Commentary Magazine


Topic: Maliki

One Way to Leave Afghanistan Faster Is to Promise to Stay Forever

I don’t get to say this very often so I am happy to offer kudos to Joe Biden on what seems to have been a successful visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He delivered a clear message that the U.S. has a long-term commitment to the region that will extend beyond 2014, thus helping to undo some of the damage from his own gaffe when he claimed that we would be out of Afghanistan at that time “come hell or high water.”

Now he and his boss, the president, need to take the next step: they should negotiate a long-term agreement with President Karzai to cement a permanent American-Afghan alliance. That would help to further assure Karzai and other Afghan leaders that we will not abandon them, thus increasing their incentive to take the sort of hard steps we are asking for in the fight against corruption and other ills that plague Afghanistan.

Interestingly, while Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq is deeply reluctant to enter into any kind of long-term agreement with the U.S. that would keep U.S. troops on his soil indefinitely, President Karzai is said to be much more open to such an arrangement. He knows, after all, that he doesn’t have oil riches to support his country; Afghanistan will be much more dependent on the U.S. than Iraq will be. Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested that the U.S. establish permanent air bases in Afghanistan. The administration should follow up on his suggestion and open negotiations with Karzai. If it does, it may well be discovered that nothing will speed the end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan faster than expressing our willingness to say forever. That may sound paradoxical, but the more commitment we signal to enemies and waverers alike, the easier our troops will find it to drive out the Taliban.

I don’t get to say this very often so I am happy to offer kudos to Joe Biden on what seems to have been a successful visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He delivered a clear message that the U.S. has a long-term commitment to the region that will extend beyond 2014, thus helping to undo some of the damage from his own gaffe when he claimed that we would be out of Afghanistan at that time “come hell or high water.”

Now he and his boss, the president, need to take the next step: they should negotiate a long-term agreement with President Karzai to cement a permanent American-Afghan alliance. That would help to further assure Karzai and other Afghan leaders that we will not abandon them, thus increasing their incentive to take the sort of hard steps we are asking for in the fight against corruption and other ills that plague Afghanistan.

Interestingly, while Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq is deeply reluctant to enter into any kind of long-term agreement with the U.S. that would keep U.S. troops on his soil indefinitely, President Karzai is said to be much more open to such an arrangement. He knows, after all, that he doesn’t have oil riches to support his country; Afghanistan will be much more dependent on the U.S. than Iraq will be. Senator Lindsey Graham has suggested that the U.S. establish permanent air bases in Afghanistan. The administration should follow up on his suggestion and open negotiations with Karzai. If it does, it may well be discovered that nothing will speed the end of America’s combat mission in Afghanistan faster than expressing our willingness to say forever. That may sound paradoxical, but the more commitment we signal to enemies and waverers alike, the easier our troops will find it to drive out the Taliban.

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Iraq: Before and After Saddam

The New York Times has a story about Iraq’s parliament’s approving a new government yesterday. With all major political parties and ethnic groups participating for the first time in an Iraqi government, the 325-member parliament approved each of the 34 ministers proposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

There’s no question that the new government is fragile and that the delay in forming a government was frustrating. And the challenges facing Iraq are considerable. “A nation with virtually no democratic track record and a history of sectarian warfare must figure a way to move forward with a government that comprises four major blocs — two Shiite, one Sunni-backed and multi-sectarian, and one Kurdish — each with a different agenda,” according to the Times. But it also points out that against predictions and despite a number of coordinated, deadly attacks that rattled the country, Iraq did not experience an overall rise in violence during the impasse. President Obama called the vote in parliament a “significant moment in Iraq’s history” and “a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division.”

Within the story is a quote from Prime Minister Maliki that caught my attention. He told lawmakers he was “very content” — even if he knew that they were not.

“I do not need anybody to sugarcoat me,” Maliki said. “I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me.”

Such words were unimaginable in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In 2002, for example, Iraqi officials said the Iraqi president won 100 percent backing in a referendum on whether he should rule for another seven years. There were 11,445,638 eligible voters — and every one of them voted for Saddam. (It’s worth pointing out that Saddam’s performance in 2002 was an improvement on the previous such vote, which gave the Iraqi leader only 99.96 percent support.)

Prime Minister Maliki is no saint and far from a perfect leader, and some people worry that he has authoritarian tendencies or even dictatorial aspirations. But I trust the judgment of Ryan C. Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and came to know and respect Maliki. “Maliki’s vision is that the prime minister has to grab every shred of power, or centrifugal forces will kick in and Iraq will become unglued,” said Crocker. “He will try to accrue as much power as he can. But I think Maliki is light years away from being a truly authoritarian or dictatorial figure.”

Iraq unquestionably has a long way to go, and the road to the formation of the new government has been a difficult one. But a fragile democracy is a moral universe away from a totalitarian dictatorship. Read More

The New York Times has a story about Iraq’s parliament’s approving a new government yesterday. With all major political parties and ethnic groups participating for the first time in an Iraqi government, the 325-member parliament approved each of the 34 ministers proposed by Prime Minister Maliki.

There’s no question that the new government is fragile and that the delay in forming a government was frustrating. And the challenges facing Iraq are considerable. “A nation with virtually no democratic track record and a history of sectarian warfare must figure a way to move forward with a government that comprises four major blocs — two Shiite, one Sunni-backed and multi-sectarian, and one Kurdish — each with a different agenda,” according to the Times. But it also points out that against predictions and despite a number of coordinated, deadly attacks that rattled the country, Iraq did not experience an overall rise in violence during the impasse. President Obama called the vote in parliament a “significant moment in Iraq’s history” and “a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division.”

Within the story is a quote from Prime Minister Maliki that caught my attention. He told lawmakers he was “very content” — even if he knew that they were not.

“I do not need anybody to sugarcoat me,” Maliki said. “I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me.”

Such words were unimaginable in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In 2002, for example, Iraqi officials said the Iraqi president won 100 percent backing in a referendum on whether he should rule for another seven years. There were 11,445,638 eligible voters — and every one of them voted for Saddam. (It’s worth pointing out that Saddam’s performance in 2002 was an improvement on the previous such vote, which gave the Iraqi leader only 99.96 percent support.)

Prime Minister Maliki is no saint and far from a perfect leader, and some people worry that he has authoritarian tendencies or even dictatorial aspirations. But I trust the judgment of Ryan C. Crocker, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009 and came to know and respect Maliki. “Maliki’s vision is that the prime minister has to grab every shred of power, or centrifugal forces will kick in and Iraq will become unglued,” said Crocker. “He will try to accrue as much power as he can. But I think Maliki is light years away from being a truly authoritarian or dictatorial figure.”

Iraq unquestionably has a long way to go, and the road to the formation of the new government has been a difficult one. But a fragile democracy is a moral universe away from a totalitarian dictatorship.

With Iraq’s governing achievement in mind, it’s perhaps worth recalling the words of the late Michael Kelly, one of the greatest journalists and columnists of his generation. Mike, who covered the first Gulf war, had been deeply affected by what Iraq under Saddam Hussein had done to the people of Kuwait. He told about the innocent civilians who had been killed, ritualistically humiliated, robbed, beaten, raped, and tortured by Saddam’s forces. “Shattered people were everywhere,” he said. “I watched one torture victim, a big, strong man, being interviewed in the place of his torture by a BBC television crew — weeping and weeping, but absolutely silent, as he told the story.”

Kelly — who died in 2003 while on assignment in Iraq — went on to write this:

Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.

I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti, or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?

Thanks to the sacrifices and beneficence of America, Iraq is now free from the boot. That may not be everything, but it is quite a lot.

