Previewing Petraeus and Crocker

I will have more to say later this evening about the testimony by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before Congress today. And for live commentary today, I highly recommend my colleague Tom Ricks's liveblogging of the hearing. But before things get started, I wanted to highlight comments by two of the country's sharpest people on Iraq -- Stephen Biddle and Nir Rosen. Both testified last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and each offered a sobering outlook on the state of Iraq today. Their comments provide invaluable context for today's Petraeus and Crocker show.

Biddle cautions that we should not expect too much from Iraq's fractious political situation, and that we will likely never see Iraq evolve into "Eden on the Euphrates." But, more important, he notes that the current situation is the result of "bottom up" actions -- and not the direct result of "top down" actions like the surge of U.S. military forces -- and argues that we must continue to reinforce these successes at the provincial and local level:

Instead of a national political deal, the military defeat or disarmament of the enemy, or their conversion into peaceful politicians in a reconciled, pluralist society, violence fell because most of the former combatants reached separate, local, voluntary decisions to stop fighting even though they retained their arms, their organizations, their leaders, and often their ambitions. These decisions were not accidental or ephemeral -they reflected the post-2006 strategic reality of Iraq, which for the first time gave all the major combatants a powerful self-interest in ceasefire rather than combat. This new self-interest in ceasefire creates an important opportunity for stability. But the decentralized, voluntary nature of these ceasefires means that peace would be fragile and would need careful and persistent US management to keep it from collapsing, especially early on. . . .

This is not what the Administration had in mind when it invaded Iraq. Reasonable people could judge the costs too high and the risks too great. But an Iraq stabilized from the bottom up in this way nevertheless offers a meaningful chance to stop the fighting, to save the lives of untold thousands of innocent Iraqis who would otherwise die brutal, violent deaths, and to secure America's remaining vital strategic interest in this conflict: that it not spread to engulf the entire Middle East in a regionwide war. No options for Iraq are attractive. But given the alternatives, stabilization from the bottom up may be the least bad option for US policy in 2008.

Quite right -- all our courses of action are sub-optimal, but we still must choose one.

Rosen presents a more disturbing picture of Iraq that highlights the risks inherent in the plan Biddle suggests, particularly the risk for renewed open ethno-sectarian warfare:

Today Iraq does not exist. It has no government. It is like Somalia, different fiefdoms controlled by warlords and their militias. I have spent most of the last five years since April 2003 in Iraq, with Iraqis, focusing on their militias, mosques and other true centers of power. Events in the Green Zone or International Zone were never important, because power was in the street since April 2003. When the Americans overthrew Saddam and created a power vacuum, massive looting followed. That first month of Occupation there was enormous hope, but the looting created an atmosphere of pervasive lawlessness from which Iraq never recovered. The entire state infrastructure was destroyed and there were no security forces, Iraqi or American, to give people a sense of safety. They quickly turned to inchoate militias being formed, often along religious, tribal and ethnic lines. Those same militias dominate Iraq today. This would have happened anywhere. If you removed the government in New York City, where I am from, and removed the police, and allowed for the state infrastructure to be looted and then you dismissed the state bureaucracy you would see the same thing happen. Soon Jewish gangs would fight Puerto Rican gangs and Haitan gangs would fight Albanian gangs.

. . . In 2007, when most reasonable observers were calling for a reduction of American troops and an eventual withdrawal, the Bush administration decided to increase the troops instead. The immediate impact was nothing, and since it began nearly a million Iraqis fled their homes, mostly from Baghdad, and Baghdad became a Shiite city. So one of the main reason less people are being killed is because there are less people to kill. This is a key to understanding the drop in violence. Shiites were cleansed from Sunni areas and Sunnis were cleansed from Shiite areas. Militias consolidated their control over fiefdoms. The violence in Iraq was not senseless, it was meant to displace the enemy's population. And if war is politics by other means, then the Shiites won, they now control Iraq. Fortunately for the planners of the new strategy, events in the Iraqi civil war were working in their favor. The Sunnis had lost. They realized they could no longer fight the Americans and the Shiites, and many decided to side with the Americans, especially because many Sunnis identified their Shiite enemy with Iran, America's sworn enemy as well. The Americans armed both sides in the civil war. David Kilcullen, the influential Australian counter insurgency advisor, defined it as "balancing competing armed interest groups."Though supporters of the war touted the surge as a success, they forgot that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed, the millions displaced, and the thousands of dead and wounded Americans just so that violence could go back to the still horrifying levels of just a couple of years ago.

