Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Marionettes on Weakening Cables

Evidence is mounting that Moqtada al-Sadr is losing his grip on certain factions within his rather sizable Mahdi Army militia. As I posted last month, there have been reports of splinter groups turning away from Sadr's leadership due to his increasing moderation - perhaps the result of his official political role (though this does call into question competing definitions of "moderation"). Still, it seems that at least for some, Sadr just isn't hardcore enough anymore.

By some accounts, these splinter groups are under greater influence from Iran, and are prone to engage in criminal activities, as well as other more confrontational engagements. This view is held by Nibras Kazimi, who also has a name(s) for these renegade elements:

The “Mahdists” are the part of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army that no longer listens to him. They are infiltrated and run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. They are also responsible for the vast proportion of the reprisal killings conducted against Sunnis, as well as the recurrent confrontations with Coalition troops. The “Mahdists” call themselves the mummehidoon, literally “those preparing for the advent of the Mahdi,” or the equivalent of the Messiah is Shi'a Islam.

There is also speculation that these factions were responsible for the recent outbreak of violence in Amara between putative Mahdi Army members, and those of SCIRI's Badr Corp militia. In support of this theory, it is noted that Moqtada himself was pleading for calm and a cessation of violence from the onset of the fighting. His instructions, though, were not heeded with any type of urgency or discipline - fueling speculation of his deteriorating command structure.

Despite the damning nature of these appearances, the possibility that Sadr is creating distance between himself and the actions of a select cadre of fighters in order to maintain plausible deniability for their extreme actions cannot be dismissed out of hand. It would be convenient, after all, for him to have such a rogue group, whose thuggish actions would not be laid at his doorstep, but who could do the dirty work that someone in his position might require.

As usual, the intrigue in Iraq is as opaque as a tar pit.

In related news, according to Juan Cole, US forces seem to believe that one such disloyal Mahdi Army unit is responsible for the recent kidnapping of a US soldier in Baghdad:

Apparently [US forces] believe that a unit of the Mahdi Army kidnapped a GI, for whom they are conducting a manhunt. The US is seeking rogue guerrilla commander Abu Deraa, who has broken with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Nevertheless, the response has been of a wide-netted variety, not narrowly targeted at marginal players. In order to aid the hunt for the missing soldier (Ahmed Qusay Al-Ta’i) US military personnel set up roadblocks, barriers and check points around Sadr City, and proceeded to conduct searches of the inhabitants and their domiciles. This large scale operation would seem to be, at least in some ways, inconsistent with the view that the kidnapping was the action of a small fringe group. Then again, assuming adherence to counterinsurgency best practices as a premise is a risky endeavor.

In response to this self-described "siege," Sadr and his constituents have reacted strongly with threats of protests, strikes and worse. On the other hand, Sadr doesn't appear compelled to move against the supposed rogue factions responsible for the kidnapping (possibly out of fear of losing more street cred. if he were to appear to cave in to American interests in turning over "good" Shiites, or because he is not as removed from the underlying action as some would claim).

Prime Minister Maliki has responded to the objections of his powerful coaltion partner by calling on US forces to abandon their Sadr City-based cordon-and-search efforts. US forces have complied. This, once again, highlights the almost impossible task that both US forces, and Maliki's government, face in confronting and disbanding the militias. Whether or not Maliki would prefer to do away with the Mahdi Army, his latitude to act is severely constrained by the political exigencies of maintaining the cohesiveness of the UIA coalition (as well as the fear of the sheer number of committed Sadr supporters that might cause unrest in the wake of such provocative acts). US forces are in a similar quandry, with a democratically elected Iraqi government giving out orders based on its own internal concerns, and US troops stretched thin trying to keep down the Sunni-based insurgencies.

There are compelling arguments both ways about Maliki's intentions vis-a-vis Sadr and the Mahdi Army, yet I have recently been speculating that Maliki (and Dawa) and SCIRI have been feeling a little uncomfortable with the popularity of their feisty coalition partner and have been taking some subtle steps toward containing him. Clearly, the US favors this route. While Maliki would best be served by concealing - to the extent possible - his role in attempting to move against Sadr, his act has appeared, shall we say, a little too believable lately. Again, a confounding situation.

Either way, the potential for greater intra-Shiite fighting, and/or more battles between the Mahdi Army and US forces, remains a distinct possibility - whether those elements of the Mahdi Army are under Sadr's direct control or not. The lawlessness remains, and the competition for territory and resources is heating up regardless. In such a setting, power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Even one hidden in your pocket.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A Hungry Mob is a Angry Mob

Despite some of the weaknesses in the Fareed Zakaria article that "lazy" Blake linked to on Sunday (discussed in this thread), there was also a good deal of worthwhile information and strategic thinking to pick through. There was one fact in particular that I wanted to highlight. While I knew that rampant unemployment has been an issue that has plagued Iraq since the invasion, I didn't know that the problem had reached these levels [emphasis added]:

The most revealing statistic about Iraq is not the spiraling death toll but the unemployment rate, which is conservatively estimated to be around 30 to 40 percent, and has not moved much in the past two years. Given that conditions are almost normal in the Kurdish north, that means the rest of the country has an unemployment rate closer to 50 percent. Whatever we have been doing in Iraq, it is not translating into peace, normalcy and jobs. In parts of the Sunni Triangle, reports suggest that unemployment is more than 70 percent. If you think that Iraq's tumult is a product of its culture, religion and history, ask yourself what the United States would look like after three years of 50 percent unemployment. Would there not be civil strife in Manhattan, Detroit, Los Angeles and New Orleans?

70 percent unemployment in certain Sunni areas is just mind boggling. 50 percent in non-Kurdish Iraq ain't exactly encouraging either. Makes you wonder about the decision to pursue the de-Baathification policy right down to the lower levels - not to mention the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

On the other hand, Bush said we're winning so it's hard to say.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ledeen In favor of Military Confrontation With Iran and Syria

1. "But one thing I do know: I would insist that my soldiers have the right of "hot pursuit" into Iran and Syria, and I would order my armed forces to attack the terrorist training camps in those countries. And I'm quite sure I'd go after the terrorist training camps in Pakistan, too. It seems the leader of the cell planning to blow up tunnels between New Jersey and Manhattan was headed for such a facility.

We can't have that.

[me: okay, so that was not an endorsement of attacking Iran, Syria and Pakistan?]

2. "It was depressing to read Thursday night's press conference with Steve Hadley and Condi Rice, because it was almost all about process, and not about war....

There are harsh parameters on this moment, which is an opportunity waiting to be seized. In another week or so the "international community" (the appeasers and "stability" mavens) will force Israel to stop....

But we have not heard anything about "seizing the moment." We hear lawyer talk and diplotalk, surrender talk and appeasement talk, and there is no action whatsoever. Is this not the time to go after the terrorist training camps in Syria and Iran? What in the world are we waiting for?

And finally, if we dither through this one, the next one will be worse. Maybe much worse. It's not going away. Stability is a mirage. Chamberlain had a choice between dishonor and war. He chose dishonor and got war anyway. You too, Mr. President. It's the way it works."

[me: okay, so that was not an endorsement of attacking Iran and Syria?]

3. "We need to sustain our game face, we must keep our fangs bared, we must remind them daily that we Americans are in a rage, and we will not rest until we have avenged our dead, we will not be sated until we have had the blood of every miserable little tyrant in the Middle East, until every leader of every cell of the terror network is dead or locked securely away, and every last drooling anti-Semitic and anti-American mullah, imam, sheikh, and ayatollah is either singing the praises of the United States of America, or pumping gasoline, for a dime a gallon, on an American military base near the Arctic Circle.

If we send in the United Nations, and turn over the construction of civil society to the NGOs, we're losers. Remember what the greatest generation of Americans did at the end of World War II: we occupied the enemy countries, and we imposed democracy on them, to their and our enduring benefit....

Don't kid yourself. We can still blow this thing, big-time. Every few days we show alarming signs of being "reasonable," and "evenhanded," apparently because somebody forgot that that's what got us into this mess in the first place. We must be imperious, ruthless, and relentless. No compromise with evil; we want total surrender. Once the ink's dry on the surrender documents, then we can start thinking about the best way to build theme parks in underground-tunnel networks.

Back at the beginning of our war, when I insisted that this was going to be a vast revolutionary war, and that we would transform the entire Middle East, few were inclined to agree. Now it is just barely over the horizon, but the tyrants, who are always looking as far ahead as they can, can already see it, and they are very frightened. The latest word from Tehran is that the mullahs are afraid that they will have the same destiny as the Taliban.

