Sunday, June 27, 2004

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The big test for David Petraeus

Dexter Filkins has a front-pager in today's New York Times on the challenges facing Lieutenant General David H. Petraeus (about whom I've blogged here, here, and here) in reconstituting Iraq's security forces. The highlights:

The magnitude of the task that confronts General Petraeus was made clear two months ago, when revolts in Falluja and in cities across southern Iraq led to the widespread collapse of the 200,000-man, American-trained Iraqi security forces.

The uprisings were eventually brought under control, but the Iraqi forces hardly played a role. In Baghdad, half of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a national militia trained by the Americans, either quit or sided with the insurgents; in Karbala, the corps disintegrated entirely. In Falluja, when American commanders ordered Iraqi soldiers into battle, they mutinied, with some 200 armed Iraqis refusing to board American helicopters.

Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces until General Petraeus took over earlier this month, said the Americans tried to do much too fast, and missed the degree to which the country's various ethnicities and religious groups had failed to jell into a coherent nation.

"In America, we have this national ethos; you identify with the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag, the stars and stripes," General Eaton said. "In Iraq, that is overshadowed by tribe, imam, family and ethnicity. I talked to countless young soldiers who said, `My name is Muhammad, and I am a Turkoman' or `I am a Sunni' or `I am a Shiite.' "

General Petraeus acknowledges the obstacles but believes he can transcend them. A 1974 graduate of West Point, he is a veteran of operations in Haiti and Bosnia, but not in a combat zone until he came to Iraq last year.

He has a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University, where he wrote his dissertation on the lessons of the Vietnam War.....

Even before General Petraeus arrived, American commanders had already begun a vast overhaul of the Iraqi security services, based on the experience of the April uprisings. With the new Iraqi leadership, they have taken the country's most important internal security unit, the civil defense corps, and begun turning it into a branch of a revamped 100,000-man Iraqi Army.

The locally recruited corps officers will be taken out of their homes and cities, away from their families and tribes and mosques, and turned into regular soldiers who live on bases and train and fight together. To make that happen, the Americans have committed $3 billion to building training sites and regional headquarters and to better equip Iraqi soldiers.....

To set up an effective Iraqi Army, General Petraeus believes that the most important change is already happening — putting Iraqis in charge of the army and the government.

Part of the problem last April, he acknowledged, was not just that Iraqi soldiers were refusing to fight other Iraqis, it was that the people who were ordering them to do so were Americans.

To that end, the Americans have installed a veteran Iraqi general, with a history of independence from Saddam Hussein, as the army chief of staff. Already, that general, Amir Hashemi, said he had found the America training of Iraqi troops to be woefully inadequate.

"I am not satisfied with the training provided by the Americans," General Hashemi said. "We must do this the Iraqi way."

General Petraeus says he is cheered by that kind of independence, since it is the Iraqis, ultimately, who will have to do the fighting.

Yet at the same time, General Petraeus is trying to impart Western notions on the armed forces here, particularly the idea that the army, and the Iraqi nation, must transcend loyalties to tribe and religion.

"This is your new tribe," he said to an Iraqi soldier, an ethnic Kurd, who stood in line as General Petraeus inspected the troops.

"These are all your new brothers," he said to another.


UPDATE: Petraeus and Hashemi might want to peruse Michael Ware's essay in Time about the make-up of the Iraqi insurgency. The opening graf:

The safe house lies on the outskirts of Fallujah in a neighborhood where no Americans have ventured. Inside, a group of Arab sheiks has gathered to discuss the jihad they and their followers are waging against the U.S. The men wear white robes and long beards and greet each other solemnly. They are all Iraqi, but their beliefs are those of the strict Wahhabi strain of Islam repressed under Saddam Hussein. Unlike most Iraqi sitting rooms, this one has no pictures adorning its walls or a television or radio nestled in a corner. Such luxuries are forbidden, just as they were under the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the back of the room are a few men from Saudi Arabia, who stand silently as one of the sheiks, the group's leader, addresses me in Arabic and stilted English. The war in Iraq, he says, is one of liberation, not just of a country but of Muslim lands, Muslim people, Islam itself. There is no room for negotiation with the enemy, no common ground. What he and his men offer is endless, righteous resistance. "Maybe this war will take a long time," he says. "Maybe this is a world war."

Read the whole thing.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Edward Cody's Washington Post front-pager today encapsulates the battle currently being waged in Iraq between the forces of nationalism and the forces of Islamic radicalism:

Key Iraqi opponents of the U.S. occupation expressed unease Friday over the wave of insurgent attacks that killed more than 100 Iraqis a day earlier, and rejected efforts by foreign guerrillas to take the lead in the insurgency and mate it with the international jihad advocated by Osama bin Laden.

