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December 30, 2007

The Very Unserious Optimism of Ken Pollack and other VSP
Posted by Max Bergmann

The irony of those claiming to pursue a “responsible” course in Iraq is that their case for staying is rooted in an absurd level of optimism about what the U.S. can achieve. Ken Pollack’s latest piece in the New Republic is just the latest example. He writes:

The civil war in Northern Ireland is a good example. In the 1970s, the British, much like the Americans today, began emphasizing neighborhood security and de-emphasizing search-and-destroy missions. That made economic and political development plans possible in the '80s, which in turn produced national-level reconciliation talks in the '90s. It is worth remembering that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were every bit as savage in their chauvinism as Moqtada Al Sadr and Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in Iraq. They changed their tunes only after a years-long bottom-up approach showed their constituents that peace was possible--and threatened their leadership roles if they didn't pursue it seriously.

What is so baffling is that Pollack would use the Northern Ireland case in an argument for staying in Iraq.  In fact I have used the Northern Ireland case previously as an example for just how hard it is to resolve ethnic conflicts and how difficult if not impossible it will be to resolve the conflict in Iraq.

But Pollack does deserve credit for at least talking about a potential end game in Iraq. Most war supporters just talk about tactical improvements in violence numbers without making the connection to creating a long-term political solution. While Matt and others scoff at using Northern Ireland or Switzerland as a model for Iraq, the fact is that Ken is right about this. If Iraq is going to be stable it will have to create a system that replicates the ethnically based power-sharing systems (“consociational” systems in the academic phrasing) achieved in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, and Bosnia. The fact is that the dominant political division in Iraq is now ethnic/sectarian differences and therefore to create stability in Iraq the political system will have to emulate the power-sharing model of Northern Ireland. Anything less than a system that balances each sectarian group simply won’t work. So Pollack is right that for stability to happen in Iraq it would have to emulate the Northern Ireland or Swiss model.

But, and this is a very big but, the United States simply can’t achieve this in Iraq. In Northern Ireland despite the presence of significantly more troops, better intelligence, knowledge of the language, an understanding of the culture, the existence of western democratic traditions, phenomenal economic growth during the 1990s, and a regional peace process between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and with all of this it still took 35 years for peace and stability to be achieved!

35 years. And that is with conditions that no serious person could ever dream of for Iraq. So how exactly is staying in Iraq the responsible course for the United States in Iraq?

December 28, 2007

Bhutto says Bin Laden was Murdered?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ok, this is really weird. David Frost is interviewing Benazir Bhutto on his Al Jazeera program (from November). Strangely enough, at 6 min 12 s, Bhutto says that Osama Bin Laden was murdered by Omar Sheikh. Did she mean to say Daniel Pearl (it's not as if their names are similar)? Strangely enough, Frost didn't correct her, nor did Bhutto clarify her statement. Take a look and if you have any idea what's going on here, please share.

December 27, 2007

The Nuclear Scenario in Pakistan
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Andrew Sullivan writes:

If Islamists within the military or ISI did this, then we have the possibility that this is the beginning of something more ominous than the surface event. The collapse of Pakistan into a Jihadist nuclear power is the great nightmare.

Well, yes it might be. But the chances of the 'nuclear scenario' actually happening is so slim that treating it as the overriding policy question is, at best, a diversion and distraction from the real risks Pakistan faces. How exactly did this become the conventional wisdom? On one hand, you have Al-Qaeda and other associated terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda - I hope I am stating the obvious - is not going to take over the Pakistani government anytime soon. Extremist groups have the capability to terrorize the population, assassinate leaders, and destablize the country, but there are few indications that they have made enough inroads into the military or ISI to threaten an actual internal coup.

The other possibility is that the various Islamist parties might somehow come to power through free elections. Maybe this is what people are really referring to when they talk about an "Islamist takeover," a term which has long been a staple of Middle East-related fearmongering, and one that has been employed to great effect by the Muslim world's predominantly secular (and often brutal) dictators, including many of our allies. Well, the chances of this scenario occurring are even slimmer. Islamist parties in Pakistan have not made much an effort to moderate (in contrast to their Arab and Turkish counterparts), and they are, in fact, a frightening bunch. However, they do not command significant support in a country dominated by well-established secular parties. Their peak electoral support is around 15%, give-or-take. In other words, not much of a threat.