And why not? They even look the same.

[me: hmmm, sure sounded like a call to action. What was the fate of the Taliban again? Tehran should get what treatment in kind?]

4. "Despite all the easy talk about a new kind of terrorism, and a new kind of war, the models for what we have experienced and what we must do are quite old. The terrorists adopted the methods of the 1940s — kamikazes — with a bit of 1950s brainwashing added to produce a number of Manchurian Candidates. We dealt with the original kamikazes by improving our defenses so as to kill them before they hit us, and by destroying the country that launched them. We have to do that again.

Unless you have been gulled by the leaks from the misnamed intelligence community, you know that the terrorists represent the long arm of evil regimes. We therefore have a dual task: Kill the terrorists, and destroy the regimes that provide them with the critical infrastructure — training, safe havens, travel documents, technology, and all the rest — they need to operate."

5. 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.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Enter the Rummy

Greenboy over at Needlenose has put together a montage highlighting Donald Rumsfeld's impressive kung-fu acumen.

Jackie Chan? Bruce Lee? Jet Li? Amateurs. Rank amateurs. Rummy would shred 'em. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a known known.

Come to think of it, instead of sending 500,000 more troops to Iraq, I say we send Rummy with a pair of nunchucks. Game over man. Game over.

[while you couldn't see it, my mouth was moving out of synch with the text of this post, in a poorly dubbed voiceover]

On Force, Clarity and the Cleanliness of Breaks

I've had a peculiar thought concerning the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict kicking around in my head for the past couple of months, but I haven't quite felt the time was right to put that thought to paper (ether?). This, despite receiving ample inspiration from this Greg Djerejian post, and this thought provoking article by friend-of-TIA Ronald Bruce St John.

For one, wading into the mire of these emotionally charged waters is normally a risky endeavor. The backlash from each side can, at times, be furious and unrelenting - with reasonable debate drowned out by so much ad hominem and other baseless accusations. The risks associated with such a rhetorical foray are not lessened by the controversial nature of the thesis I am about to propose. Nevertheless, this article in Foreign Affairs by Edward Djerejian (evidence of apples and their proximity to trees) has sufficiently motivated me to throw my hat into the lion's den.

First, though, some background via a passage in Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine (pp. 104-105):

...it became clear at the start of 2001 that [the Bush] administration was to alter the long-standing U.S. role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to something less than that. The President, in fact, had said in the first NSC principals meeting of his administration that Clinton had overreached at the end of his second term, bending too much toward Yasser Arafat -- who then broke off productive Camp David negotiations at the final moment -- and that "We're going to tilt back ward Israel." Powell, a chair away in the Situation Room that day, said such a move would reverse thirty years of U.S. policy, and that it could unleash the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli army in ways that could be dire for the Palestinians. Bush's response: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." [emphasis mine throughout]
While I strongly disagree with the strategic tack taken by the Bush administration during this period, in a sense, Bush is right about the effect that the use of force can have on the ambiguities and open questions associated with a given conflict. Of course, as Iraq has proven, sometimes it's better not to "clarify" certain "things" - such as the limits of our military and nation building capacity.

As I wrote at the time, Israel, in many ways, imitated this form of self-inflicted wound by "clarifying" its own weaknesses through its rash engagement with Lebanon in the waning months of this past summer. But here's the interesting - and controversial - part: did the bloody nose suffered by Israel's military forces actually create a situation in which forging a lasting peace in the region is more, not less, possible? In that sense, could Israel's putative "loss" end up being its long term "gain"? While this ostensible praise of Israel's military frustration may seem blasphemous to ardent supporters of Israel, allow me to explain. Actually, allow the elder Djerejian:

The recent fighting in the Levant presents a fundamental challenge for U.S. policy toward the Middle East -- but also an opportunity to move from conflict management to conflict resolution. The United States should seize this moment to transform the cease-fire in the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict into a step toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Doing so would facilitate the marginalization of the forces of Islamic radicalism and enhance the prospects for regional security and political, economic, and social progress.

The Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation has further proved what should already have been painfully clear to all: there is no viable military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even with its military superiority, Israel cannot achieve security by force alone or by unilateral withdrawal from occupied territories. Nor can Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and similar groups destroy Israel. Peace can come only from negotiated agreements that bind both sides.
I think that to a large extent, the Likud and other hawkish factions in Israel have taken their nation's military superiority as a given. This has led to, in my opinion, some lazy thinking, short-sighted policies and general over-reaching. The incentives have been skewed. Similar to the Bush administration's own approach to conflict resolution (or lack thereof!), some influential leaders in Israel have seemed to prefer sabotaging efforts to bring peaceful settlement (see, ie, manner of Gaza withdrawal), in an effort to make the most bellicose courses of action inevitable. The underlying assumption behind these parellel strategic maneuvers being the belief that, when the military conflict is made irresistible, Israel (or America in the case of the Bush administration) could simply assert its will, militarily, on its stubborn adversaries. No compromise necessary. No giveaways at the negotiation table. Clean, tidy and satisfying in the extreme.

Just as the invasion of Iraq has forced some in the Bush administration to reconsider the viability of a World War IV-like series of invasions in Syria, Iran and elsewhere (as advocated by most in the pathologically bellicose neoconservative camp), perhaps the recent display of force in Lebanon also "clarified" the viability of certain strategies for Israel's body politic.

Don't get me wrong, I am obviously not hoping for a tilt in the balance of military power such that Israel comes under an imminent existential threat through the mobilization of neighboring armies. We should be willing to intervene, with gusto, should this eventuality come about. But, like Edward Djerejian, I don't see that eventuality anywhere on the horizon. Yet I acknowledge that Hezbollah and others might read too much into that group's ability to conduct a successful defensive action against the IDF, such that they begin to adopt their own version of hubristic of over-reach.

Nevertheless, I am suggesting that a dynamic of acknowledged military stalemate might create a sense of urgency to revisit alternative political solutions that, ultimately, offer the only realistic route to peaceful co-existence. For the particulars of such solutions, I recommend the Djerejian and St John pieces linked-to above.

Any such political outreach will, ultimately, require that the Palestinian leadership recognize and take advantage of the openings that might present themselves. And that is far from a certainty - or even likelihood. Still, the ability of the Palestinian leadership to function properly might be aided, in part, by strategies designed to buttress such ability, and bolster their control, rather than to sow chaos in hopes that they fail - thus requiring the faux "solution" of military engagement.

I get the impression that Israel's lack of total military dominance in the region might just trigger a series of events that leads us down the right path. At the very least, it should tone down the influence of the excessively hawkish Israeli political factions. Much as our own misguided ubder-hawks have been marginalized - relegated to spin their wheels in frustation within the quarantined echo chambers of the AEI and the Weekly Standard.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

In Need of a Lifeline

Today, ExxonMobil released some very bad news, via Steve Hargreaves at CNN Money:

ExxonMobil, navigating declining oil prices and higher production costs industry-wide, managed to post the second highest quarterly profit of all time, dazzling investors and sending the stock to a record high.

Exxon, the world's largest publicly traded oil company and its biggest corporation by revenue, said it made $10.5 billion in the third quarter, or $1.77 per share on revenue of $99.6 billion. It was a 26 percent increase in earnings for the company.

"They make more in one quarter than some companies that get more headlines have in market cap," said Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Oppenheimer. "I have been watching it for 20 years and it never fails to amaze me."
Some, desperate to spin these non-record setting, soaring profits as good news, might cling to the fact that Exxon's earnings exceeded expectations by almost twenty cents a share. However,I think we should all come to grips with the fact that ExxonMobil did not, I repeat DID NOT, set the all time record for earnings in a quarter. Hargreaves has the courage to tell the unvarnished truth, in all its ugliness:

Exxon's earnings did not top its best quarter ever, which came at the end of 2005. Exxon made $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2005, the most ever for any U.S. corporation.
I think I speak for most Americans when I say: this regression will not stand. No, my fellow citizens, ExxonMobil and its shareholders are in need of a massive relief effort - and not some half-hearted gulf coast renewal sop, mind you. No, we need to mobilize the vast wealth of this nation to rectify this wrong. I'm talking even more tax cuts - prodigious in size, scope and duration - established in order to insure that ExxonMobil, and other struggling oil companies, can continue to break earnings records in perpetuity.

I expect the usual suspects to complain: those lazy, avaricious middle class Americans, medicare devotees and seniors looking for a free handout from the Social Security system. They will argue that their entitlements are more important than saving our oil industry leaders from certain financial mild disappointment ruin. They will tug on our heartstrings, play on our fears - appeal to "reason." They will wage - gasp! - class warfare. But, as followers of Jesus Christ, we must resist these urges to interrupt God's intended distribution of capital.

