Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Doctor, Heal Thyself!

I'm normally a big fan of the Abu Muquwama site and its authors, but this recent post from Dr. iRak left me scratching my head. The good Dr. seems unduly impressed with some recent statements made by the Government of Iraq (or "GoI" as he terms it) scolding Iran for supplying aid and armaments to Shiite militias. The supposed smoking gun evidence in the present case is a cache of Iranian made weapons (allegedly set aside for the Sadrists) found in the Basra area.

However, given the nature of Iran's longstanding involvement with certain Shiite Iraqi factions, these "official" statements are more like Claude Raines-styled shock than revelation. From the article cited by Dr. iRak:

The U.S. military official suggested that the "thousands" of munitions uncovered in Basra, and the idea that they were being used by extremists allegedly trained by Iran, had been an eye-opener for Iraq's leaders. "Our discussion is now matched by their understanding," he said. "This is the beginning of a change of public discussion among senior Iraqis." [emphasis added]

Uh huh: Iraq's leaders stunned by the discovery that Iran is funding and training Iraqi Shiite groups. Funny that, considering one of the main factions in the GoI, ISCI, is just about a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian government. You think that assessment is hyperbolic? Some background: ISCI is comprised of Iraqis that fled mostly to Iran during the 1980s and 1990s. While in Iran, the party (then called SCIRI) and its Badr Corp. militia were formed, funded, armed and indoctrinated by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. and other regime elements. In fact, some ISCI members fought on Iran's side in the Iran/Iraq war, and many still draw pensions from the IRGC, despite the fact that those members returned to Iraq en masse after the Baath regime was toppled.

So is one to assume that ISCI is surprised to find the Iranians arming and training Iraqi Shiites? And that they're now demanding that Iran stop funding and arming...groups like ISCI? Not exactly. Once again, the discussion of Iranian involvement is fixed like a laser on the Sadrist current while the far more extensive ties to our putative allies like ISCI are ignored.

Given this reality, it is more likely that the GoI is pursuing two primary goals by making these statements: First and foremost, placating Bush administration officials concerned about the GoI's ties to Iran (or at least providing the Bush administration with useful PR fodder to counter critics that point out that state of affairs). Second, though to a lesser degree, trying to corner the market on Iranian money and weapons (not cut the supply off completely).

Nevertheless, Dr. iRak sees significance behind the facade of Kabuki make-up:

This stance by the GoI serves several purposes simultaneously. First, it can be understood in classic "good cop, bad cop" terms. The United Stats [sic] is playing the saber-rattling bad cop, appearing to threaten war with Iran over new evidence of lethal assistance to JAM "special groups." The then steps in and says "we agree," but we think that things should be resolved diplomatically, thus playing the good cop holding the Americans back. Good coercive diplomacy . . . if it works.

I suppose, but only in a limited sense. The GoI (meaning ISCI/Dawa) might be playing a little hardball with the Iranian government over its providing support to the Sadrists, but their bluff and bluster can only go so far. Their ties to Iran are too deep to sever over this issue, and such isolation would leave them at the mercy of the Americans alone. That's a heck of a leap to take. More from Dr. iRak:

Second, increasing anti-Iranian rhetoric may help the Maliki government appeal to Sunni leaders and thereby forge cross-sectarian cooperation on other sticky issues.

Not likely. Again, making a public display of opposition to the fact that Iran is supporting the Sadrists isn't goint to fool Iraqi Sunnis. Most have a well developed, if not exaggerated, knowledge about the endurance of ties between Iran and ISCI, as well as Iran and Maliki's Dawa party. The GoI statements are mostly for American audiences, with the locals not being as susceptible to such propaganda.

There are elements in this last bit from Dr. iRak that I agree with, though there are also some dubious presumptions:

Finally, emphasizing Iranian involvement provides a useful public "explanation" for the difficulty U.S. and Iraqi forces have had, thus far, in quelling violence in Sadr City. Blame it on Iran, not Sadr/JAM. Why go this route? Because it allows the United States to maintain the fiction that it is only the "special groups" that are fighting the coalition instead of rank-and-file JAM, thus preserving the illusion that the Sadr "freeze" declared last August--a major (perhaps the major) reason for declining violence during the later part of the "surge" period in 2007--has not collapsed. [...]

At the same time, Iranian involvement allows U.S. officials to deflect blame for the fighting from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whom they are counting on to sustain a frayed but officially intact truce he called in August for his Mahdi Army militia. Though privately many soldiers here say the Mahdi militia is involved in the current fighting, publicly, the allegation is that "special groups" who have broken away from Sadr and receive training and aid from Iran are causing the troubles.

As discussed previously on this Site, I concur that the "special groups" fiction can be useful. I'm just not so sure the current strategy looks to take advantage of the "special groups" formulation. Presently, US and Iraqi forces are not seeking to "quell violence" in Sadr City and Basra - they're initiating it. That's an enormous difference. Further, the main purpose of the anti-Sadrist operations is to weaken that movement ahead of regional elections this fall (which only makes the enormous loss of innocent civilian life in Sadr City that much more horrific).

Thus, keeping this fiction in play is less important than previously, when the Bush administration was contemplating more normalized relations with the Sadrists. After all, do we really expect Sadr to sustain a cease fire while missles, bombs and tank shells rain down upon his constituents? The "special groups" fiction wouldn't help him to save face amidst such carnage. Nor would a cease fire halt the onslaught.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Favorite Jam Back in the Day...

What a difference 7+ years makes. Brandon Friedman reminds us of Cheney's comical, in retrospect, denunciation of the degradation of the military under the Clinton administration. From a Cheney speech on the campaign trail back in 2000:

For eight years, Clinton and Gore have extended our military commitments while depleting our military power. Rarely has so much been demanded of our armed forces, and so little given to them in return. George W. Bush and I are going to change that, too. I have seen our military at its finest, with the best equipment, the best training, and the best leadership. I'm proud of them. I have had the responsibility for their well-being. And I can promise them now, help is on the way. Soon, our men and women in uniform will once again have a commander in chief they can respect, one who understands their mission and restores their morale. [emph. added]

And what's not to respect about Dick Deferment and George "Defender of the Texas Skies" Bush. Friedman proceeds to dispatch the fish lingering around this fetid barrel. Well worth the read.

Also providing laughs courtesy of the way-back machine, look what John McCain has to say about a permanent presence in Iraq when we set the dial for 2005:

Three years before the Arizona Republican argued on the campaign trail that U.S. forces could be in Iraq for 100 years in the absence of violence, he decried the very concept of a long-term troop presence.

In fact, when asked specifically if he thought the U.S. military should set up shop in Iraq along the lines of what has been established in post-WWII Germany or Japan — something McCain has repeatedly advocated during the campaign — the senator offered nothing short of a categorical “no.”

“I would hope that we could bring them all home,” he said on MSNBC. “I would hope that we would probably leave some military advisers, as we have in other countries, to help them with their training and equipment and that kind of stuff.”

Host Chris Matthews pressed McCain on the issue. “You’ve heard the ideological argument to keep U.S. forces in the Middle East. I’ve heard it from the hawks. They say, keep United States military presence in the Middle East, like we have with the 7th Fleet in Asia. We have the German…the South Korean component. Do you think we could get along without it?”

McCain held fast, rejecting the very policy he urges today. “I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence,” he responded. “And I don’t pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be.”

Ah, to be serious and mavirecky. Actually, it gets worse. As Steve Benen documents, McCain goes back and forth on this issue so often he's got enough frequent flier miles racked up that he can finally abandon Cindy's private jet for good.

Which would only bolster his non-elitists bona fides. I mean, has Obama given up his private jet? Didn't think so.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Leave Broke Enough Alone, Part I

In Still Broken, A.J. Rossmiller, recounts his tenure as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency ("DIA" - which is the Department of Defense's intelligence shop), which traces his personal eveolution ranging from his initial can-do enthusiasm to eventual dissilusionment and frustration. The narrative arc of Still Broken spans Rossmiller's time spent in intelligence gathering and analysis both in Baghdad and later in the labyrinthine halls of the Pentagon (an ample metaphor for the bureaucratic tangle that serves as the book's primary antagonist).