With all that said, we are talking about the Muslim world, an area of the world that tends to surprise when surprises are least expected and not particularly welcome. So I could be wrong. But the point remains that we shouldn't overexaggerate the threat of nuclear oblivion ushered in by Pakistan's Islamic extremists. And then there's the other question of why Islamic extremists have been able to wreak so much havoc in the first place. Didn't Mush promise us he would defeat the extremists or something? Oh, wait. Every dictator in the Muslim world promises us that. And, every time, we end up dissapointed.

Powder Keg
Posted by Shadi Hamid

As you've probably heard, former Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today. Another tragic moment in a region with no shortage of tragic moments. And so it continues. The Muslim world has been, is, and will continue to be a powder keg, with disastrous consequences for the rest of the world. For the rest of our lives, the Arab and Muslim world will continue producing tragedies like the one we saw today. Unless we have a plan - a long-term plan - for addressing the root causes of the extremism, terror, and radicalism tearing the region apart. Do we have a plan? Or will we continue to responding in ad-hoc fashion, providing no vision, no narrative, no endgame? This violence and terrorism is not exactly random. It is a product of a world very different than ours, one suffering from decades if not centuries of economic, political, religious, and cultural stagnation.

December 23, 2007

Integrating the Sunnis
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

This is not very promising

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government declared yesterday that after restive areas are calmed, it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists because it does not want them to become a separate military force.

The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government's most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.

The militias, more than 70,000 strong and often made up of former insurgents, are known as Awakening Councils, or Concerned Local Citizens.

"We completely, absolutely reject [the militias] becoming a third military organization," Obaidi said at a news conference.

He added that the groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them longterm legitimacy. "We absolutely reject that," Obaidi said.

The government has pledged to absorb about a quarter of the men into the predominantly Shi'ite-controlled security services and military, and provide vocational training so that the rest can find civilian jobs

Basically, the Shi'a central government, which has in the past supported systematic sectarian cleansing of Sunnis, expects the Sunni tribal leaders to unilateraly disarm.  Somehow I can't see the Sunnis going for that.  These are exactly the types of statements that make me very skeptical of the Anbar Strategy.

December 21, 2007

That Wacky, Wacky Krauthammer
Posted by Michael Cohen

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the wackiest of them all? Krauthammer, Krauthammer, Krauthammer!

In today's installment of That Wacky, Wacky, Krauthammer, our old friend Charles judges the President's success in dealing with the three members of the "axis of evil." Predictably,  Chuck thinks the President has done a pretty good job - and in the one place where he's failed . . . well it really isn't his fault.  Last week Krauthammer had a brief flirtation with sanity, which almost caused me to write a blog post titled "That (Not So) Wacky, Wacky, Krauthammer. But luckily the dalliance was brief because this week CK is back to his exaggerating, misleading and lying ways.

In today's piece, there is a lion's share of dubious arguments, but one truly does merit great consideration. In judging Bush's record on North Korea a draw, Krauthammer argues:

We did get Kim Jong Il to disable his plutonium-producing program.  . . Disabling the plutonium reactor is an achievement, and we do gain badly needed intelligence by simply being there on the ground to inspect. There is, however, no hope of North Korea giving up its existing nuclear weapons stockpile and little assurance that we will find, let alone disable, any clandestine programs. But lacking sticks, we take what we can.

This is just a bald-faced misrepresentation of the truth it practically takes your breath away.  What Krauthammer fails to mention here is that North Korea's plutonium-producing program lay dormant, under lock and key and IAEA inspection, during the Clinton Administration, only to be re-started under the Bush Administration.