Besides, what are they complaining about anyway? Last time I checked, the economy has been growing like gangbusters. Even crypto-communist Kevin Drum agrees, calling it "five years of economic expansion." Egg-on-his-face Drum has more:

...here's a nice graphic that explains why most people aren't very impressed by the past five years of economic expansion. It's because they're not seeing it themselves:

Through September, the growth in hourly wages was flat or negative for 27 of the previous 29 months, according to Labor Department data....Workers are barely keeping up. Health care, wages and energy prices are consumers' top three economic concerns, according to a Gallup poll in September.

"That has to do with things like stagnant wages, fears of jobs being outsourced, income security. These are on people's minds, particularly in lower- and middle-income areas," said Dennis Jacobe, chief economist in Charlotte, N.C., for Gallup.

"I think it's quite clear to people that their paychecks are being squeezed when they try to meet their family budgets," said Jared Bernstein, the chief economist for the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "There's a disconnect between overall economic performance and paychecks of working families."
So in this contentious election season, with the day of reckoning fast approaching, I beseech you, ladies and gentlemen ,to call on your representatives, Senators, members of Congress and candidates alike, and tell them where your priorities are. Tell them to resist the urge to respond to the bellyaching of so-called middle class Americans. Instead, tie a money green ribbon around your tree, and join me in my crusade to:

Save ExxonMobil!!!

(the embarrassment of not breaking earnings records every quarter)

Sorry Farley

It is really quite rare that I disagree with Robert Farley. He is as easy to read as he is insightful, and in my opinion TAPPED made another fine choice in bringing him on. Today, however, marks one of the rare points of departure between me and Blake's TAPPED mate. In this post, Farley takes aim at a snippet of speech from President Bush (usually an exercise in dispatching fish crowded in a barrel via some manner of firearm), but I think he might have missed the mark somewhat and been too uncharitable to Bush's argument (did I just type that?). Said Farley:

A SLIP? Which of these are actually bad, and which are bad merely for the Republican Party?

Other developments were not encouraging, such as the bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad, the fact that we did not find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the continued loss of some of America's finest sons and daughters.

As Rodger Payne notes, the failure to find stockpiles of WMD is actually a good thing, given that it means Iraq didn't have any WMD, and that a strategy of diplomatic and military containment can be wildly successful against rogue regimes.

First things first: Payne and Farley are right to note that not finding WMD had a tangible upside. Not only did it relieve anxiety over Saddam's destructive arsenal - and its potential use on our soldiers, or elsewhere - but it also, as Payne argued, offered evidence that policies of containment through inspections/sanctions could be "wildly successful." That's good to know. Further, and perhaps relatedly, the discovery of this colossal blunder undercut the likelihood of launching subsequent disastrous wars of transformation in the Muslim world. This is an unequivocal positive, despite the crestfallen Lawrence Kaplan.

But there was a down side - and not exclusively for the Republican Party. The failure to find WMD in Iraq has greatly tarnished our credibility on all matters of intelligence. This has hurt our ability to muster robust support for certain other non-proliferation strategies - as well as a host of other efforts in the GWOT. Credibility in intelligence matters is a valuable asset squandered at one's peril (leaving aside questions of culpability in squandering such assets).

Further, and perhaps more importantly, the failure to find WMD led to an avalanche of cynicism, suspicion and mistrust about our actual motives for invading Iraq in the first place. This 'revelation,' as it were, has fueled the fires of anti-Americanism which has strengthened the hand of al-Qaeda and others that would commit violence in the name of Islam, while at the same time weakening our position in Iraq itself, and the Muslim world more generally speaking. The mission to win over moderate Muslims, and lessen the intensity of anger within the hostile factions, suffered a significant setback as this story unfolded to our detriment.

In this sense, the failure to find WMD has made our mission in Iraq, and beyond, more problematic. We have incurred real costs as a result, both on the ground in Iraq and throughout the rest of the world, in the form of increased resistance, a greater reluctance to cooperate with our lead on sensitive matters and greater doubt about our intentions as the world's lone hegemon.

This will negatively affect Republicans and Democrats alike for years to come. Of course, in my opinion, these costs provide yet another a powerful argument against exaggerating, fabricating and hyping intelligence and/or launching wars using justifications that do not tell the complete, or accurate, story of the real casus belli lurking beneath. But that is another story.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Last Throes?

Nibras Kazimi is more optimistic than your average American - or American general - about the state of affairs in Iraq. In a column entitled, Iraq is Succeeding, Kazimi makes the case that the insurgencies in Iraq are in their, for lack of better phrase, last throes. To Kazimi's eyes, we have "turned" a "corner."

If pressed to the wall to give a verdict on Iraq, I'd say that Iraq is succeeding. A strategic corner in the counterinsurgency campaign has already been turned, but the tangible results will take longer to register in the public mind.

To support this bold - some could argue, counterfactual, claim - Kazimi relies on information he has gleaned from the elite echelons of the Iraqi insurgencies. A group he terms the "brain trust":

The insurgents are negotiating: They are knocking at the gates, hoping to be let in before it is too late. Hence, the spike in violence and the last big push before bringing the cowed Americans to the negotiating table at their most politically vulnerable.

The insurgency is confronting its limits. It is finding that replenishing expertise, personnel, and the treasury is getting harder and harder. They are also finding that the Iraqi state and the Americans are getting better at fighting them through enhanced intelligence and an increased sense of confidence. Not surprisingly, the most recent insurgent offensive aimed to hold down territory, but was beaten back all over Iraq, most notably in Mosul.

While Kazimi remains bullish about the trajectory of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, he does acknowledge that American military spokesmen are spinning the situation. Only, instead of hyping non-existent victories, or attempting to smooth over rough patches with soft-deception, Kazimi claims that the American military is spinning its successes as failures. For what reason, I cannot fathom. Said Kazimi in a separate piece [emphasis in the original throughout]:

The comments made yesterday by Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell about the relative slow-down in Operation Forward Together are very surprising to me....Contrary to Caldwell’s assessment, things are going moderately well.

Well, at least that's more grounded in fact than "remarkably well." Getting back to the evidence of the waning prospects of the insurgencies, Kazimi considers the recent surge in violence to be indicative of their weakening position and desire to create conditions conducive to their extracting beneficial terms in impending negotiations. While I don't doubt that insurgent groups would try to turn up the heat heading into negotiations as a ploy to make their position stronger at the table, I don't know that this is necessarily proof of the dire state of the insurgencies in Iraq. The two are not inextricably linked.

Further, not only have we heard that the insurgencies are in their last throes many times in the past (periodically, it seems, from our truth-challenged Vice President), but proponents of this happy talk have also relied on worsening violence as evidence of the insurgencies' imminent demise (See, ie, here and here). This does not prove that Kazimi's rosy predictions are wrong, however, just that we must remain properly skeptical.

Regardless, the willingness of insurgent groups to negotiate (and US officials to reciprocate) is a positive sign - no matter the cause. Other potentially promising news:

The insurgents are also fragmenting, as mainstream Baathists and sectarian Sunnis find that the agendas harbored by their fringes, such as bringing back the Saddam regime or declaring an Islamic state, are unrealistic bargaining positions. These are bad times for the insurgency. But they are benefiting for the time being from the chaotic conditions created by the followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who continue to undermine law and order in Iraq....Once these Shiite militias are confronted and broken up, the larger insurgency will find it harder and harder to breathe.

Again, fragmentation is a good sign, and I have long advocated creating political conditions that would facilitate marginalizing the more intractable strains of the Sunni insurgencies, but the last sentence in this paragraph serves as a bitter reminder of how far off the realization of those goals may be. If we have to wait until the "Shiite militias are confronted and broken up" for the larger insurgencies to be dealt with, then we might just be waiting for Godot. Let's hope I am wrong, and that Maliki is on the verge of breaking up the Shiite militias. But I wouldn't want to make plans based on the likelihood of that happening any time soon.

There was one other topic that I wanted to discuss while I'm still dallying at the Talisman Gate: the issue of amnesty for insurgents in Iraq. Kazimi said this of the infamous sniper, "Juba," featured in the insurgent videos recently aired on CNN:

Many policy experts are advocating a general amnesty for all insurgents minus Al-Qaeda. But that would also include “Juba.” It means that he would be off the hook, even after claiming responsibility for killing 668 American soldiers and wounding another 206, over the course of a single year.