The recurring vignettes depicting the intrusive politicization of the intelligence gathering/analysis process, the inefficiency, lack of connectedness and bureacratic turf wars are as prevalent in each half of the book as they are inextricable parts of the overall story of the invasion of Iraq itself - from the selling of the war, to the mismanagement in the aftermath. While the generalities surrounding this tale are familiar to many in abstraction and slogan, Rossmiller provides a clearly written, unbiased, first person perspective of how this dysfunction actually plays out on a day to day basis.

Nevertheless, despite Rossmiller's well-supported diagnosis of an intelligence apparatus that was and is "Still Broken," the next step in the treatment regimen is less convincing. Though they can be detected plaintively in the background throughout, the essential questions raised by Still Broken are never really fully reckoned with by the author: Are we capable of forging a long-term, structural fix for what ails our intelligence community? Relatedly, is the cure likely to kill the patient?

Baghdad via Middlebury

To hear Rossmiller recount the decision making process that took him from then-recent graduate of liberal arts bastion (emphasis on the liberal) Middlebury College in bucolic Vermont, to pistol-packing, FOB trotting DIA member in Baghdad is to gain insight into his character and, to some extent, his naivete. Deeply affected by the attacks of 9/11 (he grew up just outside of New York City) and infused with a belief in the virtue of giving back to his country, Rossmiller eschewed graduate school and other more lucrative career paths in favor or a low paying post with the DIA. In fact, upon settling in his new position in Washington, Rossmiller soon applied for a position in Iraq at a time when the DOD was having a difficult time locating enough volunteers. His reasons are a testament to his selflessness: a deployment was easier for him than many of his colleagues with children and other more pressing domestic needs.

The enlightenment of A.J. Rossmiller and, vicariously, the reader, begins upon his arrival in Baghdad. What is immediately striking is the size and expanse of the occupation facilities, even those just in and around Baghdad. One is left with the impression that these structures are not of the temporary variety, but rather that they form the skeleton of a permanent presence. Yet side-by-side with the massive outlay associated with the preparation, fortification and furnishing of bases and other formations (down to quirky amenities to create a home-like ambience), is the jarring juxtaposition of how little preparation went in to actually preparing for and managing the occupation itself; the intricate, painstaking process of replacing a large nation's entire governing infrastructure. In terms of resources, focus and prioritzing, the Iraqis are the constant afterthought.

Amazingly - or not - Rossmiller's team hits Baghdad without a mission, due largely to the lack of communication between the various branches of the government charged with managing the occupation, as well as the departing team's own lack of clear purpose. After some time wasted adrift, Rossmiller (thanks to the bureaucratic navigating acumen of some of his managers) ends up on a team whose main focus is kidnapping, assassinations and insurgent financing - what Rossmiller calls "the three most critical tactical elements of the chaos in Iraq." Here's the truly alarming aspect though: fully three years into the war, and his is the first team specifically allocated to those vital issues. Glad they finally got around to it.

Unfortunately, that incident is but a microcosm of the overall confusion, lack of direction, lack of coordination and disconnect between the intelligence gatherers, analysts, soldiers and leadership. Even where intelligence assets are focused on a given phenomenon, the products produced by the analysts often fail to make it up the chain of command to anyone capable of using them. It is as if the analysts are producing the literature for their own consumption, even though their ability to act on that burgeoning knowledge is nil. They are mostly forced into the role of scribe: reacting to events and recording the play by play; though Rossmiller did manage to carve out a role providing actionable intelligence at one time during his tour.

Worse still, as soon as some semblance of a functioning operation is established, turf wars and battles over budget dollars force the disbandment and reorganization of the newly productive teams. The futility of the mission - at times Kafkaesque - is so maddening that Rossmiller and his colleagues begin using the phrase, "forever" as a catchall to describe any number of breakdowns and backward policies that lead one to conclude that the mission in Iraq shows no sign of nearing any discernible end game. One is left wondering if this is a bug or a feature.

Still, above all, there is one anecdote that stands out as the exemplification of the backwardness of our mission. Toward the end of Rossmiller's rotation in Iraq, he was brought in to help with some detainee in-processing - he had been tracking some insurgent activity, and earlier that night there had been a raid conducted using his intel.

One of the soldiers came over to the main table, his face tired but his eyes alert.

"We didnt' find the guys we were looking for, but grabbed some dudes at the targets' houses and then did some follow-on ops, too. We've got around forty or fifty coming in," he declared.

This news was alarming. Some of the evidence against our targets was questionable to begin with, and now we had dozens of guys who just happened to be in the houses we hit? In an environment filled with bad sources, double-dealings, a lack of knowledge of culture and language, and endless cases of mistaken identity, it was likely that few if any of our detainees were involved in the sinrugency, and probably none would have intelligence value. I figured we would have to let most of them go.
Rossmiller was wrong of course. Instead, the deeply traumatized and humiliated prisoners were shipped off to Abu Ghraib prison - where they will remain imprisoned for months or years without formal charges or contact with the outside world. The process resembles a Catch 22 of sorts: anyone picked up in the field is sent to Abu Ghraib because those doing the initial processing figure that Abu Ghraib will sort out the insurgents from those wrongly detained. Yet at Abu Ghraib, the SOP is to assume that all incoming detainees are guilty and thus detain them for at least three months. Rossmiller captures this impact of these techniques on counterinsurgency efforts. He points out the dubiousness of thess practices to one of the participating soldiers, and the soldier replies:

"Yeah, well, we'll get affidavits that they all had weapons and resisted detention, and that enough to lock 'em up for a while. Anyway, if they're off the streets, they're not setting IEDs, right?"

"I guess," I replied. But if they weren't before, they would be when they got out.
It actually gets worse. Throughout the gruelling and time consuming processing, as several of the detainees try in vain to ascertain the charges against them, some begin to ask, out of concern, about another detainee (the brother of some, cousin of others) who is mentally handicapped and/or deaf and mute. Later in the evening, Rossmiller sees some soldiers attempting to interrogate a detainee who stands mute, confused and otherwise fits the description of the mentally challenged detainee. Rossmiller tries to intervene and explain the situation, to no avail. "Naw, he's fuckin' faking. I'm sending him to Abu G," is the only response he gets. Perfect.

Toward the end of the night, one of the detainees asked for permission to speak, and was eventually granted that right. What he said left an indellible mark on Rossmiller:

"When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."
Rossmiller recalls:

That day I saw an entire family of brothers sent away - seven in all, I think. One of them was almost certainly retarded...A civilized country and a civilized people cannot presume guilt. Guilt without evidence is anathema to a functioning civil society, and rule of law is vital to win a war that is more about minds than weapons or troops. Pragmatically, a system that incarcerates scores of innocents is a broken one, destined to be fought by those it victimizes.

In Part II, I will focus on the author's time back at the Pentagon after his return from Iraq, as well as some of the questions raised by the book, related to how, indeed, a civilized country should comport itself when faced with a system broken in these ways.

(A.J. Rossmiller currently blogs at AMERICAblog, and I consider him to be a go-to reference for all things Iraq-related and otherwise)

[some] Sunnis [might] Rejoin the Maliki Government!

The big news coming out of Iraq, or at least the news getting the most play, is that the Sunni political bloc that had withdrawn from its ministerial positions in the Maliki government back in August 2007 is coming back. Maybe. That is, the details still have to be worked out, but there don't appear to be too many insurmountable obstacles that would make such a rapprochement impossible.

However, should this political detente unfold, its impact on larger issues of reconciliation should not be overestimated (which it undoubtedly will by all the usual suspects). First of all, the Sunni bloc that is pondering its return to the Maliki government (the Accordance Front) is not exactly representative of a wide swathe of Iraqi Sunnis.

Like the Sadrist current, many Iraqi Sunni groups boycotted the regional elections in 2005, so the Accordance Front is overrepresented due to lack of prior competition. In recent months, other Sunni groups have begun to enter the political fray. In particular, the Awakenings groups (especially the Anbar Salvation Council tribal elements) have been demanding a share of the local and national pie from the Accordance Front (which is viewed with some level of animosity and mistrust by outsider Sunni groups due to the Front's collaborative efforts with Maliki and the occupation forces).

