Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Wheel's Still in Spin

The best way to read the Brookings Iraq trip report of Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack is not to see which political position it supports (i.e. whether is the Surge working or not) but simply to understand what it says. It plainly says that the question of whether American policy will be successful or not cannot yet be determined -- and then goes on to describe what seems to be working and what seems to be broken. "There is a great deal going well in Iraq but, unfortunately, also a great deal going badly." It is the best of times and the worst of times. How it will all end depends: on what factors exactly we will attempt to discover by a close reading.

What works in Iraq is the American military and, to a certain extent, the Iraqi Army. What doesn't work -- and may in fact be actively working against the US -- is the Iraqi national political system and the national police (NP).


U.S. military forces performing superbly in counterinsurgency/stability role ... In contrast to many critics who believed that the U.S. military (and particularly the Army) would take years to adapt proper counterinsurgency (COIN) and stabilization techniques, American forces appear to have embraced them in just a matter of months. ...

The Iraqi Army is slowly becoming a helpful partner to U.S. Forces ... Possibly the most important development of all those we saw in Iraq is the slow but tangible progress of Iraqi security forces. ... The Iraqi Army 3rd Infantry Division, for example, started out overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shi’ah, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab. We noted that its American advisers boasted that it was the best division in the Iraqi Army, something we heard from U.S. officers about several Iraqi divisions. In the past, it was unimaginable to have American officers bragging about the Iraqi units they were working with. ... In only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless—something that was the rule, not the exception, in late 2005.

The growing effectiveness of the Iraqi Army essentially means that the total force available to the Coalition is growing because IA units can now replace US units in a growing number of cases.

Mosul—Iraq’s third largest city—and neighboring TalAfar were previously two of Iraq’s most unstable cities and together required a commitment of roughly one-quarter of all American forces in Iraq simply to keep them from imploding. Today, the presence of two competent and reliable Iraqi Army divisions and a competent and reliable Iraqi National Police (NP) division and a NP brigade have allowed MNF-I to reduce American forces within each city proper to just a few hundred men who serve as advisory teams and fire support teams to the Iraqis. The troops freed up have been redeployed to Diyala and al-Anbar to take advantage of the opportunities there. While this is only a first step, it is a very significant first step toward freeing up additional American formations both to pacify more parts of Iraq (spreading the oil stain) and eventually allowing them to depart Iraq altogether.

But while these positive developments have dealt heavy blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency they have done little to prevent the rise of Shi'ite forces bent on gaining total dominance over the Sunnis. The dreams of sectarian domination within Iraq have not ended. Sectarian Shi'ites have entrenched themselves in the Ministry of the Interior and the National Police inside the government and in militias outside the government in order to carry it out.

The NP and its parent Ministry of Interior (MOI) remain completely dominated by unreconstructed Shi’i chauvinists. The senior leadership is dominated by the worst elements of the Badr Organization while its rank-and-file remains infested with members of Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM). As best we could tell, a great many average Iraqis continued to see NP personnel as an object of fear, not safety. ...

The difference between the NP and the Army points to the considerable mistake the United States made in not maintaining the U.S. military as the principal partner for the NP, and not retaining large numbers of American military personnel within the MOI structure as was done in the MOD.

The continuing sectarian struggle to control Iraq is reflected in the politics of Baghdad which exists in a world of its own and ignores any signals which interfere with their partisan agenda. "Such measures may get 'passed' by the Iraqi Council of Representatives under tremendous pressure from the United States, but at this point it seems most likely that any measures that are passed will be ignored by the major parties."

At the top of Iraqi politics, the situation is awful. It is worse than stalemate; it is closer to open animosity and mistrust among leaders of different sectarian groups. ... Paranoia and backstabbing predominate among the various sects and even among the parties within them. A common perception among Shi’ah is that many Sunnis are unreformed or latent Baathists, waiting for an opportunity to try to regain power. The common perception among Sunnis is that the Shi’i government is in open collaboration with extremist militias, most notably that of Muqtada as-Sadr and known as Jaysh al-Mahdi (or JAM), which engages in Balkans-style sectarian killing as well as run-of-the-mill hooliganism.

