Thirteen Ways Not To Think About The Petraeus Report [hilzoy]

Bye everyone, and welcome back, Andrew!

In anticipation of the Petraeus report, I've put thirteen* ways not to think about it below the fold.

* (OK, actually only eight. But how could I not invoke Wallace Stevens?)

(1) "The surge is working; we should maintain it until we've done the job." -- This is not an option. Fred Kaplan:

"Adm. Michael Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearings last month that the "surge" in Iraq could not be sustained at present levels past April 2008.

There are a few ways to remedy this shortfall, all of them impractical or infeasible. First, soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq, which were recently extended from 12 months to 15 months, could be stretched further to 18 months. However, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, told me, during a recent interview for a separate story, that this idea is "off the table." As it should be: The relentless rotation cycles have already compelled many soldiers and junior officers to quit the Army; pushing duty and tolerance much further might not just exhaust the troops beyond limits but spark an exodus from the armed forces."

This means that the surge will end next April. When we ask ourselves whether or not to maintain it until then, we should recognize that the only question worth asking is: will keeping the extra troops there until April improve matters? Asking whether it would improve matters to keep them there in perpetuity, or "until we get the job done", is beside the point: we can't.

(2) Even if we can't maintain the surge, we're making progress, so we should stay. -- This is an example of what, on Obsidian Wings, I called "benefit analysis": noting that an option provides some benefit and concluding that we should adopt it. (Relatedly, "cost analysis" involves noting that an option involves some cost and concluding that we should not adopt it.) In making decisions, we need to consider the pros and the cons.

In the case of keeping our troops in Iraq, there are obvious costs. Our soldiers are dying. Iraqis are dying. We are spending enormous amounts of money. This YouTube clip of a military wife calling Bill Kristol on CSPAN will get some of them across:

(3) Our army can handle it. -- Besides the deaths of our troops and of Iraqis, the injuries, the displaced people, and the immense strain on everyone -- American, Iraqi, British, you name it -- who is involved with this war, we are also breaking our army. Over two years ago, Phil Carter and Owen West reported that the Army was trying to solve its recruiting problems by letting in people with criminal records, substance abuse problems, and so forth:

"Now comes a new Army directive that attempts to alleviate the personnel crunch by retaining soldiers who are earmarked for early discharge during their first term of enlistment because of alcohol or drug abuse, unsatisfactory performance, or being overweight, among other reasons. By retaining these soldiers, the Army lowers the quality of its force and places a heavy burden on commanders who have to take the poor performers into harm's way. This is a quick fix that may create more problems than it solves."

A year and a half ago, Salon reported:

"Waivers, which are generally approved at the Pentagon, allow recruiters to sign up men and women who otherwise would be ineligible for service because of legal convictions, medical problems or other reasons preventing them from meeting minimum standards. (...)

According to statistics provided to Salon by the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the Army said that 17 percent (21,880 new soldiers) of its 2005 recruits were admitted under waivers. Put another way, more soldiers than are in an entire infantry division entered the Army in 2005 without meeting normal standards. This use of waivers represents a 42 percent increase since the pre-Iraq year of 2000."

The army is shedding officers at an alarming rate. Last year, 44% of the West Point class that became eligible to leave the army did so -- "the service's highest loss rate in three decades." We have already done enormous damage to our armed forces, and the longer we stay in Iraq, the worse it will get.

(5) But -- but -- look what's happening in Anbar province! It's real progress! -- Yes, it is. It's debatable whether or not it's due to the surge, but let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it is. The question remains: what is going to happen when we leave Anbar province? One possibility is that the Iraqi government will embrace all the Sunni militias who have worked with us, allow them to continue to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, and provide them with the arms and supplies they need to do so. In this case, the "Anbar Awakening" would really have accomplished something.

However, it is completely unclear whether or not that will happen. Anthony Cordesman (pdf):

"Key tribal leaders, and the main tribal confederation in the area have started to fight Al Qa’ida, have turned to US forces for help, and seem willing to strike a bargain with the Shi’ite-dominated central government if the government will give them money, a reasonable degree of de facto Sunni autonomy, and incorporate their fighters into auxiliary police forces, the regular police, and Iraqi Army. Sunnis in other areas are considering similar deals, although such Sunni support of the US and central government is uncertain and dependent on far more action from the central government than has occurred to date."