In pursuit of this, the Awakenings groups have been busy forming political parties to compete in the next round of elections tentatively slated for October. In fact, some of the Awakenings constituents have threatened violence if they are not given a share of political power via elections or some other means. That's one of the reasons that the Bush administration has been pushing for regional elections (despite the fact that the Sadrists will make a dent in ISCI/Dawa's mandate through those same elections - unless they are weakened. Hmmm.).

So in a sense, the Accordance Front is facing a similar challenge from previously uninvolved parties that ISCI/Dawa is facing from the Sadrist current. With that in mind, the Accordance Front has at least a few incentives to rejoin Maliki's government. For one, its members will be able to take advantage of their insider positions, and access to government machinery, in order to improve performance at the polls come this fall (in both legitimate and less than legitimate ways ).

The stated reasons for re-entry into the government also offer insight into some of the potential motives:

“Our conditions were very clear, and the government achieved some of them,” said Adnan al-Duleimi, the head of Tawafiq, the largest Sunni bloc in the government. Mr. Duleimi said the achievements included “the general amnesty, chasing down the militias and disbanding them and curbing the outlaws.”

The recently passed amnesty law has already led to the release of many Sunni prisoners, encouraging Sunni parties that the government is serious about enforcing it. And the attacks on Shiite militias have apparently begun to assuage longstanding complaints that only Sunni groups blamed for the insurgency have been the targets of American and Iraqi security forces.

There is at least some truth to this. While possibly exaggerated, the amnesty law has produced positive results. In addition, many Sunnis - having faced the brunt of sectarian cleansing at the hands of the Mahdi Army - likely applaud the recent anti-Sadrist operations. By touting these achievements, the Accordance Front can make the case that they have delivered tangible gains to their constituents. Not a bad thing in an election season, though the incentive to hype these developments is something to consider.

In addition, there could be some behind the scenes quid-pro-quo with Bush administration officials whereby the Accordance Front is given preferential treatment with respect to the elections, or otherwise, in exchange for this PR gift that the Bush team will be touting as a sign of political progress on the reconciliation front. That's purely speculative, but not exaclty outlandish or beyond the pale.

With respect to reconciliation, though, it's important to remember that the return of the Accordance Front is not a new development, just a reset of the status quo ante in place before their withdrawal. So, just as the Surge might have succeeded in returning violence to the already horrific 2005 levels, so this move might restore the Green Zone political apparatus to the dysfunctional dynamic in place prior to August 2007.

Large scale reconciliation will only be possible (eventually) after truly representative elections that produce leaders that speak for, and address the concerns of, large majorities in the various segments Iraqi society. Ironically, the return of the Accordance Front could portend the opposite in terms of the Sunni electorate, just as Maliki's crackdown of the Sadrist current threatens to mute the electoral voice of large chunks of the Shiite population.

One step forward, two steps back. The Iraq shuffle.

(hat tip to Cernig for the link above, and some of the ideas expressed herein)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sigh Ops

Cheryl Rofer is growing frustrated with the kabuki theater surrounding Israel's nuclear arsenal - a topic germane to at least three news stories currently in circulation. Rofer is always worth the read in connection with anything nuclear-related. And not.

Ilan Goldenberg takes note of some more "Special Groups" semantic chicanery. This site has been taking note of such word play in recent days. Cernig follows up with a post on the significance of 73% - and the recurrence of that very percentage. We need better propagandists.

I wish I had more time to blog, but you see, 73% of my day is currently being absorbed battling Special Projects from my bosses - at least, those of my bosses working direclty with the regime in Tehran in an elaborate effort to distract me from the unfolding plot to nuke defenseless Israel.

Vote McCain!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Toll the Bell for the Polls, Part I

Anthony Cordesman surveys the lay of the land (pdf) in the era of all-out war with the Sadrists in Iraq and games out the possibilities. Of the three, none is overly promising, even if certain outcomes are preferable to others. They are, according to Cordesman:

First, Maliki can win, defeat Sadr’s militia—the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al Mahdi (JAM)—and marginalize the Sadr movement. Second, Maliki can provoke Sadr into open violence and a new form of insurgency. Or, both sides become locked in a lingering intra-Shi’ite power struggle that mixes violence with political power plays.

Cordesman is using strained definitions of "win" and "defeat" when contemplating the first scenario. A recent Reuters piece clarifies the matter somewhat, echoing points that this site has been making for some time:

Ultimately, say experts, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may never be able to defeat the popular cleric by force, and his attempt to do so could make Iraq far more unstable at a time when U.S. troops are reducing in numbers.

"I think the threat should be taken very seriously indeed," said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website and an expert on southern Shi'ite Iraq.

"The Sadrists represent a strong popular movement with deep roots in Iraqi society, and it is entirely unrealistic to deal with them through military solutions alone."

Even Cordesman hedges and pares back his notions of winning and defeating:

The practical problem is that it is much easier to provoke an ideological and political movement with even the most successful tactical attacks than it is to defeat it as a religious and political force. Iraq’s poorer and more religious Shi’ites will not disappear no matter how good the military gains are against the JAM. They will be a major political force in any future elections regardless of whether Sadr survives, Sadrists are allowed to run, or the elections are fair or partly rigged. No one in Iraq goes quietly into that great night.

So what, then, would count as victory? The answer drains most meaning out of the word: disrupt the political and military wings of the Sadrist movement sufficient enough that Iran's main ally in Iraq, ISCI (aka SIIC), can prevail in upcoming elections (only). In other words, the US will be aiding and assisting in the undermining of the democratic process that it supposedly invaded Iraq to promote as an example throughout the region:

One can question the impact of a Maliki victory from the perspective of democratic theory. Virtually all experts agree that the Sadrist movement probably has more mass support among Shi’ites than the combination of Dawa and SIIC. In some mix of local and provincial elections that was held on the basis of ideal democracy, Sadr would win significant strength in Baghdad and the south, and do so with as much legitimacy as any other populist demagogue.

More practically, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the fighting that began on March 25 has been directed largely against Sadr precisely because he was becoming an increasingly better organized political force and more of a threat to Dawa and SIIC leaders who gained power more because they rode the US-led invasion into power than because of real popular support.

Would making a mockery of the democratic process in such a transparently hypocritical fashion be worth it for the US? All things being equal, there are some legitimate reasons to prefer ISCI/Dawa over the Sadrists (a topic I will examine in greater length in Part II). But all things aren't equal (nor is the basis for the preference overwhelmingly compelling).

For one, as mentioned above, any realistic conception of "victory" is inherently fleeting: the Sadrists might be shut out of the next round of elections, but they cannot be marginalized indefinitely. Reuters notes:

"The provincial elections are ahead and if the Sadrists were banned from participating, wide-scale confrontation is looming," said Iraqi university professor Saad al-Hadithi.

In addition, continuing to publicly promote democracy and claim it as the driving force of our foreign policy while working tirelessly to unravel democratic results when they don't meet our preferences greatly tarnishes our image and undermines our ability to encourage democratic growth (see, ie, Gaza, Pakistan, etc.).

Most importantly, though, continuing the massive assault on the Sadrist movement (besieging neighborhoods that house over 2 million Iraqis) will result in higher casualties for Coalition forces and, to a much larger extent, Iraqis - both militants and civilian bystanders alike.

All of those considerable and hefty costs will be incurred for the short term electoral gain of some tentative allies in Iraq that will, under ideal circumstances, result in the following net gain - according to Cordesman:

If this "best case" scenario occurs, it would almost certainly increase the prospects of the US staying in Iraq and have some impact on the November elections in the US. It would, however, be as much the "fog ahead" as the "way ahead."

And that's the best case scenario.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bring 'em On...and On, and On...

Back in July 2003, President Bush issued a now infamous taunt to the then-nascent Iraqi insurgency, urging militants intent on attacking Coalition forces to, "Bring 'em on." The Coalition had suffered three hundred or so fatalities at the time Bush made that ill-fated challenge. Since then, the number has grown to roughly 4,350. Careful what you wish for.

Even Bush, not one to contemplate past errors, has admitted that this bluster was a "big mistake." So when I saw the news over the weekend that Moqtada al-Sadr had issued a final ultimatum to the Iraqi government/US forces (halt the attacks on his movement, or he would fully lift the cease fire and declare all out war), I held out hope that the Bush administration might, at last, take this warning seriously and not make the same mistake again. For the Bush administration, however, it is one thing to begrudgingly admit culpability for previous lapses, and another to learn the implicit lesson therein:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mocked anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a coward on Sunday, hours after the radical leader threatened to declare war unless U.S. and Iraqi forces end a military crackdown on his followers.