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Karzai’s Words, and His Actions

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

Hamid Karzai has caused considerable consternation with his weekend interview with the Washington Post. He told Post editors and reporters: “The time has come to reduce military operations. The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life…. It’s not desirable for the Afghan people either to have 100,000 or more foreign troops going around the country endlessly.” He also criticized “night raids”–Special Operations raids that occur at night–as he has in the past.

The Post reports that General Petraeus expressed “astonishment and disappointment” as his remarks which seem to fly in the face of NATO’s strategy. Today Karzai’s spokesman was rapidly backtracking, stressing that Karzai’s comments about the desirability of a troop pullout were “conditioned on the ability of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility.” The spokesman made clear that Karzai supports NATO’s goal to begin withdrawing in 2014.

This kerfuffle reminds me of many similar statements made over the years by Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq. As I noted in this 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Maliki, too, has had a history of calling for U.S. troop withdrawals:

In May 2006, shortly after becoming prime minister, he claimed, “Our forces are capable of taking over the security in all Iraqi provinces within a year and a half.”

In October 2006, when violence was spinning out of control, Maliki declared that it would be “only a matter of months” before his security forces could “take over the security portfolio entirely and keep some multinational forces only in a supporting role.”

President Bush wisely ignored Maliki. Instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, he sent more. The prime minister wasn’t happy. On Dec. 15, 2006, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn’t want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials.” When the surge went ahead anyway, Maliki gave it an endorsement described in news accounts as “lukewarm.”

I suggested in the op-ed that it was wise to judge Maliki by what he did, not what he said. For all of his public doubts about the U.S. troop presence he generally supported American actions behind-the-scenes–although often only after considerable arm-twisting from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Karzai, too, should be judged by his actions, rather than by his occasional expressions of public frustration with the coalition. He has not done anything as dramatic as Maliki, who ordered his security forces to clear Basra and Sadr City of the Sadrist militia, but he has taken some positive steps such as agreeing to the setting up of the Afghan Local Police program to augment the Afghan security forces.

Moreover, some of his criticisms of international forces are on the mark–the U.S. and its allies have done much to fuel corruption in Afghanistan, as he complains, and their employment of local security forces has often been a contributor to instability. Yet at the end of the day Afghanistan would be far more insecure without an America troop presence, and that is something I suspect Karzai, for all his misguided public statements, actually realizes.

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How To Undo Success

If Iraq falls apart it will result from political unraveling, not car bombs. The latter makes for lurid American headlines, but will not draw a post-traumatic population into another civil war. The country’s ability to absorb attacks and resume the business of statehood is a thoroughly ignored dimension of all the car-bomb stories. As a people, Iraqis have shed the local malady of tribal revenge. It has been replaced, at least in some instances, by a taste for consensual governance. But Iraqi leaders are only first exploring the regional malady of outsized power politics.

After seven months of parliamentary stalemate in the wake of a close election, there is a dismaying report from Baghdad about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki:

Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, and another Shiite party with ties to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr shut out a third, the Iraqi National Alliance, and its contender, Adel Abdelmehdi, in negotiations within the Shiite bloc, alliance officials said Friday. State of Law, the Sadrists and their allies command 148 seats in Parliament and need another 15 to win a majority and establish a new government. That support is expected to come from the Kurds.

This represents a potential ruling alliance of strong-arm statists and radical Islamists. To get the full measure of how depressing that is, recall that one of the best strategic justifications for the initial invasion of Iraq was to head-off this very same toxic fraternization. There is always the chance that this story is being blown out of proportion in an otherwise static political landscape. But if not, it could mean much greater Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.

Let us not tragically lose sight of the following: This is not even close to the inevitable outcome of Iraqi elections. In the March election, the moderate Iraqiya alliance enjoyed a modest victory. What followed was parliamentary horse-trading Middle East style. Now the moderates are being sidelined.

Washington is far from blameless. In Barack Obama’s eagerness to “responsibly” hand over full sovereignty to Iraq and close the curtain on the Bush years, he has very nearly abandoned the fledgling Mesopotamian democracy to the depredations of regional thugs and radicals. Surely, the Kurds, upon whom the solidification of the next Iraqi government may rest, would be less inclined to submit to extremists out of self preservation if they were reassured of America’s continued support. In no sane reckoning, should the U.S. be done with Iraq’s political future. Americans gave their lives to turn a murderous dictatorship into a struggling democracy. Many Iraqis also gave their lives in service of the same. We still have more leverage there than do any of Iraq’s neighbors; yet, the administration is loath to use it.

Where are the critics of the war who told us that mere elections do not ensure democracy? Is it not time they spoke up to demand closer American stewardship of Baghdad’s parliamentary progress and the Kurdish aspiration. Barack Obama himself said in 2006, freedoms “do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots.” Yet today, he is among the most simplistic, if ironic, defenders of the war’s achievements and also the most dismissive of the need for further democratic nurturance. Here, as on other fronts, the president courts disaster for the worst possible reason: blind political rigidity.

If Iraq falls apart it will result from political unraveling, not car bombs. The latter makes for lurid American headlines, but will not draw a post-traumatic population into another civil war. The country’s ability to absorb attacks and resume the business of statehood is a thoroughly ignored dimension of all the car-bomb stories. As a people, Iraqis have shed the local malady of tribal revenge. It has been replaced, at least in some instances, by a taste for consensual governance. But Iraqi leaders are only first exploring the regional malady of outsized power politics.

After seven months of parliamentary stalemate in the wake of a close election, there is a dismaying report from Baghdad about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki:

Mr. Maliki’s party, State of Law, and another Shiite party with ties to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr shut out a third, the Iraqi National Alliance, and its contender, Adel Abdelmehdi, in negotiations within the Shiite bloc, alliance officials said Friday. State of Law, the Sadrists and their allies command 148 seats in Parliament and need another 15 to win a majority and establish a new government. That support is expected to come from the Kurds.

This represents a potential ruling alliance of strong-arm statists and radical Islamists. To get the full measure of how depressing that is, recall that one of the best strategic justifications for the initial invasion of Iraq was to head-off this very same toxic fraternization. There is always the chance that this story is being blown out of proportion in an otherwise static political landscape. But if not, it could mean much greater Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.

Let us not tragically lose sight of the following: This is not even close to the inevitable outcome of Iraqi elections. In the March election, the moderate Iraqiya alliance enjoyed a modest victory. What followed was parliamentary horse-trading Middle East style. Now the moderates are being sidelined.

Washington is far from blameless. In Barack Obama’s eagerness to “responsibly” hand over full sovereignty to Iraq and close the curtain on the Bush years, he has very nearly abandoned the fledgling Mesopotamian democracy to the depredations of regional thugs and radicals. Surely, the Kurds, upon whom the solidification of the next Iraqi government may rest, would be less inclined to submit to extremists out of self preservation if they were reassured of America’s continued support. In no sane reckoning, should the U.S. be done with Iraq’s political future. Americans gave their lives to turn a murderous dictatorship into a struggling democracy. Many Iraqis also gave their lives in service of the same. We still have more leverage there than do any of Iraq’s neighbors; yet, the administration is loath to use it.

Where are the critics of the war who told us that mere elections do not ensure democracy? Is it not time they spoke up to demand closer American stewardship of Baghdad’s parliamentary progress and the Kurdish aspiration. Barack Obama himself said in 2006, freedoms “do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots.” Yet today, he is among the most simplistic, if ironic, defenders of the war’s achievements and also the most dismissive of the need for further democratic nurturance. Here, as on other fronts, the president courts disaster for the worst possible reason: blind political rigidity.

