Commentary Magazine


Topic: Anbar Province

Bringing Afghans Over to the Coalition Side, One Tribe at a Time

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

There has been much loose talk about the possibility of reaching a high-level peace deal with the Taliban. No such effort is likely to succeed, at least not in the short run, because the Taliban do not yet feel defeated. In any case, high-level Taliban leaders, safely ensconced in Pakistan, have no incentive to give up a fight in which their foot soldiers are suffering while they enjoy shelter and subsidies from the Pakistani regime. But lower-level deals to bring tribes over to the side of the coalition are likely to prove more fruitful — just as they did in Iraq.

The Marines have just announced one such deal in Sangin, the most kinetic district in all of Afghanistan. The Marines have lost 29 men since taking over this district in Helmand Province this past summer; Britain lost some 100 troops there in prior years. Now the governor of Helmand has reached an agreement with the Alikozai, one of the main tribes in the area, to stop attacking the coalition forces and the government of Afghanistan in return for development assistance, permission to form their own security forces, and the release of an Alikozai prisoner.

As this Washington Post account by ace war correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran makes clear, this deal is the result of the Marines’ aggressive actions and also their willingness to seize political opportunities. A prior attempt by the Alikozai to reach out to the British in 2007 was rebuffed, and the Alikozai went back to fighting with the Taliban.

The dynamics changed [Chandrasekaran writes] when the Marines replaced British forces in summer 2010. They increased the tempo of offensive operations and struck back harder at the all of the insurgents, including the Alikozai. In mid-October, a Marine reconnaissance battalion swooped into the Alikozai area and conducted a blistering barrage of attacks that commanders estimate killed more than 250 insurgents.

“That convinced the elders,” said one senior Marine officer involved in the operation. “They began to see the handwriting on the wall.”

This is how counterinsurgency is supposed to work. By applying pressure on the insurgents and safeguarding the local population, a security force can change the dynamics on the ground and convince opportunists — who always make up the majority of any population — that their long-term interests lay in allying with, rather than resisting, the government. Economic aid can sweeten the deal, but what is going to make the most difference is a change in the security situation, which is what the Marines have been accomplishing by dint of hard and costly combat.

One should not make too much out of this arrangement, which may yet collapse — as have other tribal deals in Afghanistan. It may also be the case that the tribes in Afghanistan are now so weak, after decades of warfare and migration, that they do not have the power to effectively resist the Taliban. But this could also be the start of something big, possibly even a “Helmand Awakening” that will wrest this province out of insurgent hands, just as Anbar Province was wrested out of insurgent hands in 2006-2007.

Read Less

Going the Distance in Afghanistan

A popular impression seems to be building that the Marine offensive into Marja, a center of narco-traffickers and the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, has already failed. In truth, as C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine turned New York Times correspondent, reminds us, it’s too early to tell. In a first-class report from the scene, he notes signs favorable and unfavorable. Among the good indications:

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Yet the district is far from fully pacified. As he also notes:

Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded.

What does this mean? Simply that counterinsurgency is a lengthy, difficult undertaking that cannot be completed overnight like an armored blitzkrieg. The Marines have only been in Marja since February. That may seem like a long time, but not in counterinsurgency warfare.

Remember Fallujah? That city in Iraq’s Anbar Province was first entered by U.S. troops in 2003. In 2004, the Marines staged two major offensives into Fallujah; the first failed, the second succeeded. But even after the ostensible success of the second Fallujah operation, the city did not become really secure until 2008, when the Anbar Awakening was in full swing. Yes, it can take five years to truly secure valuable real estate when it’s located in the enemy’s backyard.

That’s an important point to keep in mind as coalition troops ramp up for  an “offensive” — a word they now studiously avoid — into Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city. Defeating the Taliban is hardly impossible, but it will take a lot of patience. The question is whether President Obama, who has set next summer as the deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, will show the patience needed to succeed.

A popular impression seems to be building that the Marine offensive into Marja, a center of narco-traffickers and the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, has already failed. In truth, as C.J. “Chris” Chivers, a former Marine turned New York Times correspondent, reminds us, it’s too early to tell. In a first-class report from the scene, he notes signs favorable and unfavorable. Among the good indications:

Most of Marja’s civilians returned after moving away ahead of the initial assault. Most of them remain. Compounds that were empty in February are inhabited. Roads once quiet are busy. Fields are thick with crops. Shops in some bazaars have reopened. Afghan units participate visibly in dangerous missions.

Yet the district is far from fully pacified. As he also notes:

Each day, American foot patrols move through farmers’ fields and irrigated villages. And each day some are ambushed or encounter hidden bombs. The patrols turn into gunfights in withering heat, or efforts to dismantle the bombs or treat the wounded.

What does this mean? Simply that counterinsurgency is a lengthy, difficult undertaking that cannot be completed overnight like an armored blitzkrieg. The Marines have only been in Marja since February. That may seem like a long time, but not in counterinsurgency warfare.

Remember Fallujah? That city in Iraq’s Anbar Province was first entered by U.S. troops in 2003. In 2004, the Marines staged two major offensives into Fallujah; the first failed, the second succeeded. But even after the ostensible success of the second Fallujah operation, the city did not become really secure until 2008, when the Anbar Awakening was in full swing. Yes, it can take five years to truly secure valuable real estate when it’s located in the enemy’s backyard.

That’s an important point to keep in mind as coalition troops ramp up for  an “offensive” — a word they now studiously avoid — into Kandahar, southern Afghanistan’s largest city. Defeating the Taliban is hardly impossible, but it will take a lot of patience. The question is whether President Obama, who has set next summer as the deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, will show the patience needed to succeed.

Read Less

Iraqi Elections Encouraging

Terrible violence continues to upset Iraq — at least 35 dead from suicide bombings in Baghdad, 25 Sunni family members slain south of Baghdad. But this Rod Nordland article buried deep in the New York Times presents a glowing account of the last election — and appropriately so. He notes that voters made discerning decisions. The outcome reveals some notable trends:

Sectarianism is still a force in Iraq, but no longer the only significant force, as it was five years ago in the first election after Saddam Hussein fell. While some religious parties did well, it wasn’t well enough to dictate who will form a government….

Nor was tribalism a guarantee of victory. One tribal leader, Hamid Shafi al-Issawi, had counted on the 50,000 votes of his huge Issawi tribe in Anbar Province; he couldn’t even muster the few thousand votes needed to take a seat….

And (Boston, take note), the patronage vote was nearly nonexistent. Interior Minister Jawadal-Bolani, whose 500,000-strong ministry includes the local and national police, got only 3,000 votes and lost his seat, even though he headed his own list.

As a sign of how well the situation is going, Nordland quotes the Times‘ local correspondent in Fallujah, Saeed al-Jumaily, who has worked for the newspaper for seven years but for the first time feels “confident enough in the future to see his name published in it.”

A lot of bad things can — and probably will — still happen in Iraq but the election outcome, at least so far, hardly validates overblown fears that Iraq is “falling apart.” If anything it shows that, in one place at least, Arabs are taking to the democratic process with heartening enthusiasm.

Terrible violence continues to upset Iraq — at least 35 dead from suicide bombings in Baghdad, 25 Sunni family members slain south of Baghdad. But this Rod Nordland article buried deep in the New York Times presents a glowing account of the last election — and appropriately so. He notes that voters made discerning decisions. The outcome reveals some notable trends:

Sectarianism is still a force in Iraq, but no longer the only significant force, as it was five years ago in the first election after Saddam Hussein fell. While some religious parties did well, it wasn’t well enough to dictate who will form a government….

Nor was tribalism a guarantee of victory. One tribal leader, Hamid Shafi al-Issawi, had counted on the 50,000 votes of his huge Issawi tribe in Anbar Province; he couldn’t even muster the few thousand votes needed to take a seat….

And (Boston, take note), the patronage vote was nearly nonexistent. Interior Minister Jawadal-Bolani, whose 500,000-strong ministry includes the local and national police, got only 3,000 votes and lost his seat, even though he headed his own list.

As a sign of how well the situation is going, Nordland quotes the Times‘ local correspondent in Fallujah, Saeed al-Jumaily, who has worked for the newspaper for seven years but for the first time feels “confident enough in the future to see his name published in it.”

A lot of bad things can — and probably will — still happen in Iraq but the election outcome, at least so far, hardly validates overblown fears that Iraq is “falling apart.” If anything it shows that, in one place at least, Arabs are taking to the democratic process with heartening enthusiasm.

Read Less

Close-Up on the Marjah Offensive

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, a great war correspondent, delivers the best pen portrait I have read so far of what the Marjah offensive is like for the grunts on the ground. As he notes, this is war the old-fashioned way: foot soldiers slogging their way through enemy fire, eating military rations, going weeks without showering, bedding down for a few brief moments in freezing temperatures under “thin plastic camouflage poncho liners,” often unable to even light a fire for warmth, then jumping up to fight again. Sounds austere, no? But the Marines love it:

There’s a bit of harrumphing here and there — the lack of hot coffee and the shortage of cigarettes prompt regular complaints — but all say this is why they got into the Corps….

“This is better than ‘Call of Duty,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-’em-up video games.