The political situation is jammed so tight that the US military is simply constructing a parallel police force to outflank the Ministry of the Interior and the NP, an unsatisfactory expedient whose only virtue is that there is no other alternative.

One solution increasingly being embraced across central, northern, and western Iraq is to try to stand up local police forces (called Iraqi Police, IPs) instead of relying on the NPs. In many sectors, this has been a very effective solution because the IPs are made up of people from the town or neighborhood, who know the people and the streets and are committed to working with the Americans and the Iraqi Army to provide security for their people. However, the MOI and the OCinC have tried hard to prevent Sunni neighborhoods from doing so, and tried to ensure that IP units created in Shi’i areas were controlled by officers loyal to their cause. They have denied authority to create the units, denied them pay, denied them equipment, and denied them leaders, to try to control the IP units. In response, some American formations have taken to forming neighborhood watch associations, called Iraqi Provinical Volunteers (IPVs), instead (U.S. policy precludes arming them, and of course the United States cannot itself hire them as Iraqi police, but it can organize them and offer them reward money for providing intelligence tips and the like). However, this is not as effective as creating IP units and the process is under attack by the MOI, which wants to control them as well.

Indeed a considerable part of the US effort seems devoted to simply finding ways to devolve solutions to localities in order to avoid the central systems altogether.

The informal electricity sector has picked up greatly; Baghdad residents may only get a couple or few hours of grid electricity a day, but many neighborhoods are aglow at night, as entrepreneurs sell power via jury-rigged distribution systems. American military and civilian officials are contributing to this trend. They have recognized that improving the national power grid is a decade-long project at least (further complicated and slowed by insurgent attacks), and so they have focused on setting up local generators instead.

One of the most striking recommendations of the Brookings trip report is to give up on the national politicians altogether in favor of a strategy of working directly with the grassroots and creating a fait accompli. [emphasis is mine]

The success of the PRTs and ePRTs in fashioning local economic and political solutions, the greater success of the Iraqi police and Iraqi provincial volunteers over the national police in the security sector, the progress made in al-Anbar, and the emphasis on local generators rather than fixing and protecting the national power grid all point to a critical reality in Iraq: progress is being made at local levels and is not being made at the national level. Consequently, it is a mistake for the United States to be focusing its main efforts and resources on the national government in Baghdad. It is badly deadlocked and the U.S. strategy should be to try to minimize the central government’s influence and meddling throughout the country. The U.S. government must make a maximal effort to push resources and authority out or away from the central government in Baghdad and out to provincial and local level governments where smart, flexible American military and civilian personnel are generally able to identify competent Iraqi partners and fashion specific responses to local needs.

If we are able to stabilize Iraq, that will require a highly decentralized federal system. (Note: we are not presupposing soft partition of Iraq into three regions. Although O’Hanlon favors such a plan, it depends on an Iraqi acquiescence which is very unlikely. But decentralization with greater focus on the existing provinces is appropriate regardless.) Second, as noted, only local solutions are working at this point in time and therefore it is essential that we “reinforce success, not failure.” We should concentrate on what is working, not the black hole of Baghdad—which in so doing threatens to undermine the entire effort.

In my opinion, the need to succeed in Iraq from the "bottom up" is the fundamental reason why schemes which emphasize a rapid withdrawal of US forces and a reliance on high-level diplomatic solutions or UN involvement are likely to fail. Strategies which principally rely on convening Iraq's neighbors as guarantors to internal stability in Iraq; which principally utilize diplomats and consist of frameworks of agreements, aid and training packages not only work from the national capital downwards but across national boundaries downwards. If O'Hanlon and Pollack are correct, then a top-down approach would focus efforts on the parts of the system that are least susceptible to change. Instead of 'reinforcing success, not failure', a top-down approach would do the exact opposite. It would reinforce the most failed parts of the system while a rapid withdrawal would undermine the parts of the system that worked.