The objections -- from anti-U.S. Shiite and Sunni Muslim leaders, including rebellious cleric Moqtada Sadr, and even from militia fighters in the embattled city of Fallujah -- arose in part from revulsion at the fact that victims of the car bombings and guerrilla assaults in six cities and towns Thursday were overwhelmingly Iraqis. But they also betrayed Iraqi nationalist concerns that the fight against U.S. occupation forces risked being hijacked by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom U.S. officials describe as a paladin in bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

"We do not need anyone from outside the borders to stand with us and spill the blood of our sons in Iraq," Ahmed Abdul Ghafour Samarrae, a Sunni cleric with a wide following, declared in his Friday sermon at Umm al Qurra mosque in Baghdad.

Since they were appointed three weeks ago, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and members of his U.S.-sponsored interim government have railed against the car bombings and other attacks. But Friday's show of disgust -- expressed in mosques and, in Sadr's case, with fliers calling for cooperation with Iraqi police -- marked the first time anti-occupation clerics and fighters sided against violence associated with the insurgency, for which Zarqawi has increasingly asserted responsibility.

In that light, it could be an important moment in the U.S. struggle to win acceptance for the military occupation and for the interim government scheduled to acquire limited authority next Wednesday. While far from embracing the U.S. occupation or the new government, the anti-occupation leaders seemed to disavow the bloodiest edge of the violence and Zarqawi's attempt to make it part of al Qaeda's vision of international jihad.

posted by Dan on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM


Pulling out of Fallujah created a no-go zone aka a privileged sanctuary there for our enemies. This was the single worst mistake in the whole occupation campaign, and pretty much guarantees that the Sunni Arabs will be ethnically cleansed.

People focus on the Sunnis and their foreign terrorist allies as though they have power and might win. BS. They're dead men walking. I flat out predict that the proportion of Iraq's population which are Sunni Arabs will be less than 10% within five years. Most of the difference will flee to Syria. Most of the remaining difference will be slaughtered by the Shia and Kurds.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

"... Washington threw up its hands and said Iraq's new interim government could fix Falluja. But even before he formally takes control at midnight on Wednesday, the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, is confronted with another declaration of war on Falluja - this time from the massed Shiite tribes of southern Iraq.

At a council of war after Friday prayers at Baghdad's Baratha mosque, the sheiks - or chiefs - of more than 40 of the tribes issued a declaration: they would destroy Falluja, along with neighbouring Ramadi, unless the insurgency leaders they hold responsible for the Shiite deaths are handed over to them - for execution.

... They have identified two prominent Falluja identities - Sheik Abdul al-Janabi of the Janabi tribe and Sheik Dafar al-Obeidi, the imam of Falluja's imposing Al Hadra Al Muhammadia mosque - as those who should die as an act of tribal revenge for the death of the six. "Janabi, whose tribe is big, told us that it was his insurgency group that killed them," Adnan said.

This is not one young man's grief talking. Speaking to the Herald, Adnan was standing in for his father, Faisal Muthair al-Chinani al-Rabia, who is the sheik of the Chinani tribe which, in turn, is part of the several-million-strong Rabia tribe - predominantly Shiite.

His father was still receiving official condolences, but interviewed a day later he was matter-of-fact. "We don't want money. We want the criminals - and we will kill them. The Janabi people say this is not their tribe's problem - it's a resistance problem.

"But if they don't hand them over, we have many tribes and much power and we will attack Falluja as many times as we need, and we will kill as many as we have to."

Where did this tribal conflict sit in the law of a newly democratic Iraq?

"We're under pressure from the new government to give them time - so we will give them a little time to see what they do. But if they do not execute these people we'll attack.

"If the government of Iyad Allawi is strong, it will win the loyalty of the Iraqi people; but if the tribes see weakness they will not respect it and they will not follow. This is their test - this dispute must be their No. 1 priority.

"There have been cases like this when the circumstances are not clear. But this is clear-cut. Everyone knows the people at Falluja killed six of our people because they were Shiites. Case closed."

The declaration drawn up by the council of war mocks the cities of the Sunni Triangle. "If these terrorists want independence from Iraq, we will make a simple job of it by killing all of them, even their people in Baghdad."

Shiite leaders in Baghdad are pressuring the Shiite tribes to give the new interim government an opportunity to resolve the crisis, warning them that to begin a tribal war would start the civil war they believe many Sunnis want.

