Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Overplayed and Under-Sourced

Phillip Carter’s Intel Dump has been picked up by the Washington Post, where he posted commentary on yesterday’s Congressional testimony from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

Phillip Carter is a Veteran of OIF who supports Barack Obama and serves in a quasi-official capacity as an advisor to Obama’s Campaign. He’s also been a longtime and consistent critic of our efforts in Iraq, albeit an honorable and principled one, who makes his arguments on the basis of logic and personal experience, largely without rancor or insulting rhetoric towards those with whom he disagrees.

I’d rather have someone like him blogging for the Washington Post than many other potential candidates, but still, I think Carter is the one overplaying his hand, here.

Carter’s take-aways up front:

They overstated the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq in an effort to justify the mission -- a mindset that has generated a deeply flawed strategy. They also overplayed the surge's success -- downplaying or discounting factors that likely did more to create today's improved security conditions. While their "Anaconda" strategy looks cool on a PowerPoint slide, it confuses the issues of control and influence, putting too much stock in America's ability to engineer success in Iraq. And, perhaps most tellingly, the two men made the case for perseverance without placing Iraq in the context of vital U.S. national interests, offering only apocalyptic predictions of what would happen if we don't stay the course.

Origins of Violence

Carter asserts that Al Qaeda cannot rightly be held accountable for the lion’s share of violence in Iraq:

The vast majority of Iraqi violence over the past five years has been caused a) by ethno-sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites; b) intra-sectarian fighting amongst Sunnis and Shiites; c) fighting over scarce resources (oil, fuel, water, food, control over ministries with responsibility for the same); and d) fighting by Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and homegrown Shiite militias. AQI has played an important role as catalyst and spoiler -- stoking the fires of sectarian violence (as with the 2006 mosque bombing in Samarra), and keeping them going whenever peace threatened to emerge. But that is a supporting role, and it is a mistake to cast AQI in the lead role and to characterize U.S. efforts in Iraq as a counterinsurgency against AQI.

Clausewitz once wrote that the most important challenge for a commander was to visualize the battlefield -- because all plans and actions flow from his understanding of the situation. Our skewed visualization of Iraq -- and overemphasis of the AQI threat -- has pushed us to adopt an extremely risky strategy of standing up Iraqi security forces and local partisans that will, if we ever withdraw or downsize our forces, create the conditions for a massive civil war.

Carter summarizes the violence in a way that confirms that for Carter, Iraq has been a Civil War in the making from the start, and will devolve into sectarian violence under any scenario, resulting from any action we took to date, or will take – except of course, for the vague policy direction suggested by his preferred Presidential Candidate, Sen. Obama.

I would argue that Carter’s invocation of Clausewitz more accurately explains his (and Obama’s) “skewed visualization of Iraq.”

Al Qaeda aggressively sought to portray their terrorist plots and factions, as well as the resulting violence, as indigenous and homegrown. They created Iraqi puppets for what were otherwise foreign terrorist operations, all of which has been repeatedly revealed as designed propaganda in captured Al Qaeda documents. Yet, Carter acknowledges AQI as “catalyst and spoiler,” but relegates AQI to a minor, “supporting role.”

Yet even the example Carter cites, that of the 2006 Samarra Mosque bombing, undercuts his argument. That seminal event, engineered to create the impression of sectarian conflict, is widely regarded as having provoked much of the resulting violence, and that was just the most obvious example of years of steady provocation. That’s pretty central to the instability and violence of what happened, yet Carter fairly implies that it had no material impact, against intractable (and pre-existing) ethnic strife. No doubt Al Qaeda spinmeisters are pleased that analysts like Carter – and policy makers like Obama – have so thoroughly bought into their deceits.

Nor does Carter make any mention of Iranian war-and violence-making, or the degree to which Iran has supported multiple factions (Shi and Sunni alike), as well as Al Qaeda itself. By adopting the view that the great majority of the violence is internal and domestic, Carter in effect aligns himself with those stubborn analytic reactionaries (including many at the CIA and State Department), who stubbornly refuse to accept the possibility that Shia Iran could ever find common cause with Sunni Al Qaeda. This repeats the same analytic conceit that refused to acknowledge that an irreligious secularist like Saddam Hussein could ever support or sponsor or find common cause with radical Islamic terrorists. (In the face of much evidence to the contrary.)

Other Causes

Carter also adopts another Democratic Party talking point, in claiming that other factors have led to the greatly improved security situation in Iraq:

What about the massive flows of displaced people? And what to make of the relative importance of the political deals with Sunni and Shiite political leaders that have kept their partisans out of the fight? These have all had a massive impact on the security situation -- probably more of one than that exerted by U.S. military forces.

These are odd factors to juxtapose. In the first, Carter joins those who claim that a largely completed ethnic cleansing has moved warring ethnic groups far enough apart that they no longer are in (as much) conflict. Again, that is based on a premise that Sunnis and Shia, in their natural state, unmolested, will always be at war.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experience in Iraq, as well as trusted sources more knowledgeable about Iraqi anthropology, most Iraqi families reveal a great deal of Shia and Sunni intermarriage. All of the Iraqis I met had Shia and Sunni relatives, and even some Kurds besides. The Iraqi (Kurdish) General who spoke to us at length described the same kind of intermixing. Pre-war Iraq was never particularly religious, other than in (some) Shia enclaves, and the Iraqi Shia (Arab) had been distinctly less religious than their Iranian (Persian) counterparts. That’s one of the points of friction between Iran and Iraq Shia communities, with a fair amount of racism and ethnic stereotyping thrown in for good measure. I find it highly credible that, without external agitation and provocation, Iraq can and will evidence reconciliation from the Baathist years of Sunni domination and Hussein’s acts of genocide, and the signs of such reconciliation are increasing.

I find it also highly likely that the “political deals” that Carter dismisses could not have been possible within the degrading security situation that prevailed prior to the Surge of US Military forces.

What’s Victory?

Carter passes on another Democratic Party talking point:

Seeking a Strategy. So what is our strategy in Iraq? And for that matter, what is "victory?" How does a "victory" in Iraq relate to America's larger national security interests? Petraeus and Crocker effectively punted on these grand questions, as they did last September, offering only that we needed to persevere and succeed to avoid vague Somalia-like predictions of what might happen if we don't.

I can directly attest to this line of rhetoric as a Democratic talking point, as it was echoed all day long yesterday by Democratic Congressional aides as a rebuttal to the personal testimonies of Vets for Freedom members. If what Petraeus and Crocker have been presenting to Congress this past year doesn’t constitute a Strategy, and underscore what the Bush Administration and its critics alike assert would be victory – Iraq taking on the role as self-preserver of their own freedoms and nascent democracy – then no plan or conditions for victory can never be sufficiently articulated.

Competing Democratic Party Presidential nominees have been issuing these kinds of criticisms since our invasion of Iraq. The criticisms evolve, the claims change, each change of policy seemingly in response to criticism, becomes yet another set of mistakes to deride and denounce. They’ve never met a single operation or version of the war plan that ever commends itself. It’s been failure one way or another, from 2003 until today.

Carter concludes, “We owe something more to our men and women serving in Iraq, and to the Iraqis.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Nation and our elected officials owe much to Veterans who have served the country in combat in Iraq, and to Iraqis. I’m hard pressed, and not convinced at all by Carter, how abandoning our mission in Iraq helps pay that debt.

(Via Memeorandum)

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