Inevitably the Brookings trip report concludes that it might be best to knock the props from underneath the politicians in Baghdad after giving them enough rope to hang themselves. They cite evidence that the Shi'ite militias are wearing out their welcome as surely as al-Qaeda wore out theirs. US forces have learned how to tap into this disillusionment and turn it to their advantage.

In addition, a few towns and neighborhoods in Baghdad are reportedly tiring of JAM in a fashion similar to what happened with the Sunnis of al-Anbar and AQI. JAM (or elements of it) can also be a fundamentalist-leaning organization that attempts to impose a harsh brand of shari’a law on the neighborhoods it controls, and also like AQI is largely made up of angry, dispossed, and unemployed young men, who create trouble wherever they are. Both of these features have apparently soured at least some Shi’i neighborhoods on JAM. JAM focuses its resourceson the “frontline” neighborhoods, making sure that those leaning in JAM’s direction or who just joined the fold receive electricity, sanitation services, medical care, food, and other basic services. They appear to do so, at least to some extent, at the expense of other neighborhoods which they consider more unequivocally in their camp. The result, according to U.S. and Iraqi military personnel is that some of these neighborhoods are beginning to put out feelers to the Coalition.

And having tilled the soil at the grassroots and harnessed the disillusion with the politicians, the way would be open to projecting the political power of these new institutions into the capital. Two things would be necessary to accomplish this: a change in the voting system and new elections.

The current Iraqi electoral system is a disaster. Proportional representation is particularly wrong for Iraq because it excessively rewards party loyalty, virtually eliminates the responsiveness of parliamentarians to their constituencies, empowers fringe movements, and leads to badly fragmented parliaments that can only create weak coalitions. For this reason alone, new national elections with a new electoral system would be highly desirable because they almost certainly would return a very different cast of characters ... and who might very well have much greater incentive to make the compromises ...

The weakness and defections from the Maliki government could create the perfect opportunity to press him to call for new elections (especially, if as seems likely, the Iraqi government is unable to do much on the Congressionally mandated benchmarks). The United States could very plausibly point out that he now lacks a ruling coalition and the current parliament is unlikely to furnish him or anyone else with one, circumstances which demand new elections. The threat of new elections might be sufficient to galvanize this group to start cutting deals.

Having completed the tour of the report one can return to the question posed in the opening paragraph. What will happen next? How it will all end? From the trip report it seems to depend principally on whether the positive forces in Iraq can be safeguarded against the undefeated negative tendencies. Unless the positive trends can be put on an unshakeable footing, sectarian tendencies, like a fire that has been partly suppressed but is still smoldering beneath the floorboards, will simply flare up again.

If sectarian conditions remain as they are, we risk losing the gains made so far. For instance, if sectarian conflict heats up again, Sunni tribal shaykhs might once again find it necessary to make amends with al-Qa’ida and other Salafi groups because they will want ruthless allies against JAM and the Iranians. Ethnic/sectarian cleansing would likely resume in mixed neighborhoods if Washington tried to draw down American forces. Shi’ah-dominated security forces will probably overlook militia violence on the streets and could actively aid it. Sunnis may be tempted to try to retake the country, or at least strategic chunks of it, if they think they can. Perhaps such violence can be controlled. But it could also lead to mass sectarian violence, and in a worst case Iraq could splinter or the conflict there could spark regional conflict. ...

Success is not guaranteed, and some measure of failure is still quite possible if not likely. Consequently, the United States government should be examining fallback options—“Plan Bs”—for Iraq in the event that the current progress falters and Iraq resumes its slide into all-out civil war. It is equally important to explore how the United States might fall back from the current strategy in more limited ways, for example allowing ethnic consolidation and displacement in some zones that are hard to preserve in their current multiethnic form while preventing that process from escalating. Unfortunately, such alternatives are hard to devise and harder to implement. But hard as they are, they are necessary given the seriousness of the situation in Iraq and notwithstanding the early, important progress made so far.

