Monday, April 30, 2007

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

More evidence of the debilitating political reality in Iraq - particularly, the sectarian agenda of the misnamed "unity government" headed by the Shiite coalition's own Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki (via Swopa):

A department of the Iraqi prime minister's office is playing a leading role in the arrest and removal of senior Iraqi army and national police officers, some of whom had apparently worked too aggressively to combat violent Shiite militias, according to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Since March 1, at least 16 army and national police commanders have been fired, detained or pressured to resign; at least nine of them are Sunnis, according to U.S. military documents shown to The Washington Post.

Although some of the officers appear to have been fired for legitimate reasons, such as poor performance or corruption, several were considered to be among the better Iraqi officers in the field. The dismissals have angered U.S. and Iraqi leaders who say the Shiite-led government is sabotaging the military to achieve sectarian goals.

"Their only crimes or offenses were they were successful" against the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which works with Iraqi security forces. "I'm tired of seeing good Iraqi officers having to look over their shoulders when they're trying to do the right thing."

The issue strikes at a central question about the fledgling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: whether it can put sectarian differences aside to deliver justice fairly. [...]

At the national level, some U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the Office of the Commander in Chief, a behind-the-scenes department that works on military issues for the prime minister.

One adviser in the office, Bassima Luay Hasun al-Jaidri, has enough influence to remove and intimidate senior commanders, and her work has "stifled" many officers who are afraid of angering her, a senior U.S. military official said. U.S. commanders are considering installing a U.S. liaison officer in the department to better understand its influence.

"Her office harasses [Iraqi commanders] if they are nationalistic and fair," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern over publicly criticizing the Iraqi government. "They need to get rid of her and her little group."

The last paragraph alludes to one of two memes that will be in heavy rotation over the coming months. The first, is that the "moderate" Maliki wants to usher in a program of national reconciliation but is being constantly thwarted by his more "extremist" and partisan coalition partners such as the nefarious Moqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-linked SCIRI.

The second, and perhaps related in some sense, is that Maliki must be replaced by a leader capable of overcoming sectarian/ethnic interests in pursuit of a more enlightened, inclusive agenda.

Last week, I linked to stories by Amir Taheri and Peter Brookes that sought to cast Maliki in a favorable - if not heroic - light. This week, we catch die hard Surgent Frederick Kagan pushing the same dubious storyline (in the same paper that carried the story of Maliki's shielding of Shiite militias from government scrutiny/crackdowns - just one day apart):

...the Maliki government has been incredibly supportive of efforts to go after Shiite militiamen...

Define "incredibly supportive."

Kagan, Taheri and Brookes are dedicated, at least for the moment, to the depiction of Maliki as the brave leader, swimming against the tide in an effort to combat Iran and the Shiite militias through which Iran, supposedly, works. Going one step beyond, though, Brookes and Kagan put forth the tendentious claim that not only does Maliki mean well, but that he's actually succeeding! The laddies doth endorse too much.

The antithetical interpretation is that Maliki is a dedicated partisan who has been doing just enough in terms of militia crackdown/Sunni outreach to keep the Bush administration at bay, but has no real desire to curb any manifestation of Shiite power.

I tend to support the latter position with one wrinkle - Maliki has seemed willing to play ball on occasion, and within certain limitations, in order to help weaken Moqtada al-Sadr's position. But that has always appeared motivated more out of a narrow, self-serving intra-Shiite agenda (more for Maliki and Dawa, less for Sadr), then as a component of any broader move to put limitations on Shiite power writ large.

Here's the upshot though: regardless of Maliki's intentions, the results in terms of reconciliation have been the same. Little tangible progress has been made in either tamping down the sectarian violence initiated/exacerbated by Shiite militias or forging political compromises. Every time the US/Iraqi government forces push too far (even - or especially - vis-a-vis Sadr), Maliki puts on the brakes.

Which brings us to our second expected meme: the Maliki replacement watch. Unable - or unwilling - to grasp the reality of the ethnic/sectarian dynamic that renders the current political deadlock and cyclical violence almost inevitable, expect to hear many war supporters pinning the blame on Maliki and suggesting that a switch to Prime Minister Deus ex Machina would right the ship.

If you recall, we heard many of the same arguments the last time it was decided that the then-current head of the Iraqi government (Ibrahim Jaafari) was the source - and not the product of - the sectarian/ethnic dynamic. Regime Change 2.0 was based on the highly implausible premise that replacing Ibrahim Jaafari (the Dawa Party's #1 leader) with Nouri al-Maliki (the Dawa Party's #2 leader) would significantly alter the underlying political/security trajectory in Iraq.

As if Maliki embraced a vastly different world view than Jaafari.

With this semi-comical episode in mind, it could be argued that our mistake last time was in deciding on a leader from the same Party. So this time, let's go for something completely different. Here's the problem with that though: it's not our decision. The elected Iraqi officials must decide, and last time I checked, a majority of those officials are comprised of members of highly sectarian Shiite parties like SCIRI, Sadr's folks and the aforementioned Dawa.

The Shiite bloc (aided by a Kurdish faction that has shown, repeatedly, a willingness to horsetrade with the Shiites in order to attain its objectives [read: Kirkuk, autonomy, etc.]) will once again decide who the next leader will be. Our leverage is nominal at best. The end result will be a meaningless change of faces - as with the swap of Jaafari for Maliki.

The only other option would be to attempt to impose a leader via a coup. Again, though, we run into the familiar demographic reality that hinders our ability to exert influence in Iraq. If we topple the democratically elected, Shiite-led Iraqi government, we're going to enrage the 60% of the population that is ostensibly supporting us in our already stalemated efforts to vanquish a Sunni led insurgency which is represented by "only" 20% of the population. If we alienate the Shiite leadership and its sizable constituency, we might end up seeing an updated version of embassy rooftops and helicopters.

And even if we succeeded in instigating such a coup, who do you suppose we could find that would be able to bring Iraq together under one banner? The most commonly floated name is former US-imposed interim-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Correct me if I'm wrong, but last election his slate got roughly the same number of votes that I did. Color me uninspired.

Sistani is holding the cards and the chips - we're just chasing another pot. This is not our game to play, Maliki is not our champion, neither is Allawi and we don't have one in the bullpen that a majority of Iraqis would support.

Friday, April 27, 2007

And Everyone's the Same, and On and On

I might have to begin making a series out of the "Here's a better question..." formulation. At the very least, this is the second installment, following up on my previous effort (see Swopa here, riffing off of that post with more trenchant analysis, as usual). Today's episode comes courtesy of Juan Cole [emphasis added]:

Nationalist young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Wednesday condemned the US plans to build a wall around the Adhamiya district of Baghdad, calling it "evil" and warning it would reinforce sectarianism. Al-Sadr has a pan-Islamic rhetoric, but at night his Mahdi Army goons murder Sunni Arabs in the street. It remains to be seen if he is capable of reining in his goons and actually put together an anti-Coalition alliance of both Shiites and Sunnis.

A better hypothetical would be, "It remains to be seen if Sadr has any desire to rein in his goons and actually put together an anti-Coalition alliance of both Shiites and Sunnis." Actually, it doesn't really remain to be seen, absent a dramatic transformation of Sadr that just isn't in the cards. Even entertaining the possibility that Sadr would pursue a unified Shiite/Sunni agenda at this time shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the objectives, tactics and strategies of Sadr and the myriad other players currently occupying Iraq's political mosaic (if such a possibility existed, it was probably only circa the first siege of Fallujah, but has since disappeared).

Sadr is a Shiite partisan who wants to secure power, influence and economic resources for himself and his particular constituency - just like every other major Shiite leader/faction operating in Iraq (SCIRI, Dawa, Fadhila, Chalabi, etc.). Same goes for the other sects/ethnic factions attempting to impose their respective agendas via the ubiquitous barrels of guns (Sunni ex-Baathists, al-Qaeda types, Kurds, Allawi, etc.). It is a rotating and intricate spider web of armed competition for the oldest motivations in the book: money, power and respect.

Sadr uses the "nationalist" and "anti-occupation" rhetoric to secure his base of support. Heck, he might be a true believer of sorts for what it's worth - which isn't much. Other Shiite and Kurdish groups use US forces - and the "democratic" process - to help achieve their ends. The Sunnis mostly appeal to religious authority - invoking jihad - as well as the inspiration provided by, alternatively, avarice, fear, vengeance, injustice and deprivation.