But an observer of Iraqi tribal affairs said: "The Shiite tribes will be shamed if they don't kill someone from the Janabi tribe. So it doesn't matter what the government does - many Janabi will die because the Shiites must have their revenge.

"Prince Rabia Mohammed al Habib, who is the sheik of all the Rabia people, says he has 300 fighters ready for the first attack. This is the tribal way."


posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I would appreciate it if Tom or someone else who knows more than I do would expand on this point.

It is often bemoaned that Iraq, like many countries in the area, has artificial boundaries which include diverse, unfriendly groups. Thus, tribalism rather than nationalism is promoted. Attempts at pan-Arabism have likewise foundered. But where would we draw boundaries that resolved this? We could create larger mixed nations or smaller mixed nations or juggle the percentages, but we cannot create unmixed nations.

A healthy federalism would help, but the Swiss don't seem to be stepping up and giving advice...

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I wonder if we can really know what the Iraqi's will do until they are in a position to do it. Will they really unite as a single army to keep order and put down insurgencies, or will they always follow their tribal instincts? Will the Iraqi commanders be able to enforce discipline in the ranks without the fear of reprisals they came to know for 30 years under Saddam? Who knows? Everyone keeps yammering for an Iraqi face, but are we really going to be happy with the Iraqi face we see?
For links to news, views, politics, and government, bookmark All Things Political.

posted by: All Things Political on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

By the way, this is the Iraqi resistance that Michael Moore supports and wants to win. Doesn't sound like regular-guy progressives to me, though.

posted by: Alex Bensky on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

When the administration and the British -- who are better acquainted than we with the Arab mind -- say it will take years of Western presence before the situation is stablized enough to get out, this is the reason why. Their religion has kept them rooted in medievalism, and it is a religion as bloodthirsty as the Old Testament. The problem is whether our mercurial nature -- the Brits have also commented on this dating back to before Churchill was PM -- will permit us to stay the time needed. With the steady acid drip of the liberal media and the national attention deficit, the odds are against it.

posted by: The Sword of Righteousness on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

Asst Village Idiot,

I probably don’t know enough to comment on your question, but if I had to guess, I would think that even though tribalism is evident in Iraq and the Middle East in general, the geographic boundaries of these tribes aren’t. If a redrawing of the lines were to be attempted, the general areas might be easily defined but determining the exact boundaries, from farm to farm and house to house and mosque to mosque would not only be impossible, but endlessly bloody.

The trick, I would guess, will be to give the average Iraqi a reason to believe, other than expelling the non-Islamic Americans, that a unified Iraq is more important for him and his tribe than a divided and broken Iraq.

Again its just a guess. I’m sure someone has the right answer.

posted by: Asst to the Asst Village Idiot on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

In the new Iraq, the Sunnis have no oil and they have no power. They feel they have nothing to lose by allying with foreign terrorist Wahabis and murdering as many fellow Iraqis as they can. Sunnis don't consider Shias and Kurds to be human beings.

The Shia and Kurds are cooperating with the occupation, so they will have most of the power in post-occupation Iraq. They will also have the oil. They will constitute the majority of the armed forces and police.

The Sunni prisoners in Abu Ghraib under Iraqi control will long for the good old days when it was only the americans who abused them. Arabs really know how to torture, and won't court martial the torturers, but will probably instead give them medals.

posted by: Fletcher on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I think the tribalism is exacerbated by the lack of security and political uncertainty. Iraqis are resorting to tribal bonds because these are people they trust to keep them safe. The more I look into it, the more I believe that the sectarian violence of the past was a special product of Saddam's brutality and isolation and not an inherent natonal characteristic. Additionally, it is generally thought that military occupations tend to widen rifts. As our footprint diminshes, I would hope Shi'a/Sunni tensions would decrease.

posted by: praktike on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]


Can I interest you in some Enron bonds?

"As our footprint diminshes, I would hope Shi'a/Sunni tensions would decrease."
posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]


RAND has a short analysis up about American Counterinsurgency policy in Iraq that you might want to check out.

posted by: mark safranski on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

From everything I've read, we couldn't have picked a better man than Patraeus, and I wish him well.

I would have a lot more confidence but for one thing: we still don't know who the insurgents are. Has there ever been a war where one side was almost totally ignorant of the enemy for so long? How is Patraeus supposed to screen his troops when he's not sure what enemy to look for?

