Archive for December 2006

Our Iraqi Allies

December 23, 2006

Recently, security in the Najaf area was handed over formally from the Coalition forces to a unit of the new Iraqi army (NYT, December 20). Let me quote from the description of the ceremonies:

“The general public did not attend. Much of the audience was made up of powerful tribal leaders, who sat beneath a sign that read: “We are the sons of those who drove the British out in 1920.”
. . .
As soldiers paraded by a reviewing grandstand, commandos with their faces blackened gathered for a demonstration of their courage.

Each man reached into his right pocket, pulled out a frog and bit its head off. They threw the squirming legs to the ground as the group’s leader held aloft a live rabbit. He slit the belly and plunged his mouth into the gash. The carcass was then passed around to the rest of the soldiers, who took their own bites.

It was explained later that this practice was especially popular among Saddam Hussein’s feared Fedayeen militia, whose members had done the same thing with live snakes and wolves.”

Let me not comment on courage Iraqi-style. But it is instructive that this supposedly Shiite dominated army unit was more than happy to reflect in their actions the methods of the supposedly hated true believers in Saddam’s forces. One should also notice that their elders identify with the nationalist movement, not the Shi’a movement, that “drove out the foreigners in the 1920s”. Of course, the rebellion failed and they did not “drive out the foreigners”. Never mind. They wanrt to believe it and we are now the foreigners. (And a faction in Washington suggests that we end the war by siding with the Shiites? The Americans appear to be truly lost in the desert.)

For an interesting comparison of British problems in the 1920s with our present problems the reader might be interested in comments by T. E. Lawrence. The reader should remember that the British were putting down their insurgency with 90,000 troops against a population of three million; we are trying to cope with 26 million Iraqis. When Lawrence writes, the British were planning on sending more troops. Of course, there are differences, but still worth pondering.


Mideast and American Thinking

December 20, 2006

Today’s NY Times brings an Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman entitled “Mideast Rules to Live By”. He prefaces his remarks by saying that he had hoped so much for a good outcome in Iraq that he forgot what he had learned by covering Lebanon’s civil war in the past. My experience reinforces what Friedman has to say. Let me mention just a few of the “rules”.

(1) Although we are used to politicians lying in public and telling what they really believe in private, in the Middle East, they often tell you what they think you want to hear in private and say what they really think in public.

(2) If you can’t explain something with a conspiracy theory, don’t try, they won’t believe it.

(3) In the ME, the extremists go all the way and the moderates just go away.

(4) Civil Wars in the area are seldom about ideas. They are about which tribe (I would change that to “group”) gets to rule.

(5) (modified) ME civil wars end either with one side vanquishing the other, or someone taking absolute power and ruling with an iron fist.

(6) Our first priority is democracy, theirs is “justice” (as the competing groups define it). If democracy helps in getting what a group feels is theirs, fine; if not they will quickly set democracy aside.

(7) Finally (in my version) Friedman writes (condensed version): “The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. Israel’s existence is a daily humiliation to the Muslims. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”

The last point brings us back to the Iraq Study Group Report. The report insists that we have to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem before we can hope to have peace in Iraq or any place in the Middle East. This position is one of those most quickly rejected by the Report’s critics. It was rejected either because the critic could not understand the linkage or because he did not want to understand the linkage.

The essential linkage is based on the fact that too many Iraqis simply hate Americans and our apparent siding with the Israelis and/or our inability to solve what they see as the “Israeli problem”. Their dislike makes any cooperation they might give us provisional, dissolving quickly as soon as what we are doing to help them in a situation is no longer relevant. This is the essential reason why many good plans to find a way forward in Iraq are bound to fail. This, by the way, is the essential basis of General Abizaid’s criticism of the plan to bring in more troops to secure Baghdad.

Incidentally, we are fortunate to have Abizaid as Commander of the Central Command, which includes Iraq. Abizaid is of Lebanese background, and aside from the usual military training has a masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard (as do I incidentally) and was an Olmsted Scholar at the University of Jordan. Too bad, he is in a tough position that has not allowed him to really approach Iraq as he might have liked to.

