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April, 2008

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The PRT's Over

By all accounts, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and Iraq are pretty popular. Everyone -- be it military and civil service team members on the ground, Washington policy-makers on the Hill and in the Executive branch, or the media -- just loves them. In a conference call with PRT members a few months back, President Bush even went so far as to suggest that he envied them for what he, like many, perceived as the exotic adventure they're experiencing in the farflung corners of Iraq and Afghanistan.

And for good reason. After years of disheartening news in both theaters of operations, the PRT's seemed to capture the public's imagination with their combination of American ingenuity, resolve and industriousness, but also with their frontier-style independence. To be sure, they operate in dangerous theaters at great personal risk. But they're also such a novelty that, for the most part, they function as a sort of free electron in the military hierarchy's periodic chart. Often financed by discretionary Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds as improvised responses to conditions on the ground, the PRT's resemble a post-9/11 expression of the pre-Vietnam Peace Corps ethic, with a touch of 90's NGO euphoria thrown in for good measure: rogue units taking advantage of the chaos of a war to wage peace.

But all that's likely to change soon, since the freewheeling nature of the PRT's that makes them such a popular feelgood story also makes them a nightmare to government oversight committees. The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight, in particular, just published its first report on the PRT's, and not surprisingly focused on the need for clearly defined missions, doctrine, operating procedures, goals, and metrics to measure their success. In other words, all the institutionalized standardization that will almost certainly make PRT's more "effective" while sucking all of the life out of them.

The PRT's are a significant and innovative part of the Army's new approach to counterinsurgency, which with its emphasis on a "human-culture-society" approach to COIN resembles an art as much as a military doctrine. With the promotion of Gen. Petraeus to CENTCOM commander and the apparent ascendancy of the Army's COIN faction, that approach has now assumed the position of the "dominant narrative" within the culture of the Army. Which means that in its own way, it too will be increasingly institutionalized and formatted as it moves further from its origins as an improvised response to conditions on the ground and closer to a law of science, frozen in a textbook and captured in the vacuum of certainty.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Playing the Petraeus Card

It looks like I'm the only one who's underwhelmed by the Petraeus appointment to CENTCOM commander, but what the heck. In for a penny, in for pound. So here's another thorny question that I've yet to see directly addressed. (Hampton, make sure you've had your morning cup of Joe before reading any further.)

I mentioned that by using his direct lines of communication with the Oval Office to leapfrog Adm. Fallon, Petraeus had already been serving as de facto CENTCOM commander. But in thinking about it, the leapfrog actually went much further than that, because President Bush made it clear that he would follow Petraeus' lead in Iraq, and not the other way around. 

Now, if you're a cynic like me, you might think that was a political ploy to use the persuasive authority of the Iraq theater commander to implement military tactics in Baghdad that serve Bush's political purposes in Washington. (All the better if they've been responsible for the improved security situation, but the causal connection remains disputable, and subject to developments on the ground.) But if you're not, it means that Petraeus was exercising a command that far exceeded the bailiwick of MNF-I or CENTCOM, for that matter. Petraeus was calling the shots for the Commander-in-Chief, and not the other way around.

Of course, so long as Petraeus' strategic vision is consistent with President Bush's political agenda, there's little reason to believe the relationship will suffer from his assumption of CENTCOM duties. But what happens when Petreaus decides that Bush's political line jeopardizes our regional strategic position? Well, it turns out we have a recent example of what happens to a CENTCOM commander who isn't in lockstep with the Bush administration's Middle East policy. It's called early retirement.

Now call me cynical, call me cranky, call me contrarian (just, please, don't call me punctilious). But to my eyes this looks like the latest installment of the Bush administration's politicization of the officer corps, and I suspect that anyone who expects Petraeus to suddenly start thinking differently about the big regional picture than he did about the Iraq theater is in for a disappointment. Petraeus will ask Bush for what Bush wants to give him, and Bush will then give it to him under the pretense that it's what his military commander asked for. And if Petraeus upsets the apple cart between now and January 20, 2009, he'll be joining Fox Fallon on the motivational speaking tour.