“This is what it’s all about,” Cpl. Mina Mechreki added. “We didn’t join the Corps to sit around. This is what we came out here to do.”

I might add that Chandrasekaran’s portrait tallies with the Marines I’ve seen in the field. I recall visiting Iraq in 2008, after the major fighting was over in Anbar Province, and hearing complaints from the Marines. They were bored and wanted to go where they could shoot bad guys. Now they’ve got their wish.

That’s why I don’t believe stories of America’s supposed cultural degradation and decline — a common trope on the Right. The grunts in Marjah may play video games but they are not so different from their forefathers at Belleau Wood or Tarawa. In the Korean War movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” a character asks: “Where do we get such men?” The answer is: we get them from the same place they have always come from — American society.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, a great war correspondent, delivers the best pen portrait I have read so far of what the Marjah offensive is like for the grunts on the ground. As he notes, this is war the old-fashioned way: foot soldiers slogging their way through enemy fire, eating military rations, going weeks without showering, bedding down for a few brief moments in freezing temperatures under “thin plastic camouflage poncho liners,” often unable to even light a fire for warmth, then jumping up to fight again. Sounds austere, no? But the Marines love it:

There’s a bit of harrumphing here and there — the lack of hot coffee and the shortage of cigarettes prompt regular complaints — but all say this is why they got into the Corps….

“This is better than ‘Call of Duty,’ ” said Lance Cpl. Paul Stephens, 20, of Corona, Calif., referring to a series of shoot-’em-up video games.

“This is what it’s all about,” Cpl. Mina Mechreki added. “We didn’t join the Corps to sit around. This is what we came out here to do.”

I might add that Chandrasekaran’s portrait tallies with the Marines I’ve seen in the field. I recall visiting Iraq in 2008, after the major fighting was over in Anbar Province, and hearing complaints from the Marines. They were bored and wanted to go where they could shoot bad guys. Now they’ve got their wish.

That’s why I don’t believe stories of America’s supposed cultural degradation and decline — a common trope on the Right. The grunts in Marjah may play video games but they are not so different from their forefathers at Belleau Wood or Tarawa. In the Korean War movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” a character asks: “Where do we get such men?” The answer is: we get them from the same place they have always come from — American society.

Read Less

From Middle East Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part II

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

KARMAH, IRAQ — The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Jasey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home. Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn’t ask what they were for because I assumed I’d find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part I here.

KARMAH, IRAQ — The small city of Karmah sits between Fallujah and Baghdad, two Iraqi cities that have suffered more insurgent and terrorist violence than most. Karmah, however, was more hard-hit than either. It’s right on the bleeding edge of Anbar Province where the outskirts of Baghdad taper away. Unlike Fallujah, it has no hard perimeter to defend, nor was it considered a top priority for counterinsurgency operations. Surge forces in Baghdad drove Al Qaeda in Iraq members out of the capital’s neighborhoods and straight into Karmah during most of 2007.

Al Qaeda in Iraq did in Karmah what they have done everywhere else – intimidated and murdered civilians into submission. They decapitated police officers and placed severed heads all over the city. They destroyed the homes of anyone who opposed them. The message was clear: This is what will happen to you if you work with the Americans.

The story in Karmah should be familiar by now. Iraqis said no. We will work with the Americans and drive you out of our country. So many Stateside Americans still wonder aloud why mainstream Muslims refuse to stand up to terrorists, so apparently the story in Karmah – which is hardly unique to Karmah – isn’t familiar enough.

I joined Lieutenant Jasey Alleman on a foot patrol in the city at dawn when the air was still cold and the sun cast long shadows.

Fewer Iraqis were out on the street. Many were still sleeping or cooking breakfast at home. Most stores were open, though, and the lieutenant ducked into a hardware store and bought several cans of blue spray paint. I didn’t ask what they were for because I assumed I’d find out.

Even this city, of all cities, has gone quiet. Saturation patrolling by Marines who live embedded in the community’s neighborhoods stanched the terrorist outflow from Baghdad and purged the local insurgency’s remnants. The main market area downtown was recently re-opened to much ceremony and fanfare. Marine veterans who had served in Karmah before can hardly believe their own eyes – a year ago Karmah was thought to be as dark as Mordor.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

Read Less

Freedom Fighter Called “Terrorist” by INS

Karen DeYoung published a story in the Washington Post that ought to embarrass anyone making decisions about who deserves permanent residence in the U.S.

Saman Kareem Ahmad is an Iraqi Kurd who worked as a translator with the Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He was one of the few selected translators who was granted asylum in the U.S. because he and his family were singled out for destruction by insurgents for “collaboration.” He wants to return to Iraq as an American citizen and a Marine, and has already been awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter and General David Petraeus wrote notes for his file and recommended he be given a Green Card, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) declined his application and called him a “terrorist.”

The INS says Ahmad “conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein’s regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom” while a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The KDP is one of two mainstream Kurdish political parties in Iraq. Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is a member of the KDP. The KDP fought alongside the United States military as an ally during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After Operation Desert Storm the KDP fought the Saddam regime after President George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to do so. During the Iran-Iraq War, the KDP fought the Ba’athists because they were actively resisting genocide in the Kurdish region where Saddam used chemical weapons, artillery, air strikes, and napalm to exterminate them. And he’s a terrorist?

The Kurds in Iraq–unlike the Kurds in Turkey and the ever-popular Palestinians– did not use terrorism as a tactic in their struggle for liberation. They fought honorably against Saddam’s soldiers, not against Arab civilians in south and central Iraq.

The INS revealingly refers to the KDP as an “undesignated” terrorist organization. Which suggests it’s aware that the KDP isn’t a terrorist organization but has unilaterally labeled it as one regardless. The blogger Callimachus thinks it may be because the Patriot Act defines terrorism as “any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place it was committed.” He correctly points out that Jews in Hitler’s Warsaw Ghetto were “terrorists” according to this brainless definition.

This is an absurd inversion of the already absurd “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” slogan. Usually this sophomoric claim is made by terrorists or by leftists who make excuses for terrorists. This time, the INS is calling an actual freedom fighter a terrorist.

Somebody should tell Vice President Dick Cheney. He met with the KDP’s Barzani himself just a few days ago. “That was a unique and interesting opportunity,” he said, “to go look at what’s happened in a part of Iraq that was obviously freed of Saddam Hussein’s influence when the U.S. went in there and established the Operation Provide Comfort at the end of the Gulf War, and then set up the ‘no fly zones,’ and so forth.” Someone might also want to inform President George W. Bush, who invited Ahmad to the White House in 2007.

It’s worth comparing this case with two others.

Sayyed Rahmatullah Hashemi was a spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet he was admitted to Yale University in 2006, though he wasn’t given a green card, as far as I can tell. And just a few days ago, drug-trafficking prostitute and Brazilian national Andreia Schwartz was offered a green card if she would reveal what she knows about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. But Saman Ahmad faces deportation to a country where actual terrorists threaten to kill him? The law (to say nothing of the INS) truly is “a ass,” as Mr. Bumble once observed.

Karen DeYoung published a story in the Washington Post that ought to embarrass anyone making decisions about who deserves permanent residence in the U.S.

Saman Kareem Ahmad is an Iraqi Kurd who worked as a translator with the Marines in Iraq’s Anbar Province. He was one of the few selected translators who was granted asylum in the U.S. because he and his family were singled out for destruction by insurgents for “collaboration.” He wants to return to Iraq as an American citizen and a Marine, and has already been awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter and General David Petraeus wrote notes for his file and recommended he be given a Green Card, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) declined his application and called him a “terrorist.”

The INS says Ahmad “conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein’s regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm, and Operation Iraqi Freedom” while a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The KDP is one of two mainstream Kurdish political parties in Iraq. Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is a member of the KDP. The KDP fought alongside the United States military as an ally during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After Operation Desert Storm the KDP fought the Saddam regime after President George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to do so. During the Iran-Iraq War, the KDP fought the Ba’athists because they were actively resisting genocide in the Kurdish region where Saddam used chemical weapons, artillery, air strikes, and napalm to exterminate them. And he’s a terrorist?

The Kurds in Iraq–unlike the Kurds in Turkey and the ever-popular Palestinians– did not use terrorism as a tactic in their struggle for liberation. They fought honorably against Saddam’s soldiers, not against Arab civilians in south and central Iraq.

The INS revealingly refers to the KDP as an “undesignated” terrorist organization. Which suggests it’s aware that the KDP isn’t a terrorist organization but has unilaterally labeled it as one regardless. The blogger Callimachus thinks it may be because the Patriot Act defines terrorism as “any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place it was committed.” He correctly points out that Jews in Hitler’s Warsaw Ghetto were “terrorists” according to this brainless definition.

This is an absurd inversion of the already absurd “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” slogan. Usually this sophomoric claim is made by terrorists or by leftists who make excuses for terrorists. This time, the INS is calling an actual freedom fighter a terrorist.

Somebody should tell Vice President Dick Cheney. He met with the KDP’s Barzani himself just a few days ago. “That was a unique and interesting opportunity,” he said, “to go look at what’s happened in a part of Iraq that was obviously freed of Saddam Hussein’s influence when the U.S. went in there and established the Operation Provide Comfort at the end of the Gulf War, and then set up the ‘no fly zones,’ and so forth.” Someone might also want to inform President George W. Bush, who invited Ahmad to the White House in 2007.