Defects in the More Troops Strategy

December 15, 2006

It appears today that the strategy of bringing in several thousand troops, and especially of adding 20,000 Americans to the forces in Baghdad for a three-month “surge” to retake the city, is now favored to win out in the strategy battles in Washington after the publication of the Iraq Study Group Report (that rejected this alternative). Several objections have been made to the more troops approach by its critics, including the difficulty the Pentagon would have in providing the forces. But it is gaining favor because the Baker report has been interpreted as as a defeatist approach and President Bush and his circle are desperate to avoid defeat in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the alternative Iraq strategy of providing more troops for a three-month “surge” that would lead to the control of Baghdad has more against it than the strain it would place on the American military. It is too often forgotten that our military forces have no experience with putting down an established insurgency in a major city. The experience of the Vietnam War will not help us here, for South Vietnam’s only real city, Saigon, never posed an insurgency problem. There was never a need for a “green zone” in Saigon. With the exception of a few days during the Tet offensive and the day of the final assault by North Vietnamese tanks, Americans and Vietnamese moved about freely in the city and its immediate environs. The nearest parallel to what we appear to be planning to do in Iraq is our campaign in Falluja. We used 10,000 American and 2000 Iraqi troops and a great deal of airpower to overwhelm a city of 300,000. This suggests that to subdue Baghdad with a population of six million, we would need 200,000 American soldiers and 40,000 Iraqi troops.

It took us six weeks to win in Falluja, although at the expense of destroying the city. Most of the insurgents in the city eventually escaped before our victory to fight on elsewhere in the country. Today, Falluja does remain largely quiet. But half of its population has not returned. And the surrounding Anbar province is one of the least controlled areas in the country.

I am sure there would be less force-intensive ways to carry out the pacification of Baghdad, but I am not confident that the military has the plans, the trained personnel, or the time for such an effort.

An Iran – Iraq Project for an International University

December 12, 2006

A recent article has discussed the attempt to raise money throughout Asia for an international university in Northern India that would recapture the glory of learning in that area in medieval times. The university is conceptualized as a rebirth of Nalanda University, one of the leading universities in the world during its medieval existence from the fifth to twelfth centuries. It was established to be a center of Buddhist studies but developed programs in the fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and politics.  This effort, which is being funded from across South and East Asia, reminded me of a similar, more modest but equally high-minded undertaking, the establishment of the University of Central Asia. Begun in the nineties, the university now has  campuses in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan. It is both private and secular. The inspiration came and basic resources were provided by the Aga Khan and the President of Tajikistan. Its creation reminds us that Central Asia was once the crossroads of civilization, an area that once gave birth to an intense intellectual and cultural life.

This led me to thinking of the remarkable center of learning established by the Sassanian (Iranian) king in the fifth century: Jundi-Shapur in what is now Iranian Khuzistan. Originally seen as a center for medical studies. its curricula and research came to cover many fields. It was a center where scholars from India, Greece, and Syria could work together and exchange information. The original impetus was apparently the expulsion of the Nestorian Christians from the Christian lands to the west. Nestorian scholars were the primary students and translators of the Greek legacy at the time and the Persians wished to profit from their knowledge. Jundi-Shapur established as their new home. Some scholars claim that at the time of the Arab conquest Jundi-Shapur was the leading university in the world. It continued to function for many years after the Arab conquest. But when the Abbassid Caliphate was set up in Baghdad, many of the university’s scholars were brought to Baghdad. Eventually a new university was established in Baghdad for these transplants,  a university sometimes referred to as the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). It was in the setting of these two linked universities that the most authoritative translations of the Greek texts into Arabic were undertaken. Greeks, Christians, Jews, Indians, Arabs and Persians worked together on this common scholarly undertaking.