But Sadr is not a "nationalist" in the truest sense of the word. His view of "nationalism" is Shiite-centric, with his own particular conception of "Shiite identity" - and by extension, "Iraqi identity" - taking precedence. Similarly, Sistani (also erroneously described as a "nationlist" by many onlookers), is the apex of the Shiite-centric firmament. Above all, Sistani wants to guarantee lasting, if not permanent, Shiite control over Iraq. He is not inclined to let the unique opportunity afforded by the clumsy US invasion elude him. Sadr plays but one part in Sistani's grand design, and the two Shiite leaders have solidified a close and symbiotic relationship as a result (at least for now).

That is why Sistani, very early on, seized on the notion of "democracy" and wrested the process from the Americans. In "democracy," Sistani recognizes the vehicle needed to deliver him to the promised land by virtue of the Shiites' numerical (and thus electoral) superiority. But he is not a "democrat" in the sense that he espouses enlightened views of liberalism, minority rights and restraint on the excesses of majoritarianism. Quite the opposite. In Sistani's view, such democratic principles should remain subordinate to the larger goal of Shiite dominance.

Any talk about Sistani pushing for "reconciliation" and normalization between the warring factions misses this crucial point. Sistani would accept an armistice, I suppose - as long as such an accord was based on his terms (read: no Baathists in power, Shiite control over the government's major institutions, and a generally disempowered Sunni population). But Sistani is not pushing for a compromise. Evidence of this can be found in the governing style and platform of the Shiite-led Iraqi governments. The same governments that owe their position to the Sistani-devised and enforced united Shiite political slate.

Why is it, do you suppose, that the Bush administration has recently pulled back on the throttle with respect to efforts to fill out the ranks of the Iraqi army and security forces? These institutions, notionally under the control of the "state of Iraq," were heavily infiltrated instruments in the hands of the various warring factions - who almost always are willing to capitalize on the largess and naivete of the occupying powers.

Worth noting: both Sadr and Sistani, within a week of each other, came out against the recent attempt to pass laws relaxing the scope and harshness of de-Baathification. In addition, neither Sadr nor Sistani (nor SCIRI and Dawa - nor the Kurds for that matter), have shown any inclination to pursue the equitable resolution of any of the other major political stumbling blocks forestalling broader rapprochement (assuming the Sunnis would go for that in the first place, which is not a given). Interesting behavior for a couple of "nationalists" looking to broach ethnic/sectarian divisions, no?

That is not to say that there are not tensions and infighting on the Shiite side of the ledger (and Sunni and Kurdish sides as well). After all, each sub-group is trying to secure as much of the aforementioned power, influence and economic resources as possible - even where such gains are to be made vis-a-vis their putative co-ethnic/sectarian "allies." The grabbing hands, grab all they can.

Don't be fooled by the shifting alliances, intrigue and gamesmanship on display, though. There will be rumors and reports of shocking splits and nascent alliances that will, in the end, return to the farcical ether from where they were conjured serving no purpose other than the murky designs of the rumor spreaders themselves. Until each of the major groups (Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni) feels secure enough in their respective positions, the infighting will be kept at a manageable level and the cross-ethnic/sectarian outreach will be stunted. The larger problem is, though, that each of the factions' efforts to attain and consolidate the desired secure position is fueling the civil war and related violence from Kirkuk, to Anbar, to Basra in the South. They're still stuck in the fight for superiority mode.

Against this backdrop, praise for the enlightened efforts - or democratic bona fides - of the "Iraqi government" seem foolish and detached from reality. That same government is comprised of several of the aforementioned warring factions, and has consistently and relentlessly pursued a narrow, self-serving agenda. By hitching our wagon to this government, we have become, at best, an irrelevant spectator and at worst, a tool wielded by opportunistic Iraqi groups.

In search of an alternative, we are left casting about aimlessly for some non-existent Iraqi majority movement that is secular, liberal, enlightened, pro-American and, above all, not based in communalism. No doubt, there are many Iraqis that would embrace such a political movement of inclusion, but many of those same Iraqis have, in a pattern of negative self-selection, chosen to leave the chaos behind and join the stream of refugees heading for the exits. Riverbend included. Even under the best circumstances, though, it would remain doubtful that this political movement would have the numbers and mandate to overcome the power and influence of the current array of actors.

In the meantime, we cycle through a series of plans, strategies and tactics that range from embracing Shiite dominance at the expense of the Sunni population, to courting certain Sunni resistance groups in order to use as leverage to gain concessions from a dominant and uncompromising Shiite majority. We are precluded from pushing too strongly in either direction, or from helping one side to vanquish the other.

Unrestrained support of the Shiite factions in their effort to score a decisive victory over their Sunni rivals would cause a surge in al-Qaeda's popularity (as the mostly Sunni Arab world watches us partake in the slaughter of their brethren), and further alienate and anger our Sunni allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, etc.). Those same Sunni allies have taken on an extra degree of importance as of late, as a result of our ulterior goal of counterbalancing the suddenly ascendant Iran. More incoherence and contradicting goals.

Speaking of which, leaning too heavily on the Shiite factions would push them further into the arms of Iran - a reality, the parameters of which, we are just beginning to appreciate. The Iraqi Shiites don't necessarily need us, as we're not the only potential patron in the neighborhood. Further, escalating hostilities with the Shiites just isn't logistically feasible. If we are currently unable to defeat a Sunni insurgency representing roughly 20% of Iraq's population, the odds of defeating a Shiite insurgency comprising approximately 60% of Iraq's population are equivalent to a snowball's chances at longevity in Hades.

Whether you view our herky-jerky, often contradictory and incoherent attempts to forge stability from the raw materials in Iraq as a noble effort to improve the lives of the Iraqi people - or some necessary prerequisite to securing the acceptability of our permanent military presence and access to oil - it is well past futile. The various Iraqi factions recognize that in the end we will leave one way or the other, and they will remain. They can wait us out, or play the game within the parameters set, as necessary. And so they do.

As Petraeus is fond of saying, there is no military solution in Iraq, only a political solution. The Surge, he admits, will not itself overcome any of the fundamental challenges facing Iraq. He's right. The Surge's main justification is that it will lead to an abatement of the violence, and in that period of calmness, the various factions can better forge a modus vivendi acceptable to all.

But the major impediment to forging a broad-based, political accord in Iraq is not necessarily the steady violence. That is a symptom, not the pathology (though it does exacerbate the pathology, somewhat, in a reinforcing loop). The underlying cause of the violence lies in the fact that each side is pursuing competing goals, and no side has the desire to make concessions or abandon their armed component. The Surge won't change that calculus.

It's time to get out of Dodge.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Looking to Deposit My Heart

I'm off to San Francisco today for business - though I may be able to squeeze in a little time to link up with the Bay Area's own Swopa. I'll be back on Friday, so no blogging around these parts for a few days.

See you again as the weekend approaches. Oh, and don't let Bush start any more wars while I'm away.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Dropping F Bombs

In a column bearing the humorous title, Plan FUBAR, Phil Carter sets the chronological, and alphabetical, record straight with respect to the ruse that the Bush administration and its allies won't consider a "Plan B" [emph. mine throughout]:

In arguing for the current surge of combat forces to Iraq, senior administration officials say they're unwilling to consider a "Plan B" for Iraq—options in case the surge fails. Sen. John McCain echoes this sentiment, as does Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad, counseling patience while the current plan is put into action.

But defining the current surge as a "Plan A" is a dangerously dishonest move that ignores the history of the Iraq war to date. In fact, since 2003, we have run through at least six plans, none of which has succeeded. The Petraeus plan is something more akin to Plan F—truly, the last Hail Mary play in the fourth quarter. And if it fails, then we better start considering Plan G, also known as "Get out of Iraq."

After chronicling the permutations of the many prior "plans," Carter comes to this conclusion:

Gen. Petraeus and his brain trust have devised the best possible Plan F, given the resources available to the Pentagon and declining patience for the war at home. But the Achilles heel of this latest effort is the Maliki government. It is becoming increasingly clear to all in Baghdad that its interests—seeking power and treasure for its Shiite backers—diverge sharply from those of the U.S.-led coalition. Even if Gen. Petraeus' plan succeeds on the streets of the city, it will fail in the gilded palaces of the Green Zone. Maliki and his supporters desire no rapprochement with the Sunnis and no meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the Sunnis and the Kurds. Indeed, Maliki can barely hold his own governing coalition together, as evidenced by the Sadr bloc's resignation from the government this week and the fighting in Basra over oil and power.

Plan F will fail if (or when) the Maliki government fails, even if it improves security. At that point, we will have run out of options, having tried every conceivable strategy for Iraq. It will then be time for Plan G: Get out.

