Saturday, December 31, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Closing the year on a good note

It seems wrong to end the year with a post on the ten worst Americans - so let me close out the year on the blog by highlighting three people who I know and respect. All of them have written something constructive about Iraq in the past week:

1) Andrew Erdmann -- about whom I've blogged in the past -- had an op-ed in the New York Times earlier in the week on Iraq's parliamentary elections:
For better or worse, in the election's aftermath, the United States will almost certainly begin to withdraw its military from Iraq in 2006. But that does not mean that the time has come to disengage. On the contrary, a broader, more diverse engagement with Iraqi society is needed to help Iraqis develop the institutions, practices and values essential to real and enduring democracy....

Iraq's universities and colleges are unable to train sufficient numbers of professors or schoolteachers to educate the next generation. Today, Iraq's 20 public universities and more than 40 technical colleges and institutes struggle to educate more than 250,000 students annually. Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to build the system back up to where it was before Saddam Hussein took power; billions will be needed to meet today's regional standard, set by countries like Qatar.

How can we help build a better Iraq unless we focus on its vast population of young people, whose views of their country and its politics have yet to harden into dogma? But despite higher education's strategic importance, American support for it has been paltry. From 2003 to 2005, a United States Agency for International Development program allocated $20 million to building partnerships between American and Iraqi universities. That program ended without a successor; no agency funds are allocated for Iraqi higher education for 2006. The American Embassy in Baghdad backed the founding of an American University in Iraq in Sulaimaniya, but future support is uncertain....

We should expand "train and equip" programs for Iraqi editors, journalists, and publishers. We should also increase financing for the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace and other organizations that are helping Iraqis build and sustain civic institutions. Such investments cannot be postponed and must not be considered merely "supplemental." We need to lock them into our budgets today.

But the United States government should not carry the load alone. Americans of all types - including educators, management consultants and municipal officials - can contribute and need to step forward. More organizations should follow the lead of Columbia University's Center for International Conflict Resolution, which works with civic leaders in regions of Iraq that are relatively peaceful. American trade unions, professional associations, educational institutions, journalists, students, human rights activists, scientists and business executives should establish ties with their Iraqi counterparts.

So far, many Americans who opposed the war have not extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people in its aftermath. Others sit on the fence. With elections under a new Constitution, the time has come to focus on Iraq's future and put aside the politics of the past.

2) A few years ago I was fortunate to have an office next door to Major Scott Cooper of the U.S. Marine Corps (we were both Council on Foreign Relations fellows). Cooper represents the best the Marines have to offer. On Christmas Day, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland relayed a long e-mail Cooper sent to him about how he views Iraq:
"The insurgents are not winning the overall struggle here," even if the United States has been unable to prevail militarily in the Sunni heartland, where Cooper is based. "They have not been able to extend the rebellion beyond the Sunni population. More than three-quarters of the Iraqi population are not engaged in the insurgency. In fact, they actively oppose it.

"And al Qaeda is losing the larger war on terrorism. Its immediate goal was to topple Muslim regimes in the Middle East who were friendly to the United States. No Muslim regime has fallen. A number of Arab countries and Pakistan have extended their cooperation to eliminate al Qaeda," he continues.

"We must define success by the changed behavior that is occurring in the region and by the fact that Iraq is no longer a threat to the region or the world. As a member of a weary military, I can attest that there are considerable sacrifices involved in all these endeavors. But if we are realistic about our goals, we can accomplish them."....

The aviator is hardly oblivious to Iraq's sectarian divisions, its culture of violence and long degradation under Saddam Hussein: "Iraq continues to be a collectivity of separate families and clans. A seeming lack of concern for the future by many Iraqis is the most troublesome quality we encounter. There is a puzzling indifference to what we are doing and even to what their new political leaders are doing."

Modest and practical, Scott Cooper would be the first to say that his views are personal, limited and subject to evolution. But this Marine's experiences over and at Al Asad have given him an unusual opportunity to understand that change in Iraq is both difficult -- and possible.

3) Former student Paul Staniland has an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the best way to stanch the flow of foreign insurgents into Iraq:
President Bush's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" focuses on the need to stop foreign fighters from coming into Iraq through neighboring countries, especially Syria. However, current U.S. policies have not halted this flow of insurgents, weapons and money. Unless the United States and its Iraqi allies can seal the border with Syria, enduring peace will not come to Iraq....