It’s worth comparing this case with two others.

Sayyed Rahmatullah Hashemi was a spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet he was admitted to Yale University in 2006, though he wasn’t given a green card, as far as I can tell. And just a few days ago, drug-trafficking prostitute and Brazilian national Andreia Schwartz was offered a green card if she would reveal what she knows about former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. But Saman Ahmad faces deportation to a country where actual terrorists threaten to kill him? The law (to say nothing of the INS) truly is “a ass,” as Mr. Bumble once observed.

Read Less

From Middle East Journal: The Liberation of Karmah, Part I

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

KARMAH, IRAQ – Just beyond the outskirts of Fallujah lies the terror-wracked city of Karmah. While you may not have heard of this small city of 35,000 people, American soldiers and Marines who served in Anbar Province know it as a terrifying place of oppression, death, and destruction. “It was much worse than Fallujah” said more than a dozen Marines who were themselves based in Fallujah.

“Karmah was so important to the insurgency because we’ve got Baghdad right there,” Lieutenant Andrew Macak told me. “This is part of the periphery of Baghdad. At the same time, it is part of the periphery of Fallujah.”

Lieutenant Macak is not a veteran of Karmah, but Sergeant Jason Howell is. He was deployed in the city from March through October in 2006. “People weren’t out in the streets,” he said. “They were very reserved. They were afraid to talk to us. They had the feeling that, especially in the smaller towns, they were constantly being watched. They were in real jeopardy if they interacted with coalition forces and, especially, the Iraqi Police.”

Lieutenant Macak arrived in Karmah in the middle of July 2007 when the city was still a war zone. “It was moving in the right direction, but it was still active,” he said. “2/5 [Second Battalion, Fifth Regiment], who we relieved, was part of the surge effort. Karmah was still a very dangerous place. The lollipop over here was a big deal.”

“You mean the traffic circle?” I said. The Marines refer to a large traffic circle down the street from the police station at the entrance to the market as the “lollipop.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was basically IED Alley. The whole road out here in front of the station was just covered in IEDs. No one even went down the roads leading to the north of here. It was an insurgent stronghold. Before 2/5 came in there weren’t many patrols. They didn’t do a whole lot. The Iraqi Police didn’t have any confidence. Their numbers weren’t big and there wasn’t a whole lot of organization. 2/5 came in and started patrolling, started doing what Marines do. They identified local leaders and started engaging them. Sheikh Mishan came back at about the same time from Syria.”

Sheikh Mishan Abbas, like many other sheikhs in Anbar Province, fled to Syria shortly after the U.S. invaded.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com »

Read Less

The Final Mission, Part III

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They’re always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it’s orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The United States plans to hand Anbar Province over to the Iraqis next month if nothing catastrophic erupts between now and then. The Marines will stick around a while longer, though, and complete their crucial last mission – training the Iraqi Police to replace them.

The local police force would collapse in short order without American financial and logistics support. “The biggest problem they have is supply,” Corporal Hayes said to me in Fallujah. “They’re always running out of gas and running out of bullets. How are they supposed to police this city with no gas and no bullets?”

What they need more than anything else, though, in the long run anyway, is an infusion of moderate politics. Fallujah is in the heartland of the Sunni Triangle. The city was ferociously Baathist during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It is surly and reactionary even today. Even by Iraqi standards. Even after vanquishing the insurgency. Fallujans may never be transformed into Jeffersonian liberal democrats, but young men from New York, California, and Texas are taking the Iraqis by the hand and gently repairing their political culture.

I accompanied Lieutenant Andrew Macak and Lieutenant Eric Montgomery to an ethics class they taught to members of the Anbar Provincial Security Forces (PSF). PSF members are police officers who operate at the provincial level rather than the city level, much like state police in the U.S. The class was held at a station in Karmah, a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. Coursework included the ethical responsibilities of police officers, the importance of human rights, and the permissible rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. The material was the same as that taught by Marines everywhere in Al Anbar – in Fallujah, Ramadi, Hit, and Haditha.

“We’re teaching them about the Law of Armed Conflict,” Lieutenant Montgomery said. “If they become a police state, people are not going to support them.”

Post-Saddam Iraq is not a police state. Even so, while it’s orders of magnitude more moderate and humane than the genocidal and fascistic regime it replaced, many individuals in the government and police departments have rough authoritarian habits that are rooted in Arab culture itself as much as they are legacies from the previous era.

Read the rest of this entry at MichaelTotten.com

Read Less

The Final Mission, Part II

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That’s all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It’s the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they’re Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.”

Read the rest at MichaelTotten.com

FALLUJAH – The United States military plans to formally hand over Anbar Province to the Iraqis this spring because the insurgency truly is finished in that part of the country. Most Americans have heard about the success in this province by now, but few seem to be aware that the cities of Anbar were the scenes of the most ferocious fighting: Ramadi, Haditha, and – worst of all – Fallujah.The Americans in Fallujah are focused now on what they expect to be their last mission: the training of the Iraqi Police to replace the Marines.

Optimism and cynicism exist side by side. All the Americans I spoke to said the Iraqi Police are improving. Most are cautiously optimistic about their ability to stand on their own – later. Hope comes naturally in Fallujah right now because even this place, of all places, is peaceful and quiet. But a substantial minority has serious reservations after spending some quality time with Iraqis.

“We should have just left Saddam in power,” said an MP from the Texas National Guard who did not want to be named. “That’s all these people understand.”

Fallujah is the heartland of Baath country. It’s the most aggressively Sunni Arab city in all of Iraq. Residents deny the insurgency once had a popular base of support, possibly to save face, but it did. Some Fallujans are Islamists, some were and still are disgruntled Baathists, and others just needed the money. Even some police officers were insurgents.“Some of them will tell you straight up that the only reason they’re Iraqi Police officers is because it pays better than the insurgency,” Sergeant White said. “I hear that and I want to say Hold this guy while I go get my pistol.”

Read the rest at MichaelTotten.com

Read Less

Paying Attention

According to the Associated Press

Remote-controlled explosives strapped to two mentally retarded women detonated in a coordinated attack on pet bazaars Friday, police and Iraqi officials said, killing at least 73 people in the deadliest day since the U.S. sent 30,000 extra troops to the capital this spring . . . Iraqi officials said the women apparently were mentally disabled and the explosives were detonated by remote control, indicating they may not having been willing attackers in what could be a new method by suspected Sunni insurgents to subvert stepped up security measures.

This episode reminds us of just how malevolent our enemy is. Their savagery is almost unfathomable. One wonders if this type of thing will continue to turn the Muslim world against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is exactly what is happening in the “Anbar Awakening” (the backlash against AQI has now spread beyond Anbar Province).

This attack also underscores what General Petraeus has repeatedly said: the challenges in Iraq remain formidable and we will need to maintain our presence there for some time to come. The gains we saw in 2007 were stunning – but we are still a long way from Iraq becoming a secure, unified nation. Fortunately the President has indicated that he will abide by the counsel of General Petraeus and not pull out our troops prematurely. As the Washington Post reported today:

President Bush asserted Thursday that he would not be pressured into making further troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five combat brigades already scheduled to come home by the middle of the summer. “We have come too far in this important theater, in this war on terror, not to make sure that we succeed,” Bush told a friendly audience at an event sponsored by a conservative think tank. “I will be making decisions based upon success in Iraq…. The comments were the latest indication from the administration that it may keep the number of troops in Iraq at roughly the same level they were before last year’s buildup of U.S. forces, possibly through the end of Bush’s presidency. Under existing plans, the levels are gradually falling about 5,000 troops a month, from roughly 160,000 to 130,000 by July — or approximately where they stood before Bush sent reinforcements to Iraq seeking to curtail spiraling sectarian violence. Last fall, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that troop levels could continue falling, reaching 100,000 by 2009. But U.S. commanders in Iraq have suggested they would like to see a pause to determine whether recent security gains have taken root, and in recent statements — such as his comments here — Bush has indicated that he looks favorably upon such an approach.

Because of the successes we’ve experienced in Iraq, the attention of the nation and the political class is wandering away from that traumatized land. But the stakes in that war could not be higher – and the consequences of a defeat to AQI would be staggering. Whatever the flaws of the GOP candidates, there is a huge chasm between their views on Iraq and the views of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As my colleague Yuval Levin wrote earlier today about last night’s debate, “They are intent on snatching disaster from the jaws of a real chance at progress in Iraq, and they simply don’t care if we lose. Neither of them came anywhere near words like success, or victory. It’s not in the script.”

What a thoroughly irresponsible and, if they were to become president, what a terribly dangerous position for them to hold.

According to the Associated Press

Remote-controlled explosives strapped to two mentally retarded women detonated in a coordinated attack on pet bazaars Friday, police and Iraqi officials said, killing at least 73 people in the deadliest day since the U.S. sent 30,000 extra troops to the capital this spring . . . Iraqi officials said the women apparently were mentally disabled and the explosives were detonated by remote control, indicating they may not having been willing attackers in what could be a new method by suspected Sunni insurgents to subvert stepped up security measures.