This apocalyptic picture represents the dark side of the American strategy, and the potential outcome of a withdrawal after years of training, equipping and organizing partisans on various sides of Iraq's ethno-sectarian-political divides. I agree with Biddle that we must continue to pursue a bottom-up approach that leverages our meager successes at the provincial and local level -- largely because the Maliki government is rotten to its core and incapable of ever forming a viable, effective national government. But I think we must do so cognizant of the risks highlighted by Rosen and others -- and understand that our actions one day might create the conditions for renewed violence the next.

By Phillip Carter |  April 8, 2008; 9:59 AM ET  | Category:  Iraq
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

In your ignorance you removed a devil, but a necessary devil given the authoritarian rule needed to keep the incompatible factions in Iraq from internecine strife. Your action left a vacuum into which a whole host of new devils erupted. "And the last state shall be worse than the first". That is what comes of meddling blindly in other nations' affairs. Please mind your own business.

Posted by: Dr.L. Mann | April 8, 2008 11:07 AM

Mr. Carter,

Interesting perspectives that are different form the one being stated by Gen. Petraeus and the Ambassador. So much goes on with the country, that it's important to keep in mind a variety of narratives. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by: LT Nixon | April 8, 2008 11:46 AM

The country should be partitioned along ethnic lines. Kurds are ready. Sunnis and Shiites will have to sort it out. Militias could then decide whom to fight for. The occupier(US)could establish the new tentative borders, then step back, and let order establish itself. It will all happen, sooner or later.

Posted by: Craig Yates | April 8, 2008 11:50 AM

Two things:
It's become normal for comments/discussions on Iraq to omit the word "OIL". and
We're having a big problem with looting over here, too.

Posted by: papaj1 | April 8, 2008 12:04 PM

This is good stuff, Phil. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Pluto | April 8, 2008 12:23 PM

Through out history our civilian leaders have given the military impossible tasks then cut them off at the knees. Points to the Berlin wall, the 38th parallel and going into North Vietnam. Now the iraq problem is just another stupid civilian mistake but Bush and Cheney want the oil so bad that they are willing to spend more blood and treasure than it is worth to get it. I say divide up the country as proposed by Joe Biden and be done with it or use the scorched earth policy or pull our soldiers out and let them finish their civil war and when they are done then we can go back in and finish the job of getting the oil. The gold posts keep moving untill we have invested so much that we will never recover. Had we exspended so much energy on projects that were good for us we would be way ahead and a better leader in this world but here we go again with short sightedness with civilian leaders with no checks and balance and so stupid they can't even manage the economy. How brilliant is that?

Posted by: Robert Freels | April 8, 2008 12:38 PM

Phil, congrats on going big time.

Hopefully intel-dumps loss is a gain for a much wider readership.

Posted by: srv | April 8, 2008 12:56 PM

Mr Carter, while I agree with much of your analyses, I think you should disclose to your readers that you have endorsed openly one of the Senators during a session (Obama) and have campaigned actively for him in Texas.

Posted by: Barack Obama | April 8, 2008 3:49 PM

"We are today not far from a disaster." Sound familiar? That was T. E. Lawrence -- Lawrence of Arabia -- writing in The Sunday Times of London on Aug. 22, 1920, about the British occupation of what was then called Mesopotamia.

An internet search on "reagan iraq" provides an overview of President Reagan's determination to support Iraq as a buffer against Shiite dominated Iran. Donald Rumsfeld was one of Reagan's principal envoys who carried this message to Hussein.

How many of our elected and appointed government leaders had their staff members check Iraq's history? With the availability of the internet, why would they look at the politically controlled intelligence community as their only source.

The President's father was Reagan's vice president. His secretary of defense was a Reagan envoy. What did they tell him? (Or not tell him?)

Does a search on "iraq euro" give another reason for the war?

Posted by: Tom Collins | April 8, 2008 4:06 PM

"This apocalyptic picture represents the dark side of the American strategy, and the potential outcome of a withdrawal after years of training, equipping and organizing partisans on various sides of Iraq's ethno-sectarian-political divides."

True, but then why in the hell did we build up those partisans if we were only interested in getting out and not having any "permanent bases" or overwhelming force projection potential in the Middle East, no none of that . . .

