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April 04, 2008

Does the New Iraq "NIE" Even Matter? II
Posted by Adam Blickstein

As stories hit the papers (WSJ, Washington Post, NYT...) about the new Iraq intelligence assessment, I wanted to reiterate a point I made earlier in the week. While the Administration and others will cite the report as another sign that we are making progress in Iraq, with reporting of the classified document citing "significant security improvements and progress toward healing," and a more "upbeat analysis of conditions in Iraq than the last major assessment," there are some very important things to keep in mind.

The updated Iraq NIE analyzes only the subsequent six months after the previous update to the Iraq NIE, which was completed and released in August 2007. While it is deplorable that there is going to be no formal public document describing the findings—as has been the tradition in the past—due to DNI McConnel’s absurd declaration that “All future NIEs will not have unclassified key judgments”, it almost doesn’t matter. The New York Times article, for instance, states:

Among the factors seen as contributing to the ebb in violence in Iraq have been the cease-fire observed by the Mahdi Army, the militia founded by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

But since the report only examines the months ending in January 2008, this aspect is already outdated. The findings of this assessment highlight the reduction in violence from August 2007—when Sadr acquiesced to a ceasefire— to January 2008.  The updated NIE would not include any examination of the ground changing events from last month. 

March turned out to be the deadliest month in Iraq since August's NIE, with attacks against Americans reaching their highest level since the surge reached its peak last June. The upheaval that occurred in Basra and Baghdad, a success for Sadr’s forces and an embarrassment, from both an operational and perception perspective, for Maliki and tangentially America, makes the findings in the updated NIE effectively antiquated. The Washington Post nails this aspect:

Violence declined substantially late last year, although it leveled off during the initial months of 2008 and increased dramatically during last week's fighting between Iraqi and U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq. Those conflicts are not substantively addressed in the new report, sources said.

This last line hints to way the Administration might also be reticent to turn the assessment into a declassified, public summary. If the document is so upbeat, wouldn't, politically, the Administration want to release a glossy version, bound and full of graphs, triumphantly trumpeted the improved security situation, especially as Petraeus and Crocker come to Capitol Hill next week? But after March, the NIE went from being a compendium of confidence to an embarrassing catalog of just how quickly "good" can turn to disaster, and so-called progress regresses into setback. 

While the showdown between Sadr and Maliki didn't end up being a definitive battle, it did expose the fragile fissures that currently exist and will exist in Iraq for years to come.  While a snapshot NIE is useful and instructive, it becomes non-essential when the situation on the ground is so variable, and our intelligence is so unreliable in the first place. To once again quote CIA Director Hayden:

GEN. HAYDEN:  I, I don't know what on--what went on on the ground in Baghdad prior to the operation.  I do know that this was a decision of the Iraqi government by the prime minister and personally by the prime minister, and that he's relying on Iraqi forces, by and large, to take this action.

Regardless of what we knew about the Sadr-Maliki showdown when we knew it, the bottom line is we were caught off-guard and unprepared. If one of our nation's top intelligence officials appeared in the dark before a major moment in Iraq, then how much we truly trust the information compiled in the new assessment, one that as March proves, just does not adequately describe the dynamic and uncertain situation in Iraq.



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from swimming freestyle:

"The U.S., up to this point, has viewed Iraq through a prism of it's own objectives, ignoring an Iraqi perspective: When will our involvement end? How do we define "victory"? It would not be in U.S. strategic interests to set withdrawal dates. Should we have a long term presence in Iraq? How do we stem Iranian influence in Iraq?

Following next week's march, the Bush Administration could find itself caught between it's own high minded proclamations about the Iraqi people's quest for democracy and an unmistakable expression of Iraqi democracy: an Iraqi call for U.S. forces to get out of Iraq."

It is time to give Iraqis their nation back before too few are left to remember that most Shiite, Sunni or Kurd Iraqis described themselves as Iraqis above all else and religious or sectarian group members second....

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