In 2001, the White House pulled out of the Clinton negotiated Agreed Framework, which had stopped North Korea's plutonium processing program and ended all negotiations with the North Korean regime. Then in 2002, after confronting the North Korean with evidence that they were enriching uranium, Bush took no action when North Korea kicked out international inspectors unlocked its fuel rods and began reprocessing them. This stood in stark contrast to the Clinton Administration, which not only threatened military action when North Korea too similar action in 1994, but opened a back-channel diplomatic effort that led to the Agreed Framework.

Indeed, the North Korean bomb that was exploded in 2006 was likely a plutonium bomb and this most likely produced during the Bush Administration - and most scandalously after Bush labeled the nation a member of the Axis of Evil. To give Bush credit today for stopping a plutonium producing program that he allowed to begin and which produced a fully functional nuclear weapon is not only absurd, it's disingenuous to the nth degree. In a career full of exaggerations and misstatements, this has to be in the Krauthammer top ten hall of shame. (See Fred Kaplan's piece here for more detail on the Bush Administration's failure in North Korea)

Continue reading "That Wacky, Wacky Krauthammer" »

Foreign Policy IS Domestic Policy Now
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

The debate Ilan referenced yesterday among Ezra, Dana Goldstein and others about whether the elections will and/or should turn on foreign or domestic policy kinda misses the point.  National security policy -- especially Iraq, but also much that comes wrapped up in terrorism, homeland security and energy -- are now domestic political issues.  Viz. the Democrats' primary fight over Iraq, and why it has turned on past votes and allegations about attitude, instead of details of policy positions (ok, candidates, where would you redeploy the Iraq troops and why?  2 minutes each.)

The candidates who win the primaries -- and definitely the one who wins the general -- will be the ones who come up with narratives about what the heck happened, and what is going to happen next, that the broad middle of the public finds acceptable and in some way reassuring.

The really interesting question for us wonky types is as much how we can fill any one of those narratives with specific policies as what it turns out to be.

I'm just beginning to hash this through in my own mind -- and am off to debate it with Eli Lake on, so maybe we can start to see whether it holds for Republicans too.  But the main point is that you can't actually pivot away from national security completely anymore -- it's in the back of voters' minds all the time -- and it's a mistake to try.

December 20, 2007

Who cares about Iraq?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

I was seething after reading Dana Goldstein's piece about how Iraq won't matter in this election cycle.  Fortunately, I found Ezra Klein's post and it made me feel much better.  I will have much more to say on this over the holidays, but I think it would be the height of stupidity for Dems to deemphasize foreign policy and national security in the next election.   If the economy keeps going the way it is, then it might be more important than Iraq by November 2008.  But contrary to our desperate attempts to explain elections as being about one thing, they never are.   Elections are about many things and to think that somehow Iraq won't play an important role is absurd.  It still polls as most important or second most important everywhere I've seen, and Dems have such an advantage on Iraq that it would be folly not to make it a central part of the campaign.

Et Tu Kevin?
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Kevin Drum writes about an email he got from a VSP in good standing.

One thing you might write about — if only because nobody else has, I think — is how that whole dust-up over the O'Hanlon/Pollack op-ed looks in retrospect. I mean, clearly they were on to something — the relative quieting down of stuff that has taken place in Iraq over the last several months, etc. Completely debatable whether that was due to the surge, or is sustainable, or is deeply significant, etc. etc., but it's not like the caricature of them put forth in the blogosphere at the time — as paid lobbyists for the Bushies, reporting back what they were told to after checking out a Potemkin village — holds up, does it?

Kevin's reaction?

But basically they reported two things: (a) violence is down and security has improved, and (b) the economy, police force, political leadership, and infrastructure are still disaster areas. And actually, um, that pretty much seems to be true, doesn't it?

I disagree and I think Kevin should probably take a closer look at the debate that took place at the time.  I went through an old post of mine to see what I and others had written and here's what I found.  I was clearly wrong about the reduction in violence (And I'm happy I was), but that was actually my fourth and last point.   The main critiques still stand and Kevin and this emailer's analysis mischaracterize the argument. 

