On Thursday the Office of National Intelligence produced a new NIE on how things in Iraq are going—one which, given the climate in Washington, is a remarkable document. Inevitably, it included enough optimism to allow the White House briefer Gordon Johndroe to cite it as an indication of progress. But it doesn’t take very long to find out that it holds out literally no hope for either a free, democratic or stable Iraq any time in the next five to ten years—and probably, ever.
Let’s take the good news first. Here are the two key paragraphs.
“There have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation since our last National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in January 2007. The steep escalation of rates of violence has been checked for now, and overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks. Coalition forces, working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements, and some Sunni insurgents, have reduced al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) capabilities, restricted its freedom of movement, and denied it grassroots support in some areas. However, the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively. There have been modest improvements in economic output, budget execution, and government finances but fundamental structural problems continue to prevent sustained progress in economic growth and living conditions.
“We assess, to the extent that Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), that Iraq’s security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance. Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments.”
[All boldface in the original.]
Now I have laid a lot of stress in these pages on keeping track of the overall level of violence in Iraq, both as reflected in American casualties (which have substantially increased, not fallen, over the last six months), attacks on Americans (which have reportedly declined, although that is something of a paradox given the casualty figures), and deaths of Iraqis (which are indeed somewhat down from their peak.) The estimate states that the escalation of levels of violence “has been checked,” which could mean that it is still increasing, but at a slower rate. It says more specifically that overall attacks have indeed fallen in seven of the last nine weeks. But the summary—the only part of the estimate which ordinary Americans like us can read—doesn’t give any actual figures. And meanwhile, its statements about these favorable trends have to be read in light of a lengthy disclaimer which its authors had the honesty to include earlier in their presentation, to wit:
“Analytic Caution: Driven largely by the accelerating pace of tribal engagement and the increasing tempo of Coalition operations, developments in Iraq are unfolding more rapidly and with greater complexity today than when we completed our January NIE. Regional variations in security and political circumstances are great and becoming increasingly more distinct––for example, intra-Shia violence in southern Iraq is very different from patterns of violence elsewhere. The intelligence assessments contained in this NIE largely focus on only a short period of the Iraqi conflict—the last six months—and in circumscribed areas—primarily the central provinces, which contain the center of gravity for Iraq’s security prospects and in which we have a greater Coalition presence and therefore more information. The unfolding pace and scope of security and political realities in Iraq, combined with our necessarily limited focus of analysis, contain risks: our uncertainties are greater, and our future projections subject to greater chances of error. These issues, combined with the challenges of acquiring accurate data on trends in violence and continued gaps in our information about levels of violence and political trends in areas of Iraq without a substantial Coalition presence and where Intelligence Community collectors have difficulty operating, heighten our caution. Nonetheless, we stand by these judgments as our best collective assessment of security and political conditions in Iraq today and as likely to unfold during the next six to12 months.” [italics added.]
In other words, what we are saying applies only to one critical area of the country, the central provinces, and our data for much of the country is inadequate—which may explain why no figures for attacks, etc., were given in the unclassified summary.
Meanwhile, what is the nature of the progress? That is quite clearly stated. In Sunni areas—particularly in Anbar province—the American authorities have made deals with local sheiks, involving substantial transfers of arms and reconstruction money. In return, the sheiks and their tribes, who obviously include many former insurgents, are cooperating against recalcitrant insurgents led by Al Queda in Iraq (AQI), which the Administration has now defined as the main threat (and sometimes speaks of as if it were the source of all our problems there.) This has made life safer (though by no means safe) for American troops and has allowed violence against Iraqis in those areas to fall. The NIE calls these tactics “bottom-up security initiatives.” This step does represent typical counterinsurgency practice (though not the kind of counterinsurgency theory of putting Americans among the people that General Petraeus likes to talk about): dividing the occupying country in order to rule it, and paying off some of its natural leaders. That’s what the British did all over the world, what settlers in the United States frequently did to control Indian tribes, and what the French did in North Africa. It’s a return, in other words, to traditional colonialism, and to work in the long run it would require an indefinite presence and flow of arms and money from the United States. (In a way it’s the same strategy we have pursued to try to control Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf states, but in those cases we deal with national governments instead of sheiks, and we sell sophisticated weaponry instead of handing out AK-47s.)
Unfortunately, as the NIE points out, this strategy is utterly at odds with our professed goal of a united, democratic, non-sectarian Iraq. I quote again:
“Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded in the last six to nine months but has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi Government or widespread
willingness to work with the Shia. The Iraqi Government’s Shia leaders fear these
groups will ultimately side with armed opponents of the government, but the Iraqi
Government has supported some initiatives to incorporate those rejecting AQI into
Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry elements. . . . .
“The I[ntelligence] C[ommunity] assesses that the emergence of “bottom-up” security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them. A multi-stage process involving the Iraqi Government providing support and legitimacy for such initiatives could foster over the longer term political reconciliation between the participating Sunni Arabs and the national government. We also assess that under some conditions “bottom-up initiatives” could pose risks to the Iraqi Government. . .