If the government does not integrate the Sunnis we are working with into the army and police, or at least continue to supply them, then once we leave, they will lose the capacity to resist al Qaeda in Iraq, and the gains in Anbar will evaporate. So how is this integration going? Not so good:

"Many Sunni leaders here contend that the Shiite-dominated government is neglecting them for sectarian reasons, and the bad feelings at times boil over into angry accusations. In interviews conducted in early August, some said that factions in the Interior Ministry were taking orders from Iran, or that the government was withholding money and support because it did not want to build up Sunni security forces that it could end up fighting after an eventual American withdrawal from Iraq.

Iraqi officials in Baghdad deny shortchanging Falluja, saying they have authorized more than enough police forces for Anbar. ''We'd like to support them, but that does not mean we can respond to their requests or demands,'' said Sadiq al-Rikabi, political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. He said the government had problems supplying the police throughout Iraq. (...)

If the Iraqi government provided a large and steady supply of men, weapons, vehicles and equipment, the police could secure the city, said Colonel Hussein, the Falluja police chief. But he complained of little support from the government except for salaries, which he doubted would be paid if the Americans were not here. He said he also needed four times more policemen. ''Without the role of the Marines, I'll fail,'' he said.

Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a senior Interior Ministry spokesman, called Colonel Hussein's comments ''unprofessional.'' In an interview, he said if the Falluja police had an equipment shortage then they failed to request enough gear earlier.

He added that if Colonel Hussein is so fond of the Marines, perhaps he should apply for American citizenship."

Another story about attempts to enroll Sunnis in the Iraqi police:

"In all, [Lt. Col. Kurt] Pinkerton marshaled 2,400 men willing to become policemen, but the Interior Ministry agreed to accept 1,700 of them, at a salary of $600 a month. When it came time to enroll, Pinkerton realized that 23 percent of the names he had submitted had been changed by the Iraqi government -- raising his suspicion that officials want to disrupt his efforts. "Who are they?" he wondered. "And where'd they come from?""

Along with the Iraqi government's general ineptitude, the problem is that the Shi'a in charge of Iraq are very worried about arming the Sunnis in Anbar provice, for the understandable reason that they might end up fighting those Sunnis in a civil war. The problem is that this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Shi'a in the government are too fearful to integrate the Sunnis into the armed forces and police, and as a result, the Sunnis conclude that trying to work with the central government is a lost cause. If that happens, then we will have taken some AQI fighters out of action, which is good, but we will also have trained Sunnis who will fight against the Iraqi government in a civil war, which is very bad.

Moreover, they have no real incentive to let the Sunnis in:

""It's always easy to get the prospective loser in a civil war to agree to a cease-fire," said Stephen Biddle, a counterinsurgency expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised military commanders in Iraq. Sunnis are a minority and far more open to switching loyalties if it ensures them a future stake in governing Iraq, he said.

"It's a lot tougher to get the prospective winner to agree to a cease-fire," Biddle said, referring to the majority Shiites. "Getting them to sign on is going to be harder because they see themselves in ascendancy.""

Or, in the words of the most recent National Intelligence Estimate:

"Such initiatives, if not fully exploited by the Iraqi Government, could over time also shift greater power to the regions, undermine efforts to impose central authority, and reinvigorate armed opposition to the Baghdad government." (Emphasis added.)

(6) But look at all our military progress! Doesn't that count for anything? -- In a word, no; at least not without political reconciliation. What is true in Anbar is true across the board: if the Iraqi government uses the increased security our troops are providing for them to create the conditions for real peace, then we will have accomplished something of real importance. If, on the other hand, they do not, then once our troop levels go back to normal, or lower, we'll be right back where we started. The entire effect of the surge will have been to produce a temporary fix, not a lasting improvement.

Don't take my word for it, though: here's Bush's nominee to be head of the Joint Chiefs:

"Unless the Iraqi government takes advantage of the "breathing space" that U.S. forces are providing, Mullen said, "no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference." (...)

In written responses to committee questions, Mullen warned that "there is no purely military solution in Iraq" and that the country's politicians "need to view politics and democracy as more than just majority rule, winner-take-all, or a zero-sum game." Absent that, he said, the United States will be forced to reevaluate its strategy."

Everything turns on whether or not the Maliki government takes advantage of the surge to make real progress towards reconciliation. And, of course, they haven't. From a briefing accompanying the National Intelligence Estimate:

"Political reconciliation has come to a "standstill," said a senior intelligence official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity."