Carter makes a point that I have been trying to reinforce over the past week. Despite the fact that Bush administration officials - and even Maliki's own spokespeople - are trying to spin the resignation of the Sadr ministers as some early indicator of Maliki's bold new effort in the direction of Sunni rapprochement, the truth is somewhat less grandiose or inspiring. Sadr's ministers were not standing in the way of Maliki's "outreach," nor has Maliki or any of his Shiite allies come forth with some new formula for power sharing since. This despite the hagiographic version of Maliki "The Uniter" put forth by people like Amir Taheri and Peter Brookes.

I'll go further and say that, while there are certainly tensions and skirmishes (some bloody especially in the oil rich regions in the south) between the various Shiite factions (notably, Sadr vs. SCIRI), the departure of the six Sadrist ministers was not the opening salvo in some internecine Shiite conflagration. Maliki still needs Sadr, and Sadr still needs Maliki (and all of the related institutions and personalities that each side represents). Jockeying for position in the south between SCIRI and Sadr is one thing, but that conflict will likely be kept "in house" for the time being - at least if Sistani can influence the feuding parties, and I believe he can. That's not a certainty, though, and Sistani's influence may be less than it once was.

Despite this, the recent political maneuvers look like theater designed to give both Sadr and Maliki an advantage in pursuing their respective agendas - while also placating US government officials urging for a crackdwon on Sadr's movement. Sadr gets to reconfirm his anti-occupation, nationalist bona fides (while distancing himself from the unpopular government), while Maliki can use the "weakness" of his government as an excuse for failing to achieve progress on efforts to forge political solutions to the current conflict.

On a tangential note, if I could quibble with one bit of Carter's column, I'd say that he is overly sanguine in his description of this "success":

The Marines scored a stunning turnaround in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province by brokering a deal with Sunni tribes that effectively marginalized al-Qaida...

While there are certainly promising developments along these lines, and there are serious tensions and in-fighting between certain Sunni tribal/insurgent groups and other Sunni groups allied under al-Qaeda's banner, it would be beyond premature to declare that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been "marginalized." In fact, some theorize that the anti-al-Qaeda reaction on the part of some of those Sunni tribes/insurgent groups was born out of a sense of desperation at the strengthening of al-Qaeda's position.

Marc Lynch (everyone's favorite Aardvark) has been all over this for the past couple of weeks (as Brian Ulrich noted recently). Here is his latest effort, but if you want more, just scroll down his main page. Greg Gause's contributions on Lynch's site are also worth a gander.

(Phil Carter link via K-Drum)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Look What I Found!

The headline says it all: "Iraq May Have Massive Undiscovered Reserves." Those would be oil "reserves" we're talking about for those slow on the uptake. What a marvelous revelation. Who knew? Not that it matters to us, though. It's not like oil had anything to do with our recurring interest in that little slice of desert sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, you know, since we're there already, we might as well....

Some details from the article (emphasis added):

IHS Inc., an energy and engineering corporation, today announced their forthcoming release of "the first and only detailed analysis of oil reserves, production and development opportunities developed since the start of the Iraq conflict."

According to the advance notes on the report, IHS estimates that Iraq currently has 116 billion barrels in reserve, and potentially 100 billion more barrels-worth buried under the western desert.

The new assessment of previously unknown reserves is largely based on the "establishment of new play concepts in the Western Desert of Iraq, which have been generated from a recent study of the Western Arabian Platform."

Further, the report projects that with the right investment and management, Iraq's oil industry could double its output within five years.

“Most of Iraq’s oil production comes from the south of Iraq and is exported via the Persian Gulf because of repeated sabotage attacks on facilities in the north,” said Mohamed Zine, IHS regional manager for the Middle East. “This has resulted in a current production capacity of two million barrels of oil per day. However... given a stable political and civil environment, Iraq has the potential to produce four million barrels a day in the near term if necessary investments are made in repairing and modernizing facilities.”

There are a couple of subtexts at play here that are worth mentioning. First, from the most cynical view, this report could be used to justify our continued presence in Iraq and sell it to the Iraqi people - or at least the elites (we need to stabilize the place so all that newly discovered bounty can flow!). Such rationales can also be used to push the favor of Iraqi oil laws further to the benefit of foreign interests (your potential is limitless, if only you let us develop those fields for ya).

The next tier of cynicism would accept the possibility that the results of these studies could be exaggerated (either deliberately, or unintentionally due to the study's own shortcomings). The hyped up results could be used as a means of sapping some of the anxiety and fight from the Sunni insurgents. If you notice, these vast, newly discovered resources are located in Western Iraq which is the most concentrated Sunni stronghold, and would become the Sunni homeland should a partition of Iraq take place. Playing up the new fossil fuel find has its advantages. Reassuring the Sunnis in such a way may make that group more amenable to a further legal enshrinement of the de facto partition currently underway. If the current estimates of oil riches are later downwardly adjusted, the mea culpas could flow forth, but the facts on the ground would be what they were.

Here's the most optimistic take, though: if these reports are indeed accurate, and there are large quantities of oil in Western Iraq, it could very well provide a glimmer of hope that a partition of Iraq (or even the adoption of a very decentralized federation system) could be made acceptable and desirable to each of the major players.

We know that the Kurds want this desperately (leaving Turkey out of this for the moment). SCIRI has been pushing hardest for partition on the Shiite side, and Dawa (Maliki included) don't seem to find too much issue with the plan. While Sadr and Sistani mostly oppose this scheme, one could imagine those positions softening a bit due to the possibility of relief from the relentless violence and chaos. The Sunnis have been the faction most opposed to partition due, in large part, to the fear of being cut out of oil revenues from supplies that have, thus far, been almost entirely attributed to Northern and Southern Iraq (the Kurdish and Shiite strongholds, respectively).

For my part, I think such a soft separation would be the best possible outcome at this juncture. A partition would have obvious problems, and the fleshing out of the benefits, drawbacks and risks associated with such a scenario is probably worth an entire series of posts unto itself. In lieu of that, the short version of a few of the potential sticking points are as follows: For one, there would likely be further ethnic cleansing in mixed areas, though that mostly seems to be taking place right now regardless. If Iraq were partitioned, we might actually be able to facilitate migration of the various ethnicities/sects to their respective friendly regions. This would be an improvement over the hardships of forced intra-Iraq migration (without economic or logistical aid) as currently imposed via the threats of militias and death squads.

Second, there are still many Iraqi nationalists that would take issue with the concept of a disintegrated nation state. But again, given the alternatives, such sentimentalities might wane in potency over time.

Finally, the big one, would be how Turkey would react to an independent or quasi-independent Kurdistan with Kirkuk likely in its back pocket. I wish there was some easy way to deftly avoid that massive stumbling block, but I don't see it at this time. I'll take a short-cut and say let's table it for now.

It would be sort of ironic if oil actually facilitated our exit from Iraq, though. To paraphrase the gangbangers, that would be: Oil in, Oil out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ghetto Defendant

I wrote a brief post on the Duke University lacrosse players' rape case in mid-January. In that post, I attempted to highlight the prevalence of certain attitudes toward longstanding principles and protections related to our criminal justice system.
The fault lies with the rush to judgment - or better yet, pre-judgment. For too many, the accusations became synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts were so damning: these were white, privileged, athletes at an elite private university partying it up in a frat house with alcohol and strippers. Nuff said, right? Further, as a result of the shameful history of persecuting and vilifying rape victims in this country (and every other country for that matter), and dismissing their accusations as spurious, some on the Left (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts. [...]

Interestingly, there is an inverse relationship between Right and Left with respect to the treatment and classification of those accused of terrorism - both foreign citizens detained at Gitmo, and US citizens like Jose Padilla who have been brutalized by a detention policy run amok. The roles are reversed.

For too many on the Right side of the spectrum, the accusations become synonymous with the crimes themselves. Why wait for a trial when the facts are so damning: these are Muslim men, picked up in Afghanistan and other parts of the globe where terrorists are known to reside and they have been accused by the US government of dangerous affiliations at a time of heightened tensions. Further, as a result of the psychic impact of 9/11, and the raw fear of future terrorist attacks, some on the Right (properly concerned with these issues), have developed a trigger happy reaction to such accusations. There has been an overcompensation of sorts.
Radley Balko, for his part, uses the story of the Duke case to remind us of some of the deeper flaws in our criminal justice system. There is, unfortunately, an operable dynamic that facilitates - or at least doesn't do enough to sufficiently safeguard against - prosecutor misconduct. For too many defendants lacking the resources to mount effective challenges to prosecutions, the deck is stacked hopelessly against them despite the supposed presumption of innocence. Balko illustrates his point with the case of James Giles:
Giles is a Texas man who served 10 years in prison, as well as an additional 14 years on probation and as a registered sex offender, for a rape committed in 1982.

Last week--the same week the Duke lacrosse team was exonerated--Giles too was exonerated, thanks to DNA evidence.

