Monday, January 30, 2006

Turn Out The Lights, The Party's Over? - Part I

A Billion Little Fleeces

What an intriguing couple of weeks its been for Iraq watchers, huh? A virtual cascade of news items all pointing, generally, in one direction: toward the exits and out of Iraq. Where to begin?

First, there was the mini-bombshell announcement that the Bush administration would not be asking Congress for any more funds for Iraqi reconstruction - this despite the multitude of vital social services still in desperate need of repair, refurbishment and funding. Some have speculated that these budgetary announcements might be veiled threats used to gain leverage over recalcitrant factions of the ruling Shiite bloc in order to get political concessions, but there is evidence that American contractors are taking steps indicative of an end to the gravy train (more below).

In a different sense, I guess there was some fortunate timing to this announcement considering that days later multiple scathing reports were released by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and other governmental oversight agencies citing widespread graft, incompetence, corruption and outright theft within the Coalition Provisional Authority and other US-run Iraqi reconstruction efforts. So maybe this move to turn off the spigot mid-flow looks like good governance. Or to put it differently: They were for good governance, after they were against it.

In fact, the reconstruction project has been so poorly managed that the Bush administration is actually turning to the Army Corps of Engineers for help. As praktike noted:

You know you're in trouble when you turn to the Army Corps of Engineers to clean up your projects...Because you know, the Corps certainly isn't known for its focus on huge public works projects that take forever and run way over budget...
Yeah, I guess the Corps doesn't exactly have a great track record in this regard, especially lately (levees anyone?). Punctuating this story was an article appearing in the The Hindu that took a ground-level view of the winding down of US funded reconstruction efforts:

American private contractors are preparing to leave Iraq as US money runs out and [Iraqi] government ministries take charge of the reconstruction effort, according to The Washington Times.[...]

The Times said most US-funded projects are scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, and it is unlikely that any significant new US funds will be forthcoming.
Another microcosmic indication of the gathering momentum of American disengagement came from this part of an intriguing series-in-progress by the CJR's Paul McLeary who recently traveled to Baghdad to research a story:

In fact, I didn't see any Westerners at all until my second day, when I contacted the acting bureau chief for an American paper who was staying in my hotel. As we were discussing the state of reporting in Baghdad and Iraq in general, he told me that I was a little late to the game. These days, more American reporters are leaving Iraq than arriving. In large part, for the U.S. press, "The party's pretty much over." [emphasis added]
Then there was the recent release of the "thin green line" report by the Pentagon which came to some pretty stark conclusions regarding the sustainability of efforts in Iraq going forward (via everyone, but Swopa first):

Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon.

Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.
Maybe a healthy dose of serendipitously-timed Iraqis "standing up" in the near future huh? Allow me to remind you, as Justin Logan does, that this is the same Andrew Krepinevich whose famous "oil spot" strategy put forth in an article in Foreign Affairs set off quite a stir in foreign policy circles when it came out. This was due, largely, to the article's 'can-do' message for counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq (although in all fairness, the author did add a layer of fairly significant caveats to his optimism). Says Logan, Krepenivich is having some second thoughts:

The snarkier among you may remember that Krepinevich's widely heralded "oil spot strategy" for Iraq was contingent on "a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq." Further, "Even if successful, this strategy will require at least a decade of commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls."

So I guess he'll be recanting on that one, now that he's had a look at the books?
Add to this ever-expanding tableau of handwriting on the wall, the MTV generation-like short attention span that has gripped many former Iraq-war boosters who now focus, almost exclusively, on the desired change of channels to Operation Iran. Perhaps the need to piece together a viable military threat with which to confront Iran, and the knowledge that our current commitments in Iraq are hindering this effort, is increasing the speed of the cutting and running peace [with honor] train.

Speaking of Iran, there is even speculation that some of the recent moves to court Sunni politicians and local leaders might be motivated by more than just a desire to forge a political solution to the insurgencies. Perhaps there is some bet-hedging going on in case a confrontation with Iran re-casts the Iraqi Shiites - heretofore our putative allies - as our future adversaries.

"The increased tension between Iran and the U.S. on the nuclear issue is affecting relations between Washington and the Shi'ites here," one European diplomat in Baghdad said.

"They are trying to find someone else, some other allies who will not turn against them (in Iraq) if things heat up with Iran."

...Analysts say Iran appears confident it can deter the United States from action against it over the nuclear issue out of fear about what it may do in Iraq.
Intrigue abounds.

There is, on the horizon, a glimmer of hope with numerous reports of a schism in the Sunni-based insurgencies - with al-Qaedists/Zarqawi-ists clashing with Sunni nationalist/Baathist types. I consider this to be a promising development, but ultimately the linchpin of the "wedge and conquer" strategy requires the inclusion of the Sunnis in a significant way in the political process. Despite the Qaeda/nationalist split, both strains will continue to target the new Iraqi state unless some of those groups that are separated can also be coopted. If there are sufficient political enticements, this could be a meaningful change in direction.

Without cooptation, however, these groups will continue to snipe at each other, while reserving the brunt of their firepower for the Iraqi governing apparatus. Even if the nationalist/Baathists manage to vanquish Zarqawi's gangs completely (a positive outcome no doubt), nothing at this time suggests that this would translate into peace in Iraq. Absent the political solution, there will just be one less strain to the insurgencies (and that assumes that the warring insurgent factions don't come to some type of mutual accommodation at some point). The grim fact remains, as reported in the LA Times (as excerpted by Swopa):

...U.S. military officials concede that the guerrillas' ability to strike anywhere at any time is largely undiminished....Their attacks across Iraq averaged 75 per day in December, up from 52 a year earlier, driving the country's sectarian violence and contributing to a decline in its oil production. U.S. troops died at the same rate last year as in 2004, and most estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties rose.
I would also add that a delicate effort such as peeling layers of insurgents away and winning over warring groups could be negatively impacted by recent shifts in strategy to execute more aerial bombing campaigns in Iraq. The problem with aerial bombardment is that it can be imprecise, indiscriminate (although often informed by on the ground intelligence), and prone to cause collateral damage. These problems are exemplified in this bit from the Washington Post, as discussed by Mark Leon Goldberg:

A U.S. military statement said that an unmanned U.S. drone detected three men digging a hole in a road in the area. Insurgents regularly bury bombs along roads in the area to target U.S. or Iraqi convoys. The three men were tracked to a building, which U.S. forces then hit with precision-guided munitions, the statement said.
Problem is, living in that building was a family of 12 who were killed in their sleep in the dead of night by the US air strike.
Remember, the main reason there is even a conflict between the various groups of Sunni insurgents in the first place is because of the tendency of Zarqawi's group to disregard Sunni casualties as necessary collateral damage. If we show elements (albeit lesser) of the same callous disregard, we're not going to be making many friends. We might even rekindle some old relationships that we would rather remain in splitsville.

But have I told you about the weather in Tehran these days, you're gonna love it....

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