15 Comments:

Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I have been saying this for sometime now. Most recently in this commentary. I start out ripping Barak Obama and move on to the wider point we need political, diplomatic and military to work together in varying mixes to solve the problems. Then I note how the government and institutions we are working to setup often are attempts at top-down construction.

Top down only works when there is widespread consensus. In the immigration debacle there was consensus only at the top, but none at the bottom and therefore our political leaders left and right could not push through with their solution.

Michael Yon, Michael Totten demonstrates quite clearly local consensus is hard to come by but is slowly gelling and when that happens that gelling will move upwards.

In fact, much of our construction in Iraq is plagued by top-downism and only recently have we bothered to foster conditions to allow from bottoms up national construction.

8/28/2007 06:42:00 AM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

I long thought a serious problem in Iraq was a passive aggressive hostility to the "Iraq Mission" on a part of US government "senior employees-nearing-retirement." They did not want to "own it."

But employees lower down realize the failure will be a big bloody "F" on their record--so, like it or not, they will own it. As the older folks retire, they are replaced by those more committed to success.

Leftist Political Scientist seem greatly enamored of proportional voting systems. I think this is because the US does not use it. They can (and do) claim the US is not "a real democracy" since individuals instead of "groups" are emphasized.

But I also think the left believes they can manipulate the outcome of proportional voting systems. So whether the system actually works is irrelevant.

We should have encouraged the development of local government from day one. But allowing the Political Scientists to destroy the central government as a means of encouraging local people to take the initiative is a plan, of sorts: Guided self organizing chaos. It is how the West was won (or stolen, if your are a leftist.)

8/28/2007 08:31:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Here was what they said when the proportional voting system was first proposed. A Washington Post article from 2004 reported:

In recent weeks conservatives have criticized the choice of a proportional representation system for Iraq's elections and have disparaged the U.N. electoral assistance department and its director, Carina Perelli. But the plan these critics propose for Iraq -- rejection of proportional voting in favor of an nglo-American-style, winner-take-all system -- is not a recipe for stability.

According to critics of the United Nations, most notably Michael Rubin on this page [June 19] and Richard Perle in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, the U.N. plan for Iraq's January elections ignores the desire of liberal Iraqis for constituency-based elections and is likely to bring disastrous consequences, along the lines of those produced by Lebanon's failed communal system. Others claim that the U.N. plan will harm the Shiite majority, breeding more instability.

The criticism of U.N. electoral efforts is unjustified. Perelli and her staff have overseen successful elections in East Timor, Nigeria and elsewhere, while her department has played a crucial role in bringing democracy to Namibia, Cambodia, Mozambique and Indonesia, among others. The United Nations certainly has been guilty of serious institutional failures, but its running and planning of elections has been a bright spot. With Carlos Valenzuela, a savvy veteran of some of the most testing elections around the world -- at the helm in Iraq, the United Nations brings a wealth of experience to the table.


USA Today in 2004 wrote:

The U.N. team decided that January's election for a 275-member national assembly will use a system of proportional representation based on lists. With the signatures of just 500 supporters, political parties, political groups and individuals can submit a list with up to 275 candidates' names to contest the election.

"I'm very much aware that one of the problems this election might have is intimidation of candidates," Perelli said.

"It is for this reason that choosing proportional representation at a national level — removing the politics from just the local level where people can be easily identified and taken down — is an extra layer of security for the candidates."


I have seen it alleged, on other websites, that the stupid neoconservatives defied the sage advice of the UN and devised the proportional voting system. But it appears from contemporaneous news that the opposite is true. Carina Perelli and her UN team were apparently its advocates. Maybe it did not seem overly risky to entrust so trivial a detail as the the design of the Iraqi voting mechanism to the UN. And it threw a bone to all those who hunger and yearn for UN participation in such projects. After all, how badly could giving a small part of the statecraft to the UN be? How bad could it be? Here's an illustration of butterfly and the storm. A butterfly fluttering its wings in Turtle Bay, apparently can, through unforeseen or perhaps, easily foreseen reactions, create a hurricane in due time.