I'm guessing not many of you have heard of Giles. And I'm guessing just about all of you have heard of Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty.

This isn't to diminish what happened to the Duke players. It's to demonstrate the selective outrage on display from some of their defenders. The Duke guys didn't do a day of hard time. Giles did 10 years. The Duke guys were wrongfully labeled rapists for a little more than a year. Giles, for 24 years.

Some bloggers took umbrage at the implications of Balko's post - that there was selectivity in the outrage displayed with respect to each case, possibly motivated by political and racial attitudes. I don't think all of those objections were unwarranted. So it was good to see Balko respond with important clarifications:

I'm not saying anyone who didn't write about Giles is wrong or racist or bigoted. Hell, I didn't write about it until this weekend. I brought it up to point out the contrast between the two cases, and the contrast in the coverage of them, in the hopes of nudging conservatives outraged by the Duke case to see it as more than vindicating their feelings about feminists, liberal academics, the media, and civil rights groups, and look at it for what it is: a glaring illustration of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system.

That is, get over the identity politics and cult of victimhood. Yeah, the Duke guys got screwed. But they were exonerated. There are lots more innocent people who need to be exonerated, people who have been in prison a long time, and who don't have the benefit of high-priced lawyers or media attention or the powerful pundit advocates the Duke players had.

Unfortunately, just as the left did with the Imus case, conservatives seemed to have drawn all the wrong lessons from Duke. See Jack Dunphy, Michelle Malkin, and Heather McDonald, all of whom have decided to use the Duke case to lament how the media doesn't do enough to tell us about how black people are inherently more criminal and dangerous than white people.[...]

All of this is why I find the right's outrage over the Duke case to be so grating. And the fact that so many conservatives seem to have walked away from the case thinking the lesson is not that the criminal justice system on the whole needs more accountability, transparency, and balance, but rather that we aren't doing enough to vilify black people, and that rich white people are the real victims here, well, that's just plain stupid. And wrong. And infuriating.
Balko really gets to the heart of the matter, and properly identifies the salient lesson.

I'll say this: I found it rather commendable that one of the accused Duke players, Reade Seligmann (they might have all made this point but I saw Seligmann for sure), took the time to make exactly that point - on more than one occasion. Seligmann stated that this experience opened his eyes to a world of injustice that he had previously been unfamiliar with. This experience has shown him how easy it is to fall through the cracks of the justice system. That there are likely thousands of innocent people convicted of crimes who don't have talented, high priced lawyers at their disposal to prevent the unthinkable parade of travesties.

Would that such consciousness spread. That would certainly be one way to take this otherwise ugly story and turn it to good.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

al-Sadr Made Me Do It

Kawther Abdul-Ameer and Mussab Al-Khairalla of Reuters with some follow-up reporting on the "resignation" (scare quotes for Swopa) of the Sadrist ministers:

Maliki said the appointment of technocrats would help the government "escape from (sectarian) quotas and also helps in choosing ministers who are professionals and politicians."

Maliki's administration is dominated by sectarian parties drawn from the country's Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups.

Iraqis have long complained that the sectarian makeup of the national unity government has hindered Maliki, forcing him to tread carefully to keep his various constituencies happy, and turned ministries into personal fiefdoms of political blocs. [...]

Speaking to reporters in the Jordanian capital Amman, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested Maliki may now be able to bring in replacements who could improve relations between Iraq's deeply divided communities.

"The impact that ... these resignations have will depend in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities and whether those vacancies are used in a way that perhaps can further advance the reconciliation process."

Washington constantly presses Iraq's leaders to speed up reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Husseinand form the backbone of the insurgency against U.S. troops and Maliki's government.

Again, we see "happy talk" about limiting sectarian partisanship and embracing a reconciliation platform, but the shuffling of a few ministers is of nominal significance in terms of altering the trajectory of Iraq's internal divisions. In order to make a good faith attempt to broach the schism between the various sects/ethnicities, the Maliki government would have to implement legislative and structural changes such as softening de-Baathification, ensuring an equitable the split of oil revenues and amending the constitution (along those lines and others).

As previously mentioned, Maliki and the united Shiite front don't appear particularly motivated to engage such a program of concessions at this juncture. While it's convenient for Maliki to blame Sadr and the "sectarian makeup of the national unity government" (unintentional irony?) for his lack of progress on these fronts, it should be noted that Maliki himself is a sectarian partisan (Dawa Party). Nor does the removal of Sadr's ministers change the fundamental nature of the current government.

Maliki's disputes with Sadr's faction, to the extent they exist, stem more from intra-Shiite jockeying for power, influence and economic gain than from vastly differing views on the adoption of Sunni-friendly reforms, or even the continued presence of American forces in Iraq. For example, Maliki, like Sadr, reveres and respects the opinion and counsel of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sistani has been consistently opposed to a continued presence of US forces in Iraq. In this, Sistani and Sadr are potent allies.

The question is, does Maliki (and/or SCIRI) really stand in opposition to this position on US troop presence? I have my doubts. Even if Maliki does oppose Sadr and Sistani on that issue, and even if Maliki truly does want to adopt a broad-based legislative platform of inclusion, would Maliki have the leeway to act against the wishes of Sistani and Sadr? Unlikely - even with the sacking of the Sadr-friendly ministers.

As mentioned previously, the recent political re-configuration - and Sadr's political presence more generally speaking - could actually provide some leverage for Maliki to press for the hastened withdrawal of US forces if that is the desired outcome:

Analysts had said they did not expect the walkout to affect the day-to-day performance of Maliki's government since the ministers did not hold any key portfolios, but it could increase pressure on him to draw up a troop withdrawal timetable, a demand of many Iraqis four years after the U.S.-led invasion. [emphasis added throughout]

In many ways, Sadr gets what he wants out of this entire affair as well. By basing the resignation of his ministers on frustration with the Iraqi government's continued acquiescence to US troop presence, Sadr fortifies his nationalist/anti-occupation street cred. This might also help him consolidate the ranks of his organization by bringing some of the splinter groups that doubted his commitment back into the fold. As an added bonus, he may also get a little reprieve from efforts to crackdown on his militia forces. Maliki can now make the case that they're pushing Sadr hard enough as is.

Why look, Sadr's ministers just resigned from the pressure!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Y'All Know Me, Still the Same Ol' Mookie

The bad cop to Maliki's good cop is asserting himself again. A week after bringing out tens of thousands of Shiite supporters in peaceful marches in Shiite dominated cities (including Najaf) - with many marchers carrying anti-American and anti-occupation placards - Moqtada al-Sadr flexed some political muscle as well:

Cabinet ministers loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned on Monday to protest the prime minister's refusal to set a timetable for an American withdrawal, raising the prospect that the Mahdi Army militia could return to the streets of Baghdad. [...]

The departure of the six ministers, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Perhaps concerned for the vitality of his armed wing, Sadr put forth his other primary demand:

Al-Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. [..]

[A spokesman] also relayed a demand by al-Sadr's movement, that all detainees held by "occupation forces" be transferred to Iraqi authorities
"because this is part of sovereignty."

So much for The Surge sounding the death knell for Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

The most charitable reading of these events from the Bush administration's perspective is probably that Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki is doing his best to contain Sadr, but has been dealt an impossible hand. I used to be more amenable to this interpretation, but the benefit of the doubt that was previously granted has evaporated like dew in the desert. Especially given reports of the budding Sadr/Sistani alliance that suggests that Sadr is not really the outside irritant and spoilsport that he is portrayed as.

Instead of bolstering the "Maliki as non-partisan, enlightened leader" narrative, recent events indicate that the Shiites continue to circle the wagons, fortify and unify their ranks along strict sectarian lines, and lay the groundwork for the imminent departure of US forces - or at least play the game in order to maximize on their gains in the continued presence of US forces. In addition to Sistani's rapprochement with Sadr, there is also the recent push-back on softening the de-Baathification laws, the fiddling with an oil distribution law that doesn't really offer the Sunnis a legitimate stake, and no progress on amending the constitution to placate legitimate Sunni concerns.

In this regard, Sadr is useful. Not only do his cadres (and Mahdi Army militia) represent a formidable bulwark against Sunni aggression - as well as potential coalition excesses - but his clout and popularity provide a ready made excuse for Maliki to plead helplessness while carrying out a partisan agenda. Maliki can argue, with some plausibility, that he can only go "so far" in cracking down on militia activity, and other conciliatory measures, for fear that his government would collapse. Sistani also comes in handy in this regard - and has for some time.

Meanwhile, the beat goes on as Sadr's armed wing acts out its role as the tip of the spear for Team Shiite:

The number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad increased sharply on Sunday to 30 — from as low as five in recent days — in a possible sign of the militia's resurgence, even ahead of the six resignations.