The problem isn't that the President calls the shots in time of war. That's how it should be. The problem is that the Petraeus-Bush relationship is a closed feedback loop, hermetically impervious to disproof and driven by a political agenda whose ideological foundation Bush has pragmatically sidelined but never explicitly renounced. And it's about to go regional.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   The Middle East   

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Big Three

If it weren't for all hell breaking loose in the Middle East, the tectonic shifts going on in South Asia would probably be the decade's storyline. As it is, they still might be. In addition to China's rise and India's emergence, there's also all sorts of movement towards warmer relations between the region's traditional rivals that could smooth the way for further growth. Pakistan-India relations, while still prickly and marked by tit-for-tat missile tests, are more cordial than they've ever been. Same goes for China-India relations.

As for China-Pakistan relations, a couple of articles (one here at Asia Times Online, and another here at Jamestown Foundation) discuss how the tensions both countries have historically experienced with India make for a natural tactical alliance between them. Toss in the unstable nature of their recent relations with America and the logic is even more pronounced.

Nevertheless, the Asia Times article suggests China is exercising more caution towards Islamabad of late, in part due to Pekin's warming relations with Delhi, and in part due to its concerns about Muslim Uighur separatists on the Pakistani border with Xianjing province. And this Defense News article about India reinforcing and modernizing its military presence on its Chinese frontier shows that the old Reagan axiom, Trust but verify, is still the order of the day.

The takeaway is that the tensions and faultlines, both internal (Tibet, Xianjing, the Pakistani FATA) and external (Kashmir, Afghanistan, Taiwan), that run deep under the surface will continue to undermine these regional powers in their quest for global influence. With all the factors pointing to its eventual relative decline, that's still an advantage the U.S. enjoys over them, although we've mitigated that advantage by "Americanizing" the costs of the ethno-sectarian conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  China   India   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Petraeus Principle

What's clear so far about the Petraeus CENTCOM announcement is that all anyone can do right now is speculate on what impact this will all have. But while answers will only come with time, the fundamental questions are shaping up pretty quickly. According to Abu Muqawama they boil down to how Gen. Petraeus' experiences in Iraq are going to influence his regional vision in general, his approach to Iran in particular, and his ability to make detached decisions about how to distribute scarce resources between the two theaters of war now under his command. Tom Barnett, on the other hand, flips the formulation a bit and wonders how the added regional perspective will impact Gen. Petraeus' approach to Iraq and Iran, although he worries about the fact that the DoD is now pretty much all "bad cop," up and down the line, when it comes to Iran.

One thing that's implied in AM's remarks about Petraeus' regional vision being shaped by the prism of Iraq, but that I'd draw out even more explicitly, is that his vision of the Iranians has been shaped by the prism of what amounts to a proxy war there. So whatever broader regional approach to Tehran he adopts can't help but be conditioned by the fact that he has already been engaged in low-intensity warfare with them for the past year and a half. To use the language of Petraeus' own COIN manual, his Iran narrative has begun as a war story. So either he's capable of making a very significant pivot, or else the plotline is about to be expanded to a regional level (which, as Tom Barnett points out, does not necessarily mean a decisive attack on Iran but logically suggests one).

Meanwhile, some questions are being raised (Phil Carter here and Charlie from AM here) about Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno's fit as commander of MNF-I. But I'm surprised that, so far, no one's had the temerity to point out that compared to his CENTCOM predecessors, Gen. Petraeus' credentials are underwhelming for such a strategically vital regional command. Admiral Fallon's prior regional command experience was too deep to count. Gen. Abizaid did prior staff tours in the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, the Southern European Task Force, and the U.S. Army Europe HQ. Gen. Franks commanded the 3rd Army for three years prior to taking over CENTCOM, and Gen. Zinni was CENTCOM Deputy C-i-C for nine months before assuming the top spot.

The bulk of Petraeus' experience, meanwhile, has been in operations and training (which is what you'd expect for someone who has demonstrated such tactical brilliance). Challenging as it is, Commander MNF-I is his broadest command to date. Now it could be that Petraeus is, in addition to being a tactical genius, a strategic genius as well. But a case could be made for the argument that, in leapfrogging Adm. Fallon through his personal relationship with President Bush, Petraeus has essentially served as de facto Commander of CENTCOM for the past year and a half. And in that time he has put the Iraq theater ahead of our broader regional interests, and according to many, ahead of the health of the Army.

Again, only time will tell. But so far, the only real qualification Petraeus seems to have for the job is to have offered President Bush a fortuitous tactical approach that coincided perfectly with Bush's political needs.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Politics   

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Limits of Military Power

There's a discussion this week over at TPMCafe of Matthew Yglesias' imminently available book, Heads in the Sand. It focuses on Yglesias' vision of a "liberal internationalism," by which he means the forward leaning diplomatic engagement, under the auspices of a multi-lateral system of institutions and laws, that characterized American foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Specifically, on his blog, Yglesias has targeted the use of pre-emptive war as an effective non-proliferation strategy.