Rice, in the Iraqi capital to tout security gains and what she calls an emerging political consensus, said al-Sadr is content to issue threats and edicts from the safety of Iran, where he is studying...

"I know he's sitting in Iran," Rice said dismissively, when asked about al-Sadr's latest threat to lift a self-imposed cease-fire with government and U.S. forces. "I guess it's all-out war for anybody but him," Rice said. "I guess that's the message; his followers can go too their deaths and he's in Iran."

So Condi, soon to return to that precarious forward operating base at Foggy Bottom, is calling out Sadr for urging others into battle from afar - reminiscent of Bush's prior bravado from a safe distance. Regardless of the transparent hypocrisy in the charge, this is an extremely disturbing development. As I have been cautioning of late, the Bush administration seems intent on provoking a full-on confrontation with the Sadrist current. Again, careful what you wish for.

Tragically, the Bush administration is underestimating the capacity of the Sadrist movement today in much the same way it did the Sunni insurgency back in 2003. But then, it's easy to bluff big with other peoples' chips lives. She might even admit it was a "big mistake" in a few years. If we're lucky.

(hat tip Cernig)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stepped Out for a Bit

I'm in San Francisco on a business trip (and harassing Swopa when I get some free time). Will be back on Thursday. Regular posting to resume then.

Friday, April 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I would be pretty nervous right now if I were a high ranking ISCI official.

Iraqi police imposed a curfew to prevent an outbreak of violence in the southern Shi'ite holy city of Najaf on Friday, after a senior aide to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was shot dead.

Police set up road blocks and drove through the city with loudspeakers ordering shops closed and people off the streets after Riyadh al-Nuri, a top Sadr aide whose sister is married to the cleric's brother, was gunned down.

Sadr blamed the United States and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government for the slaying.

"This is the hand of the occupier and his successor reaching out traitorously and aggressively against our precious martyr," the cleric said in a statement. "It is my vow that I will not forget this precious blood."

Dozens of angry followers gathered at Shi'ite Islam's main cemetery in the holy city to bury Riyadh.

In a speech to mourners, Sadr aide Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammedawi quoted the cleric as saying followers should remain "calm and not to drift into strife".

It's good to hear appeals to calm, but I'd bet there's going to be a tit for this tat in the next couple of weeks. Worse still, it is indicative of a larger trend. As I noted recently, the US and its Iraqi allies seem to headed toward a full-on confrontation with Sadr and his constituency.

Recent airstrikes in populated areas, as well as collective punishment tactics employed against Sadr City and the Shula districts of Baghdad (home to roughly 2.5 million Iraqis), are creating a deep bitterness in much of the Shiite population toward occupation and Green Zone forces.

That population is an unwieldy size to try to suppress with such measures, and it is hard to imagine such hardened attitudes will disappear in short oder. The situation could easily spiral out of control - to the extent that it hasn't already. On the other hand, the Surge is working, we are (still) winning (again) and the Democrats refuse to acknowledge our imminent victory out of political calculation.

Alright Already

I can feel your prying, accusatory eyes. I know, I haven't posted in a day or so. I got a day job ya know, so sue me.

Better yet, go read Blake Hounshell on The Surge and why we're all wasting our time arguing about whether it's working or not. It's meaningless.

Also: Katulis and Duss, tag team cage match vs. Fred and Kimberly Kagan. Katulis and Duss have the distinct advantage of...well, using actual facts. Verdict: KO in the first round (figure-four leg lock of empirical evidence).

Finally, Cernig updates us on the latest Iraq war supporter to abandon Bush's Titanic. This time, its erstwhile stalwart Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph in the UK.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

You Were Fighting as a Soldier on Their Side

Reidar Visser has an interesting, and at times counterfactual, piece up about the recent fighting in Basra and the related issues of Iranian infiltration of the political scene. Some key takeaways from Visser's analysis: First, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are not exactly dominated by ISCI (though ISCI has carved out substantial "fiefdoms" within the ISF). Perhaps more importantly, there is potential friction between Maliki and ISCI over the issue of federalization - with ISCI favoring a near fragmented Iraq while Maliki favors a stonger centralized state, even opposing the creation of the Shiite super region in the south.

While this is true in terms of the parties' respective ideological foundations, it has long been my contention that Maliki has been forced by his dependence on ISCI and the Kurdish parties to acquiesce to their shared agenda of federalization and de-centralization. Functionally, the underlying ideological differences could end up mattering little if Maliki remains tied to ISCI and the Kurds. In this, we are doing Maliki no favors by acting to suppress the nationalist elements (such as the Sadrists) that are most vehemently opposed to the federalization/de-centralization program.

Further, Visser contends that Maliki is less beholden to Iran than ISCI, and as evidence, Visser points out that the ISF under Maliki's leadership have taken action against some groups that are considered staunch Iranian allies - in the recent Basra crackdown and before. While Visser claims that Maliki is still intent on maintaining "independence vis-a-vis ISCI and Iran," again, we are not helping that cause by knocking the legs out of the other Iraqi groups that share Maliki's stance. To the extent that Maliki must rely on ISCI, his preferences might not matter as much. Ironically, increased US/Iraqi military pressure on the Sadrist current may have pushed Moqtada closer to Iran which, in turn, could have given Iran even more influence - now with a reliable ally on both sides of the centralization divide:

...[T]he conclusion of a ceasefire on Iranian soil shows that Tehran’s ability to influence the other end of the spectrum – the traditionally Iraqi nationalist Sadrist movement – may now be stronger than ever before, quite possibly the result of Muqtada’s relocation to Iran at the beginning of “the surge”, when he may have felt cornered by US policy.

Visser's conclusions are worth considering - as is the zinger he slips in at the end about our choice of allies in Iraq:

To the US, the best way of rectifying these problems would be to abandon the current policy of unquestioningly going after whomever Maliki defines as a terrorist. Instead Washington could emulate the Iranians: talk to as many Shiite factions as possible, which could be done simply by supporting free and fair local elections in October without giving in to very predictable schemes by Maliki and ISCI to exclude or obstruct the Sadrists and other undesirable competitors. Unfortunately, however, Washington appears headed in a different direction. The Bush administration fails to acknowledge that Iranian influences in Iraq operate through several channels, including some of Washington's best friends. In reality, the Iraqi nationalist component of Maliki’s government is wafer-thin, and unless this problem at the Green-Zone level is addressed and anti-Iranian currents among the Shiites are better represented, no amount of bottom-up progress, “breathing room” or American material support in the provinces will be sufficient to achieve national reconciliation.

In sum, the Iraqi system is locked at the top level. The artificial constellation of the so-called “moderate coalition” under Maliki is to a large extent the result of a weaponry-focused American misreading of the many channels of Iranian influence. This was best summed up by Ryan Crocker’s comments in the US Senate on 8 April: in an attempt at playing down the significance of Mahmud Amadinejad’s popularity in Iraqi government circles, Crocker referred to the staunch anti-Iranian attitude of the Iraqi Shiites during the Iran-Iraq War. What Crocker failed to mention was that his own administration’s main Shiite partner in Iraq [ISCI] is the only sizeable Shiite party that fought on the Iranian side. [emphasis added - that's gotta sting]

Looking at the big picture, it seems that the Bush administration places a greater emphasis on the prospect of securing permanent military bases and beneficial terms for foreign investment in the oil sector (which ISCI and the Kurds appear willing to dangle) than it does for limiting Iran's influence (which we would better achieve by propping up or at least not weakening nationalist elements including, even, the Sadrist current). At least that's one interpretation.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I Wish I Was Special

Kevin Drum elevated a comment that I made on his site to an update of the post in question, so I wanted to clarify my argument since it was a little vague. The subject of Drum's post has to do with a clever bit of wording that was adopted by Petraeus/Crocker around the time that Moqtada al-Sadr declared his cease fire - specifically, use of the term "Special Groups" in relation to certain segments of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia (aka JAM).

