Thursday, November 29, 2007

Soldiers Hold The Line, Diplos Drop The Ball

News from Iraq on the security front is still looking good, and here's the shift that we were all expecting:

"'We're in a definite period of progress,' Brig. Gen. Ed Cardon, deputy commander for support, Multi-National Division-Central, said Monday."
"'What makes this so important -- this time so important -- this definite period of progress, is that when the violence is down we can do a lot more working with governance and economic development and economic reconstruction,' Cardon said. 'And that's really going to be the focus of our efforts over the next several months without taking our eye off the security advances that we've made.'"

Great news. Unequivocally, for everyone who is seriously engaged. That's the way forward, and it's quite a relief to see that we're on it. The Iraqi street has been on about sanitation, jobs, energy, and medicine for quite a while now, and the sooner they have those things the better we'll be doing.

In other good news, the number of home guards in the American-backed Awakening movement was over-counted by about 17,000. Why's that good news?

"'On the one hand, that kind of cuts into the good news story, but these people have come forward and said they want to work for us,' Stanton said.

He said they weren't taken on only because there was no need for them."

Now, a tick of moderately bad news that may or may not matter much. That Declaration of Principles the US administration foisted on al-Maliki turned out to be pretty clumsy, and wasn't received well:

"The Sadrists, who had been flirting with Maliki for 10 days, immediately cut off contacts, claiming that the agreement "sets the ground for long-term occupation". Muqtada was furious that Maliki never presented the agreement to Parliament before signing it off with the US President."

Aside from the reaction from al-Sadr, the Declaration provoked a number of other political players in Iraqi Parliament, despite the fact that the Declaration was non-binding. Now aside from the negative political impact that this created, it has some instructive power for a lesson that, on further review, probably should have been obvious: a brand new parliament that is expected to exercise sovereignty is going to be angry when you act in what is perceived as a unilateral manner with the country's PM, no matter how well-intentioned or how non-binding the action is. Still, there is some political point-scoring taking place here that should be noted as well.

When the Iraqi Accordance Front calls al-Maliki a sectarian who is going out of his way to marginalize Sunnis, in this case there's no way for al-Maliki to win. By signing the declaration, he managed to alienate al-Sadr's Shi'a bloc, and their lack of communications will be interpreted by the largely Sunni Awakening movement as a weakness in Shi'a solidarity. Had al-Maliki not signed the declaration, there would have been no outrage, al-Sadr would still be courting, and in that case the Sunnis really would be marginalized to the extend that a consolidation of Shi'a power would threaten them.

Clearly, some of the resulting outrage is fake. On the other hand, al-Sadr is a pretty delicate snowflake to be handling so clumsily, although odds are good that he's doing a little political theater of his own that won't amount to much that's serious. In conclusion, it would probably be best if Bush kept his hands out of the pot and let the Generals work from now on. Non-binding resolutions are for Democrats acting tough about the war budget, not people who are actually trying to get work done.

Now for a stretch.

Remember that 17,000-person over-count of Awakening recruits? That has another upside. Al-Maliki and al-Sadr have been awfully spooked by the size and fervor of the Awakening movement, and that was one of the factors drawing them together. So reporting that the Sunnis aren't as big and scary as they were previously thought to be will work to ease some of those tensions and in turn may reduce the perception that al-Maliki is courting Shi'a blocs in order to marginalize the Sunnis. Al-Maliki needs all the good press he can get.

But that's really reaching. For now, it's good to see that our focus has shifted exactly the way it needs to, and moving forward we should start seeing more reports on reconstruction efforts in tandem with the security gains continuing.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Stop Holding Your Breath

There's been relatively little to talk about any serious news lately, and what seems like news really isn't. But as November draws to a close, we all know exactly what's on our minds and we're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Mainstream sources already have stories written and cued for the end of the month, when news will break that the downward trend in violence has reversed, or it has held. So let's get some of the juvenile stuff out of the way before getting into the useful stuff.

First, the American left will cry, no matter which way things go - if deaths come up, then the trend has broken and it's all getting worse. If deaths are down, well, even one death is too many and it's all for nothing.

Second, the American right will celebrate, no matter which way things go - if deaths are up, the increase probably won't be significant, and if deaths are down, well, of course they're down because we're winning - and I happen to think that we really are beginning to.

Third, Iraq will still be dangerous and will still need a lot of work, no matter which way things go. We will not have won or lost based on the end-of-the-month casualty count.

Now the useful stuff.

First, according to a Pew Research Center poll, Americans are seeing the progress in Iraq but a majority - unchanged since February - "still favor(s) bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible rather than keeping troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized." This is neutral news, as public support hasn't increased or decreased. What it means, short term, is that we can't reasonably expect American political will to shift due to what is largely perceived as marginal-to-moderate progress, judging by how much shift there has been in seeing progress - never mind the reality, for this consideration it's the perception that counts. All this means is that American domestic politics on Iraq will be business as usual without a groundbreaking event or protracted change in one direction or another.