Also, Maliki can use Sadr's insistence on "sovereignty" as a means to pressure the Bush administration to cede more power. Maliki's response to Sadr's demands seems to indicate a certain shading:

The prime minister issued a statement later Monday saying "the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces' readiness to take over the security command in all provinces."

At the same time, Maliki can present himself as indispensable in the sense that he is the only political player capable of holding back the other prominent Shiite leaders like Sadr, and even Sistani himself, from demanding an immediate withdrawal of US forces.

In an inverted sense, Sadr (or at least the propagandized version) also provides a useful foil for the Bush administration. He can be made the scapegoat for all that ails the occupation, the putative "cause" for sectarian violence (or at least its exacerbation) and, though SCIRI and Dawa have stronger ties in reality, Sadr can be portrayed as the embodiment of Iranian malfeasance in Iraq.

So the Bush team gets to pretend that they have an ally in the Iraqi government, and that if it weren't for those meddling Iranians acting through their cat's paw, Moqtada al-Sadr, all would be well. If continuing the occupation is imperative, and it clearly is for Bush/Cheney, then maintaining this facade is important in that it creates the perception that we have an actual ally in Iraq worth backing to some feasible end. The "Iraqi government," thus, miraculously becomes a neutral party that we can support in order to counter the extremists in each corner. We measure progress by the reach and influence of that neutral, non-partisan Iraqi government.

This bit from a Peter Brookes column captures the gist of this preferred fiction:

[Iran is w]orking both ends (that is, the Sunni and Shia) against the middle (that is, the Iraqi central government) [and] will surely stifle Iraq's
development toward a stable, fully-fledged democracy.

Sure. The Iraqi government made up of SCIRI, Dawa and Sadr are the "middle" - the forces in Iraqi political life hostile to, and under siege from, Iran. Except Sadr, sort of, whose also a key part of that government. Or something. If you believe that one, I've got a bridge in Baghdad to sell you.

The same day, in the same paper (Rupert Murdoch's New York Post) on the same page, Amir Taheri dedicates an entire column to extolling the virtues of the brave, independent Nouri al-Maliki who is fearlessly taking on the mullahs in Iran despite unwarranted criticism from certain US leftists figures who just want to cry defeat and leave. As Blake Hounshell once mused on AmFoot some years back, if Taheri says it, assume the opposite. This is no exception. Says Taheri:

Maliki has also given the green light to a crackdown on Shiite militias and death squads, serving notice that the war of the sectarians must end. Within the next few weeks, he is expected to further anger Tehran by dropping from his Cabinet all five Sadrist ministers, who are beholden to the Iranian regime.

Tehran indicated its displeasure by activating its networks in Iraq to organize last week's demonstrations in Najaf.

Again, the notion that Sadr, who has the fewest historical and recent ties to Iran, is doing Tehran's bidding in opposition to the SCIRI and Dawa factions is a dubious proposition to say the least. Recall, many of the leaders of SCIRI and Dawa lived in exile in Iran during the past decade, and in the case of SCIRI, its armed wing - the Badr Corp. - was created, armed and funded in Iran by the Iranian government.

Regardless of the spin put out by shameless propagandists like Taheri, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding intelligence brief. As Spencer Ackerman (and many others) notes, the Bush administration doesn't really trust Maliki. And doesn't really believe that Maliki is interested in cracking down on Shiite militias as Taheri, Brookes and others would have it:

The sordid story of Muhammed Shahwani takes a new turn. Shahwani, you'll recall, is the Iraqi intelligence chieftain, surviving since the halcyon days of Iyad Allawi's tenure as premier. His credentials as a survivor are undermined somewhat by his reported status as a CIA asset. It turns out that the CIA has been distrustful of turning the Iraqi intelligence apparatus over to the Shiite-led government, despite all the sovereignty rhetoric and such. One such concern is that the Maliki government would transform the Iraqi intelligence service into an instrument of sectarian persecution. Meanwhile, Shahwani's Iraqi National Intelligence Service does things that the Maliki government denounces, like detaining Iranian diplomats in Baghdad.

In response, reports Ned Parker in today's L.A. Times, Maliki has created a parallel intelligence service, one that he can control. (Parker confirms that CIA still pays for the INIS, which helps explain those Iran-diplomat detentions.) Sure enough, that service is described by a Western diplomat as "slightly reactionary in a Shiite sense": it's what was behind Maliki's January outburst about "presenting the file" of a hardline Sunni parliamentarian, Sheikh Abdul Nasser Janabi. Needless to say, it doesn't put the Shiite death squads in its cross-hairs. [emphasis added]

Despite all this, many of the war's supporters continue to do their best to obfuscate the fact that the Iraqi government itself is infiltrated by "death squads" and partisan Shiite militias. In reality, it is but one facet of an ongoing civil war. Instead of confronting (or admitting to) this truth, the Bush administration and its allies hold out Sadr (with Iran's backing) as the one force standing in the way of Iraq's successful transition to peaceful, stable, US-friendly democracy.

Despite this dissembling, Sadr is an integral and valued part of an alliance of Shiite factions whose leaders (especially Sistani) aren't particularly interested in partaking in a strategy that will, if not "divide and conquer," at least "divide and dilute," their current hold on power. To expect a prime minister to crack down on vital members of his own government, amidst a tumultuous backdrop of pitched ethnic/sectarian fighting, where every soldier (and militia member) is invaluable, is wishful thinking to say the least.

Unfortunately, it's also a key component of our current strategy vis-a-vis The Surge. Maliki's crackdown on Sadr's forces - aided by our increased troop presence - is supposedly going to create the relative calm necessary for the adoption of broad-based political compromises that will defuse the brewing civil war.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the ruling Shiite slate hasn't exactly been quick to endorse any of those key political concessions such as de-de-Baathification, or an equitable oil revenue law. Interesting behavior for such an earnest "unifier" like Maliki. Naturally, I blame Sadr. I'm sure Maliki does too.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Psy Young Award Goes To...

Swopa caught a curious little bit of real time revisionism from today's news wire [emph. his]:

An insurgent umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq claimed Friday one of its "knights" carried out the parliament suicide bombing in Baghdad's Green Zone, and the U.S. military revised the death toll sharply downward to one dead.

. . . In a statement Friday morning, the U.S. military said "after further research and consultation with government of Iraq officials" it had determined that only one "civilian" had been killed in the attack [and not 8] and 22 were wounded.

Now that's some impressive use of the ol' abacus. Maybe the revised number is accurate. Let's hope so, since that would mean fewer tragic outcomes.

This "good news" revelation does seem awfully suspicious though. The US military, and the Iraqi government officials that they "consulted" with, each have an interest in downplaying the scope of the attack. The media attention has been intense due to the spectacular nature of the strike which took place in the Green Zone, reaching what is supposed to be the safest, most secure part of Iraq. With such a rapt audience focusing on the vulnerability of the Green Zone (with all the inherent symbolic value), the Iraqi government officials and their US counterparts might just be seeking to minimize the damage for their respective domestic audiences.

It's classic PR, with a political angle. And it's nothing new, really. The art of deception and the management of information has been a part of warfare and statecraft since there were wars and states, respectively. As we all know - or should know - the US military is no different, even if its not the most flagrant abuser of the truth in this regard either.

Nevertheless, military officials will deliberately lie during times of war (and sometimes peace) with some frequency as part of discrete psy-ops missions, and to win the "information" war more generally speaking. Which says nothing of other motivations for duplicity such as pressure from civilian leadership to affect political will and to facilitate certain unrelated strategic objectives.

Here is yet one more of the countless other recent examples - this from the same Mark Bowden article that I cited earlier in the week. Watch the clever two-step by General Caldwell as he revises some of the less flattering details surrounding the air strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

Caldwell initially said that a child was killed in the bombing, but altered his statement the next day to say that no children had been killed. In the Compound, pictures from the blast site showed two dead children, both under age 5. [emph. mine]

So his earlier admission of one child fatality was later revised to none, when in fact there were two. Got that?

Still, what amazes me given this seemingly obvious state of affairs is the number of people that claim that we should, by default, trust military sources. If Caldwell said it, it must be true. Each time and all at once. This blanket trust, it is argued, should be applied even with respect to strident claims of "certainty" when the underlying conclusions are based on dubious intelligence regarding things like the supply of "EFPs" and the training of Iraqi insurgents by the Iranian government.