I call attention to it not only because it's an interesting discussion, but also because it folds in nicely with this short monograph (.pdf) by Carl Connetta, which I found on the Projects on Defense Alternatives website, and which serves as something of a backstory to Yglesias' argument. Connetta points out that, starting with the First Gulf War, America has become seduced by the image of a surgical, omnipotent military capacity.

. . .Back in April 2003, flush with the illusion of victory, President Bush had asserted that:

By a combination of creative strategies and advanced technologies, we are redefining war on our terms. In this new era of warfare, we can target a regime, not a nation.

This is the "new warfare hypothesis" and it did not originate with President Bush. It has helped shape US thinking about the utility of force since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. . .

This is the image that Donald Rumsfeld tried to impose not only on the invasion of Iraq, but on the Army in general. And I think possibly before the ideological and strategic explanations that Yglesias offers for recent American interventionism, but at the very least in addition to them, this tempting image of military power as a clean and efficient policy tool accounts for a great deal of the temptation to use it as a panacea to what otherwise would be considered problems in need of a political solution.

I've discussed the growing militarization of stabilization and humanitarian operations before. Connetta points out that pre-emptive threat prevention, too, used to be the diplomats' bailiwick:

In the past, threat prevention and "environment shaping" were largely in the purview of the State Department. But a feature of our post-Cold War practice has been the increasing intrusion of the Pentagon on the provinces of State. Parallel to this, diplomatic functions have been increasingly militarized. Thus, today, coercive diplomacy plays a bigger role relative to traditional "give-and-take" diplomacy. Similarly, "offensive counter-proliferation" -- that is, arms control by means of bombardment -- has grown in importance relative to non-proliferation efforts. Even US programs in support of democratization and development have gained a khaki tint.

The outcomes in both Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that military power remains a blunt instrument, with unpredictable and costly consequences. Even given the narrowest and most clearly defined missions, it rarely achieves unassailable outcomes (consider that the Iraq War has been in part explained by the failure to topple Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War).

But not only have we expanded the mission set considerably, it's also become commonplace in policy discussions to concede the need to grow the military. The perverse logic, as Connetta points out, consists of demanding a greater capacity without questioning what it ought to be used for:

. . .What we have demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the most powerful nation on earth, unobstructed by a peer rival, commanding 22 percent of the world product, and consuming 50 percent of all defense spending cannot -- in six years -- bring a modicum of stability to two countries containing just 1 percent of the world’s population. . .

These outcomes might and should teach us something useful about the limits on the utility of military power.

Both Yglesias and Connetta demonstrate the way in which the American foreign policy discourse has been overtly militarized. Part of that has to do with the domestic political residue of the Vietnam War and the rise in the 1990's of the liberal hawk movement as a response (one of Yglesias' central theses), part of it has to do with the Pentagon's bureaucratic imperative to grow, and part of it has to do with the very real trauma of the attacks of 9/11. The key point is that the military has done everything we've asked it to do, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is not so much that we haven't given it what it needs to accomplish the task, although that is certainly the case, but that we've asked it to do too much to begin with.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The War That Never Was

The NY Times story detailing how the Pentagon used "military analysts" to spread administration talking points on the Iraq War is sure to dominate the news cycle, and rightly so. The story reveals the fundamental role Information Operations (IO) play in the Pentagon's strategic vision, as I noted here, and as confirmed by this October 2003 report (.pdf) titled Information Operations Roadmap, personally approved by Donald Rumsfeld and kept secret until January 2006, when the National Security Archive at George Washington University obtained it through a FOIA request. While far from a smoking gun, the report makes for interesting reading, especially the passages that recognize the difficulty of maintaining boundaries between foreign and domestic audiences in the contemporary media landscape.

A lot of discussion of the story's revelations is almost certain to center around the Smith-Mundt Act, but significantly, nothing that took place violated its prohibitions, which are on the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy "propaganda" targeting foreign media markets. The same talking points echoed by the "analysts" were being distributed for domestic consumption by official DoD and White House spokespeople. The fact that the "analysts," who were under no direct orders, were not identified as official Pentagon mouthpieces is a matter of personal integrity (or lack thereof) and their network employers' lack of rigor in vetting them.