First, some background (which is relevant to a back and forth I had with avedis in comments to this post). Realizing the opportunity presented by Sadr's self-imposed cease-fire, Petraeus/Crocker made several good faith gestures (including later making a point of praising Sadr's efforts publicly and referring to Sadr by the honorific, "Sayyed" - used to denote direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammed). In connection with this charm offensive, Petraeus/Crocker began differentiating between the core of JAM, and those splinter factions that were designated as "Special Groups."

The Special Groups were then loaded up with all of the sins of JAM - both real and imagined. The Special Groups were accused of being tools of Iran, and were deemed responsible for the ethnic cleansing and criminal conduct perpetrated by some JAM members. In the process, JAM-central was redeemed.

There was a seed of truth to each of those claims, and Sadr himself was concerned about rogue factions that were improperly coopting the JAM name, and other JAM members whose discipline was fraying such that they were tainting the legitimacy and moral foundation of the overall program. In a limited sense, Sadr was willing to countenance some "culling" of these fringe elements through US military and Iraqi government operations (read: Badr) in order to consolidate control and to bring JAM in line with the ideological and religious undergirdings of the movement.

In this way, Petraeus/Crocker offered Sadr a face saving avenue to begin probing the normalization of relations. For a time, Sadr could afford to maintain the cease fire despite the assaults because those actions ostensibly targeted groups that were no longer considered legitimate JAM members, and so no response was necessary. As I have been warning for months, however, the US military and Iraqi government forces began cutting into the core of JAM - as well as arresting and detaining non-militia members of the Sadrist current. Petraeus/Crocker continued to praise Sayyed al-Sadr and maintain the fiction of targeting only the Special Groups, but the actions were speaking louder than the increasingly hollow words.

Pressure began mounting steadily from within the Sadrist movement for Moqtada to lift the cease fire and retaliate. Initially, he called off the cease fire as it relates to ISCI (whose Iranian trained Badr Corp militia had been relentlessly harrassing JAM, both in its capacity as officially recognized Iraqi Security Forces and as a stand alone militia). Eventually, Sadr declared that the cease fire did not preclude actions against any party; if in self-defense. Thus, following the recent Basra offensive, all hell broke loose - at least for a short time.

Back to Kevin Drum, who passes along this bit from Thomas Ricks' liveblogging of the Petraeus/Crocker testimony:

Later in his prepared statement, Crocker makes real news. In the wake of the Basra operation, he reveals, Moqtada al-Sadr's main militia, Jayash al-Mahdi, seems to have linked back up with the so-called "Special Groups," or splinter elements of the militia.

I hadn't seen that before. As Crocker says in his statement, that is "a dangerous development."

K-Drum, logically, states that it should come as no surprise that JAM is re-linking with the Special Groups considering the tendency to unite in the face of a common enemy and agrees that it is a "dangerous development." That is quite possibly the case, though I have my doubts.

Regardless, I find Crocker's assertion itself, not the underlying truth, to be the "dangerous development." What that signals to me is that Petraeus/Crocker are dropping the Special Groups pretense and are no longer probing a conciliatory track with Sadr. Petraeus/Crocker will resume pre-cease fire attempts to tar the entire Sadrist current with assorted sins - again, real and imagined. That, to me, looks like the rhetorical groundwork for a full-on confrontation, moreso than even the overly aggressive culling actions described above. A lifting of the cease-fire would be the logical next step if Crocker's choice of words is as significant as I fear.

Hold on to your hats.

The April 2008 Edition of: Moqtada al-Sadr Is Dead

Sigh. You knew it was about that time didn't you? Rich Lowry becomes the latest volunteer to fill the monthly quota of "Moqtada al-Sadr is dead" proclamations (a recurring phenomenon of remarkable perseverence despite its unbroken streak of being...well, wrong each time). As I have warned, the danger in this fantastical thinking is that policy makers will eventually believe their own hype, and then proceed to underestimate Sadr which results in a string of tactical defeats. Sun Tzu 101 is baffling esoterica to them.

Lowry is feeling good about the latest obituary because Prime Minister Maliki and others are calling for a law that would, somehow, prevent the Sadrists from competing in the next round of elections because his political movement has an armed wing, while exempting the mutliplicity of other parties in a similar situation. Also, the recent rumblings about Sadr leaving the fate of his militia in the hands of Sistani. To which, I cede the floor to Juan Cole:

The Sadrists have no intention of dissolving the Mahdi Army, according to this Arabic source, quoting Sadrist spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi. They point out, pace that great Iraq expert Lowry, that there are 28 militias in Iraq. The Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) still exists as a stand alone organization. In fact it ran as a political party in the elections and holds both provincial and federal seats. It hasn't been complete merged into the state security forces as Lowry alleged...

Then the US press went wild for this supposed report that Muqtada al-Sadr said he would dissolve his militia if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani ordered it. Folks, he always says that when there is a controversy. (He said the same thing in spring, 2004). He says it because he knows it makes him look reasonable to the Shiite public. He says it because he knows that the grand ayatollahs are not going to touch the matter with a ten foot pole. They are not so foolish as to take responsibility for dissolving a militia that they had nothing to do with creating. And that is probably the real meaning of this CNN report that they 'refused' when asked. I doubt the grand ayatollahs in Najaf actively commanded Muqtada to keep his militia. They just declined to get drawn in. [...]

As for the the threat that the Sadrists would not be allowed to run in the provincial elections in the fall unless the Mahdi Army was dissolved, it is either empty or very dangerous. First of all, not only Sadrists but also other observers have pointed out that excluding parties from running in elections is not the prerogative of the prime minister. It is a matter that would have to be passed by parliament. And since the parliamentarians who would be voting to dissolve all militias ahead of elections are all in parties that maintain militias, it would be political suicide for them to vote that way. Of course, they could just play the hypocrite card and declare, as Lowry did, that their militias are not militias, whereas the Mahdi Army is a militia.

But if the Sadrists are really excluded from civil politics, and they are the majority in the South, then you will have just pushed a majority of Iraqis out of the political process and potentially into civil violence. Isn't that the opposite of the goal here?

The US casualty rate is already creeping up as a result of the anti-Sadr operations that, in effect, are besieging an expansive neighborhood of Baghdad - home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Now Sadr is renewing threats to call off the cease fire that is still in effect - though its parameters allow for violence in self defense. If he makes such a move, anti-coalition violence will likely spike.

Sadr was not dead the hundreds of other times Bush administration supporters declared it, nor is he likely dead now. Crafting policy based on that assumption at this juncture will liekly end as well as the previous misguided efforts. In that, the Iranians have offered a valuable lesson and if the Bush administration remains intent on maintaining its imperial foothold, it might as well take notes from other regional experts. As Matt Duss stated:

Sadr, on the other hand, is seen by the Iranians as an annoyance. This does not mean, however, that Iran has not sought to build ties to his movement. Though initially surprised by the strength of Sadr’s movement, (which they rightly regarded as a hindrance to their quick, easy, SCIRI-facilitated dominance of Iraq), Iran quickly grasped — unlike the U.S. — that Sadr’s political appeal was genuine, and has sought to manage it, rather than simply deny or suppress it, as the U.S. has done.

That being said, there are certainly signs that Iran may be prepared to throw Sadr under the bus as his usefulness is waning at a time when Iran might be eyeing the opportunity to usher in the era of "SCIRI-facilitated dominance of Iraq." As I have stated in the past, Sadr's long term goals diverge from Iran's in serious ways: Sadr is a staunch nationalist (at least vis-a-vis foreign powers if not always vis-a-vis sectarian rivals) and he vehemently opposes fragmenting Iraq by forming a semi-autonomous Shiite super region in the south. That is one of Iran's most valued objectives. So it is likely inevitable that Iran will try to weaken Sadr.

So now, via Cernig, comes this report:

Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq's prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi'ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.

The Islamic Republic also said the United States, its old foe, had requested a new round of talks on improving security in Iraq and Tehran was considering it. [...]

Analysts say Tehran and Washington, despite their mutual accusations, may still have a shared interest in a stable Iraq.

Mutual interest indeed. I wonder if the fate of a certain Shiite cleric would come up as a central topic. The irony would be thick if rank: the Bush administration and the Iranians finally come to some accord on the situation in Iraq, with the compact formed over the decision to crush a popular indigenous movement, likely killing tens of thousands and disenfranchising millions. See, the Bush administration can do diplomacy!