In a partial answer to Ass't Village Idiot, breaking Iraq into 1/3rds would be a nightmare and encourage the wolves surrounding Iraq to take their slice of the carcass. Each faction is hopelessly intermingled with the other, which has helped national cohesion so far but would make it all the bloodier should they split. Sunnis and Shias often belong to the same tribe, and it's impossible to imagine each faction going their separate ways peacefully.

Since there's not much we can do about it at this point, best not to think about it, and hope it doesn't happen.

posted by: Carl on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

On the contrary, offering the insurgents a "safe haven" which is in effect cordoned off might be a GOOD idea.

You know where they are. They settle down. They have meetings. They make bomb factories.

You can then take these out if you have good intel.

Now, of course, if the new Iraqi government asks the Marines to level Falluja...well what can the press say?

Either way has advantages.

posted by: Aaron on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

All this talk of tribalism and mediaeval religion is all very well, but the entity called "Iraq" was driven during the Baathist era by secularisation and an urbanised elite. The urban middle class, as a result, is largely Sunni, as far as I can ascertain. The problem, it seems to me, is to convince the Shia overlords that tribalism cannot prevail if poverty is to be conquered and a modern society attained in the south.

It is ironic that Saddam's policy of ruthless suppression of the Shia kept large majorities outside the pale of the urban society the Sunni enjoyed.

I don't doubt we may not like the face of the Iraq we get, but the West, and the rest of the democratic world, will have itself to blame for that unless funds for significant reconstruction -- and establishing infrastructure where there was none-- are channelled to the deprived south.

I don't see Kurdish society as a fractious problem in that sense. By all accounts it has thrived under the no-fly umbrella.

The Kurds would have more to lose by fragmentation, in the form of attacks by their immediate neighbours.
The Shia, by contrast, may believe they have everything to gain.

posted by: Dave F on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I pray for the safe rescue or release of Mr. Hassoun, an Arab-American, Muslim-American U.S. Marine taken hostage by evil terrorists in Iraq.

Surely this situation should help counter the offensive and obnoxious belief, apparently shared by both the "left" and the "right", that the war on al Qaeda terrorism is a war against Arabs or against Muslims.

posted by: Arjun on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

Zeyad at (Healing Iraq) included a very decent map of Iraqi tribal areas in his fourth post on tribalism. If you are interested in a brief history of tribalism in Iraq from an Iraqi's perspective his four articles are really very good. The link is to his post containing the map. The map is found at the bottom.

posted by: Rick Ballard on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

Tom, well, read this, especially:

I think Saddam and the United States very often have a commonality which bonds them together and that is simply this: That without Saddam Hussein, Iraq would disintegrate into several countries and make more trouble for the rest of the Middle East. I know no Iraqi who believes that -- whether Sunni, Shia or Kurd. The American administration believes that however, and Saddam Hussein believes that. When the rebellion started against Saddam in 1991, that danger loomed. The United States helped Saddam crush that rebellion. They didn't only stand by, on occasions they stopped the rebels from reaching arms depots to arm themselves. On other occasions, American planes flew over Saddam's helicopters while they were shooting the rebels. On a third occasion, they gave his Republican Guards safe passage through American lines to reach a certain rebel position.

The American administration was afraid that Iraq will disintegrate. They had no plan for what might follow Saddam Hussein. And certainly President Bush was explicit on that subject, saying he did not want to be mired in Iraqi internal affairs -- until he was forced into getting into Iraq by television and the pictures of the poor Kurds. And so that rebellion failed.

This bond between Saddam Hussein and the United States exists to this day. They are the two parties that believe Saddam Hussein's disappearance would cause huge problems. In the case of the United States, there are huge problems that we want to solve before we think seriously of moving him. In the case of Saddam Hussein, he keeps this issue alive, saying, "You need me, you know." Again, the case of the lesser evil as it was when he fought Khomeini.

All this talk of tribalism and mediaeval religion is all very well, but the entity called "Iraq" was driven during the Baathist era by secularisation and an urbanised elite. The urban middle class, as a result, is largely Sunni, as far as I can ascertain. The problem, it seems to me, is to convince the Shia overlords that tribalism cannot prevail if poverty is to be conquered and a modern society attained in the south.

It is ironic that Saddam's policy of ruthless suppression of the Shia kept large majorities outside the pale of the urban society the Sunni enjoyed.

And that was Saddam's policy, and that was among the reasons he killed them.

posted by: praktike on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

"In America, we have this national ethos; you identify with the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag, the stars and stripes," General Eaton said. "In Iraq, that is overshadowed by tribe, imam, family and ethnicity. I talked to countless young soldiers who said, `My name is Muhammad, and I am a Turkoman' or `I am a Sunni' or `I am a Shiite.' "

How long before our ethos fades?

posted by: Thomas on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I presume the temporary Shia-Sunni truce in April against the US (when Sadr threw his support behind Fallujah) is over.