That's not to say that the operation isn't alarming and repugnant, both from the point of view of the Pentagon and the "analysts." It is. But it's also not very surprising, and falls short, in its flagrant contempt of press objectivity, of this administration's other abuses, mentioned in passing in the article. The major systemic failure, to my mind, was not in the "analysts," who were led astray by human nature and misplaced institutional loyalty, or in the Pentagon, which was faithful to its institutional nature, but in the media which, by failing to vet the "analysts" for independence of viewpoint, betrayed one of its central functions.

To the extent that the operation was successful, it illustrates the Pentagon's savvy appreciation of contemporary media. The "analysts" were "paid by the hit" by the networks, which meant that, like Debka and Drudge, their privileged media positions were dependent on access to their sources more than veracity of their information. The identification of "analysts," as opposed to reporters, as key opinion shapers also demonstrates an understanding that in an age of media saturation, those who frame narratives are more important than those who gather facts.

But insomuch as the information they were peddling was demonstrably false, the operation reveals the extent to which the DoD has failed to integrate the lessons of Vietnam, which it has identified as the media filter slanting public opinion, as opposed to the dissonance between the Department's official line and the reality on the ground. It also leaves the Pentagon wide open to what amounts to a devastating counter-op targeting the very assets (the "analysts" themselves) it would normally deploy to defend itself. As such, the Times story should probably be understood as part of an internal DoD battle for control of the Iraq War "narrative," and the cameo appearances by Gen. Petraeus, in this context, are hardly surprising.

The demonstrable falsehood of the talking points will also ultimately determine whether the DoD crossed whatever statutory lines might apply, since it is forbidden from domestic use of Psychological Operations (Psy Ops) both by executive order and department regulation. For an in-depth treatment of some of the ways IO and Psy Ops have already been employed during the Iraq War, as well as how the lines between foreign and domestic consumption have been blurred and/or exploited, Daniel Schulman's Columbia Journalism Review piece from back in March 2006 is must reading.

Ultimately, the story really drives home the degree to which the Iraq War has existed mainly as a battle between competing narratives, whose defining feature is the fading centrality of fact, and whose defining historical figure may end up being neither George W. Bush nor Saddam Hussein, but Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information who declared America's military defeat even as U.S. forces occupied Baghdad. Launched in response to an imaginary threat, planned to facilitate an imaginary liberation, waged to secure an imaginary peace, and now extended to achieve imaginary outcomes, the administration's version of the Iraq War has from start to finish replaced reality with denial, analysis with wishful thinking, and factual assessments with fairy tales. Indeed, were it not for the deaths of 4,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that make such an idea obscene, you could almost say that the Iraq War has never really existed at all.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Failure of the Al-Qaida Model

Funny how for months we've been picking apart the Anbar Awakening from a tactical point of view, all the while failing to take into account its single most significant strategic implication. Namely, that al-Qaida's blueprint for Islamic revolution does not work.

The Military Review article I wrote up in an earlier post offered more evidence of what's become the consensus explanation for the turning of the Sunni tribes: their disgust with al-Qaida Iraq's murderous tactics and their resentment at the AQI "foreigners" trying to impose an internationalist jihadi ideology on what was essentially a nationalist insurgency. But al-Qaida, as a globalized, multi-national suicide bombing outfit, has no other operational doctrine and no native land to call its own. Which means its experience in Iraq is almost certain to be reproduced everywhere it goes.

Think about that for a second. At a time when eighty percent of the Arab world views America unfavorably, and in a war that a majority of Americans (let alone Iraqis) disapprove of, al-Qaida failed to establish a sustainable bridgehead. That's not the mark of an organization that represents a strategic, existential threat to the United States.

By their nature, Al-Qaida in particular and terrorism in general pose very real threats to the lives and safety of American civilians, threats that need to be addressed firmly, resolutely and effectively. But anyone claiming they are anything more than that has not been paying close enough attention to the evidence of the Iraq War, of which they are usually the most vocal supporters.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A West Bank Appliance Run

This short essay by Gershom Gorenberg speaks more eloquently than anything else I've read recently to all that's most awful about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the ways in which all that's most hopeful about it just might still prevail.