This episode reminds us of just how malevolent our enemy is. Their savagery is almost unfathomable. One wonders if this type of thing will continue to turn the Muslim world against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is exactly what is happening in the “Anbar Awakening” (the backlash against AQI has now spread beyond Anbar Province).

This attack also underscores what General Petraeus has repeatedly said: the challenges in Iraq remain formidable and we will need to maintain our presence there for some time to come. The gains we saw in 2007 were stunning – but we are still a long way from Iraq becoming a secure, unified nation. Fortunately the President has indicated that he will abide by the counsel of General Petraeus and not pull out our troops prematurely. As the Washington Post reported today:

President Bush asserted Thursday that he would not be pressured into making further troop cuts in Iraq beyond the five combat brigades already scheduled to come home by the middle of the summer. “We have come too far in this important theater, in this war on terror, not to make sure that we succeed,” Bush told a friendly audience at an event sponsored by a conservative think tank. “I will be making decisions based upon success in Iraq…. The comments were the latest indication from the administration that it may keep the number of troops in Iraq at roughly the same level they were before last year’s buildup of U.S. forces, possibly through the end of Bush’s presidency. Under existing plans, the levels are gradually falling about 5,000 troops a month, from roughly 160,000 to 130,000 by July — or approximately where they stood before Bush sent reinforcements to Iraq seeking to curtail spiraling sectarian violence. Last fall, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that troop levels could continue falling, reaching 100,000 by 2009. But U.S. commanders in Iraq have suggested they would like to see a pause to determine whether recent security gains have taken root, and in recent statements — such as his comments here — Bush has indicated that he looks favorably upon such an approach.

Because of the successes we’ve experienced in Iraq, the attention of the nation and the political class is wandering away from that traumatized land. But the stakes in that war could not be higher – and the consequences of a defeat to AQI would be staggering. Whatever the flaws of the GOP candidates, there is a huge chasm between their views on Iraq and the views of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As my colleague Yuval Levin wrote earlier today about last night’s debate, “They are intent on snatching disaster from the jaws of a real chance at progress in Iraq, and they simply don’t care if we lose. Neither of them came anywhere near words like success, or victory. It’s not in the script.”

What a thoroughly irresponsible and, if they were to become president, what a terribly dangerous position for them to hold.

Read Less

Ryan Crocker

I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

Read More

I just left an on-the-record conference call in which Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, briefed some stateside pundits on how the situation looks at the end of the year. Not surprisingly, he said, that “2007 ends in a considerably better place than it began” and that he is “feeling a lot more encouraged than when I got here last March.” The key challenge now, of course, is to translate security progress into more political progress.

Crocker offered some encouraging signs of a “positive spiral engendered by security improvements,” including the fact that Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Vice President, recently met with Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric, and that there were recently meetings between Sunni sheikhs from Anbar Province and Shiite sheikhs from Karbala Province. Those kinds of cross-sectarian meetings would not have happened a year ago.

He also pointed out that some of the Concerned Local Citizens groups in mixed parts of Baghdad that have taken up arms against extremists are composed of both Shiites and Sunnis. (The majority, however, are still exclusively Sunni, which makes sense, because they are operating in Sunni neighborhoods.)

Another welcome sign is that the central government is spending more of its budget and that the money is going out to Sunni and Shiite provinces alike “in a manner perceived as equitable.” In a related development, the Baghdad government recently agreed to pay pensions to tens of thousands of people who had been denied them because of their association with the Baathist regime. Crocker suggested this means that “they are paying for reconciliation.”

Trying to pass reconciliation legislation has, Crocker admitted, “been a slow, painful process.” Some of the bills, including one reversing previous de-Baathification decrees and another offering limited amnesty to some of those who have fought against coalition and Iraqi forces since 2003, are still winding their way through the legislative process. “They are making some progress,” he said. “They are going to have to make more.” He did add that the problem doesn’t seem to be Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki: “He’s a committed, dedicated person of great personal courage.”

A wild card in all this remains the role of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Syria and Iran, which have long been stoking the conflict. There have been mixed reports on whether the Iranians and Syrians have tamped down their efforts to destabilize Iraq, with conflicting claims being heard from the Pentagon and State Department.

Crocker was careful to take a middle-of-the-road position, saying, “I’m pretty modest about what I claim to know about Iran.” Crocker continued: “It’s unclear to me how much of what we’ve seen in throttling back of extremist militia activity represents an Iranian effort, how much of it is Sadrist leaders recognizing where good politics lie…. I’m making no assumptions. I’m handing out no certificates of good behavior.” This puts him at odds, seemingly, with some State Department colleagues back in Washington, who have been more effusive in attesting to Iran’s supposed change of behavior.

As for Syria, he said, there are “some indications of lessening numbers of foreign fighters slash suicide bombers coming across the border, but as far as we can tell that still remains the primary conduit for people who do really nasty things out here.”

He pointed out another aspect of Iraq’s foreign relations that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: the unwillingness of Arab countries to send ambassadors back to Baghdad despite the improving security situation. “It is past time,” Crocker said, “for Arab states to step up and be a positive, active influence in Iraq.” At the moment, they prefer to complain from the sidelines about Iranian influence without trying to get into the game themselves.

Crocker ended by saying that Iraqis no longer fear getting abandoned by the United States: “At the most fundamental level, there is a view that things are moving in the right direction, that security is improving, that the surge has worked, that Iraqi forces are more numerous and more capable, and therefore why on earth would we abandon a winning proposition?”

Good question. It’s one that some of the presidential candidates who are advocating a rapid drawdown of American forces should answer.

Read Less

Something To Be Really Thankful For

If any more evidence were needed of how dramatically things have changed in Iraq, a senior military official sends along statistics that show snapshots of three dates: this Thanksgiving; last Thanksgiving, November 22, 2006; and the midway point between them, May 22, 2007.

On Thanksgiving 2006 there were 126 enemy attacks across Iraq and 26 of them were “effective,” meaning they caused injuries or damaged buildings, vehicles, or other infrastructure. Six months later, attack levels were virtually unchanged: May 22 saw 122 attacks, 35 of them effective. And then came the big turn: On Thursday, there were 53 attacks and only 18 of them were effective—drops from a year ago of 58 percent and 31 perecent respectively.

Baghdad, which had been the primary center of violence on November 22, 2006, and May 22, 2007, no longer had that distinction on Thursday: It saw only 10 attacks (half of them effective), compared with 37 in northern Iraq (less than a third of them effective). It’s still cause for concern that the violence level remains so high in the north, but it is cause for celebration that Baghdad is becoming so peaceful. Given that it is the capital of the country, improvements are more significant politically if they occur there than in the provinces.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping result was the change that occurred not in Baghdad, however, but in Anbar Province, which saw 28 attacks (seven of them effective) a year ago and none—repeat none—yesterday.

Those are the kinds of results that should make us grateful to the hard work of the soldiers in Iraq, not only Americans but Iraqis and other coalition partners, and to their commanders in Baghdad and Washington who had the wisdom to implement a new strategy after it became apparent that the old one was failing.

If any more evidence were needed of how dramatically things have changed in Iraq, a senior military official sends along statistics that show snapshots of three dates: this Thanksgiving; last Thanksgiving, November 22, 2006; and the midway point between them, May 22, 2007.

On Thanksgiving 2006 there were 126 enemy attacks across Iraq and 26 of them were “effective,” meaning they caused injuries or damaged buildings, vehicles, or other infrastructure. Six months later, attack levels were virtually unchanged: May 22 saw 122 attacks, 35 of them effective. And then came the big turn: On Thursday, there were 53 attacks and only 18 of them were effective—drops from a year ago of 58 percent and 31 perecent respectively.

Baghdad, which had been the primary center of violence on November 22, 2006, and May 22, 2007, no longer had that distinction on Thursday: It saw only 10 attacks (half of them effective), compared with 37 in northern Iraq (less than a third of them effective). It’s still cause for concern that the violence level remains so high in the north, but it is cause for celebration that Baghdad is becoming so peaceful. Given that it is the capital of the country, improvements are more significant politically if they occur there than in the provinces.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping result was the change that occurred not in Baghdad, however, but in Anbar Province, which saw 28 attacks (seven of them effective) a year ago and none—repeat none—yesterday.

Those are the kinds of results that should make us grateful to the hard work of the soldiers in Iraq, not only Americans but Iraqis and other coalition partners, and to their commanders in Baghdad and Washington who had the wisdom to implement a new strategy after it became apparent that the old one was failing.

Read Less

What the Army Wants You to See

Some colleagues, readers, and friends have suggested the dispatches I published from Iraq as an embedded reporter might not be reliable, even if true, because I only saw what the United States Army wanted me to see. CBS news anchor Katie Couric said as much about her own coverage when she first arrived in Baghdad in September.

I’ve had the same thoughts myself, and I quietly wondered if I should disclose them. I chose not to, though, because my experience, as it turned out, didn’t actually warrant it.