The single biggest complaint in the blogosphere was that in their op-ed Pollack and O'Hanlon represented themselves as "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq.”  In other words as war critics.  This is what made the piece such big news.  It's true that they complained about certain strategies and tactics but ultimately they were strong supporters of the war and this representation was a stretch at best.  But that's not how it got covered and the Bush Administration picked it up and ran with it.  A lot of that had to do with the fact that Pollack and O'Hanlon continued to represent themselves as critics.  You know who else falls into that category?  John McCain. 

Second, Kevin says that Pollack and O'Hanlon were basically saying that violence is getting better but the politics are still pretty bad.  But this is all a matter of emphasis.  In their op-ed in the Times they spent the entire article talking about security improvements.  Only in the last couple of paragraphs did they finally acknowledge that the politics weren't going anywhere.  If the assessment was really as Kevin described it, they should have spent half the article on the lack of progress on politics.  Kevin seems to be making this assessment based on their report a month later, in which they offer a more balanced approach, after they'd gotten blasted.  But nobody read the report.  Everyone read the op-ed.

Finally, I wrote this about the Pollack-O'Hanlon op-ed on August 1 and I have yet to see anything that would cause me to change my mind. 

Meanwhile, much of the progress on security has come on the backs of questionable alliances with forces who aren’t necessarily friendly to the United States.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend has historically proven to be a dubious proposition.  Working with Sunni tribes that have previously attacked American troops doesn’t seem like too much progress.  Especially since it has caused Prime Minister Maliki to threaten to further arm Shi’a militias.  Why?  Because Maliki understands that while Sunni tribes might be useful in fighting Al Qaeda, what we are essentially doing is arming the Sunnis against the Shi’a for the inevitable outbreak of more sectarian hostilities.  This whole concept was tried in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Didn’t work out too well….

These were the main critiques, at least as far as I saw it and I still think they all stand.


Who is Sending Militants to Iraq? Hint, Initials are SA
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

Late last year, the Counter Terrorism Center at West Point received over 600 records from the Special Operations Command. This information about foreign fighters entering Iraq via Syria is known as the Sinjar Records, and was captured in the far North of Iraq near Syria. West Point authors Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter have taken the first step in analyzing the data dump from this cache in the report "Al Qaida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq"

The biographical information is jaw dropping in its banality: demographic clues like militant age ranging from 16-54, home phone numbers, job listings from doctors, engineers, students and teachers to massage therapist (!) hometowns in Morocco, Libya and Saudi Arabia. To truly understand the meaning of asymmetric threat is how many filled in the description of "role" as "suicide bomber".

This initial analysis reveals that Saudis made up the largest contingent of foreign fighters entering Iraq. (um, thanks again you guys!) Libyans were second (first if measured in percapita terms) and Syrians a distant third. In fact, after reading the report, Syria seems more like an opportunistic and thuggish travel agent than anything else.

The report highlights some key distinctions that organizations like TRACC have long pointed out, that criminal networks have different motivations, some are led by greed and others by blind ideology. Further, that detecting, monitoring, and probing the nexus of transnational criminal and terrorist operations can provide opportunities to disrupt global criminal activities and pre-empt terrorist operations. So we might be able to pick off the greedy ones and get some good information from them to boot; that the religious fundamentalists linked with Al Qaida can't deliver the practical needs of disgruntled citizens (like Iraqis) and one possible strategic advantage for us is to step in and fill the vacuum in basic services and human security when disllusionment sets in; that dealing with supply chain management is an important part of thwarting violent jihadists--because countries like Libya gladly ship their heavy breathing militants to Iraq just to get rid of them at home. So, we should be working with those countries and cooperating to the extent possible to help them address internal violence and promote rule of law (note: preventive and cooperative aid, including fresh and different kinds of security assistance is a huge albeit unheralded trend in policy circles in the DC defense wonk world..) The other striking result was the prevalence of students, and groups of students from the same hometowns...meaning that they are likely recruited together.

Per my earlier post on the defense budget. To me, this report is just another sign that we need to put everything on the budget table and do a thorough vetting of ends and means for our national security. (The House Armed Services Committee is requiring the armed services to do a roles and missions review this coming year, which is a good start, but don't expect revolutionary change to come from within the Pentagon) Civilians, are you listening? Anybody?....Anybody?

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