Second, is that portions of the Mahdi Army are being audited (read: "cannibalized") in an effort to bring the army to more closely obey al-Sadr's orders, during a stand-down that is seen by at least one qualified analyst as a good will gesture towards al-Maliki. While perhaps the idea of a highly disciplined Sadrist force is disconcerting to begin with, there is a hidden bonus that American forces undoubtedly are working towards.

Al-Sadr's opportunism is obvious, and he can be expected to do that which will suit himself the best. With a strictly loyal Mahdi Army, al-Sadr betters his chances of not being viewed as the political head of a Hamas-like terrorist organization, i.e. someone who needs to be arrested and have his army annihilated. However, with a strictly loyal army also comes the ability to control that army by controlling al-Sadr through deal-making, which we already know Petraeus is doing with al-Sadr's trustees. If we can keep him in the political realm, we can keep his army out of the military equation - something that has been serving us quite well so far.

Third, is that the political surge we need to see has not yet come to be, but that's understandable. Tensions can be expected to be reasonably high, as the decreases in violence are still fairly fresh and news in Iraq travels much more slowly than it does here, and is also easily counteracted by first-hand experiences. Let's not forget just how slowly political processes move and how long it takes them to be influenced: expecting the political reform to have happened this early after the progress is unreasonable, but it's not unreasonable to expect it to start happening, despite sectarian divides.

Iraqi sectarianism will not necessarily be a deal-breaker for political progress any more than American sectarianism is. It should be expected at this point in history that reasonable people will disagree, but that does not by default cause them to refrain from compromising or passing legislation that isn't volatile - things like energy, water, sanitation, and medical services, which really are the next step forward towards creating legitimacy for the Iraqi Government.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Journalists: Play It Straight Or Don't Play

A fairly large portion of the anti-war crowd - HuffPo among it - has latched onto an NYT story about political progress in Iraq, and the Bush administration's stance adjustment - which isn't really an adjustment at all. While domestic politics is a long way from useful, the obfuscation of this story and the degree to which it has spread deserves a response.

To be blunt, this is not news. And to be diplomatic, the resulting allegations of shifting goalposts don't just approach ridiculous - they careen wildly towards ridiculous, crash through the roadblock and then its on to Mexico and freedom, sweet freedom!

Arianna Huffington had this to say:

"Now the surge was apparently implemented so "American officials" could focus on "pragmatic goals like helping the Iraqi government spend the money in its budget."

"That's right: our new definition of success in Iraq is helping the Iraqi government spend money."

Interesting evaluation, considering that Iraqi budget matters in general have been regarded as a benchmark since January 2007, and originated from al-Maliki's comments, not the Bush Administration. The proof is in the GAO Benchmark report, page 5 in the required reading section (which has been updated to the PDF version). If this is news to Arianna, she's been living in a hole for the past 11 months. And if she really believes that a budget isn't political, that hole must have been abnormally well insulated for her to not hear this:

"Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said this week that if Congress cannot pass legislation that ties war money to troop withdrawals, they would not send Bush a bill this year."

On a more minor note, Arianna also misses this part of the article, but then I'm not sure how she can allege bar-lowering if she acknowledges it:

"Bush administration officials have not abandoned their larger goals and emphasize the importance of reaching them eventually. They say that even modest steps, taken soon, could set the stage for more progress, in the same manner that this year’s troop “surge” opened the way, unexpectedly, for drawing Sunni tribesmen to the American side."

Also at HuffPo is Ilan Goldberg, selectively parroting things that sound bad at a glance but then turn out to be good if considered critically, like this:

"...and passing legislation to allow thousands of Baath Party members from Saddam Hussein's era to rejoin the government. A senior Bush administration official described that goal as largely symbolic since rehirings have been quietly taking place already."

First, that's not news. Legislation on Baath reconciliation has been a benchmark since June of 2006; this isn't a new focus. This is also on page 5 of the GAO report already mentioned. Second, the fact that these rehirings have been occuring ahead of legislation is evidence of reconciliation efforts happening faster at the ground level than at the political level. This isn't uncommon at all (see the gay rights movement for a domestic reference), and it also happens to be a good thing. Put it this way; in 1954, what would have been better? Legislation forcing schools to integrate, or the people just doing it themselves long before the government got around to telling them to?

Adding to the asininity of the situation is the fact that the GAO report I've cited was championed very loudly by the left back in September when it was announced that only three of the eighteen benchmarks had been completed. Apparently in September, these benchmarks were very important to them and they were angry that only three had been completed. Now, those same benchmarks mean nothing to them. Suddenly, I'm reminded of raquetball again.