The Army hooked me up with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at district of Baghdad in July. There hadn’t been any violence there since early in 2007. The soldiers hadn’t suffered a single casualty—not even one soldier wounded. How convenient, I thought, that the Army sent me to such a place. I appreciated not being thrown into a meat grinder and shot or blown up, but Graya’at did strike me as a dog-and-pony-show sort of location. Maybe it was. It could certainly function as one, if that’s what the Army intended.

I had to check myself, though. Embed coordinators asked me what kind of stories I wanted to cover. I explicitly said I wasn’t there to chase car bombs. The world doesn’t need yet another reporter on that beat. Also, I told them, access to Iraqi civilians is important. Reporting strictly from inside a military bubble is hardly better than filing reports from the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone. Graya’at, then, was the right place to embed me.

You could just as easily say the coordinators did exactly what I asked them to do instead of accusing them of sending me on a happy tour to skew coverage in the Army’s favor. The worst you could fairly say is that their interests and mine were in alignment.

Baghdad isn’t the only place I went in Iraq with the Army. I also went to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and the scene of the some of the most vicious fighting of the entire war.

Captain Phil Messer asked me what I wanted to see when I arrived at his outpost.

“Destruction,” I said, because I hadn’t seen much of it yet and needed some photos. So far my only pictures of war damage were taken from inside a Humvee while driving past on the way somewhere else.

“Whatever you need,” he said. “It’s my job to help you do your job and take you where you need to go.”

Some of the destruction he showed me was total. All of it was horrific. Two American colonels in the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. What Captain Messer showed me made that sound credible. You can see some of the photographs here.

He didn’t know who I was or what I would do with those pictures. I told him nothing about my “agenda” or why I wanted a tour of the damage. I could have used those photos as evidence of wanton American destruction of civilian neighborhoods had I so chosen. Many of those buildings were destroyed by American firepower, but others were destroyed by insurgents. BCIED’s—Building Contained IED’s, or building bombs—exploded all over that city. IED’s buried deep under the roads tore the streets and the sewer system to pieces. Car bombs blew windows out everywhere. It wouldn’t be right to blame it all on the Americans, so I didn’t. Captain Messer, though, didn’t know what I was up to. If it was his job to show me only what the Army wanted me to see, he is not very good at his job.

He did, however, show me what I needed and wanted to see. That was his job, or at least part of it. Plenty of officers in the Army understand that. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman at the Blue Diamond base in Northern Ramadi defended the media’s often negative coverage point blank when I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do,” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

What ultimately convinced me that the Army didn’t send me off on a Potemkin tour of Iraq was Major Mike Garcia’s suggestion that I visit the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. The Army can’t order me to go anywhere, but he said he could arrange it for me if I was interested. I had not heard of the place until he mentioned it to me, and would never have ended up there on my own.

What I found there was dispiriting, to say the least. He warned me that it was bad news up there, and he was right.

Humvee convoys from Camp Taji to Mushadah were hit with IED’s every day. It was too dangerous for dismounted foot patrols. Captain Maryanne Naro warned me not to step outside my up-armored Humvee for any reason unless something catastrophic happened to it. Half the Iraqi Police officers at the station were too afraid to go out on patrols, and the other half, or so I was told, worked with al Qaeda. I didn’t meet a single American soldier in the area who thought things were going well there, and I wrote a gloomy essay about the experience which you can read here.

The Army never would have put me in a Humvee to Mushadah if their goal was to control what I saw so they could gin up positive stories.

I don’t know why Major Garcia thought I should go to Mushadah, and I didn’t ask. I am grateful, though, for the suggestion and the experience. It provided some necessary balance for the good news I found and reported elsewhere in the country.

Some colleagues, readers, and friends have suggested the dispatches I published from Iraq as an embedded reporter might not be reliable, even if true, because I only saw what the United States Army wanted me to see. CBS news anchor Katie Couric said as much about her own coverage when she first arrived in Baghdad in September.

I’ve had the same thoughts myself, and I quietly wondered if I should disclose them. I chose not to, though, because my experience, as it turned out, didn’t actually warrant it.

The Army hooked me up with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Graya’at district of Baghdad in July. There hadn’t been any violence there since early in 2007. The soldiers hadn’t suffered a single casualty—not even one soldier wounded. How convenient, I thought, that the Army sent me to such a place. I appreciated not being thrown into a meat grinder and shot or blown up, but Graya’at did strike me as a dog-and-pony-show sort of location. Maybe it was. It could certainly function as one, if that’s what the Army intended.

I had to check myself, though. Embed coordinators asked me what kind of stories I wanted to cover. I explicitly said I wasn’t there to chase car bombs. The world doesn’t need yet another reporter on that beat. Also, I told them, access to Iraqi civilians is important. Reporting strictly from inside a military bubble is hardly better than filing reports from the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone. Graya’at, then, was the right place to embed me.

You could just as easily say the coordinators did exactly what I asked them to do instead of accusing them of sending me on a happy tour to skew coverage in the Army’s favor. The worst you could fairly say is that their interests and mine were in alignment.

Baghdad isn’t the only place I went in Iraq with the Army. I also went to Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and the scene of the some of the most vicious fighting of the entire war.

Captain Phil Messer asked me what I wanted to see when I arrived at his outpost.

“Destruction,” I said, because I hadn’t seen much of it yet and needed some photos. So far my only pictures of war damage were taken from inside a Humvee while driving past on the way somewhere else.

“Whatever you need,” he said. “It’s my job to help you do your job and take you where you need to go.”

Some of the destruction he showed me was total. All of it was horrific. Two American colonels in the area compared the battle of Ramadi to Stalingrad. What Captain Messer showed me made that sound credible. You can see some of the photographs here.

He didn’t know who I was or what I would do with those pictures. I told him nothing about my “agenda” or why I wanted a tour of the damage. I could have used those photos as evidence of wanton American destruction of civilian neighborhoods had I so chosen. Many of those buildings were destroyed by American firepower, but others were destroyed by insurgents. BCIED’s—Building Contained IED’s, or building bombs—exploded all over that city. IED’s buried deep under the roads tore the streets and the sewer system to pieces. Car bombs blew windows out everywhere. It wouldn’t be right to blame it all on the Americans, so I didn’t. Captain Messer, though, didn’t know what I was up to. If it was his job to show me only what the Army wanted me to see, he is not very good at his job.

He did, however, show me what I needed and wanted to see. That was his job, or at least part of it. Plenty of officers in the Army understand that. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman at the Blue Diamond base in Northern Ramadi defended the media’s often negative coverage point blank when I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s true that the media doesn’t have the same agenda in Iraq that we do,” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s the media’s job to have the same agenda in Iraq that we do.”

What ultimately convinced me that the Army didn’t send me off on a Potemkin tour of Iraq was Major Mike Garcia’s suggestion that I visit the small town of Mushadah just north of Baghdad. The Army can’t order me to go anywhere, but he said he could arrange it for me if I was interested. I had not heard of the place until he mentioned it to me, and would never have ended up there on my own.

What I found there was dispiriting, to say the least. He warned me that it was bad news up there, and he was right.

Humvee convoys from Camp Taji to Mushadah were hit with IED’s every day. It was too dangerous for dismounted foot patrols. Captain Maryanne Naro warned me not to step outside my up-armored Humvee for any reason unless something catastrophic happened to it. Half the Iraqi Police officers at the station were too afraid to go out on patrols, and the other half, or so I was told, worked with al Qaeda. I didn’t meet a single American soldier in the area who thought things were going well there, and I wrote a gloomy essay about the experience which you can read here.

The Army never would have put me in a Humvee to Mushadah if their goal was to control what I saw so they could gin up positive stories.

I don’t know why Major Garcia thought I should go to Mushadah, and I didn’t ask. I am grateful, though, for the suggestion and the experience. It provided some necessary balance for the good news I found and reported elsewhere in the country.

Read Less

An Act of Kindness from Iraq

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.

A thousand dollars is a lot in Iraq. The average salary is only a few hundred dollars a month. I can’t for the life of me figure out how entire families can survive on so little, considering most have so many children. Basic necessities are cheaper in Iraq than in the West, but not that much cheaper.

Some Iraqis have been learning a similar lesson about American generosity lately.

Two months ago I went on a humanitarian aid drop mission outside Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, with American soldiers and Iraqi Police officers at four o’clock in the morning. The goods we delivered were paid for by the United States government. Sometimes, though, soldiers and Marines deliver items donated through American charities. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government,” a Marine told me, “that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

Sustained contact with the “other” isn’t a magic bullet against bigoted attitudes (see, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but it usually helps. Iraqis learn about Americans through daily interactions, but most Americans have no contact, sustained or otherwise, with Iraqis.

Shopkeeper Was Nice to Embedded Reporter isn’t a headline, but donations from Besmaya to San Diego is a real story. Now would be a good time for major newspapers, as well as blogs and magazines like this one, to show Iraqis, for once, as generous and regular people.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

Iraqi Army officers in Besmaya raised a thousand dollars in donations for fire victims in San Diego, California, and the only place that seems to have reported the story is the military blog OPFOR. Author Richard S. Lowry learned about it in a press release from the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Public Affairs, so it’s unlikely he’s the only one in the media who knows something about it.

Sending a thousand dollars to California will be about as helpful as throwing a glass of water into the firestorm. It’s the thought that counts here. And what surprising thought it is. How many Americans expect charity from Iraq?