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Iraqi Elections — Good News

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

The Iraqi election looks, so far, to be generally good news. It went off without too much violence and it was managed by the Iraqis themselves with minimal American help. The preliminary results show that in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Coalition appears to have outpolled the unholy alliance of ISCI and the Sadrists — the Iraqi National Alliance, which is widely viewed as the party closest to Iran. Meanwhile former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, which appeals for Sunni and secular votes, appears to be in first place in Sunni areas and running a close second overall behind State of Law. If the results hold up, it would suggest that last year’s provincial elections were no fluke — Iraqi voters prefer nationalist candidates running on law-and-order platforms to religious candidates who are seen as too close to the Iranians. This is yet another big step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures — a real Arab democracy, something that President Bush’s myriad of critics long dismissed as a neocon fantasy.

But it is hard to know what lies ahead. Predictably, there are claims of fraud being bandied about by losing candidates and there is sure to be much difficult camel trading ahead as the new government is being formed. The situation remains unsettled, so it is well worth listening to Ryan Crocker, the first-rate former ambassador and General Petraeus’s indispensible partner in implementing the surge and turning around the situation in 2007-2008. Here is what he has to say in a new interview with Foreign Policy about the impending drawdown of U.S. forces, which are scheduled to go from roughly 100,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August:

The agreement I helped negotiate had an intermediate timeline to have forces out of cities and towns by mid-2009, which was accomplished, and full withdrawal by 2011. The August 2010 date was not part of that agreement. I would have preferred to see us keep maximum flexibility with the Iraqis between now and 2011.

It makes me nervous. We’re going to have a prolonged period of government formation. It could take two or three months, [and] it’s likely to be a pretty turbulent process. I think [the government formation process], in and of itself, is not likely to be destabilizing, but it means that the major issues out there aren’t going to be addressed. Things like disputed internal boundaries, Kirkuk, the relationship between federal, regional, and provincial governments — all of that’s going to be on hold until you have a new government.

That means that things aren’t going to be much further along come August than they are right now. So I would be more comfortable, within the terms of the agreement we negotiated, with keeping a more robust force for a longer period of time.

Sage words from one of our very best diplomats. We can only hope that President Obama is listening.

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Good News on Iraq Is Good News for Two Administrations

The best news I’ve read about Iraq in a while is that, as Jennifer points out, Joe Biden is claiming that “a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government … could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Some might dismiss this as chutzpah from someone who, like Barack Obama, opposed the surge needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. But, brazen or not, it’s great to see the Obama administration taking ownership of Iraq and realizing that simply pulling out all our troops can’t be the sole goal of our policy there. We have to make sure that the Iraq we leave behind is stable, secure, and preferably democratic.

Iraq has been making some good progress, though considerable challenges remain — as highlighted in this Times article about a standoff in Tikrit, where Prime Minister Maliki has ordered the army to surround the provincial government building in a dispute over the seating of a new provincial governor. The fact that American troops are on the scene means that the situation is unlikely to veer out of control. To adopt a hockey metaphor, U.S. troops are the refs who ensure that, while some hard-checking and some cheap shots occur, one team doesn’t start beating the other team with their sticks until they’re forced to flee the ice.

That kind of refereeing will be necessary for some time to come, which is why I hope that after a new government is seated in Baghdad following the parliamentary elections, the Obama administration will launch serious negotiations to prolong an American troop presence beyond 2011, the exit deadline negotiated by the Bush administration. U.S. troops, in all likelihood, won’t be needed for combat, and they probably won’t be needed in great numbers — but needed they will be to make sure that Iraq really does represent a “great achievement” of this administration and the one before it.

The best news I’ve read about Iraq in a while is that, as Jennifer points out, Joe Biden is claiming that “a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government … could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Some might dismiss this as chutzpah from someone who, like Barack Obama, opposed the surge needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. But, brazen or not, it’s great to see the Obama administration taking ownership of Iraq and realizing that simply pulling out all our troops can’t be the sole goal of our policy there. We have to make sure that the Iraq we leave behind is stable, secure, and preferably democratic.

Iraq has been making some good progress, though considerable challenges remain — as highlighted in this Times article about a standoff in Tikrit, where Prime Minister Maliki has ordered the army to surround the provincial government building in a dispute over the seating of a new provincial governor. The fact that American troops are on the scene means that the situation is unlikely to veer out of control. To adopt a hockey metaphor, U.S. troops are the refs who ensure that, while some hard-checking and some cheap shots occur, one team doesn’t start beating the other team with their sticks until they’re forced to flee the ice.

That kind of refereeing will be necessary for some time to come, which is why I hope that after a new government is seated in Baghdad following the parliamentary elections, the Obama administration will launch serious negotiations to prolong an American troop presence beyond 2011, the exit deadline negotiated by the Bush administration. U.S. troops, in all likelihood, won’t be needed for combat, and they probably won’t be needed in great numbers — but needed they will be to make sure that Iraq really does represent a “great achievement” of this administration and the one before it.

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Is Reconciliation “Soft”?

Conservative bloggers such as Bill Roggio, Andrew McCarthy, and our own Jennifer Rubin, are understandably irate over news that U.S. forces have released imprisoned terrorist leader Qais Qazali (also spelled Khazali) at the same time that his group, the Asaib al-Haq (AAH), has released British hostage Peter Moore. They see this as another sign of the Obama administration’s weakness in the face of terrorism. “No conceivable justification for this one” reads the headline over Jen’s blog item.

Whether this deal is justified or not remains to be seen, but I do think there is a reasonable justification for it and I don’t see this as evidence of Obama’s supineness in dealing with Iran. (There’s plenty of other evidence to make that case.) The fact is that under the U.S.-Iraq security accord brokered by the Bush administration, our forces’ legal right to hold detainees in Iraq has essentially expired. We have released most of our detainees. We are still holding a few hard-core terrorists at the sufferance of the Iraqi government but even that arrangement will not last long, with U.S. forces drawing down to 50,000 in September and to zero (or close to it) by the end of 2011. While U.S. forces have been moving into an “over-watch” role, Iraqis have stepped forward with a fair extent of success, notwithstanding some high-profile bombings in Baghdad. As General David Petraeus noted at a ceremony in Baghdad marking the inauguration of a new U.S. command, U.S. Forces-Iraq, “insurgent attacks have dropped from more than 200 a day two years ago to approximately 15 a day,” and no U.S. troops were killed in combat in December.

Part of this improvement is attributable to better security operations. But part is also due to a process of reconciliation that has been happening behind the scenes. We all know about the former Sunni insurgents who, as part of the Sons of Iraq, have joined the governmental side in fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq. They have received amnesty for attacks carried out when they were on the other side. (Some have subsequently been arrested on charges of breaking the law after joining the Sons of Iraq.)

Less well known is the fact that most Shiite insurgents have also laid down their arms, including most of the former Mahdist movement. Moqtada al-Sadr’s decline has led to the establishment of various breakaway factions, including the AAH, which is led by the Qazali brothers, supported by Iran’s Quds Force, and responsible for some gruesome attacks on U.S. forces in the past. The most notorious of them was a well-organized raid on the government center in Karbala in January 2007, which killed five American service members. In the spring of 2009, Laith Qazali was released from custody as part of a provisional arrangement whereby AAH agreed to stop mounting violent attacks. When I was in Iraq in October, I was told by American intelligence analysts that they believed AAH has largely stuck by its word. Hence the turnover of Qais to the Iraqis and his probable release.