I wonder how American families who've lost soldiers in Iraq through Juba’s crosshairs would feel about that.

And this in the context of the alleged negotiations between US officials and insurgent leaders in Amman, Jordan:

In the past few days, there have been press reports claiming that this “brain” is currently holding talks with the Americans in Amman, under the auspices of Jordan’s CIA-trained mukhaberat, the Jordanian Intelligence Directorate. I don’t think these negotiations will go very far: the American public will not stomach a peace treaty with those who have American blood on their hands.

My own thoughts on this matter are that, while it is entirely understandable that the families of slain soldiers might react with outrage at the thought of giving amnesty to insurgents that have killed American soldiers, there may be no better way to neutralize the insurgent threat. There are larger issues at play than the righteous anger, and heart-felt grief, of the bereaved.

Not only is it generally bad policy to allow small, narrowly focused groups to dictate larger foreign policy strategy for sentimental (even justifiable) reasons (see, ie, US policy vis-a-vis Cuba), but one could easily make a compelling moral case in reverse: while the grief of the family members is legitimate and should be met with sympathetic ears, what about the families that would lose loved ones in the future if the insurgencies are not effectively curtailed sooner?

How else do you convince the insurgents to give up their arms and forswear continued fighting if you don't offer amnesty? They aren't going to surrender, en masse, in the knowledge that they will be prosecuted and subsequently imprisoned or executed. Just as one must negotiate with enemies in order to resolve differences (see, ie, Syria and Iran), so too must amnesty be offered to the actual combatants in a conflict if you want those same combatants to cease...being combatants.

The only other alternatives are to keep fighting until we annihilate the insurgencies (any day now, right?), or narrowly tailor amnesty offers to only those insurgents that have exclusively targeted Iraqis (our regard for Iraqi lives shining through). But this group would be small, and thus, such selective amnesty would not represent a realistic means to fragment, splinter and otherwise de-fang the larger Sunni-based insurgencies. Even if it feels better on the surface.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Paranoid Android

Poor Ralph Peters. He's trying to get some rest, but can't stop the noise from all the Iraqi voices in his head. So, in an understandably disturbed state, he reaches out for old faithful: blame the liberals. And the Left. And the media. And, all manner of other bogeyman.

This session of Ralph's therapy-as-public-column features him wrestling with the familiar demons of cognitive dissonance - as that neurosis is fueled by scenes of the noble Iraq mission collapsing into a conflagration of blood and fire so horrid it makes Hieronymous Bosch look like Norman Rockwell. As usual with Ralph, old habits die hard. From the man who brought us, 'Dude, Where's My Civil War,' and the Cheney-esque, 'Dude, Still No Civil War,' we get the three-quel:

There is no civil war - civil war would be easier to deal with. What we see in the streets is the rule of the gunmen.

I don't think he'll ever concede that point. Much of the rest of the article follows along the trajectory of Peters' prior column - which can, at best, be summed up as a lament that we did not employ enough of Saddam's brutal, "savage" playbook in our invasion and occupation. We are losing because we are not sufficiently bloodthirsty. This installment, however, leans heavily on the "blame the left" meme. Ralph, it seems, is beginning to flail:

...But the get-Bush-at-any-cost Americans who encouraged our enemies will have the blood of countless innocent Iraqis on their hands.

The left may get its wish: Iraq may fail. Well, congratulations. The men to whom you yearn to give Iraq will make Pol Pot look like Mr. Rogers.

Yes, that has been my wish all along. And my constant Bush-bashing has given the Shiite death squads all the cover they have needed. If it wasn't for my critiques, al-Qaeda would likely have folded shop and gone home long ago. Don't even get me started on the reliance Sunni insurgent groups have on Ansar-al American Footprints for inspiration. Although I think the Armchair Generalist probably gave Peters' arguments all the attention they deserve (and more), there is one item that I wanted to address because I've seen it reappearing as a serial offender in Peters' columns.

Now that many of the Iraq war's supporters (most?) are beginning to concede that more troops were needed to stabilize Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, it is interesting to see those same war supporters cast about for a suitable target to blame this strategic lapse on. Instead of fixing their sites on Paul Wolfowitz (who famously ridiculed General Eric Shinseki's call for more troops pre-invasion), or Wolfowitz's boss Donald Rumsfeld (who repeatedly tried to whittle the number of troops down to even smaller numbers than eventually employed over the objections of his top generals), or better yet, the Commander in Chief himself, President Bush, Ralph Peters actually blames the Left and other forces of political correctness. In his penultimate piece, Peters says this of the politically correct, leftist view of war fighting:

Should we have sent fewer troops to Iraq, where inadequate numbers crippled everything we attempted?

In his most recent work, while lamenting our liberal desire to fight wars gently, Peters muses:

Imagine how different the situation would be had...we occupied the Sunni Triangle with sufficient numbers of troops...

Yeah. Imagine. If only Nancy Pelosi and MoveOn.org hadn't prevented Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush from sending in the hundreds of thousands of troops that they wanted to send in, things might have turned out better. I imagine it's also the fault of the liberals and the PC crowd that we don't have enough troops in Afghanistan now as well. Damn you Pelosi!

Monday, October 23, 2006

It Comes In Threes...

While it can, at times, require one to concoct elaborate rationalizations just to mute the cacophony of cognitive dissonance, the effort expended in preserving illusions of belief, and concealing errors in judgment, can seem an acceptable price to pay when considering the unsavory alternative: actually admitting one's error. Owning up to mistakes is, undoubtedly, a painful process that hauntingly reverberates in ones consciousness and memory. But there is value in going through these ordeals: such introspective reckoning signifies the attainment of a certain level of maturity, integrity and wisdom. That is growth.

That being said, human beings have never shown a particular penchant for delaying gratification, or eagerly embracing the hard work and toil required for personal growth. The reluctance to admit fallibility is not a quirk unique to our current President - even if he has taken this trait to ridiculous extremes. As an alternative to acknowledging the consequences of our actions, we tend to reach for the analgesic properties locked away in narratives of victimization, blame of the other and a general deflection of responsibility.

Considering this facet of human nature against the backdrop of the tragically deteriorating situation in Iraq, it should come as no surprise to see a caravan of excuses and explanations emigrating, head to tail, from the deserts of Mesopotamia. Each camel-borne parcel an elixir - every argument a salve - designed to ease the psychological burden plaguing the advocates of a policy that has resulted in staggering carnage at mind-boggling costs (already).

To my eye, there have been three narratives that have emerged, thus far, which have resonated most profoundly with those seeking relief from the symptoms of dissonance without having to undertake the messy work of addressing the pathology. There are three exotic storylines that are all the rage in the bazaar, and as if by some cosmic force of kizmet, our own Ralph Peters has been kind enough to collect all three under his merchant's tent:

First, there is the blame the media/liberals model. According to this often contradictory storyline, things aren't as bad in Iraq as the media/liberals claim, and though they are actually as bad as advertised, they wouldn't be had the media/liberals not been exaggerating/reporting the negative stories from the beginning. If not for Nancy Pelosi and the New York Times, none of the insurgencies would have emerged, nor civil wars erupted. Even if they had, we would have beaten the insurgents and sectarian warriors back with the omnipotent sound of our nation's applause in unison. We have been stabbed in the back by the traitors within.

Second, and picking up steam as of late, is the blame the Iraqis brand rationalization. The marketing campaign claims that the Iraqi people are too petulant, violent, rapacious, vindictive and inherently uncivilized to accept the gift of 'shock and awe' liberation that George Bush magnanimously imposed on them. If only Iraqis were more appreciative of Bush's invasion, they might have the decency to get in line as the supply side embracing, pro-US/Israel ally we expect and deserve. Our noble effort, and its humble messenger, have been betrayed. This product fits well, is multi-purposed (can be used to sell the next war of "necessity," if not liberation, given the inherent Muslim/Arab nature), and it is augmented by feelings of superiority/exceptionalism and highlights of religious and ethnic discrimination.

Third, and perhaps the trendiest this season, is the story that our defeat in Iraq is the result of our excessive kindness - our shock and awe just wasn't awful enough. In our effort to liberate Iraqis from the tyranny and brutality of Saddam, we failed because our tactics did not sufficiently resemble...the tyrannical brutality of Saddam.