As Lowry points out, “most Americans do not consider Iraqis as people.” He’s right. Most of us only know them from sensational media reports about masked insurgents, wailing widows, and death squads. Most of us may instinctively understand that the majority of Iraqis are just regular people, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when the only thing we get Stateside is war coverage. I’ve met hundreds of Iraqis myself during trips to their country as a reporter, so it’s a bit easier for me to see them as just people. I’m still surprised that anyone in that broken impoverished land would even consider donating hard-earned money to Californians.

A thousand dollars is a lot in Iraq. The average salary is only a few hundred dollars a month. I can’t for the life of me figure out how entire families can survive on so little, considering most have so many children. Basic necessities are cheaper in Iraq than in the West, but not that much cheaper.

Some Iraqis have been learning a similar lesson about American generosity lately.

Two months ago I went on a humanitarian aid drop mission outside Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, with American soldiers and Iraqi Police officers at four o’clock in the morning. The goods we delivered were paid for by the United States government. Sometimes, though, soldiers and Marines deliver items donated through American charities. “When we tell them that some of these packages aren’t from the military or the government,” a Marine told me, “that they were donated by average American citizens in places like Kansas, people choke up and sometimes even cry. They just can’t comprehend it. It is so different from the lies they were told about us and how we’re supposed to be evil.”

Sustained contact with the “other” isn’t a magic bullet against bigoted attitudes (see, for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), but it usually helps. Iraqis learn about Americans through daily interactions, but most Americans have no contact, sustained or otherwise, with Iraqis.

Shopkeeper Was Nice to Embedded Reporter isn’t a headline, but donations from Besmaya to San Diego is a real story. Now would be a good time for major newspapers, as well as blogs and magazines like this one, to show Iraqis, for once, as generous and regular people.

UPDATE: CNN now has the story on their Web site. Good for them.

Read Less

The Shia Awakening

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

Read More

After returning to the U.S. from my summer trip to Baghdad and Ramadi, I wrote a piece for the New York Daily News that warned against bingeing on optimism in the wake of the surge. I wrote this despite the dramatic turnaround in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The abject defeat of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq in and around Anbar’s capital of Ramadi is stunning, but local. The fight still rages on elsewhere, and in each place it is different. In early 2007, Ramadi was the most violent city in all of Iraq. It was also, counterintuitively, the easiest city to win.

Al Qaeda had seized it and declared it the capital of their so-called “Islamic State in Iraq.” Local tribal leaders and civilians initially welcomed al Qaeda as liberators against the hated American occupiers, but later rejected them after al Qaeda behaved like…al Qaeda, and launched a horrific murder and intimidation campaign against everyone who opposed them. “It was basically a hostile fascist takeover of the city,” Army Captain Jay McGee told me.

Zarqawi’s lieutenants make up a relatively small percentage of the “insurgency” in Iraq, but they are by far the most psychotic and destructive. No one should be surprised that they were expelled from Anbar. They went at the Iraqis with car bombs and kitchen knives. They sawed off the heads of children as well as adults. They murdered entire families just for making eye contact with American soldiers. The Iraqis in Ramadi had little choice but to form an alliance with Americans, in order to purge these killers from their lands.

However, as I wrote in late August, “what worked in Ramadi might not work in Baghdad. [Moqtada al-Sadr's radical Shia] Mahdi Army’s relative moderation, compared with al Qaeda’s brutality, prevents it from being rejected by the entire society.”

I may have been too pessimistic and given Sadr’s militia more credit than it deserves.

The New York Times reported last week that many Shias in Baghdad, including some tribal sheikhs, are now turning against the Mahdi Army and working with the Americans to evict them. Sadr’s base is collapsing from right underneath him, and it’s a direct result of the successful assault on radical Sunnis by General Petraeus’s surge forces and the Mahdi Army itself.

The Mahdi Army picked up substantial local support thanks to its defense of Shias from Sunni insurgents and death squads. Neither the American soldiers nor the Iraqi security forces were able to secure the streets of the neighborhoods, so Sadr’s militia was called on for the job. Many portions of Baghdad have since been purged of Sunni extremists, partly due to the notorious sectarian “cleansing” and population transfers. The Mahdi Army is a victim of its own success, in a way: it has outlived its perceived usefulness and has degenerated into an ideology-free gang of murderous street thugs who do not want to let go of power. A militia need not be as deranged as al Qaeda to wear out its welcome, even in Baghdad.

Sadr’s army has been opposed by a substantial number of Shias all along. The new opposition comes from his base, and includes several sheikhs who supported him not long ago.

It’s hard for Americans to appreciate just how much power sheikhs have in Iraq. What they say goes. I spent a week in the Graya’at neighborhood of Baghdad, where every sheikh had come around to the American side. Earlier this year they insisted that not a single shot shall be fired at American soldiers, and not a single shot has been fired since. When they say it’s time to join Moqtada al-Sadr, or it’s time to join the Americans, nearly every person under their authority does what they say.

In the parts of Iraq where the locals turn against the insurgents en masse, it is only a matter of time before the insurgents are finished. Civilians phone in actionable intelligence on the locations of safe houses, weapons caches, IED’s, and everything else.

The radical Sunnis in Iraq are the most vicious. It is logical, then, that they are being defeated first. Extremist Shias have been tougher because they are more moderate, as well as more numerous. But defeating Sunni insurgents knocks out support from under the radical Shias. If you’re looking for a reason to hope in Iraq, that is it.

Read Less

Let General Petraeus Do His Job

In yesterday’s Washington Post we read this:

At least 10 Senate Republicans have openly questioned the president’s Iraq strategy, even as they remain reluctant to embrace Democratic legislation to change it. Republican war critics said they are detecting a shift—albeit a slight one—toward outright dissent, as their colleagues digest the Petraeus and Crocker testimony and the prospect of a maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for the near future.

Republicans will not fundamentally break with the President over Iraq at this point. While the situation in Iraq remains very difficult and success is certainly not foreordained, we are seeing demonstrable progress on both the security side and in bottom-up reconciliation. Republicans stood with the President during the most difficult hours of this war; it only makes sense to stand with him when things are improving.

Read More

In yesterday’s Washington Post we read this:

At least 10 Senate Republicans have openly questioned the president’s Iraq strategy, even as they remain reluctant to embrace Democratic legislation to change it. Republican war critics said they are detecting a shift—albeit a slight one—toward outright dissent, as their colleagues digest the Petraeus and Crocker testimony and the prospect of a maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for the near future.

Republicans will not fundamentally break with the President over Iraq at this point. While the situation in Iraq remains very difficult and success is certainly not foreordained, we are seeing demonstrable progress on both the security side and in bottom-up reconciliation. Republicans stood with the President during the most difficult hours of this war; it only makes sense to stand with him when things are improving.

Conventional wisdom has it that what matters most when it comes to the politics of Iraq is troop levels. The more American troops stationed in Iraq and the longer they stay, goes this reasoning, the more unpopular the war will be—and the more Republicans will suffer. The sooner we withdraw troops, this line of argument continues, the better it will get.

In fact, the most important metric is not the number of American troops in Iraq, but how well (or badly) the war is going. The main engine driving the war’s unpopularity hasn’t been the number of combat brigades in Iraq; it has been conditions on the ground. What upset the American people most of all, in my judgment, is that they felt (with some justification) the war was being mismanaged and was failing—and if it was failing, the cost in lives and treasure simply wasn’t worth it.

Now that the trajectory of events is more in our favor, there is a chance to build up some support among a war-weary public. Iraq will never be a popular war—but it is possible to sustain enough public support to achieve a decent outcome.

A thought experiment: assume that in June 2008 we have 130,000 American troops in Iraq and violence there is substantially less than it is today. Assume, too, that we are seeing more signs of progress in bottom-up reconciliation, the “Anbar Awakening” is spreading to other areas, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is in retreat, and we are even seeing tangible and encouraging steps from the central government.

Now assume that in June 2008 we have 80,000 American troops in Iraq and violence there is significantly worse than it is today. Assume, too, that the progress we’ve seen in Anbar Province is undone, AQI is resurgent, ethnic and religious divisions deepen, and the central government collapses.

Which situation do you think most hurts Republicans in 2008—the 130,000 troop scenario or the 80,000 troop scenario? The question answers itself.

Our policy in Iraq should be driven by what is in our national interest and meets our moral commitments. But if politics is going to drive Republican Members of Congress, then they might as well get behind policies that will lead to the best political outcome. And that means supporting policies that have the best chance of leading to success rather than catastrophic failure in Iraq. For better or worse the Republicans “own” this war; being the architects of a strategy that leads to a premature withdrawal and a defeat in Iraq will earn them nothing but contempt—and for good reasons.

Success in Iraq may well be attainable; Republicans should do everything they can to make that possibility a reality. And these days “everything they can” means giving General Petraeus the support he needs. Give him the tools, and he and his team will finish the job.

Read Less

Correcting the GAO

The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

Read More

The Washington Post gave front-page play last week to a leaked version of a draft Government Accountability Office report, claiming “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” Bill Kristol has already pointed out some of the report’s flaws—namely that it measures whether the Iraqis have “completed” (as opposed to simply made progress on) many irrelevant “benchmarks” mandated by Congress in an attempt to embarrass the Bush administration.