All of these deals have been brokered by Prime Minister Maliki with the close oversight of General Ray Odierno, now the U.S. Forces-Iraq commander, and his boss, General Petraeus. They can hardly be accused of being “soft” on terrorism, yet they know that in the end warfare alone will not suffice to end an insurgency. There must be a process of political reconciliation, which involves accommodating even vile figures such as the Qazali brothers, who have American blood on their hands. It is the same realization reached by Lincoln, Churchill, and other great wartime commanders who understood that after the guns fell silent they would have to learn to live with former enemies.

Conservative bloggers such as Bill Roggio, Andrew McCarthy, and our own Jennifer Rubin, are understandably irate over news that U.S. forces have released imprisoned terrorist leader Qais Qazali (also spelled Khazali) at the same time that his group, the Asaib al-Haq (AAH), has released British hostage Peter Moore. They see this as another sign of the Obama administration’s weakness in the face of terrorism. “No conceivable justification for this one” reads the headline over Jen’s blog item.

Whether this deal is justified or not remains to be seen, but I do think there is a reasonable justification for it and I don’t see this as evidence of Obama’s supineness in dealing with Iran. (There’s plenty of other evidence to make that case.) The fact is that under the U.S.-Iraq security accord brokered by the Bush administration, our forces’ legal right to hold detainees in Iraq has essentially expired. We have released most of our detainees. We are still holding a few hard-core terrorists at the sufferance of the Iraqi government but even that arrangement will not last long, with U.S. forces drawing down to 50,000 in September and to zero (or close to it) by the end of 2011. While U.S. forces have been moving into an “over-watch” role, Iraqis have stepped forward with a fair extent of success, notwithstanding some high-profile bombings in Baghdad. As General David Petraeus noted at a ceremony in Baghdad marking the inauguration of a new U.S. command, U.S. Forces-Iraq, “insurgent attacks have dropped from more than 200 a day two years ago to approximately 15 a day,” and no U.S. troops were killed in combat in December.

Part of this improvement is attributable to better security operations. But part is also due to a process of reconciliation that has been happening behind the scenes. We all know about the former Sunni insurgents who, as part of the Sons of Iraq, have joined the governmental side in fighting against al-Qaeda in Iraq. They have received amnesty for attacks carried out when they were on the other side. (Some have subsequently been arrested on charges of breaking the law after joining the Sons of Iraq.)

Less well known is the fact that most Shiite insurgents have also laid down their arms, including most of the former Mahdist movement. Moqtada al-Sadr’s decline has led to the establishment of various breakaway factions, including the AAH, which is led by the Qazali brothers, supported by Iran’s Quds Force, and responsible for some gruesome attacks on U.S. forces in the past. The most notorious of them was a well-organized raid on the government center in Karbala in January 2007, which killed five American service members. In the spring of 2009, Laith Qazali was released from custody as part of a provisional arrangement whereby AAH agreed to stop mounting violent attacks. When I was in Iraq in October, I was told by American intelligence analysts that they believed AAH has largely stuck by its word. Hence the turnover of Qais to the Iraqis and his probable release.

All of these deals have been brokered by Prime Minister Maliki with the close oversight of General Ray Odierno, now the U.S. Forces-Iraq commander, and his boss, General Petraeus. They can hardly be accused of being “soft” on terrorism, yet they know that in the end warfare alone will not suffice to end an insurgency. There must be a process of political reconciliation, which involves accommodating even vile figures such as the Qazali brothers, who have American blood on their hands. It is the same realization reached by Lincoln, Churchill, and other great wartime commanders who understood that after the guns fell silent they would have to learn to live with former enemies.

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Not Done With The Mahdi Army

There is a strange quality to the repeated “ceasefires” between the Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr. Bill Roggio reports that Iraqi and Coalition forces are currently engaged in anti-Sadrist operations in the eastern town of Abu Al Khasib, along the Iranian border. And they’re doing very well. The following is particularly interesting:

Abu Al Khasib is on Highway 6 at the border crossing with Iran at Shalamcheh. The Iranian city of Shalamcheh is the main forward operating base for the Ramazan Corps’s southernmost command. The Ramazan Corps is the Qods Force command assigned to direct operations inside Iraq. Weapons, fighters, and cash smuggled across the border into Basrah would pass through Abu Al Khasib.

The Iraqi Army has been expanding its operations along the Iranian supply routes in the South during the month of May. After clearing the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed militias from Basrah, operations have expanded into Az Zubayr and Al Qurnah.

Iraqi troops from the 1st Iraqi Army Division entered Az Zubayr on May 25. Az Zubayr, which is just southeast of Basrah, sits at the crossroads to Nasariyah, a tactical distribution hub for Iranian weapons. Mahdi Army Special groups would pass through Az Zubayr as they moved weapons from Iran to Basrah to Nasariyah. Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured a Special Groups financier and weapons smuggler in Az Zubayr on May 21.

Prime Minister Maliki is going after the Iranian support system, which puts a crimp in theories about the Iraqi government’s affection for Ahmadinejad.

Roggio also reports that Iraqi forces are continuing to clamp down on Sadrists in Baghdad, where eleven Mahdi Army members have been rounded up in the last 24 hours. It has become clear that the Iraqi Army, once laughed off as perpetually weak and green, is now involved in decisions and operations too fast-paced and complex for the mainstream media to follow. The New York Times coverage of Basra and Sadr City was so misleading, I find it barely pays to turn to any but experts such as Roggio on these matters.

There is a strange quality to the repeated “ceasefires” between the Iraqi government and Moqtada al-Sadr. Bill Roggio reports that Iraqi and Coalition forces are currently engaged in anti-Sadrist operations in the eastern town of Abu Al Khasib, along the Iranian border. And they’re doing very well. The following is particularly interesting:

Abu Al Khasib is on Highway 6 at the border crossing with Iran at Shalamcheh. The Iranian city of Shalamcheh is the main forward operating base for the Ramazan Corps’s southernmost command. The Ramazan Corps is the Qods Force command assigned to direct operations inside Iraq. Weapons, fighters, and cash smuggled across the border into Basrah would pass through Abu Al Khasib.

The Iraqi Army has been expanding its operations along the Iranian supply routes in the South during the month of May. After clearing the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed militias from Basrah, operations have expanded into Az Zubayr and Al Qurnah.

Iraqi troops from the 1st Iraqi Army Division entered Az Zubayr on May 25. Az Zubayr, which is just southeast of Basrah, sits at the crossroads to Nasariyah, a tactical distribution hub for Iranian weapons. Mahdi Army Special groups would pass through Az Zubayr as they moved weapons from Iran to Basrah to Nasariyah. Iraqi Special Operations Forces captured a Special Groups financier and weapons smuggler in Az Zubayr on May 21.

Prime Minister Maliki is going after the Iranian support system, which puts a crimp in theories about the Iraqi government’s affection for Ahmadinejad.

Roggio also reports that Iraqi forces are continuing to clamp down on Sadrists in Baghdad, where eleven Mahdi Army members have been rounded up in the last 24 hours. It has become clear that the Iraqi Army, once laughed off as perpetually weak and green, is now involved in decisions and operations too fast-paced and complex for the mainstream media to follow. The New York Times coverage of Basra and Sadr City was so misleading, I find it barely pays to turn to any but experts such as Roggio on these matters.

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Al Qaeda Weakening . . .

In a story from the Associated Press we read this:

The Al Qaeda terror group in Iraq appears to be at its weakest state since it gained an initial foothold in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion five years ago, the acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday in an Associated Press interview. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who assumed interim command of U.S. Central Command on March 28, acknowledged that Al Qaeda remains a relentless foe and has not disappeared as a serious threat to stability. But he said an accelerated U.S. and Iraq campaign to pressure Al Qaeda has paid big dividends. “Our forces and the Iraqi forces have certainly disrupted Al Qaeda, probably to a level that we haven’t seen at any time in my experience,” said Dempsey, who served in Iraq in the initial stages as a division commander and later as head of the military organization in charge of training Iraqi security forces.