The Iranians have always taken an interest in what is now Iraq, particularly since the capital of their Sassanian Empire was at Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad. (Ctesiphon may have been the largest city in the world in the sixth century.) Their continued interest is suggested by the recent offer of the Iranians to help rebuild the great arch at Ctesiphon. It now occurs to me that sophisticated Iraqis and Iranians might be interested in cooperating on the building of a great international university in or near Baghdad that would be understood to be a direct descendant of both Jundi-Shapur (said to be founded on the model of the Alexandrian academy) and the Bayt al-Hikma. It could be seen as a gift from Iran to the Iraqi people, or perhaps the gulf states could be involved. It should be seen as an attempt to establish an institution that would rise above the sectarian, religious, and nationalist controversies of the day. Obviously, this is not a project to be organized in a day. It might not be acceptable in the sense described here to any of the major players in the current scene. But Iraq and its neighbors need a vision, a future goal that might lift the spirits of those intellectuals who have practically abandoned all hope for the country. Fortunately, there is enough oil money in the area to make the project feasible without significant money from the West.

The Iraq Study Group: Partial Evaluation

December 11, 2006

For the last several days many of those concerned with Iraq have been commenting on the Study Group report with its 79 recommendations. It is a short report, easy to read on-line. It is moderate, middle of the road, and yet immediately produced bitter criticisms, particularly from the right. Bush doesn’t like it; the Iraqi government doesn’t like it; the neocons don’t like it. I’d say they must have it about right.

My most general conclusion is that it does a good job of pointing out problems in our present performance and in describing the state of affairs in Iraq. In making military and political suggestions of what to do in Iraq it does not get us very far beyond “stay the course”. It does, however, suggest diplomatic initiatives that would offer a hope of escape from the present impasse.

As a way into a more detailed analysis, I begin with reference to the New York Times December 10 editorial on the report and a group of 12 mini-Op-Eds on the report by knowledgeable persons that the paper published the same day. The New York Times emphasizes the report’s call for greater openness through making the budget process more transparent, and through intelligence reporting that gives a clearer picture of what is actually happening ( it refers especially to an underreporting of Iraqi casualties). It also calls for the creation of an “environment” in which senior military officers feel free to offer independent advice to civilian leaders.

Several of the mini-Op-Eds had useful thoughts. Larry Diamond, who has been a political advisor in Iraq, emphasizes the recommendation that we should make clear to the Iraqis that we do not seek permanent military bases. His experience is that too many Iraqis believe we are there as an occupying power. He believes that if we make clear we are leaving, and take other steps the Report recommends — a generous amnesty, a rollback of de-Baathification, and a fixed system for the allocation of oil revenues — we will have a basis to negotiate effectively with the leaders of the Sunni insurgency. Diamond evidently feels that our essential opponent is the nationalist insurgency and not the internecine struggles of the militias.

Leslie Gelb points out that after its gloomy assessment of the situation, the Report fails to outline a strategy that really responds to the seriousness of this assessment. We can’t just urge reconciliation; we have to have a plan to make it feasible, which probably means a federal solution with power and revenue sharing spelled out more credibly than it has been. Gelb is the only commentator I have seen who makes the obvious suggestion that we should provide funds and protection for any Iraqis who want to relocate. (Our newspapers regularly report a massive and unaddressed internal and international refugee problem. I assume the Report suggests nothing to alleviate the problem because taking ethnic segregation seriously would be too defeatist.) He then goes on to say that once we make clear our intention to leave we should ally with Sunni Baathists to crush the “terrorist” in central Iraq, a job he believes the Baathists can do better than we. (Strange use of “terrorist” here; he means “the other guys”.)

Note that both Diamond and Gelb appear to believe that the Baathists can extricate themselves from their temporary alliances with Jihadists, foreigners etc. and set about bringing order to the country with our assistance. I like the idea. It turns everything on its head, but just such a dramatic rethinking is what we need. The Report says our intelligence has been terrible and a new report has just come out that maintains we know remarkably little about the enemy we are facing. The take of Gelb and Diamond on the situation is probably as good as any.

One recommendation in the Report that has come in for a great deal of criticism is that we should make it clear to the Iraqi government that we will not continue to assist them if they do not make greater efforts to overcome the military and political problems we both face. This recommendation is criticized first because it seems to contradict the statement elsewhere in the report that we should not set a definite time for leaving, with the Bush-like implication that we will only leave when the “job is done”. Second, it is criticized because it implicitly insults the Iraqis and particularly their Prime Minister. It implies that all would be well if they only “tried harder”. Some believe this approach will make anything Maliki does seem like buckling to the demands of the Americans. One mini-Op-Ed writer in this group advocates a position opposite to that of the Report: he argues that to find a successful exit we must support Maliki or his successor no matter what they do. This is the only way to give the regime a chance to stand on its own feet in the eyes of Iraqis and the world.