Not to get too preachy, but this is exactly this type of journalism that turns people away from intelligent debate and hinders progress as a result. Intentional dishonesty and such transparent game-playing are some of the more major reasons behind the polarization of American society, and part of the reason why self-righteous snark has replaced open discussion.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Order Of Operations

As I've said before, it's easy to look at numbers and see progress, but in doing that alone, there is a human element to the situation that gets lost. One might argue that those human elements aren't particularly important, but I'd seriously disagree with that. The perceptions of the population that must be won over are critical when it comes to success, and the context those perceptions occur in are extremely important as well; it's not enough to simply see what's happening, we have to see the conditions in which it is happening as well. For instance:

"Today, the market was very crowded and we were happy about that," he said. "The Iraqi security officials have deceived us by their statements that the situation is 80 percent better. People believed them and began to go out thinking that it would be safe. I think that the situation will become worse again."

And there's this from an MSNBC article:

"'I expect that security will improve day by day. People are tired of conflict.'Still, she has lines that she is not yet willing to cross."

The point is that nobody knows what the near future holds for Iraq, and even Iraqis don't agree on it. A more obvious point is that the entirety of Iraq isn't safe yet, and there still isn't a common perception of safety, which is something that the American and Iraqi effort will still need to work on. The kinetic war in any society never ends, it just becomes minuscule enough that most people don't fear it and the police can generally handle it. That's as true in the United States as it is in Iraq.

The Iraqi people are wary of the extremist violence that is still being perpetrated, even if the situation is better than it was. This perception is important, because people must begin to feel safe before the extremely desirable goals of political and social reconciliation can occur. Fear is antithetical to reform, so that fear - the perception of insecurity - has to be reduced for Iraq to move forward.

Combating that insecurity is not so much a matter of strength as it is a matter of patience. Of course, safety from violent elements is crucial, but so is provision of electricity, water, sanitation, medical services, and jobs. An absence of all of these things lends to that insecurity, and the provision of all these things by the right people can turn the population in the right direction.

Those things are the next step, not political reconciliation. Congressional democrats have been arguing to reduce funding for the American effort based on the fact that political reconciliation hasn't occurred, and they're jumping the gun in a pretty big way. There's still much more that can physically be done to alter the perceptions of the population, and those things need to occur before our ultimate goals can be met.

We're making progress, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Confounded Variables And "The Surge"

According to Al-Jazeera and Gateway Pundit (a lovely couple), the American troop surge was completed in June of 2007, effecting the addition of 30,000 more soldiers to the theater. So, looking at the casualty trends one more time (again built from numbers), we can have a look at events in chronological order and posit some theories as to why the casualties are trending down.

On the left, there are three fairly common narratives that attempt to explain the drastic reduction in violence. 1) is ethnic cleansing and relocation of religious sects, 2) is the Mahdi Army stand-down, and 3) is the least frequent; that the operational tempo has dropped dramatically, exposing fewer Americans to attack.

On the right, there is really only one that can be placed on a graph, which suggests that the troop surge is responsible for the reduction in violence entirely (see Gateway Pundit link). This assertion is generally made citing evidence that it was surge tactics that allowed the Awakening movement to take hold, and that the relatively intangible elements of a change in on-the-ground strategy has pushed the situation forward.

So, here's that graph (yes, I labeled it with MS Paint. Leave me alone.):

I won't be addressing the idea that the Mahdi Army's stand-down is responsible for the gains, because I've already debunked that idea here, but for the record it's really just as simple as the fact that violence was trending down well before the Mahdi clammed up, and even then, the Mahdi can only really take credit for not murdering so many civilians.

The assertion that op-tempo is down should seem to be ridiculous on it's face, as it runs completely counter to the counterinsurgency basics outlined in FM 3-24. The whole idea behind the new strategy is to decrease force protection and increase common touch; that means more patrols, or at least putting American soldiers in contact with the public for longer periods of time. I'm going to go ahead and suggest that this claim is outright false.

If you're wondering if I'm calling Pepe Escobar a liar, well yes. Yes I am. And the Brookings Institute would likely agree with me.

According to this report by the Brookings Institute dated October 1st, 2007, Iraq saw a 10,000-patrol increase in the first week of the Baghdad Security Plan, these patrols being carried out by American and Iraqi forces. The second week saw yet another 12,000-patrol increase over the previous week - in two weeks in February, the number of patrols tripled.

On the same page (9) is another graph, detailing the steady increase in the number of Joint Security Stations and Combat outposts - these are the checkpoints and such where the Americans are actually mentoring the Iraqis, and these are all a long way from a super-base designed around force protection. On February 14th, there were only 10 such stations in Baghdad. By June 27th, the number was 68. It would take the willing suspension of disbelief to assume that after June, we decided to reverse these efforts. This, by the way, entirely contradicts the notion of increased force protection as being responsible for the fall in violence. This is a minority view for a reason.