Posted by Judah in:  The Middle East   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

COIN and Combat Tours

When President Bush announced that Iraq and Afghanistan combat tours would be cut back to twelve months from their current fifteen, Phil Carter and Kevin Drum had an interesting back and forth and back about tour lengths and counterinsurgency best practices. The upshot of the exchange was that even though counterinsurgency demands familiarity with the area of operations, there's a point of diminishing returns beyond which the human toll of longer tours interferes with units' ability to be effective. Here's Carter:

[T]here's a finite limit to the amount of combat that men and women can endure. So we must balance combat effectiveness, and the needs of an all-volunteer force (and its families), against the steep learning curve of counterinsurgency, which demands longer deployments.

Today the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, weighed in from "his heavily fortified headquarters" in Kabul. McNeill argued that the fifteen month tours ". . .are critical to making progress in the war against Afghanistan's Taliban and other insurgents. . ." and that ". . .the greatest gains in the war have come from Soldiers serving the long tours." He did, however, recognize that they are not feasible:

"It's not something I advocate we stay on forever," McNeill said. "We've got to ease up on the force a little bit. It's especially an issue for the families."

But he said the most successful units have been U.S. Army troops who have "established relationships with the terrain, with the indigenous people and with the enemy, and have had a good amount of time to exploit those relationships and use them to their advantage."

This does seem to be a wrinkle that needs to be ironed out. Basing a significant operational component of Army doctrine on a tactical approach that is based on a fundamentally irreconciliable dilemma presents obvious problems. Carter suggested using the Marine Corps model of seven-month tours combined with rotating units back into previous areas of operation, thereby providing needed rest along with continuity. Hopefully this will be addressed whenever Gen. Petraeus' highly praised COIN manual comes up for a revision.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Real McCain

So is the problem that McCain wasn't paying attention at last week's Petraeus hearings? Or is it that he doesn't understand the difference between a theater commander, a regional commander, and the commander-in-chief? Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum are correct in saying that it will be tough to convince the public that  the perception of McCain as a national security icon is a mistaken one. But he certainly is generous about providing the proof necessary to make the case.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Torture as Permanent Exile

I'd been mulling over a couple points that I've yet to see mentioned in the debate about the use of physical coercion in terrorist interrogations, trying to figure out just how to illustrate them, when along comes The Moor Next Door with a post about Yal Menfi, a song about an Algerian rebel taken prisoner and beaten by the French colonial authorities. Literally "the Exile", Yal Menfi was written in the aftermath of the Algerian insurrection of 1871, then reprised in the 1950's in the context of the Algerian War of Independence. It has since been recorded by contemporary artists, including Cheb Mami, an Algerian-born rai singer who has enjoyed crossover success with Sting and Nile Rodgers among others (ie. hardly a hardcore radical), demonstrating how more than a hundred and thirty years after its composition, the song and the mistreatment it describes still haunts the collective consciousness of Algerians and resonates with their experience to this day.

The song illustrates in a poignant way something I'd noticed while going through Karim Sadjadpour's Carnegie Institution report, Reading Khamenei, namely that Khamenei, like Hashemi Rafsanjani and a good deal of the Iranian leadership from the time of the revolution to now, was tortured by the Shah's secret police. Similarly, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's strategic mastermind, was tortured in Egypt. And the list goes on. The point isn't that torture inevitably creates extremists or terrorists, so much as that torture has a longterm indelible impact not only on individuals but on societies at large. This longterm, multi-generational resentment is rarely included by proponents of physical coercion in the calculation of its usefulness.

Then there is the question of legality, which is what President Bush resorted to in defending the Principles' meetings at which the coercive techniques were discussed. What the legalistic defense ignores is that no regime that ever practiced physical coercion or torture was careless enough to leave it a crime. What's more, governments rarely engage in illegal behavior when they have the ability to render it legal without the consent of the people. The more abhorrent the behavior, the more that rule applies. What's shocking is that this administration has now joined their ranks, not only in its behavior, but also in its recourse to effectively changing the law without the knowledge or consent of the governed.

Which makes the last point so alarming. The use of cruel punishment for a convicted criminal flies in the face of the principles of American jurisprudence. And to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet suggested that terrorists, once they have revealed whatever information of value they might possess and have been convicted in a court of law, be subjected to cruel treatment as punishment for their crimes. Which only makes the use of cruel treatment in the fact-gathering phase of the investigation, before any proof of guilt has been established, even more of an aberration.