And this:

Earlier Wednesday, the Army general who oversees U.S. commando operations in the Middle East said that Al Qaeda in Iraq has yet to be vanquished but is increasingly running out of places where local Iraqis will accommodate the group’s extremist ideology. “Is he still a lethal and dangerous threat to us? Absolutely,” Maj. Gen. John Mulholland said in an interview with reporters at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command, the organization with global responsibility for providing Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos to combat terrorism. . . . Mulholland acknowledged that Al Qaeda, which U.S. intelligence says is led by foreign terrorists but is populated mainly by local Iraqis seeking to establish a radical Islamic state, still poses a major challenge in the Mosul area of northern Iraq and has occasionally slipped back into areas like Anbar province in western Iraq. “Do we think he can at least try to regain a foothold in Anbar province? Yes, we do think he’s trying to do that,” Mulholland said. While U.S. officials do not believe Al Qaeda is succeeding in re-establishing a significant presence in Anbar – which the group was forced to abandon a year ago as local Sunni Arabs turned violently against it – it does appear that small Al Qaeda cells can still slip into isolated areas and make trouble, he said. “I don’t want to paint a picture – or to convey to you in any way – that Al Qaeda in Iraq is being completely destroyed or rendered irrelevant, because that’s not the case,” he said. “They are still potentially a threat capable of death and destruction against the Iraqi people and our own forces there. But it is not something he can do easily any more.”

This news should be seen within the context of Max’s post earlier today in which he points out that the number of daily attacks in Mosul has dropped at least 85 percent since U.S.-Iraqi forces began an offensive against Sunni insurgents in the city earlier this month. And that news, in turn, follows on progress we’ve witnessed in the last few days in both Basra and Sadr City. And earlier today at his confirmation hearing to take over the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus said this:

I should note here that the number of security incidents in Iraq last week was the lowest in over four years and it appears that the week that ends tomorrow will see an even lower number of incidents. This has been achieved despite having now withdrawn 3 of the 5 Brigade Combat Teams that will have redeployed without replacement by the end of July. Recent operations in Basra, Mosul, and now Sadr City have contributed significantly to the reduction in violence, and Prime Minister Maliki, his government, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi people deserve considerable credit for the positive developments since Ambassador Crocker and I testified a month-and-a-half ago. In the months ahead, Coalition Forces will continue to work closely with the Iraqi Security Forces in pursuing Al Qaeda-Iraq, their extremist partners, and militia elements that threaten security in Iraq. And though, as always, tough fights and hard work lie ahead, I believe that the path that we are on will best help achieve the objective of an Iraq that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, that is an ally in the war on terror, that has a government that serves all Iraqis, and that is an increasingly prosperous and important member of the global economy and community of nations. [emphasis added]

What are we to make of all this? For one thing, there is no question that on almost every front–including the political and economic front–we’re seeing heartening progress in Iraq. It’s virtually impossible to argue that after far too many years of pursuing a flawed strategy, which came at an enormous cost to both the Iraqi people and the United States, we now have in place the right strategy being executed by the right people. Progress that was unimaginable in Iraq fifteen months ago has been made–and a nation that was bleeding and dying is now binding up its wounds.

General Petraeus’s warning that tough fights and hard work lie ahead cannot be repeated often enough. Military victories in Iraq, as difficult as they have been, are still easier to attain than rebuilding a traumatized and broken society. But we really have no other choice. Given the hopeful developments we have seen since the surge began, to leave now, before our job is complete, would be reckless and shameful and probably catastrophic.

In the latter half of 2006 it was legitimate for war critics to argue that Iraq was irredeemable lost and therefore we should cut our losses and leave. But that case can no longer be made. The debate has shifted from what the right strategy is to one of national will. Will our nation, weary of this long and costly war, continue along the path which has brought about indisputable, and in some cases breathtaking, progress? If we do, there will be honor in our efforts–and, it’s now reasonable to say, success as well.

In a story from the Associated Press we read this:

The Al Qaeda terror group in Iraq appears to be at its weakest state since it gained an initial foothold in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion five years ago, the acting commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East said Wednesday in an Associated Press interview. Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who assumed interim command of U.S. Central Command on March 28, acknowledged that Al Qaeda remains a relentless foe and has not disappeared as a serious threat to stability. But he said an accelerated U.S. and Iraq campaign to pressure Al Qaeda has paid big dividends. “Our forces and the Iraqi forces have certainly disrupted Al Qaeda, probably to a level that we haven’t seen at any time in my experience,” said Dempsey, who served in Iraq in the initial stages as a division commander and later as head of the military organization in charge of training Iraqi security forces.

And this:

Earlier Wednesday, the Army general who oversees U.S. commando operations in the Middle East said that Al Qaeda in Iraq has yet to be vanquished but is increasingly running out of places where local Iraqis will accommodate the group’s extremist ideology. “Is he still a lethal and dangerous threat to us? Absolutely,” Maj. Gen. John Mulholland said in an interview with reporters at the headquarters of U.S. Special Operations Command, the organization with global responsibility for providing Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos to combat terrorism. . . . Mulholland acknowledged that Al Qaeda, which U.S. intelligence says is led by foreign terrorists but is populated mainly by local Iraqis seeking to establish a radical Islamic state, still poses a major challenge in the Mosul area of northern Iraq and has occasionally slipped back into areas like Anbar province in western Iraq. “Do we think he can at least try to regain a foothold in Anbar province? Yes, we do think he’s trying to do that,” Mulholland said. While U.S. officials do not believe Al Qaeda is succeeding in re-establishing a significant presence in Anbar – which the group was forced to abandon a year ago as local Sunni Arabs turned violently against it – it does appear that small Al Qaeda cells can still slip into isolated areas and make trouble, he said. “I don’t want to paint a picture – or to convey to you in any way – that Al Qaeda in Iraq is being completely destroyed or rendered irrelevant, because that’s not the case,” he said. “They are still potentially a threat capable of death and destruction against the Iraqi people and our own forces there. But it is not something he can do easily any more.”

This news should be seen within the context of Max’s post earlier today in which he points out that the number of daily attacks in Mosul has dropped at least 85 percent since U.S.-Iraqi forces began an offensive against Sunni insurgents in the city earlier this month. And that news, in turn, follows on progress we’ve witnessed in the last few days in both Basra and Sadr City. And earlier today at his confirmation hearing to take over the U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus said this:

I should note here that the number of security incidents in Iraq last week was the lowest in over four years and it appears that the week that ends tomorrow will see an even lower number of incidents. This has been achieved despite having now withdrawn 3 of the 5 Brigade Combat Teams that will have redeployed without replacement by the end of July. Recent operations in Basra, Mosul, and now Sadr City have contributed significantly to the reduction in violence, and Prime Minister Maliki, his government, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Iraqi people deserve considerable credit for the positive developments since Ambassador Crocker and I testified a month-and-a-half ago. In the months ahead, Coalition Forces will continue to work closely with the Iraqi Security Forces in pursuing Al Qaeda-Iraq, their extremist partners, and militia elements that threaten security in Iraq. And though, as always, tough fights and hard work lie ahead, I believe that the path that we are on will best help achieve the objective of an Iraq that is at peace with itself and its neighbors, that is an ally in the war on terror, that has a government that serves all Iraqis, and that is an increasingly prosperous and important member of the global economy and community of nations. [emphasis added]

What are we to make of all this? For one thing, there is no question that on almost every front–including the political and economic front–we’re seeing heartening progress in Iraq. It’s virtually impossible to argue that after far too many years of pursuing a flawed strategy, which came at an enormous cost to both the Iraqi people and the United States, we now have in place the right strategy being executed by the right people. Progress that was unimaginable in Iraq fifteen months ago has been made–and a nation that was bleeding and dying is now binding up its wounds.