Instead of relying on either Syrian cooperation or sporadic offensives in Al Anbar province, American and Iraqi forces need to establish real control along the border. This solution seems obvious, but it is often overlooked in favor of more dramatic policies, such as military invasions and coercive diplomacy. However, France, India, Israel, Morocco and Turkey have all successfully used border defenses to neutralize transnational insurgents....

The Iraqi border with Syria is a good candidate for a barrier. The terrain allows for easier patrol and surveillance than in Kashmir, and, unlike Israel, the border is internationally recognized as legitimate.

Sealing the entire border with a wall patrolled by troops would be ideal, but even just fencing off the most commonly used areas of infiltration, including along the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, would help.

Iraqi troops could perform basic tasks such as patrolling and maintenance, while the American military handled high-tech surveillance and pursued infiltrators. Well-guarded border crossings would allow international commerce to continue while also providing an opportunity to keep track of who is entering and exiting the country.

Sealing the Iraqi border would certainly be costly. But the expense in both blood and treasure is negligible compared to the alternatives.

Read all three pieces -- combined, their advice point the way towards a sober but hopeful picture of Iraq.

posted by Dan on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM



I don't mean to sound pessimistic here, and I do actually believe the US may yet prevail in Iraq-- but these suggestions here just sound too damn rosy and aren't looking in the right places. There are some things that I suspect will work, and point #1 (on higher education) is reasonable enough, but #2 and #3 miss the point.

Sealing the border with Syria??? C'mon. That would be a horrible waste of scarce resources and would accomplish very little. First of all, the vast, vast majority of insurgents are native Iraqis-- over 90%, consistently, as shown by stats like the nationality of insurgent prisoners in US and Iraqi detention centers, for example. Yes, a disproportionate number of the suicide bombers are non-Iraqis streaming in from foreign countries. But even if we *could* seal the vast Iraqi-Syrian border, then they'd just shift around to enter into Iraq from Saudi Arabia (which also shares a vast border), Jordan or Turkey. Some of the foreign fighters have even been Kuwaiti, so we can't rule out Kuwait as a source of entry, either. And then there's Iran...

In short, Iraq, being almost a landlocked country, has an enormous number of borders with hostile countries, and you can't seal them all off-- you'd bankrupt the country in the process. Paul Staniland's suggestion would not work even for Syria-- there are smuggling routes between the two countries that are thousands of years old, and you can't just seal off trade in general between them.

Besides, the idea of sealing off the border between Iraq and Syria (to shut down the flow of foreign fighters) sort of goes against the idea of Operation Flytrap, that oft-quoted suggestion by Bush, Rumsfeld and others that Iraq provides a magnet for foreign terrorists that allows them to be killed by troops in Iraq, rather than blowing themselves up on the streets of New York. If they're truly blocked from entering Iraq, that would just provide them with all the more incentive to attack targets in the US instead. Whether or not Operation Flytrap actually works to a significant extent, it's a contradiction to claim "we're fighting them over there so they won't hit us here in the US," then turn around and block them from being able to enter "over there" to be targeted.

As for Point 2-- I'm sorry, but that's just being Panglossian. They've been doing polls throughout Iraq which show that the vast majority of Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, want us out. Most may not be *actively supporting* the insurgency, but that doesn't mean that they don't support the guerrillas, at least to an extent. Besides, the term "insurgency" is sort of a blanket description for a wide array of people with overlapping but sometimes competing interests there. The Iraqis probably don't sympathize with the insurgents who blow up other Iraqis at cafes, but they may well support the insurgents who are fighting to expel the occupying troops. And the central provinces, even if they are "just 6 or 7" out of Iraq's 18, carry about half Iraq's total population. (Sprawling Anbar, moreover, is the largest in absolute size, by far.)

There are some steps that might be fruitful, but thus far we've failed to take them:
#1 Get the Brits, Poles and Australians in there to *actually do some fighting, dammit*! I don't care if this sounds a bit impolite-- but the British, Polish and Australian soldiers really aren't doing a whole lot there by just hanging out in their bases in relatively peaceful regions. They're little more than window dressing that way, and are accomplishing little-- the US is having to pull 99+% of the weight. I've met some returning Iraq veterans, and most of them have not had kind things to say about the Brits, Poles and Australians (though they have been more praising of the Salvadorans and even the Italians, who've been out fighting a bit more).

The British, Polish and Australian soldiers, and the rest of the Coalition, can make a decent contribution in one of two ways. Either they go into the Sunni triangle, Triangle of Death and Baghdad, and help the American troops fight the Sunni-led arm of the insurgency, accompanying us on our raids and daily operations to root out the guerrillas.