Monday, April 07, 2008

Circle Gets a Square

The pressing need to hold regional elections in Iraq has created a peculiar dilemma for the Bush administration. The conundrum goes something like this: The Awakenings/CLC groups have been demanding a share in the local government (they are on the outside due to their prior boycott) and are threatening violence absent such inclusion. Postponing elections, thus, risks losing key parties in the Awakenings/CLC movement, in turn jeopardizing gains in reducing anti-coalition violence.

On the other hand, our strongest ally in the Iraqi government (and Iran's), ISCI, has been steadily working to put off regional elections (including vetoing the most recent legislation) because of fears that it will lose considerable ground to the more popular Sadrist current (which also boycotted the last round of regional elections).

This intra-Shiite contest is important to the Bush administration for a few reasons. ISCI is amenable to a prolonged occupation, open to foreign investment in the oil sector on very beneficial terms to outsiders and intent on implementing some form of soft partition by creating a Shiite super region in the south (all goals shared by the Bush administration - with the last also favored by Iran). The Sadrists oppose each aspect of that agenda, so the US is mindful of ISCI's plight: any gains by the Sadrists at ISCI's expense would prove problematic to Bush administration designs.

How to square that circle? In February, Reidar Visser picked up the following chatter:

...[I]t would not be surprising if the dextrous politicians of ISCI, PUK and KDP were once more able to have it their way. “Rolling elections” has already been mentioned – perhaps the perfect euphemism in a context where the dominant US-sponsored Iraqi factions want to have elections in a few selected areas, but not everywhere? [my emphasis]

Recent events seem to be fleshing out that euphemism. When ISCI dropped its veto of the regional elections law a couple days after Cheney's visit, and when the anti-Sadrist offensive began a few days later, there seemed to be a connection - a quid pro quo of sorts. The overriding goal of the offensive (and the lever to get ISCI to withdraw its veto) was to weaken the Sadrists ahead of the election so that ISCI would be able to maintain its foothold in the Shiite south (which is of particular importance to the soft-partition plan).

The offensive didn't go as planned, however, leaving Bush administration officials scrambling to distance itself from the affair: at first denying any knowledge of the anti-Sadrist campaign, and then claiming advanced warning but not authorship. Enter Phase 2 of Operation Rolling Elections (which itself is only one part of the long term strategy of political realignment as explained by Badger):

Iraq's major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties have closed ranks to force anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his Mahdi Army militia or leave politics, lawmakers and officials involved in the effort said Sunday.

Such a bold move risks a violent backlash by al-Sadr's Shiite militia. But if it succeeds it could cause a major realignment of Iraq's political landscape.

The first step will be adding language to a draft election bill banning parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall, the officials and lawmakers said. The government intends to send the draft to parliament within days and hopes to win approval within weeks.

Let's clarify a few things here: First of all, the law - in practice - would not ban all "parties that operate militias from fielding candidates in provincial balloting this fall." If it were applied so even-handedly, then ISCI, the Kurdish parties, the Awakenings/CLC movement (to name a few) would all be banned as well (although those groups would have the makings of a plausible defense given that many of their militia members - though not all...yet - have been in some way incorporated into official Iraqi armed forces).

Since those parties are pushing most stridently for this law, we can assume their immunity has been secured. In effect, the law would target the Sadrists and the Sadrists alone. Democracy, as they say, is on the march. As I have been warning, however, this approach is fraught with danger as the Sadrists are quite capable of fighting back which could, again, jeopardize recent gains in anti-coalition violence.

Nor is Sadr out of countermoves of a less martial quality. Swopa took note of the recent chess:

Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered on Monday to disband his militia if the highest Shi'ite religious authority demand it, a shock announcement at a time when the group is the focus of an upsurge in fighting.

It was the first time Sadr has offered to dissolve the Mehdi Army militia, whose black-masked fighters have been principle actors throughout Iraq's five-year-old war and the main foes of U.S. and Iraqi forces in widespread battles over recent weeks.

The news came on the day Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who launched a crackdown on the militia late last month, ordered the Mehdi Army to disband or Sadr's followers would be excluded from Iraqi political life.

Senior Sadr aide Hassan Zargani said Sadr would seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, as well as senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran, on whether to dissolve the Mehdi Army, and would obey their orders. [emphasis borrowed from Swopa]

Swopa raises some interesting ideas:

Reuters is wrong in the story above where they say this is the first time Sadr has ostentatiously placed his militia's fate in Sistani's lap -- Moqtada made similar promises during previous conflicts. In those cases, the grand ayatollah (reluctantly or not) ultimately had Sadr's back, forcing compromise in the name of Shiite unity.

Is Mookie expecting the same sort of bail-out now, or is he just trying to tie the Maliki/ISCI government more tightly around Sistani's neck before open warfare breaks out?

If parliamentary action is inevitable, then this is about the best play Sadr could make if a bit risky (but then, so is being shut out of the political sphere entirely). Either Sistani will side with Sadr and thus Sadr will have serious religious backing in his bid to preserve JAM (we'd also be able to test the extent to which SCIRI's switch to ISCI was anything other than window dressing given their ostensible realignment to Sistani over Khamenei), or Sadr will have pushed Sistani into the unenviable position of siding with the unpopular Green Zone government - as well as the occupation forces - in their bid to disband a popular, nationalist, anti-occupation militia.

Something to think about as Sadr is busy burnishing his religious credentials ahead of a possible move to carve out a bigger piece of the pie in terms of religious influence.

Friday, April 04, 2008

We're Either With Us or Against Us...or Both

Ilan Goldenberg unearths this head-exploding factoid from a discussion between Nir Rosen and Michael Ware (would have been fun to attend that one):

The Badr Organization is the military arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI previously known as SCIRI). Now ISCI is closely aligned with Maliki government and is arguably the most significant player in the current central government. In fact significant elements of the Badr Organization have been incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces.

Now, here is where things start to break down. The Badr Organization (Originally called the Badr Brigades) was originally formed by Iran. But according to Ware many of its members were considered to be part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And many of them are now considered to be retirees of the IRGC. Which means…wait for it... wait for it...

They still get pensions from the IRGC!! But it gets better. The Bush Administration has classified the IRGC as a terrorist organization!!

So, just so that we’re clear on this. We are building an army full of people who are still getting pension payments from an organization that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. And we are basing our entire future in Iraq on that army.

I laugh until my head falls off. How many people are dying each day to perpetrate this travesty of a sham? All the cruelty, terror and destruction for this? Marc Lynch provides more gallows humor at the expense off yet another hapless Kagan:

"The U.S. should encourage the Iraqi government to defeat Iran's proxies and agents, and should provide the requisite assistance." - Kimberly Kagan, Wall Street Journal.

Um, yeah. Let's get Nuri al-Maliki, Abd al-Aziz Hakim, and Jalal Talabani on the trail of Iran's proxies and agents immediately! But they'll need some leads...where, oh where, are they going to find Iran's friends in Iraq?

Check the government payrolls. Ah, reminds me of John McCain's very serious warning:

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, speaking in Jordan after visiting Iraq, said the recent buildup of U.S. troops was succeeding and any early military withdrawal would dramatically boost Iranian influence in the region.

Yeah, because if we withdraw, the Badr folks will only have their IRGC pensions to rely on, and not US taxpayer dollars as well. Then where will we be?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

CYA Follies

I must say, I find this post from Patrick Barry at Democracy Arsenal to be a curious contortion of facts, chronology and arguments - all in the service of helping the Bush administration to exonerate itself of its role in the Basra fiasco. An excerpt:

It now appears that the fraught operation in Basra last week was the brain-child of none other than Nouri al-Maliki (Cheney conspiracy theorists despair.)

First things first. Initially, I objected to the fact that Ilan Goldenberg (and many others) were accepting, without skepticism, the initial Bush administration spin that it wasn't notified in advance - at all - of the Basra assault. Goldenberg stated:

You'd think installing the guy and having 150,000 troops there to underwrite his government would at least buy American forces a heads up. You'd be wrong.