So what's left on the left is perhaps the most popular argument: ethnic relocation and cleansing have separated Sunni and Shi'a to the point where violence is no longer necessary. If that were the case, I would imagine we would have seen a brief rise in violence after the Golden Mosque bombing of 2006, and then a steady tapering off of sectarian bloodshed as the two groups slowly divided into their own respective areas. But that's not what the trends show.

At, the recent decrease in violence, in relative terms, happened very quickly. As would be predictable, violence ramped up after February of 2006, and remained high until... What, exactly? Until collectively, the people of Iraq decided to partition themselves by neighborhood, and do so in an unprecedentedly spontaneous manner? Sorry, but the data says otherwise. The nature and speed of the decrease don't lend themselves to interpretation as ethnic cleansing or exodus - those would take much longer.

On the right, then, is the overly-broad claim that the surge is responsible for all of the recent decrease. I'm going to take issue with that as well. As is apparent from the graph, there are two other things to consider: first, violence was trending down unevenly before the surge was complete; and second, the Mahdi stand-down, however motivated, has also contributed a decrease in civilian deaths.

It's also worth noting that the Awakening movement, especially the Anbar Awakening, actually predates the surge and occurs outside of the troop buildup's target, which was exclusively Baghdad. I should note here however that Baghdad was the target of the troop buildup only; that's not to say that operational tempo across the country wasn't increased; in fact, it probably was, but the numbers aren't readily available.

Perhaps more importantly than all of that is the constant confusion as to what, exactly, is meant by "the surge". Common usage apparently dictates that the surge means the change in grand strategy espoused by Petraeus and Odierno. That's not correct. Originally, "the surge" was a clumsy, media-given name to supplant the even clumsier "Fardh al-Qanoon," which is also known as the Baghdad Security Plan, the operative word of which is "Baghdad". The grand strategy's only given name was given by the White House, and it's called "The New Way Forward".

At the end of the day, gains can't really be attributed to one cause. They are likely a composite of all of the ideas given above (except the force protection theory, that's just idiotic) and a number of events that haven't been considered here. But, if credit must be given to any single party for any single act, it has to go to the Iraqis for stepping up to defend their families and communities, which has in turn given them a safer country. It wasn't long ago when some thought they could only unite against the Americans, to drive us out of their country so they could have thier civil war. Time has proven those people wrong. Hopefully, time will prove them wrong again, as those same parties are claiming that reconciliation and political independence are impossible.

If I were an Iraqi, I'd take pretty serious offense to comments like that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Iraq Needs 1.21 Gigawatts!

A lot of what goes on between many blogs left and right is little other than a snowball fight with bits and pieces of information that can only be described as Fark. In a nation where information transmission approaches instantaneous, and where any side of a debate has almost no limits on how fast and far they can propagate a smear or a lie or a slant, I think we seem to be forgetting something important about Iraq and how information has to move there. The difference is actually fairly observable in normal media reports.

The Christian Science monitor has an article up about a brand-new Iraqi power plant that's been built as part of the effort to restore Iraqi infrastructure. While I would advise reading the whole thing, this caught my attention:

"To get power, many Iraqis string wires from their homes to truck-size generators that sit on street corners. But US and Iraqi officials aim to get most Iraqis on the country's power grid."

As the article states, the average amount of electricity is something on the order of 8 hours a day in Baghdad, and more in other places. So we already know for certain that at least some Iraqis - and I would wager most rural Iraqis - don't operate on a 24-hour news cycle like the blogosphere does. Even those with TVs and radios are subject to a serious amount of down-time. TV and Radio would be the fastest methods in the absence of a computer, and even those will only function 8 hours a day without batteries.

Then there's this:

"Regional and sectarian politics also play a role in the distribution of power. US officials say it's important to send as much power as possible to Baghdad in the hope that it could stabilize the city, home to some of Iraq's worst violence.

But in Iraq's outlying areas, the common perception is that the networks that distribute power often bypass the small cities and towns in favor of Baghdad, creating resentment."

Lets assume for a minute that this isn't really what's happening, just for argument's sake. For the purpose of the argument, let's assume that they aren't redirecting power that would otherwise go to rural areas, but rather that there simply isn't enough power to send out to those areas during the uptime, and Baghdad's commercial activities are more important than some rural village. Harsh, but probably true.

If you're MNF-I or ISF, you have 8 hours to communicate a message to those rural areas explaining that. Insurgent groups and just generally PO'ed citizens have the remaining 16 to counteract your message, assuming that you're on top of the news cycle and you get all 8 hours of radio and TV time - which you won't.

The point here is that not every Iraqi has a computer and can get information instantly. And those who do have access to power for 8 hours a day, just like those who depend on TV and radio for news. Misperceptions and lies aren't corrected with the same speed that they are in the States, or with the same effect. Anything that is said locally is not instantly transmitted nationally. Lies can have up to 16 hours on any given day to settle in, before anyone has a chance to correct it. At which point, it can be locally discredited immediately. And another news cycle passes.