Or, the second (and perhaps better) option-- they actually get serious about taking on and crushing the Shiite militias. I suspect that these militias-- chiefly the remnants of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades-- are responsible for a lot more of the anti-US insurgency than we've yet realized, particularly the Badr Brigades, which are essentially Iran's military wing in Iraq and Iran's forward force in staving off a US attack on Iran. Furthermore, by infiltrating the Iraqi security forces and using them to settle scores or terrorize the civilian population (both Sunni and Shia, especially the secular members of the population), the Shiite militias are eroding whatever modicum of trust the Iraqi people have in their own security forces, making them a political tool and ruining their potential viability, as well as any hope of a US withdrawal within the next decade. The Shiite militias must be aggressively attacked and broken, and this may be where the Brits, Poles and Australians can make their best contribution.

#2 For God's sake, please put an emphasis on having the US troops, administrators and contractors learn Arabic!!! When historians look back on America's performance in the Iraq War, one thing they'll almost certainly remark on is our woefully deficient effort to have our forces and administrators actually learn the language and culture of the country under occupation. One of the most surefire ways to lose a war like this is to neglect the importance of direct communication with the people being occupied. Practically every single military and political strategist of note throughout history has pointed out how you have to learn the language and mores of an occupied people, or you quickly lose their loyalty, increase the extent to which they turn against you, and fail to understand what the enemy is up to. Furthermore, you rely-- as we do-- on in-country interpreters who are often themselves agents of the insurgency!!!

We had a similar problem in Vietnam (although not quite to the same degree-- we actually did have a decent number of soldiers who learned Vietnamese!) and it did us a lot of damage. We seem to be stuck in this dumb mindset of how "everyone speaks English"-- well, they don't, not even close. Especially in Iraq. It's almost a guarantee that we'll lose, and lose badly, in Iraq unless we place a greater emphasis on learning Arabic and becoming more familiar with Iraqi cultural issues. This problem hasn't gotten nearly enough press, but it's killing us in Iraq, literally. Solving this problem would be one of the most cost-effective ways we could help ourselves there.

posted by: Paul on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Scott Cooper says al Qaeda hasn't the capability of taking over even one country in the region. Quite right. But nor did it have this capability before the invasion of Iraq.
Cooper says Iraq no longer represents a threat to the region or the world. Well, surely it never was a threat to the world. And if its forces were so quickly routed in 1991, why suppose that, weakened by years of sanctions and situated in a country whose airspace was not its own, Iraq was a significant threat to the region in 2003? Except, of course, as a training base and future launching pad for terrorists--but then that's what Iraq is now and wasn't then.

posted by: Scared on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

"So far, many Americans who opposed the war have not extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people in its aftermath."

Gee, as I recall the biggest problem with the war -- and the reason why so many people oppose it now -- has been because the guys actually running the war haven't done enough to help the Iraqi people in the aftermath of the "major combat operations". But I guess I'm just stuck in the politics of the past.

posted by: Anno-nymous on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

"So far, many Americans who opposed the war have not extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people in its aftermath."

Is there some Iraq-war sales tax (only payable in Red States) that I'm unaware of???

posted by: kahnbalaya on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

You and Andrew Erdmann are just a teensy bit out of date, since the Washington Post has just revealed that the Administration intends to cut off ALL reconstruction money for Iraq this year:


posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

I agree-I think having the troops and administrators learn Arabic would create a much better repport.

posted by: curious george on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Since the administration is not asking for more reconstruction money, funds for education, inkblotting and walls seem unlikely.

posted by: andrew on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Hoagland's the guy who wrote a pre-war editorial mocking the CIA for allegedly underestimating the threat from Sadddam. After the invasion, when the 'vast stockpiles of WMD's' turned out to be a mirage, he wrote a follow-up editorial, blaming the CIA for overestimating the threat from Saddam, and leading the administration into the war.

I wouldn't trust any item originating him, or which passed through his hands.

posted by: Barry on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Hoagland's the guy who wrote a pre-war editorial mocking the CIA for allegedly underestimating the threat from Sadddam. After the invasion, when the 'vast stockpiles of WMD's' turned out to be a mirage, he wrote a follow-up editorial, blaming the CIA for overestimating the threat from Saddam, and leading the administration into the war.

I wouldn't trust any item originating him, or which passed through his hands.

posted by: Barry on 12.31.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?