Melanie Morgan donned this latest fashion in an appearance with Chris Matthews recently [emphasis mine]:

Look, I’m not a cheerleader for the President of the United States. Um, I...I believe that he made the right decision and he did it for the right reasons. I don’t agree with all of the way the war has been prosecuted. I think we should have gone in and just blitzed Iraq. We haven’t had a, a serious war, really, since WWII.
"Blitzed"? Er, poor choice of words there Melanie. Beyond the self-inflicted Godwin wound, is there any actual evidence that a more comprehensive, prolonged campaign of aerial bombardment of Iraqi cities would have improved our chances? If so, please make the strategic case, because I'd love to hear it. At the very least, such a display of wanton disregard for the lives of Iraqis at the outset of the conflict would have rendered the democracy promoting/humanitarian justification for the war dead on arrival. You don't blitz your way to hearts and minds.

Ralph Peters chimes in:

Have we lost the will to win wars? Not just in Iraq, but anywhere? Do we really believe that being nice is more important than victory?
What's eating away at Peters is not just the fact that some of our "civilian leaders" have become obsessed with waging war "gently" and in a "politically correct" fashion - but that our military might - gasp! - be adopting an actual counterinsurgency doctrine.

The good news is that the Army and Marine Corps worked together on the new counterinsurgency doctrine laid out in Field Manual 3-24 (the Army version). The bad news is that the doctrine writers and their superiors came up with fatally wrong prescriptions for combating today's insurgencies.
Peters' main criticism of the counterinsurgency manual is that it advises, in certain settings and under certain circumstances, the use of limited force - or even no force. But he mostly seems to miss the point:

The new counterinsurgency doctrine recommends forbearance, patience, understanding, non-violent solutions and even outright passivity. Unfortunately, our enemies won't sign up for a replay of the Summer of Love in San Francisco. We can't treat hardcore terrorists like Halloween pranksters on mid-term break from prep school.[...]

...The text is a mush of pop-zen mantras such as "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction," "The best weapons do not shoot," or "The more force used, the less effective it is."

That's just nutty. Should we have done nothing in the wake of 9/11? Would everything have been OK if we'd just been nicer? What non-lethal "best weapons" might have snagged Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, where the problem was too little military force, not too much violence?
What Peters leaves out, or better yet, attempts to explain away by raising the specter of religious fanaticism, is that the targets of the forbearance are not the combatants themselves. It is the underlying population - which such enemies rely on for support, funding, room to operate and other forms of vital cooperation.

Thus, counterinsurgency doctrine advises that our tactics must be designed to kill and capture enemies, but at acceptable costs considering the underlying dynamic. For example, if you are faced with a situation where you know that one enemy is hiding out in an apartment building housing hundreds of innocent civilians, launching a cruise missile at the apartment building would be a net negative. Yes, you would have one less enemy, but in the process, you will have likely created thousands more. This is especially true in (though not unique to) a country like Iraq wherein tribal/familial ties are paramount and the duty to avenge the killing of a family/tribe member is honor bound.

On the other hand, Osama at Tora Bora posed no such complications - though it did present Peters with a clever, if disingenuous, misdirection. No civilians were nearby Tora Bora, or likely to be caught in the crossfire. No wide-net sweep affecting large swathes of innocent civilians was required to nab him, no collective punishment, no linguistic/cultural training required, etc. Osama didn't get away because we were too concerned about the non-existent civilian population that didn't live in the remote, mountainous, caves of Tora Bora. Instead, you can chalk it up to the unreliability of Northern Alliance troops, the lack of cooperation from Pakistan in sealing off the border escape, and Bush's decision not to commit additional units of Marines then-available in the region to the battle itself.

Counterinsurgency doctrine does not counsel against a response to 9/11, or against killing enemies. It just advocates for an understanding of the nature of these highly complex conflicts - one that recognizes that the ranks of the insurgents, and their levels of support, will be continually replenished unless and until the counterinsurgents are able to convince the underlying population to abandon them.

Peters might claim that we can 'convince' the underlying population to aid us by resorting to good old fashioned, "savage" and "ferocious" brutality. Maybe he's right. Hell, it seemed to work for Saddam while it lasted. Maybe instead of a counterinsurgency manual, we could have just borrowed Saddam's. But, uh, that would sort of cast our noble mission in Iraq in a slightly tarnished light, no? At what price victory? Or better yet, just what is victory?

Because trying to create a free, democratic, pro-US society that would rehabilitate our image, and serve as a model to the rest of the Muslim world, through the use of an unrestrained aerial blitz, followed by a savage and ferocious invasion and occupation is about as realistic as Osama doing the hippie dance in San Francisco. Dude.

[UPDATE: Elsewhere, as a testament to blog synergy, Josh Marshall discusses the role of personal responsibility, and admitting mistakes, from a different perspective. Worth the read.]

Friday, October 20, 2006


Something tells me that Kevin Tillman, the brother of now deceased NFL-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, won't be pulling the lever for the GOP this November. Read his searing indictment of the Bush administration's conduct - enabled by its Republican cohorts - over the past 6 years.

If you listen closely, you can hear the engines on the Swift Boats firing up in the distance. There's a way the GOP deals with these types of dissenters and heretics. Having served this country as a soldier, and sacrificed so greatly, will not spare him any invective. In fact, it seems to bring out the worst in the GOP apparatchiks.

The Prisoner of Thanatos

I recently re-read a brief compilation of lectures from British writer Doris Lessing entitled, Prisons We Choose To Live Inside. It is a short book (78 very manageable pages), but it is as packed with insight as many longer works that tend to meander about on tangents or try to compensate for what is lacking in quality with excess volume (a sin I am no doubt guilty of on more than one occasion).

In this work, Lessing discusses certain aspects of human nature that, in my opinion, are not as widely examined as their import would merit. The themes tackled by Lessing include: the potency of group think and group psychology in dictating one's beliefs and behavior, the innate desire in humans to find some form of exclusive path to salvation (whether in religion, politics, art, culture, etc.), while the rest of 'the uninitiated' remain damned, the capacity for almost all humans to act in despicable ways (ie, Milgram experiment) when compelled by a certain set of circumstances (ie, Zimbardo study), and the complex relationship between human beings and war. Despite the scope of those topics, this is by no means an exhaustive list of Lessing's focus.

To her credit, she shines the light of unvarnished analysis on subjects that range across political, cultural and religious spectrums. It is more an investigation into human behavior, than any type of diatribe or polemic. These are traits, after all, that cross boundaries from Right to Left, from Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu, Capitalist to Socialist, and so on. The lack of agenda or partisanship is disarming. The evenhanded approach, and her willingness to criticize herself, has the effect of muting defensiveness, which, in turn, allows introspection to intrude.

One somewhat uncomfortable moment of epiphany was piqued by Lessing's writing on the subject of war - and the universality of its appeal. While in my most sanctimonious and partisan moments, I might be tempted to characterize warmongering and war-revelry as the exclusive sin of the political 'other' (war bloggers, the Right, neoconservatives, Victor Davis Hanson, Peter Beinart, liberal hawks, etc.), the truth is, there is a little war-mongerer in us all - with me being no exception (as discussed here).

It is by recognizing that we all share an in-born predilection to war-like behavior (which manifests at extremely early ages in children as evidenced by the widespread preference for war related games, toys and play themes) that we can better attempt to overcome the seductive rhythm emanating from the drums of war when the playing commences. Recognition of a counter-productive tendency is the first step to overcoming or controlling it.

The attraction to war has pervaded our lexicon and frames of thinking - from politics to entertainment (and where the twain do often meet). In our political discourse, for example, those who display the most willingness to resort to war the quickest and in the broadest set of circumstances are rewarded with the labels "strong," "tough," "serious" and "hawk" while those that counsel against the knee-jerk use of war, or an overly idealized view of war's efficacy, are cast in disparaging language as "soft," "weak," "unrealistic," "appeasing" and "dovish."

In fact, some of you right now are probably rolling your eyes at this post, thinking that I have lost my ability to critically assess a given crisis due to the pernicious influence of some quixotic hippie-ism. In anticipation of this loss of credibility, I feel compelled to brandish my "serious" credentials by stating clearly that I am not a pacifist and recognize that some situations - Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for example - require the use of military force. The need to defend myself in such a manner is itself telling.

It is not that war is never necessary, it is just that far too often, war is seen as a redemptive act with the ability to resolve complex issues that, in reality, defy violent solutions. Instead of a last resort, it has become an initial reaction - proposed as a panacea to the intractable.

From a cynical perspective, war is also a political boon to the war-makers themselves. The political benefit derives from the fact that war is popular - especially during the initial stages (alas, support does dwindle if the war proves overly tedious or difficult, but attention spans aren't what they used to be). Early on, however, ratings spike for the 24-hour news networks, and those networks oblige the appetites of their viewing publics with flashy graphics, shock and awe-filled pyrotechnics, maudlin back-stories and other such marketing and promotional flourish. This is no accident. Suffice to say, the approval ratings for politicians enjoy a corresponding surge.