In FM 3-24, a significant LLO (Logical Line of Operation) in counterinsurgency is Information Operations. It is explained that in an era where a 24-hour news cycle exists at home, IO is much more important than it ever has been. Counterinsurgency forces have to be on message, all the time to get good, accurate information into that cycle so that the insurgent's violence isn't allowed to take over for days. Now extrapolate that out, just for yuks.

The top generals are concerned with losing message time measured in days, in a nation where news is transmitted 24 hours of every 24 hours. What does that mean when a given province in Iraq can receive news for only 8 hours of every 24? In all likelihood, it means that IO in the host nation are 3 times more important, and 3 times more difficult to stay on top of. At least.

And now consider that in our cycle, feedback is near-instantaneous and en masse in the form of blog counter-posts, comments sections, and email. In the Iraqi cycle, it's town meetings, phone calls, letters, with the addendum of 8 hours worth of email - 1/3rd of our capacity, at a much slower pace, and not nearly as voluminous.

So how do you fix all this?

"'We now need to start to improve the basic services,' General Odierno said while in Washington last month. 'If we can do that, I think we will see a tipping point' in Iraqi tolerance of the US occupation and support for the current Iraqi regime, he said."

There's a fair amount of merit to that argument. The faster and wider the Iraqi news cycle can run, the better. It has the potential to do exactly what it has for American society - reduce localization and increase national collaboration, and give voice to the relatively passive and intelligent majority to debate, rather than caving to the opinions of a radical local minority. Army of Davids, and all that fun stuff.

While of course none of this will happen instantaneously, there's just no excuse for not moving in that direction. Sure, even when the grid comes up most Iraqis probably won't have computers; that's another issue. But an expansion of electrical distribution would have the organic bonus of expanding the Iraqi news cycle, which in turn would enable the internet to become a serious tool of the people in Iraq later on.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Making The Progress Stick

The latest article from Sami Moubayed at Asia Times discusses the al-Sadr issue that is one of the sticking points of the American effort. Moubayed breaks some news that western media - to their everlasting shame - has not reported at all:

"This week, Muqtada called for a renewal of his truce with both American forces and those of the Iraqi government. It is a gesture of goodwill towards Maliki."

Yes, this article is from today. That doesn't sound like the al-Sadr that the West is familiar with, but then again, the West doesn't get to hear much of anything unless it's car bombs and carnage, with the exception of the recent spate of extremely welcome good news (welcome to some, anyway). Its important to remember that Maliki and al-Sadr were allies at one time:

"The Sadrists had worked with Maliki since 2006. He promised them government support and office while they gave him legitimacy in the poorer districts of Baghdad and among the Shi'ite community at large. They were allowed to keep their militias armed. Maliki also turned a blind eye to their military activity, and used his influence at every interval to prevent the US military from cracking down on the Mahdi Army in Baghdad's Sadr City. "

Remember how annoying that was?

The reason for it is beginning to be fairly clear, in that the Shi'ia in large part fear exactly the same thing they always have: Sunnis taking back the power they held under Saddam. This is a fairly open ambition of some of the Sunni groups that have been co-opted by the Awakening movements (from MSNBC via WaPo):

"The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: 'As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists.' Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad."

With the Sunnis rising to power - and so far with good cause - through the Awakening movements, some Shi'ia are beginning to get nervous enough to consolidate their efforts, which seems to be what al-Sadr and al-Maliki are trying to do in incremental measures; al-Sadr with an extended reprieve on violent activity, and al-Maliki with press. From Moubayed's Article:

"With the spotlight off him, Maliki gave an interview to the Saudi television channel al-Arabiyya, in which he asserted that 'There is no civil war in Iraq.' He added, 'We don't have a militia problem in Iraq anymore.'"

Maliki knew that he was, to put it politely, not telling the truth. In addition to spreading false public relations about his administration's effectiveness in combating terrorism, the Iraqi premier was also doing something very important. He was reconciling with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr."

It should be clear that this wasn't the only time that al-Maliki has done this. Al-Maliki was talking about 60mm Birdstrikes when he talked about the militias no longer being a problem a few months ago as well. Of course he was lying, but in the process he is trying to mend some fences by downplaying his rhetoric to a point where his intent is obvious. In this instance, lying is a diplomatic ploy like any other.

Then of course, is the currently outstanding issue of corruption, which is the real hurdle after security gets locked down. So long as al-Maliki keeps playing games like these with al-Sadr in favor of the Shi'ia, the Sunnis will be howling about it. And so long as the Sunnis are joining Awakening movements and sometimes threatening the Shi'ia,, the Shi'ia will take that as a threat and continue to mass their power. This is why counterinsurgency is a political battle as well as a strategic one.