General Petraeus’s warning that tough fights and hard work lie ahead cannot be repeated often enough. Military victories in Iraq, as difficult as they have been, are still easier to attain than rebuilding a traumatized and broken society. But we really have no other choice. Given the hopeful developments we have seen since the surge began, to leave now, before our job is complete, would be reckless and shameful and probably catastrophic.

In the latter half of 2006 it was legitimate for war critics to argue that Iraq was irredeemable lost and therefore we should cut our losses and leave. But that case can no longer be made. The debate has shifted from what the right strategy is to one of national will. Will our nation, weary of this long and costly war, continue along the path which has brought about indisputable, and in some cases breathtaking, progress? If we do, there will be honor in our efforts–and, it’s now reasonable to say, success as well.

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Wriggling Out?

Obama (in pithy terms) and his supporters in the blogosphere (in laborious ones) have tried to “clarify” his “unconditional talks with despots” position. McCain surrogates have pushed back. And today the McCain camp issued a lengthy response pointing out that Obama has backtracked on his desire to meet unconditionally with dictators, and ties Obama’s lack of experience to faulty judgement on Iraq:

He said that General Petraeus’ new strategy would not reduce sectarian violence, but would worsen it. He was wrong. He said the dynamics in Iraq would not change as a result of the ‘surge.’ He was wrong. One year ago, he voted to cut off all funds for our forces fighting extremists in Iraq. He was wrong. Sectarian violence has been dramatically reduced, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shi’ite extremist militias no longer control Basra — the Maliki government and its forces do. British and Iraqi forces now move freely in areas that were controlled by Iranian-backed militias. The fight against al Qaeda in Mosul is succeeding in further weakening that deadly terrorist group, and many key leaders have been killed or captured. As General Petraeus said last month, ‘As we combat AQI we must remember that doing so not only reduces a major source of instability in Iraq, it also weakens an organization that Al Qaeda’s senior leaders view as a tool to spread its influence and foment regional instability.’ Iraqi forces have moved unopposed into Sadr City, a development the New York Times characterized today as a ‘dramatic turnaround’ as the government of Prime Minister Maliki ‘advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.’

That argument may be entirely accurate. But politically it’s very difficult. Nevertheless, it’s the beginning of an essential debate. Whether we will now hear Obama walk back his promise to withdraw U.S. troops unconditionally and immediately from Iraq–just as he has had to walk back his promise of unconditional talks with terror states–remains to be seen.

Obama (in pithy terms) and his supporters in the blogosphere (in laborious ones) have tried to “clarify” his “unconditional talks with despots” position. McCain surrogates have pushed back. And today the McCain camp issued a lengthy response pointing out that Obama has backtracked on his desire to meet unconditionally with dictators, and ties Obama’s lack of experience to faulty judgement on Iraq:

He said that General Petraeus’ new strategy would not reduce sectarian violence, but would worsen it. He was wrong. He said the dynamics in Iraq would not change as a result of the ‘surge.’ He was wrong. One year ago, he voted to cut off all funds for our forces fighting extremists in Iraq. He was wrong. Sectarian violence has been dramatically reduced, Sunnis in Anbar province and throughout Iraq are cooperating in fighting al Qaeda in Iraq, and Shi’ite extremist militias no longer control Basra — the Maliki government and its forces do. British and Iraqi forces now move freely in areas that were controlled by Iranian-backed militias. The fight against al Qaeda in Mosul is succeeding in further weakening that deadly terrorist group, and many key leaders have been killed or captured. As General Petraeus said last month, ‘As we combat AQI we must remember that doing so not only reduces a major source of instability in Iraq, it also weakens an organization that Al Qaeda’s senior leaders view as a tool to spread its influence and foment regional instability.’ Iraqi forces have moved unopposed into Sadr City, a development the New York Times characterized today as a ‘dramatic turnaround’ as the government of Prime Minister Maliki ‘advanced its goal of establishing sovereignty and curtailing the powers of the militias.’

That argument may be entirely accurate. But politically it’s very difficult. Nevertheless, it’s the beginning of an essential debate. Whether we will now hear Obama walk back his promise to withdraw U.S. troops unconditionally and immediately from Iraq–just as he has had to walk back his promise of unconditional talks with terror states–remains to be seen.

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Reading Trash in Sadr City

Some journalists just have a nose for juicy stories, a supernatural instinct that leads them to a scandal or tragedy overlooked by mere mortals. Take, for example, the New York Times’ Stephen Farrell, who wrote a front-page story exposing Baghdad’s “deadly” ice shortage last summer. His lede?

Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.

True, this unspeakable horror was never written about again. But that doesn’t mean Farrell wasn’t onto something. In fact, in using the front-page of the New York Times to write about Iraqi ice, he unwittingly revealed what actually was the biggest regional story of 2007: the success of the troop surge. One knew that if the worst the Times could dig up on Iraq was an ice shortage, things there must be considerably calmer.

Now, we can add Erica Goode to this list of inadvertent journalistic luminaries. In yesterday’s New York Times, Goode penned a story with the headline: “Fighting in Sadr City Cuts Short Effort to Collect Trash.” A month ago Goode, writing with James Glanz, slammed Prime Minister Maliki for his supposed failure in Basra. But as the fighting in that city clearly turned in Maliki’s favor, the charges didn’t stick. However, this time she’s got the Prime Minister nailed:

The setback was a sign of the difficulties faced by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government, which is under increasing pressure to address the humanitarian needs of Sadr City’s residents . . .

In truth, this municipal service announcement of a story is a sign of something else: Maliki’s progress in the governing of Iraq. When the reporter who declared Maliki fatally impotent a month ago can now only lament his shortcomings in garbage disposal, we know things must be pretty good.

This is the kind of charge faced by, say, an American mayor during a slow news week. Certain quarters of the anti-war crowd had hoped the fighting in Basra would douse the widespread enthusiasm for the surge’s success. The uncertainty surrounding the early stages of battle may have temporarily done so. But ace journalists like Erica Goode help to ensure that the real (and heartening) story gets out there in the end.

Some journalists just have a nose for juicy stories, a supernatural instinct that leads them to a scandal or tragedy overlooked by mere mortals. Take, for example, the New York Times’ Stephen Farrell, who wrote a front-page story exposing Baghdad’s “deadly” ice shortage last summer. His lede?

Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.

True, this unspeakable horror was never written about again. But that doesn’t mean Farrell wasn’t onto something. In fact, in using the front-page of the New York Times to write about Iraqi ice, he unwittingly revealed what actually was the biggest regional story of 2007: the success of the troop surge. One knew that if the worst the Times could dig up on Iraq was an ice shortage, things there must be considerably calmer.

Now, we can add Erica Goode to this list of inadvertent journalistic luminaries. In yesterday’s New York Times, Goode penned a story with the headline: “Fighting in Sadr City Cuts Short Effort to Collect Trash.” A month ago Goode, writing with James Glanz, slammed Prime Minister Maliki for his supposed failure in Basra. But as the fighting in that city clearly turned in Maliki’s favor, the charges didn’t stick. However, this time she’s got the Prime Minister nailed:

The setback was a sign of the difficulties faced by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government, which is under increasing pressure to address the humanitarian needs of Sadr City’s residents . . .