Next week, another shocking revelation: Politicians and national leaders also sometimes lie. I know, I know. You doubt me now, but I'm putting together a brief.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It's a Question of Trust

Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias wrote about the recent cover story in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that recounts the experiences of the interrogators, and the interrogations themselves, that produced the intelligence that led to the death of Sunni insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Matt makes two excellent points about the contents of the article:

First, that contrary to much of the breathless reporting in conservative circles at the time, the counterterrorism landscape in Iraq was not greatly altered by the death of Zarqawi. If you recall, the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez had this to say:

I just had a brief chat with our David Pryce-Jones, whose spirits couldn’t be higher this afternoon (in England). He calls Zarqawi’s demise both a “collassal morale boost” for all of us but says it also has “big operational significance.” “When you get rid of a leader, it’s very hard to replace him.” The Israelis have proved this time and time again. And while we'll of course likely see stepped up terrorist attacks in the coming days and weeks, David predicts the enemy there will be severely wounded by their loss.

Ironically, our experience in Iraq vis-a-vis terrorist leaders is not altogether dissimilar to Israel's in terms of discovering that we may just need to prove (disprove?) this axiom "time and again." For years to come. As Yglesias astutely points out, "there are limits to operational counterterrorism." Bowden laments:

Like so much else about the Iraq War, it was a feel-good moment that amounted to little more than a bump on a road to further mayhem. Today, Iraq seems no closer to peace, unity, and a terror-free existence than it did last June. If anything, the brutal attacks on civilian targets that Zarqawi pioneered have worsened.

Matt's next point focuses on the fact that the successful interrogations in the present example did not involve the use of torture or abuse - even as practiced under their more sanitized euphemisms. Rather, the interrogator who broke the case, so to speak, was able to use skill and subterfuge to create a sense of trust with the high value detainee.

The successful results from this approach are consistent with the recommendations found in well-respected writings on the art of interrogation discussed here, and here. One of the articles cited in those posts discusses the work of Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, whose scholarship in the field of interrogations is considered seminal. From that post:

...despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them. [...]

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others' experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation - in other words, emphasizing that "we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors" - invariably backfired. It made the prisoner "so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence" that it "played right into [the] hands" of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance. [...]

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy...Notice that...I used the word "safe." That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows...that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Begin by asking him things about himself. [...]

Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve "the first and most important victory" - getting "into the mind and into the heart" of the prisoner and achieving an "intellectual and spiritual" rapport with him.

Now consider this account of the breakthrough moment in the interrogation that led to the death of Zarqawi:

In his weeks of watching, the American [interrogator known as "Doc"] had noted [the detainee] Abu Haydr’s chronic braggadocio. The Iraqi constantly trumpeted his skills—the black belt in karate, advanced knowledge of the Koran, expertise in logic and persuasion — like a man determined to prove his importance and worth. He spoke little about his family, his wife and children. He seemed completely preoccupied with himself, and he presented his frequent opinions forcefully, as the simple truth. The two men discussed the historical basis for the rift between the Sunnis and the Shia, something Doc had studied. And when the Iraqi lectured Doc on child-rearing, the younger man nodded with appreciation. When Abu Haydr again proclaimed his talents in the arts of logic and persuasion, Doc announced himself out-argued and persuaded.

Their conversation turned to politics. Like many other detainees, Abu Haydr was fond of conspiracy theories. He complained that the United States was making a big mistake allowing the Shia, the majority in Iraq, to share power with the Sunnis. He lectured Doc on the history of his region, and pointed out that Iraqi Sunnis and the United States shared a very dangerous enemy: Iran. He saw his Shia countrymen not just as natural allies with Iran but as more loyal to Iranian mullahs than to any idea of a greater Iraq. As he saw it—and he presented it as simple fact—the ongoing struggle would determine whether Iraq would survive as a Sunni state or simply become part of a greater Shia Iran. America, Abu Haydr said, would eventually need help from the Sunnis to keep this Shia dynasty from dominating the region. Doc had heard all this before, but he told Abu Haydr that it was a penetrating insight, that the detainee had come remarkably close to divining America’s true purpose in Iraq. The real reason for the U.S. presence in the region, the gator explained, was to get American forces into position for an attack on Iran. They were building air bases and massing troops. In the coming war, Sunnis and Americans would be allies. Only those capable of looking past the obvious could see it. The detainee warmed to this. All men enjoy having their genius recognized.

“The others are ignorant,” Abu Haydr said, referring to Mary and Lenny. “They know nothing of Iraq or the Koran. I have never felt comfortable talking with them.”

It was not a surprising comment. Detainees often tried to play one team of [interrogators] off another. But Doc saw it as an opening, and hit upon a ploy. He told the prisoner that he now understood his full importance. He said he was not surprised that Abu Haydr had been able to lead his questioners around by their noses...

Abu Haydr was listening with interest. “We both know what I want,” Doc said. “You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don’t want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you—you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq.” If Abu Haydr would betray his organization, Doc implied, the Americans would make him a very big man indeed. [..]

“I believe you are a very important man,” he told Abu Haydr. “I think you have a position of power in the insurgency, and I think I am in a position to help you.”

The gator’s job is to somehow find a way through this tangle of conflicting emotions by intimidation or bluff. The height of the art is to completely turn the detainee, to con him into being helpful to the very cause he has fought against. There comes a moment in every successful interrogation when the detainee’s defenses begin to give way. Doc had come to that moment with Abu Haydr. He had worked at the detainee’s ego as if it were a loose screw. All of his ruses dovetailed. If Doc was an important, powerful man— better still, if he was secretly in charge—his respect for Abu Haydr meant all the more. After all, wouldn’t it take the most capable of the Americans, the man in charge, to fully comprehend and appreciate Abu Haydr’s significance?

Byron York makes an interesting observation, though - that while no torture was used in the example discussed in this article, the fear of being sent to Abu Ghraib where detainees believed they would be tortured (based on the earlier examples of torture that been reported in the press), was an effective incentive in terms of motivating detainees to cooperate. Thus, one might argue (as York does), that earlier incidents of torture facilitated later interrogation that did not need to rely on such brutality.

My rebuttal to York would be that even were there no "Abu Ghraib" (or reports of the numerous other locations where Iraqi detainees were tortured by US personnel in Iraq), Iraqi detainees would have cause to fear that they could be abused by their captors regardless. Let's put it this way: absent the publicity of events at Abu Ghraib et al, Iraqis, like all detainees, would assume that every government utilizes torture behind closed doors .

Not only would their experience under the Hussein regime predispose them to such suspicion, but detainees in general are not prone to trust the good intentions of their interrogators. The default setting - exacerbated by the fear and the loss of control inherent in the prisoner/jailer dynamic - is one of mistrust and worst case assumptions. Even, for example, when they learned of the new, reformed policies at Abu Ghraib, detainees remained suspicious:

The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed.

Later in the article, a similar point is made:

In a situation like the one at Balad, the Task Force had tremendous leverage over any detainee, including [the detainee's] reasonable fear of beating, torture, lengthy imprisonment, or death. While [interrogators] at that point were not permitted even to threaten such things, the powerless are slow to surrender suspicion. [emph. added throughout]

Even without Abu Ghraib, the fear inspired by the utter lack of control and absence of recourse to any intervening forces would be present. Unfortunately, instead of leaving that fear in the realm of vague abstraction and unfounded suspicion, the Bush administration adopted a series of policies that lowered our moral standing in the world by confirming the worst. All in support of an interrogation regime that appeals to our confused notions of strength, while corrupting detainee and interrogator alike, resulting in an intelligence product of inferior quality.

There is a better way.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Michael Ledeen: Still Opposed to Military Confrontation with Iran, After He Was For It!

Greg Djerejian finds yet another example of Ledeen urging for military confrontation with Iran (emphasis Mr. D's):

It would be nice if someone in a position of power noted that the Iranians have committed an act of war on a NATO country, and that the other members of the alliance can be obliged to join in common action against the aggressor if the relevant terms of the treaty are invoked, as they should be. That should be the first move, showing the Iranians that the West is united and determined to act. It should be accompanied by the appearance of some vessels from what is left of Her Majesty's Navy, buttressing our own warships and--shhhh!--the French carrier now in the area. If we have actionable intelligence from the recent wave of defectors/prisoners, we should step up the campaign against Iranian officials and agents in Iraq. And we should undertake the legitimate self-defense to which we are entitled, by moving against the terrorist training camps, and the improvised explosive device assembly lines and manufacturing sites inside the Islamic Republic.

Not surprisingly, no word from Mr. Ledeen on what our response should be if Iran decided to hit us back for such an attack. Because they would, and then the conflict would escalate until it reached something resembling all out war.

But then, Michael Ledeen knows that. Yet he also knows that outright war advocacy has its risks and is not exactly an easy sell - especially in today's political environment. So when he's not busy arguing that he does not now, nor has he ever, advocated in favor of military confrontation with Iran, he hides behind the clever ruse of "only" advocating a bombing campaign and some cross-border raids with small combat teams. All the while knowing full well that such a "discrete" engagement will quickly ramp up to the full Monty in short order.