On another note, some commentators on the right have begun pushing the idea that we've won. To be as straightforward about this matter as possible, no. No, we have not. What we have done is drastically improved the security situation, and diplomatic progress is beginning to roll because of that. Which is fantastic. It's incredible. Lets have more. However, General Petraeus will be the first to tell you that tactical success doesn't guarantee a victory in an insurgency, because the kinetic fight is only a fragment of the entire conflict; the rest is social, and political, and economic. Progress is being made across the board, if unevenly. But we're not out of the woods yet and since al-Sadr's intentions for the future are cloudy, the progress we've made is still fragile.

At The Weekly Worldwide Standard, Kimberly Kagan has a very good article on the tactical successes, featuring this quote:

"'I believe we have achieved some momentum,' General Raymond T. Odierno, commander of coalition combat forces in Iraq, said modestly in his November 1 press briefing."

Momentum is great, but the killshot is at the political level, not the strategic level. Fortunately, we're starting to see the strategic progress that we need to start maneuvering for the political win as well.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What Now?

FOX news recently reported that General Petraeus has met with some of al-Sadr's representatives, which seems to have gone by mostly under the radar, with the exception of this post over at Captain's Quarters a few days ago, which is how I came by the report as well.

"Al-Sadr's aides have been quietly working with U.S. military officials to discuss security operations."

I didn't see that one coming, and I feel a little dumb for it. But when I give it some consideration, al-Sadr has frequently identified himself through his actions as an exemplary opportunist. The old joke about the Groucho Marxist comes to mind. There does seem to be (as unsavory a character as he is) at least a fair shot at co-opting him rather than going toe-to-toe with the Mahdi army; the public is beginning to turn against his violent methods the same way they did for AQI, and that's not a place where a power-hungry cleric wants to find himself in Iraq today.

It also may be possible that General Petraeus has al-Sadr in a very tight spot. Given the massive reduction in civilian deaths that are a direct result of the Mahdi stand-down, it's fair to say that Petraeus would likely know, when the stand-down is called off, exactly who is responsible for what amount of violence and where, and that could in turn fuel a massive amount of anti-Sadrist propaganda and intel that would lose him even more of the popular support than he could lose all by himself.

Al-Sadr may be slime, but he's a long way from stupid. His ability for self-preservation has gotten him much farther than most of his compatriots have ever gone, and he knows perfectly well when to hold 'em and fold 'em. He - or people near him - will have made these considerations, and much more accurately than I have.

I'm not sure its possible for me to like al-Sadr any less. But if he's being earnest about his desires to become part of the solution - even if only for his own political gain - that may be a cross that we can bear so long as the Iraqis will bear it as well. For a warlord, the benefits of cutting a deal have never been better. If he's serious about forming an Iraqi nationalist party, I can think of few things better than disavowing violence and actually working proactively for Iraqi interests.

Unfortunately, I also can't think of anything more unlikely. Al-Sadr is an opportunist, and one without a moral compass. He's a warlord, a politician, and a cleric, and I'm wary of co-opting a man who, if past behavior is any indication, will have only a short walk to become an authoritarian despot.

Good thing Petraeus knows more than I do.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Iraqis Taking The Lead Against Oppression

The Mahdi army's violence hasn't gone unnoticed. An interesting article from the BBC talks about the Mahdi Army receiving some backlash from the residents of Karbala:

"The Mehdi Army's grip on Karbala - home to some of Shia Islam's holiest shrines - was broken in August after it was blamed for violent clashes with police in which more than 50 people were killed.

Before that, such public accusations against the militia would have been unthinkable, our correspondent says."

I'm taking this as good news. The Mahdi army will of course be back and, despite al-Sadr's political gamesmanship, is widely regarded as one of the larger threats to Iraq's stability. An insurgency is all about winning the support of the populace by establishing legitimacy, and at least in Karbala, al-Sadr is losing it (if he ever had it) because of things like this:

"Many participants at the meeting made emotional statements giving details of relatives they said had been killed or tortured by the Mehdi Army."
If you'll recall, that's exactly the kind of behavior that got AQI routed in al-Anbar. Somehow I think that al-Sadr's adoption of AQI as an enemy is (surprise) nothing but opportunistic crapola based on the gamble that he may not have to fight them by the time the Mahdi stand-down is over.

As a province, Karbala was handed over to ISF a short time ago. It will undoubtedly be more vulnerable than it was before the handover from a kinetic standpoint, but it's also worth noting that in the absence of Mahdi murderers who are regrouping, the civilians are using the opportunity to regroup as well. And while dealing with local militias in a largely ad hoc fashion is risky, it would seem likely that a civilian militia fomenting as a result of backlash against al-Sadr's goons would be a good deal.

Elsewhere in the patchwork war, we see exactly that occurring in one of Baghdad's northern neighborhoods (via Memeorandum):

"BAGHDAD - Former Sunni insurgents asked the United States to stay away, and then ambushed members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, killing 18 in a battle that raged for hours north of Baghdad, an ex-insurgent leader and Iraqi police said yesterday.