In truth, this municipal service announcement of a story is a sign of something else: Maliki’s progress in the governing of Iraq. When the reporter who declared Maliki fatally impotent a month ago can now only lament his shortcomings in garbage disposal, we know things must be pretty good.

This is the kind of charge faced by, say, an American mayor during a slow news week. Certain quarters of the anti-war crowd had hoped the fighting in Basra would douse the widespread enthusiasm for the surge’s success. The uncertainty surrounding the early stages of battle may have temporarily done so. But ace journalists like Erica Goode help to ensure that the real (and heartening) story gets out there in the end.

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Rhetoric and Action on Iran

In recent days, senior American military leaders have been ratcheting up their criticism of Iranian interference in Iraq, spurred on by finds of recently manufactured Iranian weapons in Basra. (Just one more benefit of Prime Minister Maliki’s much-maligned offensive.)

On Friday, for instance, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a press conference in which he declared that he is “increasingly concerned about Iran’s activity.” While emphasizing that “we are not taking any military elements off the table,” he said that he is “convinced the solution right now still lies in using other levers of national power, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure.”

The problem is that we have spent years using those very “levers” and have not budged Iran an inch. Iran has repeatedly promised to cut off arms shipments to Iraq–arms that are killing American and Iraqi soldiers–and earlier this year some credulous American intelligence officials thought that the Iranians were as good as their word. But, as Mullen noted, “It’s plainly obvious they have not [kept their word]. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way.”

Is more jawboning from American officials going to convince the Iranians to mend their ways? Or will it only reveal once again American ineffectuality and weakness? I rather think the latter.

The New York Times notes that sterner steps have been contemplated–and rejected:

The administration has, in fact, discussed whether to attack training
camps, safe houses and weapons storehouses inside Iran that intelligence reports say are being used by the Quds Force to train fighters, according to two senior administration officials… For now, however, the United States has decided that military strikes in Iran would be untenable and has concentrated on trying to disrupt the routes used to smuggle weapons and fighters across the border, and on diplomatic and financial pressure, those and other officials said.

It is understandable that the administration shies away from open hostilities with Iran-even if Iran is waging a semi-covert war against us (as it has been doing since 1979). But policymakers should not fool themselves that tough-sounding press statements can substitute for genuinely tough actions, such as targeting those “training camps, safe houses and weapons storehouses inside Iran.”

The president needs to make a decision about how far he is willing to go to
confront Iranian aggression, and if the answer is (as I suspect) “not very
far”, I would advise the administration to tone down its rhetoric. As I’ve
warned in the past, the disconnect between the administration’s harsh talk
and its weak actions-a feature of the second Bush term–is doing serious
damage to American credibility.

Admiral Mullen’s words about Iran apply equal well to the United States: “I
think actions, certainly here, must speak louder than words. And the
actions just don’t meet the commitments on the part of their leadership.”

In recent days, senior American military leaders have been ratcheting up their criticism of Iranian interference in Iraq, spurred on by finds of recently manufactured Iranian weapons in Basra. (Just one more benefit of Prime Minister Maliki’s much-maligned offensive.)

On Friday, for instance, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a press conference in which he declared that he is “increasingly concerned about Iran’s activity.” While emphasizing that “we are not taking any military elements off the table,” he said that he is “convinced the solution right now still lies in using other levers of national power, including diplomatic, financial and international pressure.”

The problem is that we have spent years using those very “levers” and have not budged Iran an inch. Iran has repeatedly promised to cut off arms shipments to Iraq–arms that are killing American and Iraqi soldiers–and earlier this year some credulous American intelligence officials thought that the Iranians were as good as their word. But, as Mullen noted, “It’s plainly obvious they have not [kept their word]. Indeed, they seem to have gone the other way.”

Is more jawboning from American officials going to convince the Iranians to mend their ways? Or will it only reveal once again American ineffectuality and weakness? I rather think the latter.

The New York Times notes that sterner steps have been contemplated–and rejected:

The administration has, in fact, discussed whether to attack training
camps, safe houses and weapons storehouses inside Iran that intelligence reports say are being used by the Quds Force to train fighters, according to two senior administration officials… For now, however, the United States has decided that military strikes in Iran would be untenable and has concentrated on trying to disrupt the routes used to smuggle weapons and fighters across the border, and on diplomatic and financial pressure, those and other officials said.

It is understandable that the administration shies away from open hostilities with Iran-even if Iran is waging a semi-covert war against us (as it has been doing since 1979). But policymakers should not fool themselves that tough-sounding press statements can substitute for genuinely tough actions, such as targeting those “training camps, safe houses and weapons storehouses inside Iran.”

The president needs to make a decision about how far he is willing to go to
confront Iranian aggression, and if the answer is (as I suspect) “not very
far”, I would advise the administration to tone down its rhetoric. As I’ve
warned in the past, the disconnect between the administration’s harsh talk
and its weak actions-a feature of the second Bush term–is doing serious
damage to American credibility.

Admiral Mullen’s words about Iran apply equal well to the United States: “I
think actions, certainly here, must speak louder than words. And the
actions just don’t meet the commitments on the part of their leadership.”

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McCain on Basra and Maliki

I just got off a blogger call with John McCain and asked him about his impressions of the Iraqi army’s fight against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. He described the outcome as a “pleasant turn of events” and said that Prime Minister Maliki “surprised us all.” McCain conceded that there were setbacks at first, but said that with limited American support the Iraqi army has wrested control of Basra from the Sadrites. The outcome in Basra has likely brought Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, back into the government.

Interestingly, McCain said that before the Basra fight began, he was under the impression that the Iraqi army was going to finish up operations against al Qaeda holdouts in Mosul and then deal with the Mahdi fighters in Basra. It seems Maliki displayed both adaptability and leadership in changing the course and calling the shots (he tipped of David Petraeus to the Basra plan a couple of days in advance.) With the MSM getting both the military outcome and the political ramifications of Basra so hopelessly wrong, it will be interesting to see how they cover resumed operations in Mosul.

I just got off a blogger call with John McCain and asked him about his impressions of the Iraqi army’s fight against Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra. He described the outcome as a “pleasant turn of events” and said that Prime Minister Maliki “surprised us all.” McCain conceded that there were setbacks at first, but said that with limited American support the Iraqi army has wrested control of Basra from the Sadrites. The outcome in Basra has likely brought Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, back into the government.

Interestingly, McCain said that before the Basra fight began, he was under the impression that the Iraqi army was going to finish up operations against al Qaeda holdouts in Mosul and then deal with the Mahdi fighters in Basra. It seems Maliki displayed both adaptability and leadership in changing the course and calling the shots (he tipped of David Petraeus to the Basra plan a couple of days in advance.) With the MSM getting both the military outcome and the political ramifications of Basra so hopelessly wrong, it will be interesting to see how they cover resumed operations in Mosul.

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More on the Hearings

There are many things to say about today’s Senate testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But what has struck me, so far, are the following.

The first is that in Petraeus and Crocker you see two men who embody excellence, a wonderful thing to see in any field of human endeavor. It’s especially comforting to find it in a place as important and fragile as Iraq. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are informed, careful, candid, and wholly in command. They have a complicated story to tell–and they tell it very, very well.

The second thing I noticed was how respectful and strong Petraeus and Crocker are. Senator Bayh (D-Indiana), for example, asked a question whose purpose was to get General Petraeus to say that those who disagree with Petraeus’ strategy are just as patriotic as those who agree with his strategy. General Petraeus made the right and obvious rejoinder: one of the reasons we fight for freedom is to allow people to hold different opinions. But he also made a powerful case that (these are my words, not his) not all opinions are equally valid or informed – and that the wrong opinions, animating wrong decisions, can have terrible consequences.