While certainly not the only presidency to fall under the spell of war, the Bush administration has proven to be an exemplar of this phenomenon. Under the Bush administration's reckless foreign policy calculus, war and conflict is actually favored over the laborious, time consuming and nuanced world of diplomacy. According to Bush, war has a clarifying effect - and he seems to relish his role as "warrior." There was only a thin veneer of reluctance shrouding President Bush's numerous and vocal descriptions of himself as a "war president." One certainly did not get the impression that Bush resented this self-assigned mantle. Nor did Condi shrink from her "Warrior Princess" moniker.

The glee was barely concealed, if at all, when Bush strutted across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in his flight suit - the event itself a carefully crafted spectacle designed to identify him as a warrior in the mind of the public. More damning still, perhaps, is the giddiness that he admitted to feeling on the night of 9/11 - as if his moment in history had, at last, arrived with visions of battlefield heroics coming into focus. But he is only human, and there is a very good reason that so many humans have repeatedly engaged in massive, prolonged, and bloody wars since history was first recorded, and before. Doris Lessing scratches the surface:
In times of war, as everyone knows who has lived through one, or talked to soldiers when they are allowing themselves to remember the truth, and not the sentimentalities with which we all shield ourselves from the horrors of which we are capable...in times of war we revert, as a species, to the past, and are permitted to be brutal and cruel.

It is for this reason, and of course others, that a great many people enjoy war. But this is one of the facts about war that is not often talked about.

I think it is sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war - not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself [ed note: see, ie, Lt. General Mattis on the fun-side of killing enemies]. In my time I have sat through many hours listening to people talking about war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time of their lives....People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating...an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it. [...]

When I was in Zimbabwe in 1982, two years after Independence, and the end of that appalling war that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told, I met soldiers from both sides, whites and blacks. The first obvious fact - obvious to an outsider, if not to themselves - was that they were in a state of shock. Seven years of war had left them in a stunned, curiously blank state, and I think it was because whenever people are actually forced to recognize from real experience, what we are capable of, it is so shocking that we can't take it in easily. Or take it in at all; we want to forget it. But there was another fact and for the purposes of this discussion perhaps a more interesting one. It was evidentt that the actual combatants on both sides, both blacks and whites, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It was a fighting that demanded great skill, individual bravery, initiative and resourcefulness - the skills of a guerilla, talents that through a long peace-time life may never have been called into use. Yet people may suspect that they have them, and secretly long for an opportunity to show them. This is not the least of the reasons, I believe, that wars happen.

These people, black and white, men and women, had been living in that extreme of tension, alertness, danger, with all their capacities in full use. I heard people say that nothing could ever come up to that experience. The dreadfulness of war was too near for them to be saying, "The best time of our lives," but they were, I am sure, beginning to think that.
The following passage reminded me of certain aspects of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as well as the inevitable emergence and empowerment of more radical, violent factions in Iraq post-invasion. It is a cautionary tale about war's legacy and the poisonous dynamic created between warring factions. In this context, Lessing uses a miner's strike in England to analogize:
According to one side, it was the miners who were responsible for the rioting, for the violence, for the disorder. According to the miners, the police and the scabs were responsible. Each side had not one good thing to say about the other, each side was lying...and lying with a good conscience, for the end justifies the means. Most of the people watching knew that both sides were in the wrong, that both were responsible for the violence, that both were lying. And lying with a good conscience. Everyone knows that at such times as strikes, civil wars, wars, from the moment they start there will be tragedies of all kinds, if for no other reason than that the people in every society that enjoy thuggery come to the surface. But the point is, everyone knows this at such times, except the people involved, who seem to the onlookers as if they are drunk, or hypnotized or have lost their senses. Well, they have. They've become part of some great mass lunacy, and while they're in it, no individual judgment can be expected from them.

What they say is formalized in sets of attitudes that are absolutely predictable.
In the days following 9/11, there was a palpable war lust that was so potent that it is only now beginning to dissipate. It was on the strength of these aroused passions that we were led into a war that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11 because we had to punish somebody. If you can remember that point in history, you will recall the vividly bloody exhortations of people like Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and others. You might recall the insatiable advocacy for World War IV - a war of epic proportions that envisioned invasions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and more, as urged by the likes of David Frum, Richard Perle and Norman Podhoretz.

For some of these characters, the "awful, illicit, violent excitement" was rekindled during the recent Israeli-Lebanon conflict. And for many, that excitement remains in a fevered state even to this day.

The good news is, though, that reality is intruding on the grand designs of the vicarious warriors - be they pundit, President or princess. One can almost feel the disappointment and post-partum depression setting in so soon after the birth pangs. Pat Lang passes along this report from Richard Sale:
[Three administration officials] did say that Bush is also becoming "increasingly pessimistic" about any military action against Iran. According to one, "Bush really wanted to mount an attack on Iran earlier this year -- he was really hot to trot," but military briefings brought home to him that attacking Iran did not mean eliminating its suspected nuclear sites but also having to destroy "Iran's entire retaliatory capability," in the words of one. This capability is formidable; U.S. intelligence sources say Iran has underground missile batteries southwest of Abu Musa with the HY-2 advanced version of the Silkworm anti-ship missile. There are also Scud-Cs which could hit any UAE ports, including those to the south and west of Abu Dhabi and they could also strike Dubai where U.S. naval sources currently dock at the port of Jebel Ali. [...]

As one civilian military expert said, "Iran would be likely to do a great deal of damage in the Gulf before its assets on the mainland and islands were neutralized."
In other words, if attacked, Iran would respond asymmetrically, and any U.S. Iran war would be more frightful, full of bloody slaughter and unintended consequences than current U.S. planners think. This is what is giving Bush pause.

Cheney is still pushing hard for a strike, but Bush has become more skeptical of the vice president's ardor as he looks over the wreckage of Iraq, U.S. officials said.
I don't know what's more frightening: that Bush was champing at the bit to attack Iran earlier this year, deterred only by the extensive and detailed briefings on the likely results, or that even after that, Cheney still wants to go ahead with the attacks. War is a force that gives some of us meaning. Especially from a safe distance.

Return of the Mook

The fighting between Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and SCIRI's Badr Brigade - discussed, in part, in a previous post - has flared up again in the southern city of Amara yesterday. Moqtada's militia struck in a bold fashion:

The Shiite militia run by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized total control of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by one of the country's powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said. [...]

The Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, planting explosives that flattened the buildings, residents said.

About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were patrolling city streets in commandeered police vehicles, eyewitnesses said. Other fighters had set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.

Fighting broke out in Amara on Thursday after the head of police intelligence in the surrounding province, a member of the rival Shiite Badr Brigade militia, was killed by a roadside bomb, prompting his family to kidnap the teenage brother of the local head of the a-Madhi Army.

The Mahdi Army seized several police stations and clamped a curfew on the city in retaliation.

The SCIRI/Sadr fighting is definitely something to keep an eye on. As is Maliki's reaction, and possible cooperation with SCIRI in an effort to rein in Sadr's increasing power.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

We Meet Again

Riverbend must have heard that people were growing concerned with her prolonged absence from the ether - one that she describes as her longest stretch away from blogging. So she put our minds at ease with a post yesterday that broke over two months of unexplained silence.

Her excuses are ironclad - grappling with the sadness, hopelessness and general turmoil of life in a war zone. Not to mention what I imagine must be the scarcity of a reliable Internet connection that, while trifling in comparison, can be debilitating nonetheless. After all, electricity levels in Baghdad are at there lowest levels since the invasion (and before the invasion) averaging a paltry 2.4 hours' worth a day.

Nevertheless, Riverbend is back - and with a vengeance:

The latest horror is the study published in the Lancet Journal concluding that over 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since the war. Reading about it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it sounded like a reasonable figure. It wasn't at all surprising. On the other hand, I so wanted it to be wrong. But... who to believe? Who to believe....? American politicians... or highly reputable scientists using a reliable scientific survey technique?

The responses were typical- war supporters said the number was nonsense because, of course, who would want to admit that an action they so heartily supported led to the deaths of 600,000 people (even if they were just crazy Iraqis…)? Admitting a number like that would be the equivalent of admitting they had endorsed, say, a tsunami, or an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, or the occupation of a developing country by a ruthless superpower… oh wait- that one actually happened. Is the number really that preposterous? Thousands of Iraqis are dying every month- that is undeniable. And yes, they are dying as a direct result of the war and occupation (very few of them are actually dying of bliss, as war-supporters and Puppets would have you believe).