8/28/2007 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger Phoenix_Blogger said...

How can we encourage the Iraqi parliament to do away with the slate of elected officials procedure and fallback on individual elections based on population and or region etc. It would seem that such an effort would require those elected that depend on such a system to acquiesce.

8/28/2007 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/28/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

8/28/2007 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

If it's not working, chnage it. The only systems that promote "stability" in the name of "peace at all costs" are thugocracies like Saudi Arabia. Both stability and peace are highly over-rated concepts.

Maliki and his government obviously aren't working. I would have thought their vaunted constitution would enable Iraqi's to "change it", but if it doesn't then change the damned Iraqi constitution at the same time they're throwing Maliki out.

Throwing Maliki out, BTW, for bad performance, corruption and murder while in office would have a very salutary effect on the other sandboxes of the region ... the ones who DO declaim in the name of "peace" and "stability" in an effort to protect their privileged non-elected sitting-monsters.

8/28/2007 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I have this notion the exact technical nature of the Iraqi national government is irrelevant, at least at this period of time.

No matter what system is in place if the people at the grassroots can not come to some MU (mutual understanding) and trust amongst each other it will all amount to the old three wolves and two sheep voting what to eat for dinner.

Until the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds in the neighborhoods can play nicely together, not use their particular control of food, energy, or what-have-you as weapons (or witholding such on account of Al Qaida or JAM) against the other no amount of leverage upon any Prime Minister will make things better.

No amount of signatures on fancy papers, or the clinking of glasses by those somewhat safely ensconced in the Green Zone will change that a single bit.

8/28/2007 01:33:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I just finished a biography of Gertrude Bell, who helped Lawrence of Arabia and the Brits put together the country of Iraq after WW1. When Iraqi's bleat about their long rich history, do they realize that their country just started in 1917 or thereabouts?

The interesting thing to me was reading time and again of Gertrude and her colonial compatriots, making a comparison of what they were trying to accomplish in Iraq after WW1, and what we’re trying to accomplish there now.

You can just about tick off a checklist, item by item, of what the issues were then and what they are now, and damned if they aren’t exactly the same thing. The introduction of democracy vs. tribal law – check. Tribal violence being held in check by Western troops – check. Iraq costing the Brits too damned much money to keep supporting them, and Churchill *really* wanting to pull out – check. A fear of genocide if the Brits were to leave – check. The Turks killing off Kurds and generally being jerks along the northern border – check.

The only thing missing in the bloody sweaty potpourri is current Iraqi obsession with electricity and air conditioning now, which they didn’t have then. And oil, which doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference, since the Iraqi’s haven’t figured out how to get it out of the ground and actually *do* anything with it.

I don't understand how Iraq (or that area of the Middle East determined to be Iraq by the British, the French, the Russians and the Americans) could have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th Century by Gertrude and her hard-working cohorts, and then have slid back into Saddamism, tribal barbarity and thuggery so quickly. To where we're have to try to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, teaching them exactly the same lessons about democracy and civilization as they were taught in 1920.

I hate it that everything we’re trying to do now was done before. There's something really annoying about being asked to recreate the wheel again ... and again ... and again, because the people you give the wheel to are too stupid or lazy or greedy to take care of it on their own.

What makes us in the West think that the lessons we're teaching - which are exactly the very same lessons as the Brits taught in 1920 -- will sink in and take hold this time? Or that Iraqi's and Arabs are worth the time and the repeated efforts.

8/28/2007 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

It's extremely amusing when some European commentators claim that America messed up everything. The entire map of the Middle East is a product of British and French colonial policy. And when European empire retreated at the end of the Second World War the entire wriggling mass of troubles lay festering for the successor powers to clean up. And to the legacy of Nazism which had already been implanted in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union added its own lethal contribution of Marxist ideology. America too supported its counter-Communist strongmen.