And later when it backfires as it did with respect to Iraq, Ledeen can claim that he never supported war with Iran (as, remarkably, he did with Iraq!).

Selling Out

I usually don't do link dumps around these parts, but there are a few quick hitter stories that you might want to check out without the gratuitous thousand words of E-Mart commentary tacked on. In some particular order:

Ezra Klein links to an informative, easy to read graph charting the relative trajectories of CEO Pay vs. average worker pay over the past 10 years or so. Any guesses on the trends?

Kevin Drum has a nice rundown of many of the Bush administration's contradictory and hypocritical policies vis-a-vis "terrorism." Much to the surprise of all, I'm sure, the Bush team is willing to sponsor and support terrorists that target our adversaries. Although Kevin left out the Cuban/anti-Castro storyline this time.

Rob Farley has two very smart pieces on the recent revelation that the Bush administration circumvented UN sanctions on North Korea (sanctions that the Bush administration had spent years securing support for) in order to funnel arms to Ethiopia. Kevin flagged this as one instance of hypocrisy as mentioned above, but Farley ties it, quite nicely, to the broader attitude in conservative circles toward the UN and multilateral organizations in general.

Speaking of Ethiopia, Matt Yglesias is manning the Somalia watch today - no doubt influenced by news such as this:
Recent clashes pitting Ethiopian and Somali forces against clan militia and insurgents killed at least 1,086 people and wounded more than 4,300, according to a local committee set up to assess the damage.

The committee's report obtained by Reuters on Tuesday said 1.4 million people fled their homes in the Somali capital because of the March 29-April 1 battles.

"This is a rough estimate and the number is going to be much higher because we have not ventured out of the main roads," Siayaad told Reuters.

"The dead bodies are still there and it will take weeks to collect all of them."
Making friends. Influencing people.

UPDATE: Oh, and I was criminally negligent to fail to link to this Tony Karon post. Others have linked to it, so you might have had the good fortune to come across it already. If you haven't, though, do go read. A remarkable essay - even if not entirely new, it is a superb summary and compilation.

When You've Been on the Murder Mile, Only Takes One Itchy Trigger

I'm sure that many of you recall the ordeal of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena who was captured by insurgents in Iraq. She was eventually released pursuant to negotiations between Italian government officials and her captors, only to endure a tragic episode at a US military checkpoint as she was making her way to the airport (immediately post-release) for a trip back to Italy. Her car was shot-up by the team manning the checkpoint, and one of those traveling with her was killed as he jumped on top of Sgrena in a selfless act of heroism.

While Sgrena, and others, have alleged that she was actually a target of the US government intending to make an example out of her, the US Army cleared the soldiers involved of any wrongdoing. I tend to side with the US Army on that one. If the Army had orders to kill Sgrena, there likely would not have been any survivors left after the smoke cleared. A .50 caliber machine gun targeting an unarmored car can make sure of that in relatively short order.

The Italian government, however, has moved ahead with judicial proceedings (in absentia) against one of the US soldiers involved in the incident, Spc. Mario Lozano. Here is Lozano's version, as well as some background of the shooting:

"You have a warning line, you have a danger line, and you have a kill line," said Lozano, speaking out for the first time about the March 4, 2005, "friendly fire" incident in which he shot from a Humvee machine-gun turret at the vehicle, hitting an Italian war correspondent and killing an Italian intelligence officer.

The nightmare resumes for Lozano, of New York's Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment, next week - when he'll be tried in absentia by Italian officials on charges of murder.

"Anyone inside 100 meters is already in the danger zone . . . and you gotta take them out," Lozano told The Post from his brother's Chelsea apartment.

"If you hesitate, you come home in a box - and I didn't want to come home in a box. I did what any soldier would do in my position."

The resulting machine-gun burst hit Giuliana Sgrena, who had just been released by kidnappers, in the shoulder and killed Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, who had negotiated her release. The vehicle was racing to catch a plane home to Italy at Baghdad Airport, Lozano said.

Calipari, who had thrown himself atop Sgrena in the back seat, was lauded as a national hero. Thousands attended his funeral. And the Italian government decided to take the unusual step of charging Lozano with "political murder."

Lozano - who was cleared by an internal U.S. Army investigation - insisted that he did everything by the book. He flashed his turret's "300 million-watt" light at the car, which makes "every Iraqi slam on the brakes." Then he fired rounds into the ground and, finally, shots into the vehicle's engine.

Lozano said he had no choice: Like all grunts, he knew all too well what a car bomb could do. Two days before, "two good soldiers died on the road in the same way," he said.

Here's the thing: putting myself in Lozano's shoes, there's a good chance I would have done the exact same thing. It is an unworkable standard to demand that our soldiers manning check points in Iraq show restraint in the face of oncoming vehicles traveling at high speeds that show no sign of let-up after initial warnings.

When confronted with these scenarios, decisions must be made in mere seconds, on the fly, and in an unthinkably tense and frightening environment. With little time to process information, and faced with the all-too-real threat of imminent death for all in the soldier's unit, it becomes a question of them, or the passengers in the car. Let me tell you, if my finger is on the trigger (or thumbs in the instance of a .50 cal IIRC), I would opt for the occupants of the car just about every time.

I wouldn't do so without remorse, but that's war. And that's human nature. To expect our soldiers - aware of the numerous attacks from Vehicle Borne Explosive Devices (VBEDS) at such checkpoints - to behave any other way is as unrealistic as it is dangerous for them. Our soldiers deserve the benefit of the doubt in such matters.

These inescapable tragedies are yet one more argument against the casual use of military force - almost whimsical in the case of the Iraq invasion. Rather than thrust our soldiers into settings in which they are forced to make the right decision in a split second, with lives on the line, then blaming them for failing to achieve perfection, we would be better off saving them for all but the most exigent circumstances. Such a policy of circumspection would be better for them, as well as those unlucky enough to find themselves in the war zone.

The reality of war is not as neat and tidy, nor the moral decisions as easy and unambiguous, as Hollywood, the pundit class hagiographers and assorted historians might lead us to believe. You won't find those that want to extend the maelstrom of death, destruction and personal anguish to Iran describing the truth of what will come. Always in the selling of war is the soldier and the battlefield depicted in an exalted light with flowers candies and spontaneous celebrations amongst the locals for the invaders.

In reality our soldiers are left to deal with the ugly real-world version of lose-lose decisions, dead children, the mangled corpses of women and the enduring pain of knowing that he or she may be responsible for the death of innocents. Lozano is no different.

Lozano said he realizes that his chances of becoming a cop, like his younger brother, Emiliano, who is with the 41st Precinct, are over. His marriage has broken up. He's on medication that helps him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The political situation is such in Italy - and the actions of the fallen Nicola Calipari so compelling - that Lozano is facing a popular groundswell that he has little chance of turning back. Sadly, in addition to his personal torment, he may have to add a murder conviction to his resume.

But then, it's no laughing party.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The World Is Flat!

This should bring a smile to Tom Friedman's face. Robert Farley has uncovered a most interesting story of Iranians outsourcing the production of advanced IEDs (EFPs) to Iraq - after which the Iraqis, undoubtedly, ship the finished EFPs to Iran, which then brings them back to Iraq to distribute to various and sundry militant groups.

Lieutenant-Colonel Scott Bleichwehl said troops, facing scattered resistance, discovered a factory that produced “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs), a particularly deadly type of explosive that can destroy a main battle tank and several weapons caches.

I can think of no other explanation but the manufacturing-export-import schemata described above since the Bush administration and military sources have assured us that Iran is the only plausible source for EFPs in Iraq. As we know, neither the Bush administration, nor any military in a time of war really, has any history or pattern of subterfuge and mendacity.

Only unhinged liberals would doubt the obvious veracity.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

What's a Little Hostile Shiite-Controlled State Created on Your Border Between Friends?

That clever beast known as the Badger offers what is the most plausible explanation of motive for Saudi King Abdullah's recent statement that the US occupation in Iraq was "illegal":

It is true that what boiled over was the Saudi realization that their regional influence was under threat not only from Iran, but now increasingly from Iraq too. The reference to an illegitimate occupation of Iraq was really an attack on an illegitimate regime, and for Abdullah a threatening regime, in Iraq, sponsored by his supposed ally Bush. It had just recently become clear that the Allawi-American scheme for creation of an alternate, and more Sunni-friendly Green-Zone regime was being discontinued. If there was any one development that pushed Abdullah into using unexpectedly harsh language, that was probably it.

