam Hussein’s regime excluded. The United States should encourage the return of qualified Iraqi professionals—Sunni or Shia, nationalist or ex-Baathist, Kurd or Turkmen or Christian or Arab—into the government."
Comment: Let me translate that for you. "George, disbanding the military and throwing all the Baathists out of government was a stupid move."

Kirkuk: Essentially punts on this question, which is a no-win issue; everybody wants control of this city, which brings with it control of rich oil fields.

Iraqi police: "The entire Iraqi National Police [and Border Police] should be transferred to the Ministry of Defense, where the police commando units will become part of the new Iraqi Army."
Comment: This is an effort to defang the Interior Ministry, home of sectarian death squads. It's a good idea for that reason alone. Message: You break the rules, we take away your toys. The ISG also urges restructuring the Interior Ministry. This plan is somewhat offset by a further ISG proposal to put the Facilities Protection Service under Interior Ministry control. But that's a case of picking the lesser of two evils.

Accounting for the war: "Costs for the war in Iraq should be included in the President’s annual budget request, starting in FY 2008: the war is in its fourth year, and the normal budget process should not be circumvented. Funding requests for the war in Iraq should be presented clearly to Congress and the American people."
Comment: Amen. Keeping the cost of the war out of the budget has served to hide the true cost of Iraq and paint an overly rosy budget picture.

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Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Not much I disagree with there re: your comments.

As for the "immediate withdrawal would be morally wrong", perhaps. I'm finding it difficult to be certain what is "morally" better or worse these days based on our actions to date.

After listening to Bush's press conference I think the more pertinent question is: at what point do we the American people acknowledge we have a mentally unstable person deciding our fate?

I don't think he could have expressed any more clearly that he does not intend to follow the ISG's recommendations.

What am I missing here?

12/07/2006 11:34 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Yeah, agreed on Bush's press conference. I'm working up a post on that right now, but here's a story about it. He certainly doesn't sound open-minded.

To be fair, it's got to be hard to be told -- clearly, in public, and essentially by your dad -- that your strategy isn't working and you have to change it.

12/07/2006 12:25 PM  

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