But I was still left wondering about one part of the Post’s front-page piece: “While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced.” The Post article goes on about the GAO report: “While there have been fewer attacks against U.S. forces, it notes, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged.”

How can it be, I wondered, that GAO claims that the level of violence in Iraq is unchanged when every observer who has returned recently from Iraq says otherwise? I put that question to a friend of mine, an officer currently serving in Baghdad. As he explains below in this email (see below the jump), the problem is that GAO is citing suspect statistics. The figures he presents—generated by the U.S. military using procedures that have remained consistent and are generally accepted throughout the U.S. government—paint a picture of impressive progress since the surge began. (I’ve added a few explanations of acronyms.)

Max,

We disagree with the methodology the GAO uses to calculate its statistics, and we told them so during their short visit here last month. As you note, the GAO statistics differ considerably from the data we have for the same periods.

The statistics we use come from MNF-I [Multi-National Forces Iraq] databases which are a carefully managed collection of both Iraqi and Coalition reports. We strive to be rigorous in our data collection and checking, so much so that the analysts from CIA and DIA who worked on the National Intelligence Estimate, after spending three days poring over our methodology and data, announced that MNF-I numbers are the most accurate and would be used for the August 2007 NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] on Iraq. We do use Iraqi data that is verified by our forces. And we also continue to update/reverify data after the receipt of “first reports” (which are, as you know, generally wrong) and subsequent reports. The death toll in the recent truck bombings against the Yezidi villages in northwest Iraq, for example, when verified by our Special Forces teams after the dust literally settled, was a good bit lower than original accounts reported, and we thus adjusted that report downward. Sometimes, as in many Baghdad bombings, the first reports are low and we adjust the numbers upward in subsequent days. Some statistics we are tracking follow:

-Throughout all of Iraq, since the height of the ethno-sectarian violence in December 2006 until the end of August 2007, the overall number of civilian casualties (killed and wounded) has dropped 71 percent. Just counting civilian deaths, by any means, the numbers are even more dramatic, with a 74 percent drop since December 2006.

-Ethno-sectarian deaths (e.g., AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] bombing Kurds or Shi’a Arabs or Turkmen or Yezidis, etc., or JAM [Jaish al-Mahdi led by Moqtada al-Sadr] killing of Sunnis, etc.) in all of Iraq are down to less than one half of levels at the height of the violence last December.

-Attacks of any type in Anbar Province have gone from a high in October 2006 of more than 1350 per month to fewer than 250 per month now.

-The number of ammunition and explosive caches found has risen from a total of 2726 in 2006 to over 4350 this year (through the end of August).

-Overall incidents of violence against any target (ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], CF [Coalition Forces], civilian) in Iraq are down from a high of 1700 per week when we started the surge of operations in mid-June 2007 to fewer than 960 per week now. Overall incidents have declined in eight of the past eleven weeks. Last week’s number of incidents was the lowest in over a year.

-High profile attacks (car bomb, suicide car bomb, and suicide vest attacks) nationwide are down from a high in March 2007 of more than 170 per month to 88 in August.

-Since the intent of the surge was to secure Baghdad, which is the political heart of Iraq, here are some statistics focused on the ten security districts that comprise Baghdad from December 2006 to the end of August 2007:

-Car bomb attacks: 44 in December 2006, nineteen in August 2007 for a 57 percent drop.

-All IED’s [improvised explosive devices]: 240 in December 2006, 203 in August 2007 for a 15 percent drop.

-Explosive belts (Suicide vests): two in December 2006, zero in August 2007.

-Mortar and Rocket Attacks: 139 in December 2006, 98 in August 2007 for a 29 percent drop.

-Dead civilians (not just ethno-sectarian violence, but all categories): 2193 in December 2006, 575 in August 2007 for a 74 percent drop.

-Wounded civilians: 876 in December 2006, 302 in August 2007 for a 66 percent drop.

-Dead Iraqi security forces: 44 in December 2006, twenty in August 2007 for a 45 percent drop.

-Wounded Iraqi security forces: 136 in December 2006, 61 in August 2007 for a 55 percent drop.

-575 dead in Baghdad in August from all causes is still excessively high and we continue to work to drive down the violence. Nonetheless, by all of these measures there has been progress in bringing greater security to Baghdad.

Our methodology and numbers have been scrubbed thoroughly by the intelligence community and declared by the intel community the best available measures and data. We carefully examine both Coalition and Host Nation reports to ensure we have the most inclusive data available. Iraqi reports come from a variety of official governmental sources including the National Operations Center, the Baghdad Operational Command, the National Joint Operations Center, and Joint Security Stations. Unfortunately, the media and other agencies often use suspect data provided by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which is less rigorous and perhaps also motivated by a sectarian agenda.

Read Less

John Burns

Say what you will about reporters in general or the New York Times in particular: John Burns breaks all the stereotypes. As the Times’ longtime Baghdad bureau chief, he has been a fearless and honest chronicler of the war. He has presented plenty of evidence of disasters, but he isn’t afraid to highlight successes when they occur, and to warn of the dangers of American disengagement.
Read More

Say what you will about reporters in general or the New York Times in particular: John Burns breaks all the stereotypes. As the Times’ longtime Baghdad bureau chief, he has been a fearless and honest chronicler of the war. He has presented plenty of evidence of disasters, but he isn’t afraid to highlight successes when they occur, and to warn of the dangers of American disengagement.

You can read a transcript of his fascinating interview with Hugh Hewitt here. Some highlights: asked if the surge is working, Burns replies

I think there’s no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. They’re definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, that’s to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.

He goes on to warn that this has not so far led to political reconciliation:

I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been.

While this might be music to antiwar ears, Burns deflates one of the chief arguments made by Democrats who contend that their demands to pull U.S. troops out are putting pressure on the Iraqi politicians to compromise. Au contraire, Burns points out:

[T]he more that the Democrats in the Congress lead the push for an early withdrawal, the more Iraqi political leaders, particularly the Shiite political leaders, but the Sunnis as well, and the Kurds, are inclined to think that this is going to be settled, eventually, in an outright civil war, in consequence of which they are very, very unlikely or reluctant, at present, to make major concessions. They’re much more inclined to kind of hunker down. So in effect, the threats from Washington about a withdrawal, which we might have hoped would have brought about greater political cooperation in face of the threat that would ensue from that to the entire political establishment here, has had, as best we can gauge it, much more the opposite effect. It has had an effect of persuading people well, if the Americans are going, there’s absolutely no…and we’re going to have to settle this by a civil war, why should we make concessions on that matter right now?

He then goes on to warn about the consequences of an American drawdown:

[A]n accelerated early withdrawal, something which reduced American troops—even if they were placed in large bases out in the desert—to, say, something like 60-80,000 over a period of six to nine months, and in effect, leaving the fighting in the cities and the approaches to the cities to the Iraqis, I think the result of that would, in effect, be a rapid, a rapid progress towards an all-out civil war. And the people who are urging that kind of a drawdown, I think, have to take that into account.

There is much more of interest in the interview; you should read the whole thing. And while you’re at it, take a look at this Washington Post story. The lead sums it up nicely: “House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Monday that a strongly positive report on progress on Iraq by Army Gen. David Petraeus likely would split Democrats in the House and impede his party’s efforts to press for a timetable to end the war.”

Given the positive assessments coming from such dispassionate analysts as John Burns and the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, the chances of just such a positive report from Petraeus seem to be growing—and hence leftist activists’ hopes of abandoning Iraq seem to be fading. At least for the time being.

Read Less

More News from Ramadi

You don’t hear much about Anbar Province anymore. That’s because this area, once the scene of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, has turned remarkably quiet of late. Attacks are down 80 percent since last year. If there is any cause for optimism in Iraq this is it: If an area as troubled as Anbar could be turned around so quickly, then no part of Iraq can truly be said to be hopeless. Yet much hard work remains to be done to consolidate the gains that have recently been made. I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, whom I visited in April, to provide an update for contentions readers on what is happening in the provincial capital, Ramadi. His emailed response follows:

Read More

You don’t hear much about Anbar Province anymore. That’s because this area, once the scene of the heaviest fighting in Iraq, has turned remarkably quiet of late. Attacks are down 80 percent since last year. If there is any cause for optimism in Iraq this is it: If an area as troubled as Anbar could be turned around so quickly, then no part of Iraq can truly be said to be hopeless. Yet much hard work remains to be done to consolidate the gains that have recently been made. I asked Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, whom I visited in April, to provide an update for contentions readers on what is happening in the provincial capital, Ramadi. His emailed response follows:

Max,

As requested, progress report from Ramadi:

Security here in Ramadi continues to improve as the Iraqi police and army forces work daily to keep the population safe. When we arrived in February, we were averaging 30 – 35 attacks per day in our area of responsibility. Now our average is one attack per day or less. We had an entire week with no attacks in our area and have a total of over 65 days with no attacks. I attribute this success to our close relationship with the Iraqi security forces and the support those forces receive from the civilian population. The Iraqi police and army forces have uncovered hundreds of munitions caches and get intelligence tips from the local population every day.