Anyone who wavers over the utilitarian defense of coercion (the ticking timebomb scenario) would do well to consider whether they would be willing to authorize these practices in the context of the American justice system. Because there are any number of reasonable scenarios whereby an American citizen, unassociated with any international terrorist organization and not motivated by any radical ideology, might be in possession of knowledge that could spare thousands of innocent lives. The ticking timebomb scenario, in other words, respects no borders, and has little regard for passports or citizenship. Which means that once it is invoked, it is essentially enshrined. And under this administration, that can happen whether we know about it or consent.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Iran's Iraq Policy Mirrors Our Own

Yesterday's post about recent U.S. and Iranian restraint opening the door to possible engagement might have been premature to the extent that it downplayed the rhetoric now coming out of Washington about Iran's involvement with Iraqi militias. In particular, the events in Basra are now being used to demonstrate the amount of material and training Iran has supplied to the Sadrist militia, both "special" (ie. rogue) factions and those loyal to Moqtada. Future conflicts will certainly bring to light the operational links that Iran has established with other Shiite militias as well, including those that are integrated into Iraq's national security apparatus.

The Bush administration is portraying this influence as "malign", and insomuch as it works in opposition to our stated goals (solidifying Iraqi sovereignty) and our unstated goals (liquidating the most prominent Iraqi figure -- al-Sadr -- that isn't willing to reach a working arrangement with us), it is. But it's important to remember how arbitrary (or subjective) our definition of terms really is: we've identified the incarnation of Iraqi sovereignty as those willing to cooperate with us, from which it necessarily follows that al-Sadr -- who might very well be the most nationalist of Shiites -- and the support Tehran provides him become part of the problem. Food for thought for the next phase of intra-Shiite power consolidation: if we defined anyone who received support from Tehran as an enemy, we'd have no Shiite allies left.

What's also significant is the degree to which our Sunni policy perfectly mirrors Iran's Shiite policy, both in practice (supplying non-state militias fighting against foreign forces) and effect (undermining the government's monopoly on the legitimate use of force). For the time being, Sunnis have identified al-Qaida Iraq as their principle foreign enemy. But with AQI's strength dwindling, it's only a matter of time before they turn their attention to another foreign power with a significant presence in Iraq.

When that time comes, the Sunnis will have a choice between the two foreign powers left in Iraq: the U.S. and Iran. In the first case, we'll find the second front re-opened, in the second we'll find ourselves on the field as the full-scale Iraqi civil war breaks out. In either case, the role of guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty seems almost certain to be even less attractive than it is now.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 11, 2008

WPR Blogging

What went up today at World Politics Review:

That's it for tonight.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Friday, April 11, 2008

The Limits of the Surge: Interview with Gian Gentile

You might have heard of Gian P. Gentile. He's an active duty Army lieutenant colonel whose World Politics Review article, "Misreading the Surge," brought a fierce internal debate over the Surge and its potential impact on the Army's conventional capabilities to the attention of the general public. In addition to being discussed in numerous foreign policy and national security blogs and fora, the article was also referenced in a recent Wall Street Journal article about this week's congressional hearings on the Surge.

Gentile very graciously agreed to do a follow up email interview for World Politics Review, which is up now. If you've already followed this a bit, the interview provides some further elaboration of his main arguments and concerns. If you haven't, it's a pretty thorough introduction to a debate that's certain to be central to American military doctrine for the years to come.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Zen Junky

This is partly based on a true story (the guilty party will remain nameless), but it occurred to me that a pretty awesome niche blog would be one devoted to periodically explaining why you haven't done any blogging. In an age of content inflation, the counterintuitive appeal of a site where content is sporadic would almost guarantee high traffic. Of course, there couldn't be an RSS feed, and while you're at it, blocking Google's bots from crawling the site would add to the unpredictable "experience." Come to think of it, I just thought of a brilliant domain name. I think I'm on to something.

Update: Oh well. The domain name, or at least an alternate spelling, seems to be taken.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

River Tsunami

Things that make you go, Whoa:

Melting ice in southern Chile caused a glacial lake to swell and then empty suddenly, sending a "tsunami" rolling through a river, a scientist said Thursday...

The water bored a 5-mile tunnel through the glacier and finally emptied into the Baker River on April 6.

"The remarkable thing is that the mass of water moved against the current of the river," Casassa told The Associated Press by telephone from the Center for Scientific Studies in the southern city of Valdivia. "It was a real river tsunami."