That being said, I wonder if the threat of a Shia-Sunni civil war is exaggerated. We've seen very bloody attacks on Shia in their mosques before. Why would the deaths of these 6 trigger an attack that the other attacks did not ?

The best solution may be for the Fallujah tribe t pay some blood bounty to the Shia tribes.

posted by: Jon Juzlak on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

We should have been playing the sects against each other from the beginning. Its not ideal but its inevitable. The problem isnt that we havent given the Sunnis any reason to hope, quite the opposite. We havent shown them that should we lift our hand they will be on the payback end of some Kurd and Shiia beatdowns. We have allowed them the hope that somehow they can drive us out and take back control of the country, maybe not Saddam but basically the same set-up. What we should have done, and should be doing, is give the Sunni a clear picture of just how precarious their situation is, and how counterproductive their alliance with the foriegn muj is for them. The Sunni are the pragmatists of the sects. We need to hammer in that their choices are either to play ball with us or get steamrolled by their vengeful neighbors. The upside is maybe the radical Shiia stop shooting at our guys for a while. Planting a Kurd army outside of Mosul and a Shiia militia outside Fallujah might send the message.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

"This is your new tribe," he said to an Iraqi soldier, an ethnic Kurd, who stood in line as General Petraeus inspected the troops.

"These are all your new brothers," he said to another.

Sorry, is it just the cynic in me that reads this stuff, and thinks mainly of the run-up to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857? (Only in 1857, no one had RPGs, night-scopes, or JDAMs) -
"New brothers"????

posted by: Jay C on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

Yes, and we don't have cartridges smeared with pork fat and cow fat either :-) [ Which was one of the reasons for the Sepoy revolt]

General Petraeus is by all acccounts a brilliant man. Nonetheless, all of us must be concerned about asking someone to build a modern army in a few months in a society and culture in which military power has been ascendant for centuries.

It took the British several decades to do that in India, and they were only partly successful ..

posted by: Jon Juzlak on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

Can someone explain what the text is in Healing Iraq? It isn't English and it isn't Arabic.

posted by: Jim Martin on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

More on dead men walking from the latest _New Yorker_.
"...Abu Muhammad was not optimistic about the future of Falluja. “It’s like Afghanistan, where gangs rule, and Mafias and Taliban,” he said. “If they decide somebody is a spy, they will kill him. There is no legal procedure. Imams who left during the fighting were prevented from returning to their mosques.” He feared that differences between mujahideen groups would lead to further violence."

"...The mayor and the police chief went inside with the former captives, and I waited outside, chatting with two of the mayor’s assistants. They were worried about the political situation in Falluja. The foreign fighters and rogue mujahideen didn’t respect the authority of Sheikh Dhafer and the counsellors attached to the Hadhra mosque. They didn’t answer to Falluja’s tribal and religious establishment, and they had the muscle to do as they liked. The mayor’s assistants feared that Sheikh Dhafer and his colleagues could lose control of the town."

"...I went back to Falluja once more before I sensed that I was pressing my luck. On May 28th, the day the Germans were released, Sheikh Janabi, who in addition to being the senior cleric was the head of the Mujahideen Advisory Council, an ad-hoc group established to control the fighters in the city, had warned in his Friday sermon that any member of the foreign press who entered Falluja would be killed. Two weeks later, the bodies of six Shiite truck drivers who had been carrying supplies to the Falluja Brigade were discovered in the neighboring town of Ramadi. The truck drivers’ families claimed that they had been brutally murdered at the behest of Sheikh Janabi, although he denied having anything to do with it."

"... As the handover to sovereignty began, the experiment with self-rule in Falluja looked more and more like a desperate measure that had been taken too late."

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

I thought it was interesting that the Pentagon gave this assignment to Petraeus, who got the best press of any senior American commander during the invasion and its aftermath. Unless I'm mistaken, it's pretty unusual for the military to take a general officer leaving a combat theatre and spin him right back into another job in theatre.

It may be that the Pentagon's opinion of Petraeus is as high as some reporters' (and some Iraqis'). It's also possible that the job of training Iraqi soldiers was so daunting an assignment that Petraeus was selected to deflect media criticism. Whatever the reason he was given this job, if he is even partly successful his star is likely to rise like a rocket afterward in the Army, and perhaps beyond.

posted by: Zathras on 06.27.04 at 12:05 PM [permalink]

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