Actually, this represents a major sticking point in the efforts by the US to forge the US-Israeli-Sunni Despot alliance that I have been flogging recently - that is, that the Saudis and other Sunni regimes are concerned with Shiite ascendancy in general, whereas the US and Israeli are more focused on Iranian power more discretely.

Even an Iraq that the Bush administration would describe as a victorious end-product of democratic stability would be viewed by Abdullah - and his Sunni cohorts - as a major setback. That's quite a tension. At some point, the Bush administration might be forced to decide whether or not weakening Iran is worth throwing in its lot with the ring of Sunni despots in order to usurp the Shiite regime in Iraq.

No doubt sensing their possible "sacrifice" at the altar of countering Iran, Sistani and other Iraqi Shiite parties are circling the wagons big time. Suddenly, Sistani and Sadr are the best of friends. What a coincidence.

This story is also indicative of the larger structural imbalance to such a US-Israeli-Sunni Despot alliance: there are multifaceted conflicting interests and diverging long term goals. To such an extent that it becomes dubious whether progress is possible on any isolated fronts - especially with respect to such ambitious goals as neutralizing Iranian influence possibly through military action.

In fact, these underlying strategic fissures also provides a distinct color to the recent hoopla surrounding the possible detente vis-a-vis Syria. As Badger correctly points out, the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia aren't necessarily on the same page with respect to dealing with Assad (at least the Cheney wing of the Bush administration):

It is true that the feeling of growing threat from Iran and Iraq has changed the Saudi perspective. The Saudi regime now feels an urgent need for local allies, and given the lack of Arab leadership elsewhere (meaning Egypt), this means taking on the missing Arab-leadership role itself, and that in turn means: Promoting action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine. The Saudis are hoping not only for good PR on the Arab street, but also for an end to their feud with Bashar Assad's administration in Syria, weaning Syria away from Iran and back into the Arab fold (and similarly of course with Hamas). While it isn't clear how the proposed Palestinian negotiations will relate to the possible Syria-Israel talks on Golan and other issues, at least the Saudi-Syrian relationship is friendlier than it has recently been (the two having in effect taken opposite sides in the Israel-Hizbullah war). And this is additionally important because Syria and Saudi Arabia have been rivals for influence in Lebanon. What the Saudis are looking for is authority and problem-solving influence in all of these areas. This is not the same as "turn[ing] the region's attention to combating the threat from Iran".

Condoleezza Rice also wants action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine, so on that point Condoleezza and Abdullah are in apparent agreement. However, this is a question of incremental steps, and the first incremental step that Condoleeza is looking for is gradual de facto recognition of Israel by the Arab regimes in the region generally, so that in any eventual war with Iran, America can be seen as simultaneously on the side of its traditional Arab allies, and on the side of Israel, at the same time. That accounts for the importance of this question of Arab-Israel diplomatic recognition as a first step. The first incremental step for Abdullah is quite different: It is the closing of ranks in the Arab world including Syria and including also Hamas, in order to split both of them from their Iranian relationships and bring them back into the Arab fold. Recognition or otherwise of Israel has nothing to do with it, except in relation to a Palestinian settlement.

To put it another way: From the Saudi point of view, the role of Israel will be as interlocutor in talks aimed at peace and ending the Palestinian occupation. By contrast, from American point of view, Israel is something that needs to be grafted into the Arab world as part of an anti-Iran strategy. For the Saudis, the road will hopefully lead to stability and balance, and it starts and ends with their establishment of their own Arab leadership and influence, including in Palestine. For the Americans, the road leads to confrontation with Iran, and an important way-station is the unification of Israel with the Arab regimes in the same anti-Iran camp. These are two very unrelated, and in many ways contradictory, aims. [...]

But the point is that before you try and walk you should put the shoe on your other foot too. Given the stick-figure approach by the US administration and the media, it is to be expected that public opinion in America will now oscillate between thinking the Saudis are really Bush-allies in his anti-Iran strategy, and the opposite view, namely that they are Bush-opponents in their Palestine strategy and their overtures to the diabolical Hamas and Assad. They are what they are, and the problem for institutional America is that there isn't the cultural or linguistic underpinning to understand, not only what they are, but even (it sometimes seems) that there is such a thing as fully human aspirations and motivations in other cultures, at least not in a depth that would be able to withstand the cartoon-oriented propaganda. And the more the shock-a-minute thriller narrative takes hold, the less it seems to matter, and the more it actually does matter. Because the thinness of understanding creates volatility in public opinion just the same as thin markets foster volatility in financial trading markets, and it is a far more dangerous thing, because central banks cannot clean up after violence.

And to think, we're relying on one of the most incompetent foreign policy teams in American history to try to navigate those choppy waters. That should turn out well. Actually, it already has.

I Can't Drive 55 5

About a two and a half months ago, one of my closest friends C---- (who I've known since we were about 10 years old) went back to Iraq for his second deployment. This one is supposed to last 12 months. Fortunately, he has relatively frequent access to the Internet and his email account so we've been able to stay in touch.

Actually, one of the great reliefs in my week is when I see an email from C---- in my inbox. It lets me know he's still alive and healthy, and after I finish reading, that his sense of humor remains intact. That's because most of his dispatches contain an account of some comical episode - like the first time he discharged his weapon this deployment (he fired in the air in order to dissuade and overly aggressive camel charging in his direction - don't think they covered that in basic).

Despite the fact that his life is in very real danger on a daily basis, I worry almost as much about his mental health as his physical well being because I've spoken to (and heard from) enough soldiers that have returned from Iraq to know how hard a time most have in re-adjusting.

So, for me, each joke makes me smile a little wider than I probably should. It doesn't hurt that I can hear his infectious laugh as I'm reading. Anyway, here is the latest (re-printed with permission):
Now for the funny moment of the month. You're going to need a little background info first. We mostly ride around in our gun trucks (up-armored humvees) all day, and these trucks have internal intercoms (head sets) that we use to talk to each other over the noise of the engine and guns. 65% of that talk is trying to get each other to laugh.

The other thing that you need to know is that on Post (Base) they have a thousand different safety rules that no one pays any attention to. The main rule is no speeding - the speed limit is 5mph which of course we have never followed. We don't tend to observe the speed laws because when we get back from patrol everyone is really tired and mostly just want to refuel the trucks and get to our CP (Command Post, HQ).

So the other day after we had been out for almost 36 hours straight, and upon returning and refueling the truck, we get to our CP and there is our Captain standing in front of the building with some other pretty high ranking officers. We get out of the trucks and they call us to attention. Everyone was a bit concerned, and our heads were still ringing from the headsets and the prolonged outing. You have to realize that when you wear those headsets you tend to talk really loud for about fifteen minutes after taking them off.

A full bird Colonel (very high ranking officer) comes storming over to us and says, "Are these the Troops that went speeding past me 15 minutes ago?" I'm standing in the back of everyone and say in a voice I think only the two guys next to me can hear, "Is this the man who RUINED the buffet?" (which is a line from Beverly hills cop). [ed note: also kind of an inside joke for us, so it may seem funnier to those involved]

But of course I said it in a big booming man voice and everyone starts laughing because they have heard me say that a hundred times over the intercom. Even my Captain was holding back a smile since he's heard me say that when he comes with us on patrol. Now the Colonel has no idea what I meant by that and gets really pissed and starts screaming at us so I jump out in front of everyone and say, "It's my fault" and, "I'm the one who should be yelled at." The Colonel just stares at me and I'm thinking this is it, I'm going to be busted down to Private and spend the rest of this deployment trying to get my rank back. So after about twenty seconds of the Colonel looking me up and down he says, "SLOW THE F@#K DOWN" - and that was it. It turns out that it was the Colonel's last day here and he was returning to the States the next morning so there was nothing he could really do.

So props to B---- and N--- for getting that line stuck in my head and almost getting me busted to Private!
Though he didn't admit it, I'm sure C---- is responsible, in no small part, for the speeding incident that got his boys in trouble as well. He's easily the craziest driver that I've ever had the hair-raising, near-death pleasure of riding with. It was not an uncommon occurrence to go up on two wheels in his jeep, or share paint with some overly cautious Sunday driver. But that was mostly in our younger days (mostly).

The thing is, though, that despite his wild ways (and he has calmed down a lot since our adolescence), he's also the best driver I know in terms of actual skill. He's never gotten into an accident. Not one. Yet I've seen his reflexes and instinct avoid potential mash ups caused by an unanticipated occurrence on the road. His ability to consistently and effortlessly defy the odds and cheat death earned him the well-deserved nickname Longshot.

For this reason, I told him before he left to take the wheel of the hummer whenever he could. I figured he'd have a better job of keeping his mates safe. The downside: some of the commanders might not appreciate his need for speed.

Stay safe C----, and godspeed.

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