Our biggest challenge with the Iraqi police is getting them fully equipped, paid, and consolidated in police stations. The support system that begins with the MOI [Ministry of the Interior], and extends through the provincial police chief, is still a work in progress. As a result, the Iraqi police still rely heavily on coalition logistics and support. We expect the equipment issue to improve soon, and we are working hard to get their logistics and command and control systems in place. One thing that is not lacking is the courage and the dedication of the Iraqi police in al Anbar. For them, this fight is personal. They know that al Qaeda is targeting them, their families and their tribes.

Some of our most recent successes have been in the areas of reconstruction and governance. The city government didn’t exist before April of this year, but has grown steadily over the past few months, and is now providing essential services to the population. In areas that were battlefields only a few months ago, city electrical employees are now repairing transformers and power lines. Sanitation workers are fixing sewer leaks caused by hundreds of buried IED’s [improvised explosive devices]. The Iraqis now have repaired the electrical grid in about 80 percent of the city and about 50 percent of the rubble has been removed. We expect to have all rubble removed in the next 90 – 120 days, which will allow for many parts of the city to start rebuilding.

We now have our Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (EPRT) and they are working hard to help build the municipal government in Ramadi. The EPRT is composed of personnel from the U.S. State Department, USAID, and other experts in various areas of government. We have partnered the EPRT with officials from the municipal government in much the same way that we partner Soldiers and Marines with Iraqi police. The EPRT works every day with the city government helping them with budgeting, planning, and delivering services to the public. The EPRT is a critical capability that we never had before, and I’m confident that it is going to make a big difference in building stability here in Ramadi.

We have been working closely with the chief judge of the province to rebuild the judicial system in Ramadi and throughout al Anbar province. Four months ago, there were no attorneys, judges, or investigators because of the threat from al Qaeda. Now that we have greatly increased security, these legal professionals are coming forward, and we are helping them reestablish the rule of law. Investigative judges are reviewing case files for prisoners in Iraqi jails. They have released many of these prisoners because of lack of evidence, but have also prepared over 100 files for prosecution. We established a detectives course in our police training center to help the Iraqi police do better investigations and evidence collection. We expect to have criminal courts beginning here in Ramadi in August—pretty good progress considering there was no rule of law here four months ago.

We are also making good progress on economic development by focusing on low-level economic stimulation. Once we had completed our large-scale offensive operations in February and March, we realized we needed to provide a massive and quick economic stimulus in order to stabilize the communities within the city. Because of the fighting in the city, the economy was in ruins, and it was clear that it would take some time to get businesses back in operation. We started day labor programs throughout the city to help clear trash and rubble, as well as provide an economic shot-in-the-arm to these devastated communities. These day-labor programs were all planned and executed by company commanders, and their effect was dramatic. We have funneled over $5 million in aid to these programs and have employed over 15,000 Iraqis. All this happened in about three months. This decentralized economic development program only used about 10 percent of my reconstruction funds, but has accounted for over 70 percent of new employment in Ramadi. These programs have cleaned neighborhoods, uncovered caches of munitions, and have restored hope and pride to the citizens of Ramadi.

We have joined efforts with organizations like the Iraqi/American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) to help revitalize small business in Ramadi. Company commanders went through every neighborhood and conducted assessments on all small businesses so we could help jump-start the small business grant program. We collected over 500 assessments, which helped the IACC begin its grant operations. This is the same technique we use with all non-military organizations—we use our presence in the city and access to the population to facilitate their operations. Revitalizing small businesses in Ramadi will lead to more stable communities, which helps us maintain overall security in the area.

We have a great relationship with another non-governmental organization called International Relief and Development (IRD). IRD focuses on programs for community stabilization just like we do, and it provides help in ways the military can’t. For example, IRD helped us fund a city-wide soccer league, providing equipment and uniforms to hundreds of young Iraqis. The organization has also helped us form women’s outreach groups that focus on adult literacy, health, and education issues. Forming relationships with NGOs like IRD is essential in a counterinsurgency campaign, and complements our efforts to improve security.

I’ve mentioned several times our focus on stabilizing communities, and I believe this is a fundamental aspect of a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Counterinsurgencies are fought neighborhood by neighborhood with the focus on protecting the population and improving conditions in the community. After clearing an area of terrorists (we do this by conducting large-scale offensive operations), our focus shifts to establishing a permanent security presence with coalition forces and ISF. That is the purpose of the Joint Security Station (JSS). The JSS helps secure and stabilize a community by proving an overt security presence, which establishes a perception of security in the minds of the population. Once they feel safe, they begin to provide intelligence to the police, and security improves steadily. This also helps insulate the community from terrorist attempts to move back into the neighborhood. We then shift our focus on non-lethal efforts to stabilize the community. This is done through day-labor programs, small business development, engagement with local sheikhs and Imams and information operations focused on the community.

Despite all the progress we have made with the Iraqis here in Ramadi, the area remains very dangerous. We recently received intelligence reports that terrorists were attempting to stage attacks from an area south of the city. We increased our offensive operations in that area and made contact with a large group of al Qaeda terrorists that were attempting to infiltrate into Ramadi. There were about 50 well-equipped and well-trained terrorists who were moving toward the city in two large trucks. They all had new equipment, weapons, and explosive belts. Their targets were the tribal leaders in Ramadi (we know this from propaganda videos taken off the terrorists). We attacked these terrorists using ground forces and attack helicopters, resulting in 40 enemy killed and three captured. If this force had made it into the city, it would have been a tremendous victory for al Qaeda. We successfully defeated their attack, but we know they will try again in the future. We continue to receive truck bomb attacks, but have been successful in keeping them out of the city and other populated areas. Al Qaeda has not given up on their desire to retake Ramadi and al Anbar, so we can’t let up in our efforts to stop them. The good news is that the people of al Anbar and Ramadi are united in their stand against al Qaeda.

Rock of the Marne!
John W. Charlton
COL, Infantry Commanding Camp
Ar Ramadi, Iraq

Read Less

Dubious Benchmarks

Back in May when Congress reluctantly passed a supplemental appropriation to fund American operations in Iraq one of the conditions attached to the bill was that the administration had to come back by July 15 with a report on whether the government of Iraq was making “satisfactory” progress on a list of 18 benchmarks. (Another report card is due in September.) The result was the much-ballyhooed Initial Benchmark Assessment Report released by the White House yesterday.

This led to predictable headlines about “mixed results” in Iraq, with some publications even counting up the number of “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” grades given to the Iraqis. (The total, in case you’re wondering: eight satisfactories, eight unsatisfactories, two mixed.)

Read More

Back in May when Congress reluctantly passed a supplemental appropriation to fund American operations in Iraq one of the conditions attached to the bill was that the administration had to come back by July 15 with a report on whether the government of Iraq was making “satisfactory” progress on a list of 18 benchmarks. (Another report card is due in September.) The result was the much-ballyhooed Initial Benchmark Assessment Report released by the White House yesterday.

This led to predictable headlines about “mixed results” in Iraq, with some publications even counting up the number of “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” grades given to the Iraqis. (The total, in case you’re wondering: eight satisfactories, eight unsatisfactories, two mixed.)

After reading the report, I can only conclude that the “unsatisfactory” grade must go to Congress for burdening the executive branch with meaningless paperwork. Many of the “benchmarks” measure such areas as “forming a constitutional review committee and then completing the constitutional review”; “enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions”; and “enacting and implementing legislation establishing a strong militia disarmament program.” And as the report notes:

Some of the benchmarks may be leading indicators, giving some sense of future trends; but many are more accurately characterized as lagging indicators, and will only be achieved after the strategy is fully underway and generates improved conditions on the ground.

What the Congress should have been asking is: Are American and Iraqi troops making progress in pacifying violent regions of Iraq? The answer, as the report notes, is a cautious yes. It notes a “decrease in May and June” in car bombs; “an overall decrease in sectarian violence” in Baghdad; and that “attack levels have reached a 2-year low” in Anbar Province. (For further indications of recent progress see my recent post on the subject.) Only if this progress continues will we be likely to see the kind of political reconciliation demanded in the congressional benchmarks.

But even without much evidence of a national coming-together, we are seeing some surprising grassroots political progress in provinces like Anbar and Diyala, where the tribes are deserting Al Qaeda and joining with American and Iraqi government forces. “[O]ur strategy,” the report notes, “envisions ‘bottom-up’ reconciliation to be as important, if not more important, than top-down reconciliation.” But that kind of “bottom up reconciliation” was not envisioned in the past and hence does not constitute one of the “benchmarks” demanded by Congress.

By the way, I haven’t seen any publications comment on what is the most newsy part of the report. To wit:

Expansion of the PRT [provincial reconstruction team] program is not yet complete, with only about half of the approximately 300 additional PRT personnel deployed to date. The full complement of ‘civilian surge’ personnel will be completed by December 2007.

This is a shameful admission that, four years into the war, the civilian side of government still is not carrying its fair share of the burden. The armed forces in the past few months have ponied up 30,000 more troops for Iraq, many on second or third deployments. The State Department (which oversees the PRT’s) can’t even pony up an additional 300 personnel.

Read Less