This being the basic lie which has kept us in this mess, this dysfunctional policy. Simply, we lack the honesty and resolve to even admit to ourselves what the real objectives were all along, none of that do-gooder, bleeding-heart stuff, but the real thing, which the majority of the military leadership knew all along.

Like they wouldn't be sharp on that sort of stuff. . .

Which brings us to Petraeus II.

Posted by: seydlitz89 | April 8, 2008 4:44 PM

"largely because the Maliki government is rotten to its core and incapable of ever forming a viable, effective national government."

Ummm...didn't they notify you of the S-2 briefing where they explained to us that Iraq was a Third World pseudo-state spawned from the vile womb of Ottoman despotism and corruption and midwifed by British colonial greed and hubris? And the likelihood of ever getting ANY "viable, effective national government" is about as likely as finding a sober virgin in a soju joint outside Camp Liberty Bell at 2a.m. on a Friday night?

I have to go strongly with seydlitz on this one. The REAL problem is that the REAL objectives were never the public ones, so the public strategy could never match the objectives. We'd have been better off - viler as a nation and as people, but better off in the political sense - to have openly admitted that this was about power politics in the Middle East and just done the colonial thing.

Problem with THAT is it'd never play in the hustings AND it'd cost both arms and a leg instead of just the one we're spending.

We're just pretty much screwed. Once you've shoved you're weenie into the warp drive it's a little late to be complaing that things inside your shorts are heating up...

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 8:35 PM

What I find interesting about this entire argument is that many forget (or are afraid to mention) that this entire adventure was not just a failure of political policy, but of military leadership.

It is not politically correct to discuss this, to even insinuate that our military can do wrong (note the amount of criticism directed towards those who dare to discuss the "failure of generalship"). I read many comments about how the military is "cut at the knees" and there is a very valid argument that the war started with far less troops than was requested by the General leadership. But war has not changed, the Generals never have the force they want, you get what you get. And military leadership is expected to do the best with what they have.

Internally, the military is among the best at self criticism through extensive After Action Reviews, Lessons Learned, and what John Nagl referred to as being a "learning organization." But these are all reactive, after the fact measures. Why is there not more discussion about the factors that led up to force structure before the war, decisions made by military leaders during the planning, invasion and initial occupation of the war? Who were those military leaders and who put them in those positions in the first place?

Accountability need not stop at the policy makers, we should look beyond that . However, I don't suspect we will do that. It isn't PC to attack military leaders, nor will some Bush political opponents want to open the Pandora's box detailing how the military of 2003 was formed (hint, it dates back to before 2001).

Posted by: bg | April 9, 2008 8:25 AM

Phil, congrats on your move to the Post!

As for BG's comments about the failures in military leadership, one thing he does not discuss is critical: holding accountable those in charge. Yes it sounds like he did, but he did not.

There are always failures in military leadership, just like there are always weapons malfunctions, 10% of any unit always seem to have no idea what the hell is going on, and the enemy will do his best to screw things up. That is a given - that ALWAYS happens in every war. What is different about this war is the reaction to those things by our elected leadership - in other words, by Mr. Bush.

First, there has been a lot of discussion of how the Bush administration, especially Rumsfeld, and the uniformed military did not see eye to eye on the plan for Iraq, or the aftermath. Blaming military officers for blunders they WARNED ABOUT doesn't seem like accountability, but instead scapegoating and blame-shifting. The Army was ordered (seriously, ORDERED) not to plan for the occupation of Iraq. When it did so anyway it kept arriving at numbers of troops in the hundreds of thousands, a timeline that took many years, and a financial cost in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The administration, busy making the case for war, knew that this would be unpopular, so the Army was ordered to stop planning for the occupation. Result: exactly what was predicted by the Army, surprise on the part of the public that expected a short and cheap and easy war with a fun parade afterwards, and an administration that got away with it - that was even re-elected - and now had no reason to tell the truth to the People who apparently did not mind being lied to, or were too stupid to notice that a quick and cheap war over WMDs and Al Queda turned into a long and expensive war with no WMDs and no link b/w Saddam and Al Queda.