But politics is the process of dumping blame on others. Therefore it is understandable,but not wholly just for Europe, having drawn up the map of the Middle East, to identify Israel, composed in large part of people the European genocidaires just failed to massacre, as the root cause of the region's woes.

Yet that is neither here nor there. The issues besetting the Middle East are decades old. Europe says they must be papered over, but which is meant papered over by American strength of course. They can hardly be bothered to impose embargoes or enforce containment. Paper it over, that's the advice of the wise sophisticates who started the whole mess. Is it any wonder there's a case to made for compelling structural reforms in the Middle East? Fixing things instead of painting over the problems? It may or may not be possible. But it seems probable that unless something fixes it the issues bedeviling the region today will still haunt the world in 2050. Kick the can down the road? Maybe, but not obviously so.

8/28/2007 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

nahncee,

I am sure you realize this but I say it anyway. When Arabs talk about the proud history of Iraq they most likely mean to say Baghdad. Baghdad does have a long and storied history.

Of course, the time of Mesopotamia & Babylonia figure big in history books too.

8/28/2007 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Wretchard,

An awful lot of US treasure has been spent trying to preserve that old and unstable order to which you refer. In a way, our current involvement in Iraq is attempting to take that old order and reconfigure it and the first Gulf War was certainly meant to keep the old world order in order (despite the rhetoric).

8/28/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"The end of state-craft"

The O’Hanlon-Pollack Iraq trip report provides 13 pages of detail about their findings. In sum, their report confirms what Westhawk and other analysts concluded many months ago, namely that American company and field-grade military commanders are establishing useful relations with local Iraqi leaders across the center of Iraq. This has resulted in excellent results against al Qaeda in Iraq, some progress against the Shi’ite Mahdi militia, and some local economic and political development.

Meanwhile, Messrs. O’Hanlon and Pollack report that political progress inside Baghdad’s Green Zone remains nonexistent. This confirms all evidence visible in the open media. Beyond the failure of Iraq’s central government, there is little evidence of cooperation or improving relations among low-level leaders across Iraq’s sectarian boundaries.

The authors recommend that the U.S. government “reinforce success, not failure” by focusing its efforts on local and decentralized operations and objectives. This matches long-standing Westhawk advice. The authors also suggest that the U.S. government:

… explore how the United States might fall back from the current strategy in more limited ways, for example allowing ethnic consolidation and displacement in some zones that are hard to preserve in their current multiethnic form while preventing that process from escalating.

Advice Westhawk suggested again just a few days ago.

Writing today at the Belmont Club, Wretchard posted his analysis of the Iraq trip report, which included this view:

8/29/2007 01:41:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Obstacles Keep Iraqi Refugees From U.S.
Despite a stepped-up commitment from the United States to take in Iraqis who are in danger because they worked for the military, few are signing up to go, officials say.
Times Topics: Refugees

More Iraqis Said to Flee Since Troop Increase
Sectarian violence and new fighting brought by U.S.-led operations are accelerating the partition of the country into sectarian enclaves.

8/29/2007 02:32:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

When Arabs talk about the proud history of Iraq they most likely mean to say Baghdad.

Then they need to quit saying, specifically, "Iraq".

8/29/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

“It is equally important to explore how the United States might fall back from the current strategy in more limited ways, for example allowing ethnic consolidation and displacement in some zones that are hard to preserve in their current multiethnic form while preventing that process from escalating. Unfortunately, such alternatives are hard to devise and harder to implement. But hard as they are, they are necessary given the seriousness of the situation in Iraq and notwithstanding the early, important progress made so far.”

I imagine there are plenty of Bush opponents in the CIA and NYT that would love to get their hands on even the most abbreviated or rough draft of that and sabotage the war with it.

8/29/2007 11:46:00 AM  

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