According to reports, Manny, Sid and Diego managed to escape without injury.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

WPR Blogging

Today's posts over at the World Politics Review blog: 

Keep in mind that I'm not always able to do these blurbs (the last few days, for instance), so clicking through is a good idea.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iran in Iraq

Since the Senate Foreign Relations committee seems to be giving Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker a pretty tough time regarding Iran's influence in Iraq and how reasonable it is to believe we can eliminate it, now might be a good time to point out that former Iraqi Prime Minister and head of PM Noori Miliki's Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jafari, was in Tehran on Sunday, where he met with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani:

Jafari. . .highlighted the Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in solving his country’s problems and said, "Iran seeks to establish peace, security and stability in the region."

Maybe the timing's just a coincidence. Or maybe it has to do with ironing out the wrinkles in the Basra deal. Still, it's hard to believe that Jafari and Maliki don't understand the importance of the Petraeus Report. The appearances of this are radioactive, but I wonder if anyone in Washington noticed.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Update: After reading this from Kevin Drum, it looks like this meeting could be another sign that Iran is increasingly taking Maliki's side in his standoff with al-Sadr. As for how Moqtada's doing, as the title of Kevin's post wonders, I'd just point out that every time someone counts al-Sadr out, he manages to get back up from the canvas in better shape than before.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Consolidating the Surge's Gains

I'm not able to watch the hearings here in Paris, so I've only been able to read their prepared statements which are up now on the Senate Armed Services Committee website(Amb. Crocker here, Gen. Petraeus here). But based on that, I've got to agree with Andrew Sullivan: both Gen. Petraeus' and Ambassador Crocker's testimony seem to reflect an effort at intellectual honesty that surpasses that of most of the shrill din surrounding them.

There's still the possibility that a few days of high-pressure questioning might produce the kind of political theater that definitively shifts public opinion, but besides that, I'm not sure what these hearings can really accomplish. Again, I'm across the pond here in Paris, but from afar, it seems that between the two extremes of "Iraq forever" and "Get out now" lies the vast majority of Americans who are simply trying to make sense of a situation that seems increasingly difficult to extricate ourselves from by the day. Unlike forty years ago, when we were a nation divided, today we are a nation increasingly hemmed in.

There's nothing unreasonable about Gen. Petraeus' recommendations -- a 45-day freeze following the final Surge brigade drawdown to consolidate the "reversible gains" already made -- were it not for the fact that those gains seem too ephemeral to ever really consolidate. Which means six months from now, we're likely to find ourselves locked on the horns of this very same dilemma: if we stay, things are unlikely to get better, and if we go they're likely to get worse.

There's also nothing unreasonable about Ambassador Crocker's emphasis on establishing a longterm status of forces arrangement with the Iraqi government for when the current U.N. mandate expires in December. Crocker stipulated that the agreement would be non-binding on a future American president. And yet, the status quo has a measure of inertial weight that sometimes becomes hard to displace.

Crocker made reference to a diplomatic surge over the course of the past year, but frankly, it seems to have passed under the radar. If there's one thing missing from the mainstream debate that was present in most of the expert testimony presented to Congress, it's the need to widen the diplomatic fora for stabilizing Iraq. We need to bring in some fresh air, not to feed the fire, but to clear our thoughts. We've been locked into the illogic of our Iraq policy for so long now that we've lost sight of the fact that you can't solve a problem that you've become part of. That's the only way I can see to make the "recommendations" (if we were honest with ourselves, we'd call them what they are: policy decisions) Gen. Petraeus made today palatable.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Iraq 2012

If you're interested in what a non-alarmist view of American withdrawal from Iraq might look like, click through and read Dr. F. Gregory Gause's testimony (.pdf) from last Thursday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing titled, "Iraq 2012: What Can It Look Like, How Do We Get There?" Gause, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, offered his analysis as part of the committee's lineup of hearings meant to put next week's Petraeus/Crocker appearances into a broader strategic context.

While he acknowledged that withdrawal would result in Iraqi violence, both sectarian and factional, he argued that even if it results in all-out civil war (not necessarily inevitable) the chances of a worst-case scenario (regional destabilization, armed intervention of neighboring states and a resurgent al-Qaida) are not as great as proponents of an extended American military presence suggest.