For American politicians and military personnel, playing dumb and talking about numbers of bodies in morgues and official statistics, etc, seems to be the latest tactic. But as any Iraqi knows, not every death is being reported. As for getting reliable numbers from the Ministry of Health or any other official Iraqi institution, that's about as probable as getting a coherent, grammatically correct sentence from George Bush- especially after the ministry was banned from giving out correct mortality numbers. So far, the only Iraqis I know pretending this number is outrageous are either out-of-touch Iraqis abroad who supported the war, or Iraqis inside of the country who are directly benefiting from the occupation ($) and likely living in the Green Zone.

The chaos and lack of proper facilities is resulting in people being buried without a trip to the morgue or the hospital. During American military attacks on cities like Samarra and Fallujah, victims were buried in their gardens or in mass graves in football fields. Or has that been forgotten already?

We literally do not know a single Iraqi family that has not seen the violent death of a first or second-degree relative these last three years. Abductions, militias, sectarian violence, revenge killings, assassinations, car-bombs, suicide bombers, American military strikes, Iraqi military raids, death squads, extremists, armed robberies, executions, detentions, secret prisons, torture, mysterious weapons – with so many different ways to die, is the number so far fetched?

There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.

Let's pretend the 600,000+ number is all wrong and that the minimum is the correct number: nearly 400,000. Is that better? Prior to the war, the Bush administration kept claiming that Saddam killed 300,000 Iraqis over 24 years. After this latest report published in The Lancet, 300,000 is looking quite modest and tame. Congratulations Bush et al.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the crisis enveloping her, I marvel at her courage and spirit. The word 'tenacious' doesn't do her justice. Stay safe Riverbend.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Equalizing the Equalizer

In Iraq, where rampant lawlessness and a feeble central government fuel feelings of desperation and insecurity among the civilian population, there is one man to turn to when all else fails: the Iraqi version of The Equalizer - Moqtada al-Sadr. As cited in a post last month [emphasis mine throughout]:
Hundreds of thousands of people have turned away from al-Sistani to the far more aggressive al-Sadr. Sabah Ali...said that he had switched allegiance after the murder of his brother by Sunni gunmen. "I went to Sistani asking for revenge for my brother," he said. "They said go to the police, they couldn't do anything.

"But even if the police arrest them, they will release them for money, because the police are bad people. So I went to the al-Sadr office. I told them about the terrorists' family. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll get revenge for your brother'. Two days later, Sadr's people had killed nine of the terrorists, so I felt I had revenge for my brother. I believe Sadr is the only one protecting the Shia against the terrorists."
As we see from this recent article (via Swopa), Moqtada is still gittin'-r-done and honing his credentials as would-be enforcer:

[S]ectarian killing exploded in river towns...to the north of [Baghdad] Friday after suspected Sunni insurgents kidnapped and beheaded 17 Shiite laborers from date palm groves in the predominantly Sunni hamlet of Duluiyah, across the river from Balad.

Shiite elders of Balad said they called in the Baghdad militias of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- whose bloc is the largest in Iraq's Shiite-led government -- to take revenge. [...]

The total number of victims received by Balad's hospital morgue held steady at 80 on Monday, Badawi said. Members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia were blocking Sunni families from picking up more of their dead from the streets, he said.
It is in this way, and through his fiery brand of demagoguery, that al-Sadr draws his power directly from the people themselves - regardless of his official position in the governing coalition of Shiite political parties (UIA). As tensions and bloodshed reach a fevered pitch, support for Sadr among ordinary Iraqis has increased at the expense of Sistani and other Shiite leaders. This shift in relative power has not gone unnoticed or ignored - especially by groups like the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) whose members are known to clash, often violently, with Sadr's people in an ongoing internecine Shiite power struggle.

As such, there are indications that certain factions in the Shiite coalition might be moving to outflank al-Sadr in an attempt to curtail some of his burgeoning influence. Prime Minister Maliki, though, realizes that his own Dawa party is too small, and al-Sadr's movement at the moment represents too large of a bloc in the UIA, to challenge al-Sadr openly - even with the backing of the UIA's other major player, SCIRI, with its formidable Badr Corp. militia.

Given SCIRI's recent history of confrontation with al-Sadr's forces in and around Basra and other oil reach and strategic sites in Shiite southern Iraq, SCIRI has ample incentive to try to neuter their upstart rival. But even with a Dawa/SCIRI alliance, Maliki and his American backers must take pains to avoid being perceived as overtly antagonistic to al-Sadr for fear of unleashing an even larger intra-Shiite civil war. It is a strategy of small steps, marginal victories and plausible deniability. If push ever did come to shove, it is likely that Maliki (and even SCIRI) would choose to mollify Sadr rather than risk rending the Shiite alliance - leaving them vulnerable to Sunni incursions and resurgence.

Against this backdrop, we get the steady drip, drip of news reports telling of sporadic fighting between al-Sadr's Mahdi militia on the one hand, and "Iraqi government forces" [read: SCIRI] and US forces on the other. When the fighting gets too intense, or some act taken too brazen, Maliki issues a condemnation of the "American tactics." But as the sound from Maliki's loud protest fades in the distance, the temporarily suspended fighting renews.

SCIRI's cooperation with Maliki in these efforts comes at a price - not that Maliki seems too concerned with the bill. Behind the scenes, SCIRI has been taking steps to further shoe-horn its cadres into official Iraqi government positions. The first order of business has been legitimizing SCIRI's militia, while simultaneously downplaying its continued existence, influence and reach. There was this sleight of hand last week:
At a lavish dinner last week for members of parliament, the Cabinet and other leaders, al-Maliki spoke about the need for parties to give up their militias.

But outside, hundreds of gunmen guarding the affair were not police: They were fighters loyal to the host, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of [SCIRI] the Shiite coalition that dominates parliament. His party says its militia, the Badr Brigade, has been dissolved — but Sunnis say it still exists and is quietly involved in killings.
And this from Iraq's interior ministry, Jawad al-Bolani, on allegations of militia [read: Badr Corp.] infiltration of official Iraqi police and army units:

[Jawad al-Bolani] rejected allegations that Iraq's police and military have played a major role in the death squads blamed for Baghdad's surging violence, saying that only a small number of all those caught in U.S. or Iraqi raids were members of the police or army.

...Bolani and his predecessor as interior minister, Bayan Jabr, both have minimized the possibility of any police involvement in the nightly killings. "We are experiencing a problem of impressions" regarding a police role in killings and militia infiltration of police, Bolani said Friday.
If you recall, Bayan Jabr was seen as one of the impediments to tamping the sectarian violence because of his status as a SCIRI representative (it was reported that the Badr Corp. operated out of Interior, often employing extreme, death squad tactics). Looks like Bolani does not represent as clean a break from Jabr as desired. Even the mendacity sounds the same.

With SCIRI's forces operating under the mantle and guise of official government forces, while the Interior Ministry runs interference for them, the process of consolidation of control is underway:

Operating between the insurgent Sunni Arab suburbs of Baghdad and the Shiite militia-dominated south, Col. Salam al-Mamuri and his Scorpion commando team were a rarity among Iraqi security forces, American and Iraqi colleagues said: a police unit fighting on both sides of the country's sectarian divide.

On Friday, a bomb blew apart Mamuri and an aide at the Scorpions' headquarters in the southern city of Hilla....

Mamuri's comparative evenhandedness enforcing the law may have earned him an enemy within his own sect, the Shiites. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani in Baghdad called it a "possibility and a probability" that the assassination was at least in part an inside job, because the killer was able to gain access to Mamuri's office to plant the bomb.
Related activity in recent weeks has been picking up momentum. Last Thursday, Iraq's legislature pushed through a resolution enabling Iraqi regions to form near-autonomous governing structures - essentially green-lighting the partitioning of Iraq. This resolution has been a long time goal of SCIRI - which looks to control much of the oil rich southern region - as well as the Kurds, but has been vehemently opposed by Sadr's group and the Sunnis (whose respective power bases reside in oil-poor regions). Previously, Maliki's Dawa party opposed this plan, and their lack of support made achieving the 140 vote threshold an unattainable goal. But, according to Juan Cole, the results of this vote could be further evidence of the flowering alliance between Dawa and SCIRI - at the expense of Sadr. Says Cole:

What I can't figure out is where Abdul Aziz got the 140 votes from. The Kurds will have supported him, with 58 seats. But then his [SCIRI] and its independent allies in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance only had 63 seats when the prime ministerial elections were held. That is 121. They picked up an astonishing 19 seats. Did al-Da'wa, the party of the prime minister, defect to al-Hakim on this one? That is the only thing that would make sense of the vote to me. The Sadr Movement, Fadhila, and the Sunnis were opposed.
While there have been reports of fraud on the part of the proposal's backers (some say that they only got 138 votes (or less), and not the requisite 140), it should be noted that Maliki's government is thus far treating the passage of this resolution as legitimate. That seems to indicate Dawa's support. Meanwhile, the US/Dawa/SCIRI pincers continue to squeeze al-Sadr:

Sadr's party reacted with fury [Tuesday] to the alleged arrest of one of its top officials, whom they said was seized overnight by US forces, and vowed to stage protests in volatile west Baghdad, the scene of recent sectarian violence.