We judge such initiatives are most likely to succeed in predominantly Sunni Arab areas, where the presence of AQI elements has been significant, tribal networks and identities are strong, the local government is weak, sectarian conflict is low, and the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] tolerate Sunni initiatives, as illustrated by Al Anbar Province.”
The new strategy, in other words, stands a good chance of partially pacifying some Sunni areas, but the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government resents it because it is strengthening its enemies. (Several reports of clashes between Prime Minister Al-Maliki and General Petraeus on this point, as well as accounts of armed confrontations between Sunni militias sponsored by the US and Iraqi security forces, have found their way into print recently.) In effect, if not intentionally, we are giving up on reconciling the Sunnis to Shi’ite rule—and this could conceivably be a positive step somewhere down the road, but only if we follow this logic further and completely change our policy objectives.
Other information in the NIE, however—confirmed and supplemented by recent reports from other sources—suggests that the new strategy is doing nothing at all about the most serious problem in Iraq, sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing. The NIE states:
“Population displacement resulting from sectarian violence continues, imposing burdens on provincial governments and some neighboring states and increasing the danger of destabilizing influences spreading across Iraq’s borders over the next six to 12 months. The polarization of communities is most evident in Baghdad, where the Shia are a clear majority in more than half of all neighborhoods and Sunni areas have become surrounded by predominately Shia districts. Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves.”
An NGO report last week went even further—the displacement of Iraqis accelerated during the last six months. The above paragraph is rather striking because it could actually be read to suggest that we should be encouraging peaceful population transfers, since homogeneous neighborhoods will be quieter and more secure. But more importantly, it really suggests the irrelevance, sadly, of the sacrifices of the 150,000 troops in Iraq to what is actually going on—the partition of the country along ethnic lines, in total opposition to our stated objectives.
There are other troubling signs with respect to what the surge actually consists of. It has put American troops among the people—but we learn today that they have also been arresting and detaining Iraqis at an accelerated rate. Today’s New York Times reports that the American-held inmate population has grown from 16,000 in February to 24,500 today. No one, I am sure, has any real idea of how many of those people were really insurgents, much less of how many of their fathers, sons and brothers will begin helping insurgent groups because of their arrests. We are also calling in lots of air strikes in urban areas, drawing repeated protests from Iraqis that many of the casualties are women and children. As in Vietnam, the American military simply will not abandon superior firepower as a response to insurgency, despite the enormous wealth of historical evidence that the tactic is completely counterproductive.
Despite all this, the NIE reports the changes in the military situation, very guardedly, as relatively good news. The bad news, of course, relates to Iraqi national politics, where the NIE can’t find anything good to say.
“The IC assesses that the Iraqi Government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months because of criticism by other members of the major Shia coalition (the Unified Iraqi Alliance, UIA), Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish parties. Divisions between Maliki and the Sadrists have increased, and Shia factions have explored alternative coalitions aimed at constraining Maliki.
• The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki’s vulnerability to alternative coalitions.
• We judge that Maliki will continue to benefit from recognition among Shia leaders that searching for a replacement could paralyze the government.”
Maliki, in other words, who has no support from Sunni areas, has lost control of his own coalition of Shi’ites and Kurds, and only the difficulty of finding a replacement is allowing him to keep his job. The estimate continues to declare that local authorities are gaining at the expense of the central government all over Iraq—including the Shi’ite south, where various militias are competing for power—and that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are all watching various aspects of the situation closely and becoming more and more involved. The NIE says that an American draw down may make things worse, and they could be right.
The U.S. intervention, in short, has turned Iraq into a much larger and richer Lebanon—a nation ruled by local sectarian factions, heavily influenced by outside powers. Even now it seems that the Iranians, who seem to have much better relations with the Shi’ite leadership than we do, are getting more benefit from this than anyone else. I can’t see the slightest evidence that the trend towards fragmentation can be reversed, and I can’t really see much benefit for the United States for continuing its role. Today’s papers have another story—that the top military leadership in the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe that we simply must begin drawing down troops in Iraq to restore the Army and the Marines. General Petraeus, the theater commander, naturally feels differently.
To have turned one of the largest, richest, and best-organized nations in the Middle East—a totalitarian dictatorship, yes, but one with a substantial middle class—into a chaotic struggle among sects and feudal fiefdoms is perhaps the worst outcome in the history of American foreign policy. We did a great deal of harm in Vietnam and Cambodia—and in Cambodia we helped bring about chaos in the same way, by undermining the existing government and spreading war into its territory—but Vietnam has been able to recover, prosper, and actually become friendly to the United States within 30 years. I do not think that will happen in Iraq. It could, perhaps, develop into three relatively stable entities, although it is far from clear that any real peace between Shi’ites and Sunnis is possible. Since that seems like by far the best possible outcome, I think the United States should try to pursue it. I am not confident, however, that our policy will change even in 2009—but that’s a subject for another post involving the foreign policy controversies among the Democratic candidates.