Marc Lynch stated in a post that Barry links to:

Did the United States have advance notice of Maliki's decision to attack Basra?...Eric Martin, like many others, is skeptical, pointing to reporting prior to the offensive and to the timing of Cheney's visit, as well as to the incentives for both the Iraqis and the Americans to pretend that it was an Iraqi initiative. It is very hard to believe that they would or could actually initiate such a high-risk offensive without consulting the US. On the other hand, several people in a position to know have now told me that as far as they knew the US in fact did not have advance notice.

So, again, the issue was that the Bush administration was claiming no advance notice, and some (though not Lynch it should be pointed out) were accepting this self-serving spin as fact without pause.

Curiously, the New York Times piece cited by Barry does not provide evidence that the Bush administration was, in fact, kept in the dark. Instead, it quotes Bush administration sources to the effect that Ambassador Ryan Crocker was told about the offensive three days before launch, and Petraeus two days before. Thus, even if we take these still self-serving statements by Bush administration officials at face value (a dubious endeavor given that all government officials embellish, and the Bush team has had a particularly egregious track record), even they are admitting to receiving advance warning or, as Ilan put it, a "heads up."

As for Barry's claim that the New York Times article proves the Basra operation was "Maliki's brainchild" and, thus, those claiming Cheney had a role should despair, I'm not so sure. First, some background:

Part of my initial skepticism of the Bush administration's "in the dark" storyline was based on the fact that a couple of days after Cheney visited (March 18) the head of the ISCI party, ISCI dropped (March 21) its veto of the regional elections law (the initial veto was due to concern that ISCI would lose ground to the Sadrists in those regional elections since ISCI is overrepresented due to the boycott of the last round of regional elections by the Sadrists). ISCI dropped its veto on the same day that Crocker was told of the impending Basra assault (according to the Times article). Days later (March 24), the Iraqi government undertook a massive operation targeting the Sadrist current in the Shiite south (the very region that is the focus of ISCI's electoral concerns).

The "Cheney conspiracy theory," as Barry derisively terms it, was never that Cheney came up with a plan to attack Basra on his own. Rather the theory was that Cheney indicated that the US would assist in, or at least bless, an assault on the Sadrists in Basra in exchange for ISCI's withdrawal of its veto. Thus, even if the attack was "Maliki's brainchild" that does not refute the theory that Cheney offered our blessing to Maliki's plan as a quid pro quo.

What we do know is that ISCI did withdraw its veto shortly after Cheney's visit with Hakim. We also know that the US did in fact bless and assist the assault and its aftermath. What is not known is whether or not our blessing/assistance was offered as an inducement to ISCI. I wonder what the competing theory is? Was it Cheney's ability to convince Hakim of the virtues of free and fair elections?

Further, even if it is true that Crocker and Petraeus weren't tipped off until a couple days after the Cheney visit, that does not negate the Cheney theory. Cheney is a skilled bureacratic infighter. One of Cheney's favorite tactics (and, during his tenure, Donald Rumsfeld's as well) is to make bold moves without informing other branches of the administration - those branches most likely to resist the policy in question and/or try to kill the policy through press leaks. In particular, Cheney and Rumsfeld cut Colin Powell and the State Department out of the loop with some frequency. Are we to believe that now that Condi Rice (also kept in the dark as NSA) is head of the State Department, Cheney has found religion such that he would never give Maliki the greenlight without telling Rice/Crocker? Or is it that Cheney won't act without cluing in Gates? Color me unconvinced.

Finally, even the "Maliki brainchild" claim assumes too much. For starters, we are once again relying on anonymous Bush administration and military sources and treating their statements as gospel. But even granting that ex arguendo, consider this from the same Times piece:

There has been growing concern with the Iraqi government about the disorder in the city. In recent weeks, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, a senior Iraqi commander in Basra, proposed that additional forces be sent.

Prompted by this suggestion, a detailed plan was being developed by American and Iraqi officials, which involved the establishment of combat outposts in the city and the deployment of Iraqi SWAT teams, Iraqi Special Forces and Interior Ministry units, as well as Iraqi brigades. [emphasis mine throughout]

The article claims that Maliki grew impatient and went ahead with the assault without preparing the field according to the US military plan. If that's true, then the assault itself wasn't "Maliki's brainchild," but rather the timing.

The Pre-9/11 Mindset

Thomas Hegghammer has a very interesting piece on the state of insight into the phenomenon of terrorism:

...[T]he lack of understanding about the enemy has led to serious inefficiencies and excesses which are starting to become publicly known. An astronomical sum of money has been spent on counter-terrorism and homeland security, much of which has gone to private American consultancies with questionable expertise. Then there is the human cost of the search for enemies. The Kafkaesque conversations between detainees and their accusers at Guantánamo Bay reveal a US military with a chronic lack of accountability and a poor understanding about the Middle East and Islamic activism. The security establishment was not alone in its ignorance about jihadism. Middle East scholars on both sides of the Atlantic had long shunned the study of Islamist militancy for fear of promoting Islamophobia and of being associated with a pro-Israeli political agenda.

Citing some of my personal favorites such as Peter Bergen and Marc Sageman, Hegghammer shines a light on Bin Laden - in his own words:

Those who wonder why it has taken so long to establish a reliable account of Bin Laden’s deeds will be even more surprised to learn how long it took simply to report his words. Since the early 1990s, Bin Laden has been screaming for attention, always declaring his intentions before putting them into practice. Yet it was not until 2005 that these declarations were made available to a broader Western public with the publication of Messages to the World, a reader of Bin Laden’s texts edited by Bruce Lawrence...This collection of annotated and edited translations of twenty-four of Bin Laden’s most important statements between 1994 and 2004 is a far better resource than the translations circulating on the internet. Bin Laden’s proclamations are, of course, hate speech, calling for the mass murder of civilians; but those who expect religious ranting will be surprised. There are no complex theological arguments, for the simple reason that Bin Laden’s intended audience, the Muslim masses, are not versed in the technicalities of Islamic jurisprudence. Bin Laden’s discourse is profoundly political and elegant in its simplicity. It is populism at its most effective and most frightening.

Osama bin Laden’s central theme is the suffering and humiliation of the Muslim nation (the umma) at the hands of non-Muslims. He conveys a pan-Islamic nationalist world view according to which the umma is facing an existential threat from outside forces led by the US. Bin Laden’s principal rhetorical device is the enumeration of symbols of suffering – examples of situations where Muslims have been humiliated or oppressed by non-Muslims, such as in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and, above all, his homeland, Saudi Arabia, where the US military “occupies” the holy places of Islam. The only way to defend against this onslaught, he argues, is to confront America militarily.

Given the nature and focus of Bin Laden's rhetoric and propaganda, it is easy to see how and why invading Iraq with bombastic shock and awe, shortly after invading Afghanistan, was such a strategic gaffe. Amongst other things, it equipped Bin Laden with an arsenal of bloody images of innocent Muslim men, women and children to go along with his seductive oratory (not to mention Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other predictable atrocities that come part and parcel with war - especially when administration leaders sanction torture). The prolonged occupation provides constant succor to Bin Laden's hearts and minds campaign. Seen in this light, the invasion of Iraq is a policy that reveals the flaws in the Bush administration's approach - a mindset that has consistently ignored, downplayed and neglected the actual terrorist threat facing this country since before 9/11 to the present.

Bush's invasion of Iraq was not only a propaganda boon for Bin Laden, however. Hegghammer explains how Bush and Cheney helped Bin Laden snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a tactical sense:

Bin Laden’s intention was to provoke a US invasion of Afghanistan, whereupon the US would get stuck, like the Soviet Union had done in the 1980s, and eventually collapse from the economic burden of the war. It is ironic that the US would later choose to place itself in the situation envisaged by Bin Laden, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq.

While the US hasn't quite "collapsed" due to the strain of the Iraq war, the war has been an enormous drain on a wide array of limited, valuable and, in some instances, irreplaceable resources: From the lives of soldiers lost or diminished to death and injury, to the widespread non-reenlistment of the cherished officers class, to the lowering of standards in recruitment to make up for lack of interest (a corrective measure that greatly lessens fighting capacity).

Then there is the expenditure of trillions of dollars, which in turn has necessitated the neglect of other vital initiatives in need of funding: From Social Security, to health care, to the rapidly deteriorating environment and an infrastructure in need of overhaul in order to maintain the lead in economic advancement.