..."US forces raided the home of Sheikh Mazen Al Saedi, head of the Sadr movement offices in Karkh [west Baghdad] and arrested him," Hamdallah Al Rikabi, a spokesman for Sadr's movement, said. "Five other members of the office were arrested as well in a series of raids in Shuala," he said, referring to a Shiite neighborhood in northeast Baghdad.

The coalition would not immediately comment on the claim, but in recent weeks joint US and Iraqi raiding teams have been targeting alleged death squad cells linked to Shiite militias in an effort to stem sectarian murders.
Maliki has since ordered the release of Sheikh Mazen Al Saedi, perhaps continuing to manipulate the pressure valves so as to avoid a Sadr-induced meltdown. But there is also this:

The Sadr Movement of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr...defended the freedom of the press on Tuesday in the face of threats by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq to close al-Zaman newspaper and the al-Iraqiyah television channel.
Interesting threat for SCIRI to be voicing - I'm trying to determine the authority invoked to make such a move, and whether this represents an expansion of the confrontation. It is possible that I'm mis-reading the situation, and that I'm overplaying the tensions and chess moves between SCIRI, Maliki and al-Sadr, but there are strong indications that subtle yet significant shifts are underway. The fault lines within the Shiite coalition should not be dismissed out of hand.

If my theory is correct, the upside of this intrigue, and the related maneuvers, would be the containment of such a radical and destabilizing force as al-Sadr. The downside would be that, in order to execute such a strategy, the Iraqi government has been forced to move closer to SCIRI (itself a party with close ties to Iran - and heavily implicated in death squad activities and other sectarian violence). That's like sacking Peter to appoint Paul. Guess that's why all those fantasies of coups and strongman saviors die hard in Iraq.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Turnabout Is Fair Play

I've been tagged for jury duty - or at least must show up at the courthouse the next three days and wait around to see if I actually get selected. On the plus side, there's a general reluctance to empanel lawyers. Neither side welcomes that prospect for fear that the lawyer/juror will be trying the case themselves in their own minds as the trial proceeds. Better to have jurors less predisposed to meddlesome thinking - or so the conventional wisdom goes.

So blogging may be light until Thursday, but at least I'll catch up on my reading.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Liberation From the Tyranny of Life

What an interesting phenomenon the blogosphere is. This unique and unprecedented means of communication allows bloggers and readers separated by vast oceans, land masses, cultures, religions and more to communicate about a wide variety of topics, in near unison, in real time. The medium itself is conducive to the adoption of less formalistic conventions, allowing for up close, personal and tangential confessions and observations from blogger and reader alike. The cumulative nature of blogs also allows for something like character development over time, akin to a serial novel (with political commentary replacing the narrative in many instances - at least in the poli-blogosphere).

Through this constant progression of interaction, it is not uncommon to develop feelings of solidarity, affection, gratitude and something bordering on friendship for those one encounters in the ether. While I would not consider Riverbend, of Baghdad Burning, to be a close or even personal friend, I have felt sympathy for her plight, admiration of her courage, respect for her writing and concern for her safety.

Those feelings of concern have recently given way to a creeping sense of dread. She has not updated her blog since August 5th, and has left no note to readers that I am aware of explaining her absence. Each day that passes without clarification leads me to fear that Riverbend has become yet one more tragic life swallowed up in the maelstrom of death in Iraq that was recently chronicled - to much fanfare - in a study published in The Lancet.

That study, through peer reviewed and accepted scientific methodology, calculated the number of excess deaths that have occurred in Iraq since the invasion (that is, deaths from violent causes and all other causes, over and above the rate that was prevalent in the 18 monhts preceding the invasion). The results: an estimation of approximately 650,000 excess deaths.

Predictably, Bush supporters (and even the President himself) have rushed to cast doubt on the study's findings. Such numbers represent an uncomfortable truth, and the source of reverberating cognitive dissonance. Neither the President nor his reflexive supporters, have, however, been able to mount a feasible statistics-based, scientifically-sound challenge. Rather, they resort to question begging and gut reaction appeals along the lines of: "Things can't really be that bad, therefore they must not be."

According to Daniel Davies (via Matt Y), the number are, and in some ways aren't, as bad as the headline-grabbing estimate:

First, don't concentrate on the number 600,000 (or 655,000, depending on where you read). This is a point estimate of the number of excess Iraqi deaths - it's basically equal to the change in the death rate since the invasion, multiplied by the population of Iraq, multiplied by three-and-a-quarter years. Point estimates are almost never the important results of statistical studies and I wish the statistics profession would stop printing them as headlines.

The question that this study was set up to answer was: as a result of the invasion, have things got better or worse in Iraq? And if they have got worse, have they got a little bit worse or a lot worse. Point estimates are only interesting in so far as they demonstrate or dramatise the answer to this question.

The results speak for themselves. There was a sample of 12,801 individuals in 1,849 households, in 47 geographical locations. That is a big sample, not a small one. [...]

The Iraq Body Count website and the Iraqi government statistics are not better measures than the survey results, because one of the things we know about war zones is that casualties are under-reported, usually by a factor of more than five.

And the results were shocking. In the 18 months before the invasion, the sample reported 82 deaths, two of them from violence. In the 39 months since the invasion, the sample households had seen 547 deaths, 300 of them from violence. The death rate expressed as deaths per 1,000 per year had gone up from 5.5 to 13.3.

Talk of confidence intervals becomes frankly irrelevant at this point. If you want to pick a figure for the precise number of excess deaths, then (1.33% - 0.55%) x 26,000,000 x 3.25 = 659,000 is as good as any, multiplying out the difference between the death rates by the population of Iraq and the time since the invasion. But we're interested in the qualitative conclusion here.

That qualitative conclusion is this: things have got worse, and they have got a lot worse, not a little bit worse. Whatever detailed criticisms one might make of the methodology of the study (and I have searched assiduously for the last two years, with the assistance of a lot of partisans of the Iraq war who have tried to pick holes in the study, and not found any), the numbers are too big. If you go out and ask 12,000 people whether a family member has died and get reports of 300 deaths from violence, then that is not consistent with there being only 60,000 deaths from violence in a country of 26 million. It is not even nearly consistent.

This is the question to always keep at the front of your mind when arguments are being slung around (and it is the general question one should always be thinking of when people talk statistics). How Would One Get This Sample, If The Facts Were Not This Way? There is really only one answer - that the study was fraudulent.[1] It really could not have happened by chance. If a Mori poll puts the Labour party on 40% support, then we know that there is some inaccuracy in the poll, but we also know that there is basically zero chance that the true level of support is 2% or 96%, and for the Lancet survey to have delivered the results it did if the true body count is 60,000 would be about as improbable as this. Anyone who wants to dispute the important conclusion of the study has to be prepared to accuse the authors of fraud, and presumably to accept the legal consequences of doing so. [...]

[1] In the context of the 2004 study, I was prepared to countenance another explanation: that the Iraqis were lying and systematically exaggerating the number of deaths. But in the 2006 study, death certificates were checked and found in 92% of cases.

While the point estimate was 655,000, the study itself puts the range between 400,000 to 800,000 excess deaths. An unthinkable tragedy. The actual numbers are most likely much closer to (or within) this range than the highly improbale 60,000 figure bandied about by Iraq Body Count site (the IBC methodology is not designed to get an accurate read by their own admission).

Regardless of what the final grotesque number ends up being, let's just hope that our friend Riverbend isn't one of them. Let's also remember that for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, liberation from Saddam's rule has meant liberation from the bonds of life itself. An interesting notion of freedom. And the President wonders why Iraqi citizens are not more grateful to their putative liberators.

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