Gause discounts the likelihood of armed intervention of neighboring states leading to a regional conflagration, for the simple reason that Iraq's neighbors either don't need to (Iran), don't want to (Turkey) or don't have the ability to (Saudi Arabia) invade the country in the event of an all-out civil war:

The Iranians already have what they want in Iraq -- substantial influence both with the Baghdad government and with major actors in border regions to the south and the north. The Turks do not want to occupy Iraqi Kurdistan or annex it. The Saudi army is hardly capable of serious cross-border operations. Foreigners will play in Iraqi politics as long as Iraq is weak and Iraqi parties seek foreign support. They are doing it now, with the American military there. They will continue to do it. But they do not appear to have the desire (in some cases, like Turkey and Iran) or the means (Saudi Arabia) to intervene in a direct, sustained military way that could lead to a wider regional war. (p. 7)

In other words, the American military presence creates moral hazard not only for Iraqi factions, but for outside powers (Iran, Saudi Arabia) as well, who can meddle in Iraq's domestic affairs knowing that U.S. forces are there to contain the fallout.

As for the possibility that American withdrawal would embolden al-Qaida, Gause's reasoning is pretty compeling:

Undoubtedly, al-Qaeda will claim victory with an American withdrawal. But making that fact, over which we have no control, the reason to maintain our presence in Iraq gives Usama bin Laden a veto over American policy. . . Bin Laden can claim what he wants; people in the region will see the results on the ground. (p. 7)

But if a worst-case scenario is far from a foregone conclusion, so too is an optimistic one, since any long-term stabilization of Iraq can only take place in the context of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. According to Gause, the Saudis consider the Maliki government an Iranian client state (something to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up), and are convinced that grouping the southern Shiite provinces into a regional government along the lines of the Kurdish KRG would be the first step towards the eventual dissolution of Iraq. Significantly, the creation of a southern "Shia-stan" -- supported by Maliki ally, ISCI -- is strongly opposed by the nationalist Sadrist faction (something else to consider next time the question of air support for the ISF comes up).

Gause also identifies an indirect consequence of the Anbar Awakening that I've yet to see mentioned elsewhere, namely that by re-directing the Sunni insurgency away from American forces, the Awakening has resulted in the creation of Sunni clients that the Saudis can support without jeopardizing Saudi-U.S. bi-lateral relations. The Sunni groups can't be considered Saudi proxies, since Riyadh doesn't exert any control over them. But by providing the Saudis with the political cover necessary for financing and supplying Iraq's Sunni tribes, the Awakening strategy has created one of the pre-conditions for the kind of Saudi-Iranian proxy war that figures prominently in so many doomsday scenarios of the impact of an American withdrawal.

Finally, Gause points out that we can't broker a resolution of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry so long as we are participants in it. Which is why he believes that a U.S.-Iranian bi-lateral engagement, if not a pre-requisite for a regional approach, will dramatically increase its chance of success.

Carole O'Leary's testimony is also worth a read for the way in which it illustrates how, by reducing the narrative of Iraq's internal faultlines to broad regional, ethnic and sectarian identities, we impoverish our ability to find creative solutions to the political problems of Iraqi reconstruction. As an example, in talking about a federalist solution, she observes that based on her research, ". . .Arab Iraqis who are open to federalism are without doubt more likely to think in terms of at least five federal regions, not three." In particular, O'Leary believes we should take advantage of tribal identity, which in many cases straddles sectarian and ethnic divides, as a way to foster a federal model along the lines of the United Arab Emirates:

. . .[A]n Arab state which espoused federalism as a model for governance precisely because it offered a pathway toward holding the country together and distributing the oil resources fairly in a tribal context. The UAE is an example of a pluralistic society in which the pluralism stems from tribalism, not ethnicity. This of course is an important point for Arab Iraqis who reject what they see as a Kurdish insistence on ethnic federalism. (pp. 5-6).

The media narrative on Iraq is increasingly reduced to the Surge, with an emphasis on the tactical metrics (casualty figures and "political benchmarks") that were formulated to justify it. So hats off to Joe Biden for getting this kind of context into the Congressional record. It would be nice if the press paid some attention to it. But at least it's there for people who are interested.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

WPR Blogging

Here's some posting from the World Politics Review blog:

I should have some time next week to get some posting up here. In the meantime, WPR Editor Hampton Stephens has been posting on the blog as well, and there's some real good content in the WPR front pages. So click through.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

WPR Blogging

What went up over at the World Politics Review blog:

Or click through.

Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

WPR Blogging

Here's what's up over at the World Politics Review blog:


Posted by Judah in:  Odds & Ends   

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