The Islamic Army in Iraq sent advance word to Iraqi police requesting that US helicopters keep out of the area because its fighters had no uniforms and were indistinguishable from Al Qaeda, according to the police and a top Islamic Army leader known as Abu Ibrahim."

Risky, but not stupid. To paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, it's better to let them do it tolerably than have us do it well, because this would never happen after a victorious American firefight, of any duration:

"And at Baghdad's most revered Sunni shrine, the Abu Hanifa mosque, voices blasted from loudspeakers yesterday urging residents to turn against Qaeda: 'We are your sons, the sons of the awakening, and we want to end the operations of Al Qaeda.'"

While the words may ring hollow for many here, it was only a matter of months ago when anyone speaking those words would likely have been h
unted down. The same goes for the citizens of Karbala and their rejection of the Mahdi army. From the look of it, Iraqis are beginning to recognize oppression when they see it; James Madison would be proud, and we should be on board as a nation willing to fight oppression alongside them.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


It's been very easy to get bogged down in numbers when talking about Iraq lately. Between the differing casualty counts, media obfuscation about progress, and left-wing loony tunes peddling conspiracy theories and despair, there's a human element that slips through the cracks. There are people who can see the American efforts and intentions for what they really are, and people who understand that Iraqis need a future.

An Iraqi Colonel's words, via OpFor:

"We feel that we are connected with the American people in many connections and we will not forget the big assistance that the American Government gave to the Iraqi People. We will not forget the liberation from Saddam's Regime, we feel that we live together one body either with you or with the American people. I'm honored to participate by sending you a simple fund of (1,000$) to the American people in San Diego City to lowering their suffering from the wild fire. That's for the feeling of being brothers and friends and for the great connections together."

An Iraqi Exile's words, from his own blog at IraqPundit:

"Frankly, I don't understand why so many mock us for wanting a future for Iraq. Is your hatred for George Bush so great that you prefer to see millions of civilians suffer just to prove him wrong?"

The words of a Sunni Cleric on Iraqi television via Reuters:

"The time of revenge has gone. I call on each Iraqi person to be a like a doctor and heal the wounds of others because the wounds are deep and the pain is huge and the blood is still flowing."

And from Michael Yon, we get this:

"The Iraqis asked me to convey a message of thanks to the American people. 'Thank you, thank you,' the people were saying. One man said, 'Thank you for peace.' Another man, a Muslim, said 'All the people, all the people in Iraq, Muslim and Christian, is brother.'"

It isn't over; we haven't won yet. The Mahdi Army will be back, and many places still aren't safe. But at the end of the day, those people who have said that there's no light at the end of this tunnel are wrong. Those of our own leaders who have been so eager to hand us a loss are wrong. This is what hope looks like.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Mahdi Army: Quantified Murderous Tendencies

There's an unusually interesting post up at Kos today that claims the reduction of casualties is exclusively due to the temporary moratorium on violence that al-Sadr has imposed on his Mahdi army.

"No one seems to notice that, as with everything else in Iraq, the Iraqis are going to do what they want, when they want. When al-Sadr lays down his arms, there will be relative peace. When he takes them up, Americans will die in dozens."

According to the Telegraph, this temporary, 6-month halt for restructuring would have begun August 30th, or thereabouts. To be totally honest, I've been more than slightly apprehensive about what violence trends are going to look like after the Mahdi army reengages, and as I've said several times before, its very difficult to attach any particular meaning to the drop in numbers through casual observation.

But let's give this claim a shot anyway.

As is clear from the graph, which I built on numbers from, its fairly obvious that American casualties were declining long before al-Sadr called his goon squad off - the trend actually began 3 months before. And while ISF progress has been unstable, their casualties were trending down unevenly prior to the Mahdi draw-down as well.

What the data really points to in regards to the Mahdi army is the correlation between their draw-down date and the reduction in civilian deaths. Al-Sadr called his army off at the end of August, and the drop in innocent suffering is pretty shocking. For the same period, ISF casualties actually trended up, and American casualties trended down. On to what this means.

First, it should be readily apparent that the Mahdi Army has shockingly murderous tendencies. The Iraqi civilians are going to be in dutch when they reengage, and I for one am not going to give al-Sadr credit for deescalation when all that's happened was he told his thugs not to shoot and bomb innocent people. Especially when he did so to enable those thugs to reorganize so they can do the same thing more efficiently and obediently.

Second, even though significant militia activity was halted, ISF casualties rose. That probably means that the Iraqis are taking on more combat capabilities and more autonomy. From on-the-ground reports from people like Michael Yon, Michael Totten, and Bill Roggio, we know that to be the case. That's also backed up by the now-ancient GAO report and the Jones (ICOI) report, which are both in the required reading section. To further corroborate, see my post on the handover of Karbala province.