The third thing that jumped out at me is the vast ignorance of many Senators. For example, Senator McCaskill (D-Missouri) appears wed to a particular (defeatist) narrative regarding Basra: it was, she insisted, a terrible loss for Prime Minister Maliki, a big win for Muqtada al-Sadr, and evidence that the Iraq project is falling apart.

Ambassador Crocker patiently explained why this interpretation is wrong. He pointed out that there is actually fairly widespread support throughout Iraq for Maliki’s efforts, that there is a strong popular reaction against Shia militias, and that Sadr appears to be putting some distance between himself and elements of the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) militia. These are all important data points.

General Petraeus made many of the same observations in response to previous questions. He pointed out that planning of the Basra operation left a lot to be desired–but that the Iraqi government’s willingness to take the battle to the enemy was encouraging. He acknowledged the troubling defections we saw within the ranks of the Iraqis–and told about the very impressive and heartening conduct of most of the ISF. Things are still playing out in Basra–but some of the early stumbles seem to have been corrected, adjustments are being made, and things are better now than they were. This is, in some ways, the story of Iraq writ large.

What we’re getting, and not only from Senators critical of the war, is posturing. Many Senators appear far more interested in making speeches than they do in asking pertinent questions. Iraq is a fluid situation–yet so many political figures have made up their mind. They act as if things are frozen in amber, as if a snapshot in time is a permanent state of things. And they seem wholly uninterested in increasing their understanding of the facts on the ground–especially if the facts on the ground demonstrate progress. Petraeus and Crocker, at least, are nuanced and knowledgeable. Which is, unfortunately, something rarely found on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There are many things to say about today’s Senate testimonies of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But what has struck me, so far, are the following.

The first is that in Petraeus and Crocker you see two men who embody excellence, a wonderful thing to see in any field of human endeavor. It’s especially comforting to find it in a place as important and fragile as Iraq. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are informed, careful, candid, and wholly in command. They have a complicated story to tell–and they tell it very, very well.

The second thing I noticed was how respectful and strong Petraeus and Crocker are. Senator Bayh (D-Indiana), for example, asked a question whose purpose was to get General Petraeus to say that those who disagree with Petraeus’ strategy are just as patriotic as those who agree with his strategy. General Petraeus made the right and obvious rejoinder: one of the reasons we fight for freedom is to allow people to hold different opinions. But he also made a powerful case that (these are my words, not his) not all opinions are equally valid or informed – and that the wrong opinions, animating wrong decisions, can have terrible consequences.

The third thing that jumped out at me is the vast ignorance of many Senators. For example, Senator McCaskill (D-Missouri) appears wed to a particular (defeatist) narrative regarding Basra: it was, she insisted, a terrible loss for Prime Minister Maliki, a big win for Muqtada al-Sadr, and evidence that the Iraq project is falling apart.

Ambassador Crocker patiently explained why this interpretation is wrong. He pointed out that there is actually fairly widespread support throughout Iraq for Maliki’s efforts, that there is a strong popular reaction against Shia militias, and that Sadr appears to be putting some distance between himself and elements of the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) militia. These are all important data points.

General Petraeus made many of the same observations in response to previous questions. He pointed out that planning of the Basra operation left a lot to be desired–but that the Iraqi government’s willingness to take the battle to the enemy was encouraging. He acknowledged the troubling defections we saw within the ranks of the Iraqis–and told about the very impressive and heartening conduct of most of the ISF. Things are still playing out in Basra–but some of the early stumbles seem to have been corrected, adjustments are being made, and things are better now than they were. This is, in some ways, the story of Iraq writ large.

What we’re getting, and not only from Senators critical of the war, is posturing. Many Senators appear far more interested in making speeches than they do in asking pertinent questions. Iraq is a fluid situation–yet so many political figures have made up their mind. They act as if things are frozen in amber, as if a snapshot in time is a permanent state of things. And they seem wholly uninterested in increasing their understanding of the facts on the ground–especially if the facts on the ground demonstrate progress. Petraeus and Crocker, at least, are nuanced and knowledgeable. Which is, unfortunately, something rarely found on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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Where’s the Nuance?

The Washington Post editorial board has a modest conclusion about the fighting in Basra:

What the end of the fighting demonstrated is that Mr. Maliki’s government and army are not yet strong enough to decisively impose themselves by force in areas controlled by the Mahdi Army or other militias, at least not without the full support of U.S. ground forces. The fact that such support remains available to the government no doubt contributed to Mr. Sadr’s embrace of a cease-fire. By the same token, American withdrawal could precipitate a far bloodier conflict that, if won by the Mahdi Army, would be a major reversal for U.S. interests in the Middle East. At best, the battle of Basra will persuade the Shiite parties to fight for control over the city in upcoming provincial elections, rather than in the streets. But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction.

This rather restrained view seems to align with available facts. You can quibble with it, but it is a responsible attempt to assess the facts, draw conclusions and elucidate lessons which might shape future action.

But there is none–absolutely none–of this analysis to be found among the Democratic presidential contenders or members of Congress. Facts at this point are irrelevant as they pursue a determined course of retreat.

It was not too long ago that the Bush administration was attacked for being out of touch with reality and elevating ideology over facts. Democrats were irate (with some justification) that the Bush administration failed for so long to adjust our strategy to fit the deteriorating political and military situation in Iraq.

Now, the presidential contenders simply ignore the news altogether. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seems interested in discussing recent developments. Neither has explained why their plan for immediate withdrawal would further our objectives. Instead, we get from Obama the vague suggestion for a “strike force” (which sounds like something from a B-movie plot: “General, send in the strike force!”) without mentioning the ground support such a force would require, or outlining its location and objectives. And I thought Democrats were opposed to unspecified military actions with ill-conceived missions.

The Washington Post editorial board has a modest conclusion about the fighting in Basra:

What the end of the fighting demonstrated is that Mr. Maliki’s government and army are not yet strong enough to decisively impose themselves by force in areas controlled by the Mahdi Army or other militias, at least not without the full support of U.S. ground forces. The fact that such support remains available to the government no doubt contributed to Mr. Sadr’s embrace of a cease-fire. By the same token, American withdrawal could precipitate a far bloodier conflict that, if won by the Mahdi Army, would be a major reversal for U.S. interests in the Middle East. At best, the battle of Basra will persuade the Shiite parties to fight for control over the city in upcoming provincial elections, rather than in the streets. But the fact that an Iraqi government commonly described as impotent and inert now is willing and able to fight Shiite militias is a step in the right direction.

This rather restrained view seems to align with available facts. You can quibble with it, but it is a responsible attempt to assess the facts, draw conclusions and elucidate lessons which might shape future action.

But there is none–absolutely none–of this analysis to be found among the Democratic presidential contenders or members of Congress. Facts at this point are irrelevant as they pursue a determined course of retreat.

It was not too long ago that the Bush administration was attacked for being out of touch with reality and elevating ideology over facts. Democrats were irate (with some justification) that the Bush administration failed for so long to adjust our strategy to fit the deteriorating political and military situation in Iraq.

Now, the presidential contenders simply ignore the news altogether. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama seems interested in discussing recent developments. Neither has explained why their plan for immediate withdrawal would further our objectives. Instead, we get from Obama the vague suggestion for a “strike force” (which sounds like something from a B-movie plot: “General, send in the strike force!”) without mentioning the ground support such a force would require, or outlining its location and objectives. And I thought Democrats were opposed to unspecified military actions with ill-conceived missions.

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