Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Mosul Wasn't Built In A Day

If you're looking for a window into a situation in Iraq that might be going better than most, take a look at Robert Kaplan's latest ode to the military in this month's Atlantic. Kaplan discusses, at length, how a successful blend of strategies implemented at the ground level, and from the proximity of the front lines, has transformed the city of Mosul and other smaller Iraqi towns from insurgent hotbeds to relatively peaceful and stable exemplars. According to Kaplan, this success has stemmed, in part, from the flexibility, localized intelligence and rapid response capacity derived from a less centralized command and control structure for certain military units.

The 1-25 Lancers' shaky achievement does credit to the brigade-level transformation of the U. S. Army, the institution known derisively to the Green Berets of the Special Forces as "Big Army" or "Mother Army." And they are right: Big Army is still too much of a vertical, dinosaurian, Industrial Age organization. Yet that is changing, partly because of the new emphasis on brigades.

A brigade is only a third or half the size of a division. Its headquarters element is less bureaucratic and top-heavy with colonels than that of a division (to say nothing of a corps). The very size of a brigade can be custom-fitted to the situation. Putting brigades first represents an organizational means for dealing with a more chaotic, unconventional world. It is the kind of bureaucratic reform that the military is embracing faster than the financially starved State Department or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The credit for this radically changed emphasis belongs to successive Army chiefs of staff, particularly Eric Shinseki and Peter Schoomaker.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to what our armed forces have been able to achieve. Despite the successful, grass roots-like counterinsurgency measures employed in some areas of Iraq, without concomitant economic development in these newly-secured towns, that progress could all disappear. Take this account from a meeting of friendly tribal/municipal/military leaders in the recently pacified town of Om al-Mahir [emphasis mine throughout]:

"The hands of men who are without work will end up cooperating with the devil," said General Ali, addressing the Americans and Captain Ferguson in particular. He followed with details of this young man and that one who were unemployed, and who had drifted north to Mosul to take part in the insurgency. He was working up to a familiar theme.

"Where is the investment money, now that our area has been safe for months?" The American soldiers had no answer. They were as frustrated as the Iraqis. Even the safe areas showed no sign of civilian relief work or major rebuilding other than what I had seen en route. The soldiers admitted that while they had the money to lay gravel on a particular road, they lacked the funds to pave it, even though all agreed that graveled roads offered easy concealment for IEDs.

It was surreal. The stability of Iraq will likely determine history's judgment on President George W. Bush. And yet even in a newly secured area like this one, the administration has provided little money for the one factor essential to that stability: jobs. On a landscape flattened by anarchy in 2004, the American military has constructed a house of cards. Fortifying this fragile structure with wood and cement now will require more aid - in massive amounts, and of a type that even America's increasingly civil affairs -oriented military cannot provide. This house of cards, flimsy as it is, constitutes a substantial achievement. But because Washington's deeds do not match its rhetoric, even this fragile achievement might go for naught. [...]

The Bush administration's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," released with great fanfare in November, was merely a document; the difficulty of finding ground-level money for necessary projects was, in contrast, quite real.

Obviously, there has been massive fraud, graft and embezzlement in connection with the handling of funds earmarked for Iraqi reconstruction efforts. In addition, the bureaucratic labyrinth that was/is the CPA (staffed by inexperienced, incompetent, yet ideologically pure partisans in far too many instances) has been - predictably - ineffectual in terms of disbursing the aid that was/is available. But those legitimate concerns do not obviate the urgent need for targeted reconstruction dollars - funds necessary to make our counterinsurgency inroads stick in the areas where we have won hard earned victories. This money is needed to provide brick and mortar to the latter two parts of the "clear, hold and build" strategy.

As alluded to above, Kaplan and some soldiers see the possibility for an improved strategy for disbursing reconstruction funds - one that could eliminate some of the bureaucratic negatives listed above and the futility of the "throw money at it" approach. Such a strategy involves, of all things, putting the actual experts in charge - who themselves might benefit from a version of the less centralized approach employed by our military in combating the insurgency. Experts? Imagine that. How novel a concept.

"We can race around the battlefield and fix little problems," one Army major complained to me, "but where is the State Department and USAID to solve the big problems?" Whereas commentators in Washington tend to blame the machinations of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon for keeping the State Department out of Iraq, all of the mid-level military officers I spoke with - each of whom desperately wanted to see civilian aid and reconstruction workers here - said that if the State Department got the requisite funding, it could be as bureaucratically dynamic as their own battalions, and infrastructure-rebuilding would not be where it appeared to be: at the zero point.

But as Gordon Adams at Democracy Arsenal noted in two separate posts, the Bush administration, and its allies in Congress, have shown a muddled sense of priorities in terms of fiscal obligations. Unleashing new aid packages, even for Iraq, has become harder to justify considering the daunting and dangerous levels of debt and deficit perpetuated each year by the pork stuffing GOP Congress and the veto-averse White House. Adams describes this new pique of election year-induced fiscal responsibility:

[Members of Congress] are moved by broader considerations than national security, of course; principally the growing sense among Republicans that federal spending is out of control and the party that was once the party of fiscal conservatism is going to pay for that profligate deficits next November.

But this rush to prove fiscal integrity is going to give major heartburn to anyone who feels that spending on diplomacy and foreign assistance ought to be an integral part of our national security strategy.

There is another way, though. And it's high time the Bush administration and Congress prove that they are sincere when they describe what's at stake, all that rides on a positive outcome in Iraq. Here's the point: if fiscal concerns and budgetary shortfalls are preventing us from putting the follow-through to such courageous efforts as described by Kaplan in Mosul, then why don't we do things to ease those concerns. Like, say, repealing a portion of Bush's multi-trillion dollar tax breaks that have gone, disproportionately, to the wealthiest Americans.

Seriously. If Iraq is so important, and the lack of reconstruction funds is endangering our efforts, shouldn't we be asking the American people to return to the pre-2000 tax landscape? At least the upper-most tax brackets, and multi-million dollar heirs and heiresses? Was the tax burden really so onerous in the 1990s? I seem to remember there being a decent level of prosperity.

I don't know if more money would cure what ails Iraq, but I think in some areas it would help in meaningful ways. And at least it would show that the Bush administration is as committed to success in Iraq as they have been to easing the tax burden on the people most able to handle it. Not to mention the fact that Adams lists myriad other ways in which the budget pinch is impacting our crucial national security efforts outside of Iraq. Ultimately, it's question of priorities. So who is stuck in the pre-9/11 mindset exactly?

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