And from a story on the recent GAO report:

"One of eight political benchmarks -- the protection of the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature -- has been achieved, according to the draft. On the others, including legislation on constitutional reform, new oil laws and de-Baathification, it assesses failure.

"Prospects for additional progress in enacting legislative benchmarks have been complicated by the withdrawal of 15 of 37 members of the Iraqi cabinet," it says. An internal administration assessment this month, the GAO says, concluded that "this boycott ends any claim by the Shi'ite-dominated coalition to be a government of national unity." An administration official involved in Iraq policy said that he did not know what specific interagency document the GAO was citing but noted that it is an accurate reflection of the views of many officials."

And, of course, there is no real Sunni buy-in to the government, which makes reconciliation even more unlikely.

And without reconciliation, any improvements in security will vanish as soon as we do.

(7) Well, if the Maliki government doesn't want to promote reconciliation, why not replace him? -- First, it's not up to us. Nouri al-Maliki is the leader of a sovereign state, and he should be replaced, if at all, by Iraqis. Second, it took the Iraqis months to form a government the last time around, and there's no reason to think they'd do it any faster this time. Replacing Maliki would be the best possible way to ensure that no reconciliation happened between now and the end of the surge, since there would be no Iraqi government.

Finally, as I wrote earlier, replacing Maliki would be a solution to the Iraqi government's problems only if Maliki himself were the cause of those problems:

"Suppose, for instance, that most members of the Iraqi parliament were ready to compromise with one another. Deals were ready to be struck, compromises were in hand, but alas! Nouri al-Maliki stood in their way, using his power as Prime Minister to block them all. In that case, it might be a good thing if he were replaced.

On the other hand, suppose the reason the Iraqi government is not functioning is that its various members are not prepared to come to terms with one another and try to resolve the outstanding issues that divide them. Maybe they believe that a civil war is imminent, and that they should concentrate on being in the best position to win it once it starts rather than trying to prevent it; or maybe they are just incapable of putting aside their sectarian and ethnic differences and working for the good of the country. In that case, there would be no reason at all to suppose that replacing Maliki would solve anything. He might or might not be the best person for the job, but that wouldn't really matter: if no one could make the Iraqi government functional, then the particular characteristics of Nouri al-Maliki are beside the point."

As far as I can see, there's no reason at all to think that Nouri al-Maliki is the problem, and thus there's no reason at all to think that replacing him would solve anything.

(13*) But we can't leave. There will be a bloodbath when we leave. -- This is probably true. However, as Mark Kleiman said:

"That's not a good enough reason to hang around, unless at some point it stops being true: that six months, or a year, or two years, or five years from now we would be able to withdraw and not have civil war and massacre follow. If we're spending blood and treasure only to postpone a catastrophe we can't prevent, the "humanitarian" argument against a fairly rapid withdrawal collapses."

What our decision about what to do ought to depend on is not whether or not there will be a bloodbath when we leave, but whether, by staying, we are either improving the odds that there will not be a bloodbath, or improving the odds that it will be a smaller bloodbath; and also whether either of these gains is worth the cost, in American and Iraqi lives, of our staying.

I see no sign that we are trying to reduce the impact of our eventual departure, as opposed to postponing it until President Bush leaves office.


So where does that leave us? We know our presence in Iraq cannot be sustained at surge levels past April, and it probably can't be sustained at pre-surge levels much longer either. We are either going to leave or to draw down our troops substantially. Any military progress that will not survive our departure is a temporary fix. If the Iraqi government took advantage of the surge to pursue serious political reconciliation, they might use the opportunity to make lasting improvements. But they show no signs of doing so; it's not even clear that they want to.

Under the circumstances, then, I assume that General Petraeus will report military progress. It would be surprising if he didn't: after all, our army does a good job, and it would be odd if tens of thousands of additional troops had no effect at all. But it's meaningless without political reconciliation. And there is no political reconciliation in sight.


* Footnote: What happened to 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12? Why did I skip from 7 to 13? To make the title come out right, of course.

And just for laughs, a quote from a CNN transcript:

"Well Tom if we look at the main two militias and there are multiple ones, but if you look at the main two militias that are really competing for power of the south and especially Basra, the oil- rich fields that lie around it and for control of that court down there, you are talking about the butter brigade and the Mehdi militia."

I love it: the butter brigade!

(Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings.)