Second, there have been officers who have failed. That always happens, in peacetime and in war, but the solution is usually to correct the problem, not PRETEND THERE ARE NO PROBLEMS. Again, blaming the military for this seems like scapegoating. The Army fired many officers during World War Two, including many generals. Truman famously fired MacArthur during the Korean War. I have seen officers relieved of command in peacetime. We have had general officers relieved of command in peacetime. Yet this war has been managed for domestic political reasons, not military reasons, resulting in no accountability for performance. Do good or do poorly, doesn't matter, we are shorthanded, and firing an officer of high rank might lead to some bad press, so the administration pretends there is not a single officer who made a single mistake in Iraq. Not true, but blaming the officer corps for that failure is, again scapegoating. It was the President and his political appointees, and we the People re-elected them. Congress failed in oversight (and still is), and we the People re-elected them. We are not holding the politicians who report to us accountable, they are not holding the administration accountable, and the administration is not holding the military officers who have failed accountable - and blaming the military for this problem seems to be going too far down the chain of command, which starts and stops with all of us, the People who are supposedly in charge of this supposedly self-governing republic.

Military leadership is expected to do the best they can with what they are given to work with - but they aren't miracle workers, the military leadership warned us before we even invaded of what it would take to achieve a stable, non-threatening Iraq, and the president ignored them, and we re-elected him. Thus the Army did what it continues to do - saluted and carried out OUR orders, even though many knew, and know still today, that it was a dumb idea, poorly executed, without enough resources, and probably doomed to failure.

The Army works for us, not the other way around, and it will follow our orders to the death - because if the Army ever gets a veto it will have betrayed the very purpose for its existence in the first place: ensuring government by, for, and of the People. To put it another way, a lot of things are going wrong and have gone wrong, so why do we keep ordering the military to do things that the officer corps has warned us is a bad idea, or things that even Gen. Petraeus has warned us the military is not capable of doing alone?

We do need accountability but that requires looking in the mirror, voting responsibly, and realizing that in a democracy the electorate gets the government they deserve - and sometimes when we get what we deserve it is not what we want or need at all.

The Army can not and will not correct our mistakes, it has the mission of ensuring we remain in charge and self-governed, not that we are safer, nor can it correct us if we are to remain in charge of our destiny.

Iraq was a mess, lots of stuff was messed up, and the Army and Marines have had to shoulder enormous burdens and make huge sacrifices - sometimes the ultimate sacrifice - for our idiocy. Blaming the Army for it is not just politically incorrect, it is dangerous, unfair, and won't prevent another disaster like this one. Our nation declared war, not the soldiers who serve us, and if we were wrong or if we fail, it is not the Army that was wrong or failed, it was our nation.

Even if you opposed this war from the start, as I did, you are just as responsible for it, perhaps more, than any line soldier getting shot at in Iraq today. Those guys followed our orders, and that is admirable even when our orders were, in the hands of this president, stupid, selfish, and counter-productive.

One last note: any unlawful order was not OUR order, and any crimes committed were the fault of those in the chain of command - and that runs all the way to the Oval Office and the war preznit. Soldiers who obey unlawful orders are guilty of crimes, but those have been few and far between, and many in uniform are angry that those truly responsible for shameful things like Gitmo and Abu Ghraib have not been held accoutable. That is not an Army issue either - it is this administration that is responsible for that, and I see no efforts to hold Mr. Bush and his staff accountable for torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretaps, etc. If we don't hold them accountable for their crimes then we will get what we deserve - a government that doesn't obey the commands (laws) we give it: thus the end of liberty.

Posted by: JD | April 9, 2008 1:24 PM

The problem with splitting up Iraq is same as the one that brought the creation of Iraq. Iraq as Belgium was created as a buffer state between raging states, it is suppose to be a balancing factor on the region, it would keep a safe distance between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, it would keep the Turks out of the oil, remember this was way back by the end o WWI and they were the enemy. It was supposed to keep the Sunnis and Shiites away from each others throats, as it would supposedly keep then away from their original ethnic groups and therefore weakened, as Today Iraq proves that's bull but Churchill thought it would work....
Now if we split Iraq we would pretty much throw gas in the fire as it is the Turks are already shooting the Kurds inside Iraq, so if we got a Kurdistan we would probably see a full blow war between a NATO country in the backyard of a major US problem.
That's just an overture of the situation it also includes oil, one of the only fertile, barely, regions of the area and a LOT I mean A LOT of tribes that would only agree on a peace with each other when there is no more will to fight.

Posted by: Edward | April 10, 2008 8:38 AM

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