Not to be underestimated, there are the diplomatic costs, the loss of standing in the world, the ceding of the moral highground, the tainting of the democratization movement, the neglect of Afghanistan and the inattention to countless other exigent circumstances - including, and especially, al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself.

In furtherance of irony, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, and his supporters, focus on the fear that if we leave Iraq, al-Qaeda will be "emboldened" or that, shudder, al-Qaeda might "claim victory." As if continuing to conduct ourselves according to the Bin Laden playbook is going to cause Bin Laden to lose heart. By further bleeding resources as Bin Laden hoped, we'll deny Bin Laden his...victory?

Hegghammer calls attention to one other bit of information that is worth emphasizing:

Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era. [emphasis added throughout]

Those that promulgate the notion that the Israel/Palestine conflict is irrelevant to terrorism tend to be the same people that argue that no matter what we do, terrorists will "hate us anyway" - so don't bother changing. These are specious arguments marshaled by those that do not want to offer any concessions or compromises in connection with the legitimate grievances that, in part, fuel anti-Americanism and terrorism (from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and beyond).

That - not an aversion to tangentail preemptive war or a defense of civil liberties - is what can accurately be described as the pre-9/11 mindset.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Don't Believe the Hype - It's a Sequel

I suppose it's not surprising that so many right wing pundits, politicians and bloggers are clamoring to declare the latest anti-Sadr operation a success and (yes, yet again) a sure sign that Sadr is finished. Once President Bush signaled early on in the campaign that the resulting action would prove the "success of the surge," those onlookers that were still committed to defending the prolongment of the Iraqi occupation became invested in this narrative. Then again, declaring the death of Sadr has been a sort of preoccupation for many of those same observers, regardless of the fact that by their count, Sadr's got more lives than an alleyway teeming with cats giving birth to kittens.

But contrary to the beliefs of those deeply enthralled with "Green Lantern Theories" of geopolitics, and other assorted subjectivists, blind cheerleaderism in the face of contradictory empirical evidence does not lead to victory. Quite the opposite in fact. Belief alone does not create reality, it gets demolished by it. Further, underestimating the strength of an adversary, and/or overestimating your own strength, is not a sign of patriotism, superior fortitude, courage or support for your "side." Such myopia is a disservice to your neighbors.

While it is one thing to encourage such unconditional support and discipline from rank and file supporters for political expediency sake, propaganda drift is an insidious and seductive danger capable of blowing back on the disseminators. For one, the propagandist's story is a pleasing one, and humans are hardwired to gravitate toward a rendition of reality that is more comforting. Furthermore, practically speaking, if a priority is placed on achieving outcome X, it becomes imperative to espouse interpretations of events that are consistent with the realization of outcome X.

Certain storylines are thus promoted, while others argued against, not because of their respective relation to the truth, but rather the wider implications if one or the other is accepted. It was this kind of pressure from above that so greatly corrupted the intelligence gathering and analysis process both before and during the Iraq war (as chronicled quite masterfully by A.J. Rossmiller in Still Broken - review forthcoming). When locked in this circularity, it becomes possible not only for a group of policymakers to believe their own hype, but to insist that analysts produce intelligence products that conform to their desired worldview (any other read of events is flawed). The next step is tragic: those same policymakers then adopt policies based on that warped view.

Along these lines, underestimating Sadr has been a persistent affliction clouding the vision of Bush administration officials since even before the invasion began - when few, if any, in Bush's policy-making circle even knew of Sadr's existence. The most recent anti-Sadr campaign is, in many ways, the product of this perpetual self-delusion. Gareth Porter argues:

Behind this furious backpedaling is a major Bush administration miscalculation about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, which the administration believed was no longer capable of a coordinated military operation. It is now apparent that Sadr and the Mahdi Army were holding back because they were still in the process of retraining and reorganisation, not because Sadr had given up the military option or had lost control of the Mahdi Army. [...]

Some observers have expressed doubt that the Bush administration would have chosen to have al-Maliki launch such a risky campaign against well-entrenched Shiite militiamen in Basra until after the Petraeus-Crocker testimony had been completed. But that assumes that Vice President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon recognised the potential danger of a large-scale effort to eliminate or severely weaken the Mahdi Army in Basra. [...]

For many months the Bush administration, encouraged by Moqtada al-Sadr's unilateral ceasefire of last August, had been testing Sadr and the Mahdi Army to see if they would respond to piecemeal repression by striking back...

Resistance to such operations by the Mahdi Army had been minimal, and Bush administration officials attributed Sadr's apparent acquiescence to restraining Iranian influence and the decline of the Mahdi Army as a fighting force. [...]

Petraeus, meanwhile, was convinced that the ability of the Mahdi Army to resist had been reduced by U.S. military actions as well as by its presumed internal disorganisation. His spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, declared in early November, "As we've gone after that training skill levels amongst the enemy, we've degraded their capability..."

Then came Sadr's announcement Feb. 22 that the ceasefire would be extended. That apparently convinced Petraeus and the Bush White House that they could now launch a large-scale "cordon and search" operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra without great risk of a military response.

That assumption ignored the evidence that Sadr had been avoiding major combat because he was in the process of reorganising and rebuilding the Mahdi Army into a more effective force...

Which should serve as a warning to those feverishly spinning the most recent engagement as a massive defeat of Sadr and his militia: careful which storyline you choose to tout. Always check back with reality, and remember to scrub against the lessons of history (recent no less!). After all, someone might believe you.

Joost the Facts

Joost Hilterman fills in some of the blanks on the recent anti-Sadr operation in Basra (via Juan Cole). In particular, Hilterman highlights the factionalized make-up of the Iraqi military forces that were brought in to engage Sadr's militia. Contrary to many characterizations that Maliki was leading a "national" army against outlaw Shiite groups, the underlying dynamic was of a power struggle between Shiite factions/militias:

"I think it was a dual campaign, on the one hand, by the Iraqi government, which wanted to impose its sovereignty over Al-Basrah, which has been lawless, and secondly, it's a campaign based on the desire by one of the ruling parties, which has its own militia, [the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] with its Badr Corps, to push back the Sadr movement and its militia, the Mahdi Army, especially since provincial council elections have been planned for the fall in which the Sadr movement is likely to do much better than the Supreme Council."

Hiltermann says the political nature of the power struggle quickly became apparent as the fighting began. The national army units involved were units from southern Iraq, where the recruiting has been heavily from the Supreme Council's Badr Organization.

He says that the other major component of the Iraqi Army, recruits from the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq, "would not go down to the south to fight this kind of fight."

As the clashes intensified, the 28,000 soldiers involved in the operation proved unable to quickly drive al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army from the streets, despite U.S. air support. In the interim, Sadrists in other towns in the south, as well as in Baghdad's sprawling Al-Sadr City slum, tactically spread the fighting there. That escalated the stakes for al-Maliki's government to unacceptable levels as it raised fears of a general insurrection by al-Sadr's forces. [emphasis added]

The last highlighted excerpt emphasizes, again, the importance of motivation. We underestimate that quality at our peril. Hilterman also gives a pretty concise overview of some of the major Basra players:

Hiltermann says Al-Basrah remains divided among three groups. One, the Shi'ite Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, is associated with provincial Governor Muhammad Wa'ili. It stayed out of the fray while the troops and the Sadrists battled.

Hiltermann says that Al-Fadilah "has done very well for itself, and they have the governor position and they control the oil company there, so they have a very good share of the oil trade and the oil smuggling that is going on there. The other groups are trying to get a cut of that and, of course, have shared power to some extent, with Supreme Council dominating security institutions and the Sadrists being involved in the police and being very strong on the street." [...]

The...thing to watch will be the governorate-council elections later this year. In the aftermath of last week's fighting, the question is whether the rival Shi'ite parties will now accept the ballot box as the way to balance power between them or will continue to try force. What they decide will go a long way toward defining the stability of Iraq.

It comes down to this: will ISCI and their US/Iranian backers risk losing ground to Sadr in the south by acquiescing to free and fair elections? If so, a measure of stability is possible. If not, and they either try to scuttle elections or once again weaken the Sadrists' position through military campaign, violence will resume with considerable intensity.

Given the Bush administration's track record, I'd bet on the latter. John McCain should be very, very concerned.

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