Third, US deaths are trending down, and have been since before the moratorium. This means, in all likelihood, that the surge is meeting with some success at some level, obvious or not. We know from on-the-ground reports that civilians are turning on extremists in droves, and that in turn means more insurgent activities are being halted through civilian cooperation, a good example of which would be the Anbar Awakening. Again, this is corroborated by ground-level sources. And it blows the opening quote from the Kos diarist out of the water.

From the original Kos posting:

"Regardless, the fortunes of Iraq will turn on Iraqi decisions made in Baghdad and Najaf, not in Washington, D.C. and the halls of Congress. As this situation shows, peace in Iraq lies in the hands of Iraqis."

I couldn't agree more. But for me to say, "my army will stop murdering all of you, and you will have peace" seems disingenuous. Then again, I'm not a leftist. I don't regard al-Sadr as a revolutionary hero akin to Che Guevara, I regard him as a fascist warlord much more like Che Guevara.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Casualty Trends: Why They Matter And Why They Don't

With American forces claiming continued progress as military deaths continue to fall, the folks over at Kos have been accepting a different narrative: while the Americans say that civilian casualties are down again, AFP maintains that the Iraqi ministries have numbers that say more civilians were killed this month than last month. Kos's diarists have been taking this to mean that the Americans are lying, and that the progress at large is completely fictional (which they claimed before the discrepancy anyway).

Long story short, what we have here is very simple: the Iraqi ministries came up with different numbers that the Department of Defense in regards to civilian and ISF casualties. According to the AFP article, the Iraqi ministries of Defense, Health, and Interior counted 887 ISF or civilian deaths this month, up from 840 from September, but still down from 1770 in August.

According to, which matches US DOD data very closely, there were 679 ISF/civilian casualties in October, down from 848 in September and down from 1674 in August. Side by side, the last 3 months look like this:

It would seem obvious that in light of the massive improvement upon August that's been bilaterally reported, the more recent, relatively small divergence may not be significant. Even assuming that it is (which no responsible statistician would do), it doesn't indicate any trend as yet, as the left has been so quick to point out every day for the last 5 months when casualties were declining.

Ultimately, statistics is very much like psychology: all one can do is monitor behavior, and imply a cause for it. Unless we are willing to take an exceptionally detailed and unprecedentedly involved look at the underlying cultural, social, economic, epistemological, and military causes for the numbers, we won't know with any degree of certainty what the numbers really mean. However, there are a number of simple reasons that may explain the difference in reporting.

The reason that the left clings to immediately is a difference in the definition of what constitutes a civilian. One Kos blogger claims that any dead male is counted as a terrorist by the Americans; if that were true, the level of terrorist-on-terrorist violence being reported would be stunningly high. Its important to remember that the vast majority of civilians who die violently in Iraq are dying at the hands of insurgents. Since that's the case, such obfuscation by the Americans is unnecessary. And according to FM 3-24, Gen. Petraeus would not approve of it anyway.

While it may be politically expedient to blame all the violence on the American invasion as an inciting incident, the fact of the matter is that insurgents and terrorists explicitly target civilians, and are responsible first-hand for the majority of dead innocents. A cursory glance at reports from (who engages in the aforementioned political expedience) backs this statement up.

A more likely reason for the count discrepancy is the fact that, in any given month, more people die than are counted. A count only captures a percentage of the real casualty rate, and a higher count only means that one party managed to count a higher percentage of the actual, and what percentage that is will likely never be known. So again, its hard to blame Defense or MoI for any obfuscation, when nobody will likely ever know what the real number for any given month is.

After that ridiculous slogging through numbers to no conclusion whatsoever, we get to something more useful: despite reporting slightly higher numbers (a difference of 47 from September), the Iraqi Minister for Security claimed progress:

"Again on Thursday, Iraq's minister for security, Shirwan al-Waili, insisted that the situation was improving in Baghdad and other areas.

'Because of the security plan, the violence has reduced. Baghdad is much safer,' Waili told state television."

And then, in the same AFP article, we have Lt. Gen. Odierno claiming this:

"'Improvised explosive device attacks, the extremists' preferred method of terror, have also been reduced, down well over 60 percent in the past four months, with notably reduced lethality,' he said"
Which brings an interesting and rarely-mentioned metric to mind: what does the intent of the insurgency look like over time? Its one thing to count bodies, but it doesn't tell you much of anything about what the insurgency has been trying to do and what they've been succeeding in doing. Casualties dropping is not the same as the insurgency floundering. If attacks have been decreasing, it could mean a whole number of different things, all of which point to progress very explicitly, in a way that a body count simply can't.

It's a good thing people like Lt. Gen. Odierno and Gen. Petraeus know these things and keep track of them. This is why they run the military and the folks at Kos run a diary (by the way, those are volunteers, not "conscripts" as Kos claims).