This foregoing recommendation that we should hold the Iraqi government to account was singled out in the stinging critique of the Report by Iraq’s President Talabani (reported in today’s paper). Talabani raised a number of other questions that undercut the effectiveness of the Report. Much of his anger echoes what Barzani and other Kurds are saying in response to the Report’s implication that we should decide now, without a plebiscite, on who owns Kirkuk and who gets the revenue from oil found in and around that city. This is just sectarian dueling. But what cuts deeper is his rejection of the idea that our military should emphasize training and assistance primarily through embedding large numbers of men and officers in Iraqi units so that they might fight more effectively (and be less sectarian). Talabani rejects this as an attempt to destroy the independence of Iraq’s security forces. If other Iraqis see it this way, then this major recommendation will be impossible to carry out.

Another part of the Report that the critics have zeroed in on are the recommendations that negotiations be opened with all of Iraq’s neighbors. There is a suggestion of one to one negotiation, but generally the discussion is of a region-wide meeting organized by the Americans. The clash of the approach to foreign affairs of the Study Group (particularly Baker) and the Bush administration is most evident in this area. Baker (indirectly in the report and personally in comments since it came out) believes that a nation negotiates with nations with which it has problems. If there were not problems in the relationship, there would be little sense in the negotiation. He does not think preconditions for negotiation are helpful. The Bush people have taken the position that a nation should negotiate primarily with countries with which it is comfortable. They regularly suggest that they would be glad to negotiate with Iran, Syria, Hamas etc. as soon as they accepted our point of view on key questions (such as nuclear development in the case of Iran). A couple of the Op-Eds support the Bush position, but more seem to welcome the open approach of the Report to negotiations.

Outside this framework, most other Op-Eds and discussions of the Report are very much in the doom and gloom category. Their comments may be summed up: “We lost, let’s just get out. America does not want another American or even another Iraqi (in so far as we are directly involved) to die because of this war.” Some read the Report as a clever papering over of this conclusion. Even the recommendation that we negotiate with neighboring states, including the recommendation that we must solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute before we can make any progress in the Middle East, appear to rest on an unstated belief that the rest of the Report is merely window dressing for an as-far-as-possible graceful exit.

To me, the Report’s greatest weakness is its inability to fully understand the depth of the hatred of many Iraqis for the Americans. Even those who initially welcomed us believe we have far overstayed our welcome, and have come to disbelieve in our promises of economic assistance in rebuilding. They see us as feckless and dangerous. They have found democracy to be too costly; their elected leaders to be as unaccountable as the unelected leaders before them. Diamond and Gelb sense this basic fact, and have organized their thoughts around it.

But with all this, how do we actually know where we are? I certainly believe that the situation is pretty hopeless. But is it unredeemable? Could unforeseen weaknesses in the forces arrayed against us come suddenly to light? It is now common wisdom that a country should not lightly decide on war. There are simply too many imponderables. This must also be true of our thinking about how to respond to this tragedy.

Iraq Alternatives Revisited

December 1, 2006

The confining of military alternatives to more, the same, or less troops — or to shifting force objectives from combat to training — is both defeatist and overly simplistic. As I suggested in a recent blog (November 9), the institutionalization of something like the CAP system employed by the Marines in Vietnam might be helpful in some areas. I also suggested that if the problem is that mixed populations are at one another’s throats, perhaps we could make it more possible to encourage and protect the further separation of people along ethnic lines. This can be accomplished even in mixed cities such as Mosul or Baghdad because of the marked tendency of different sects or ethnic groups to concentrate in certain neighborhoods.

Building on these thoughts, I want to reconsider a suggestion by American officer in Anbar province that was recently reported. He pointed out that American forces were not making progress in the province. They were apparently dying for no purpose. He said that perhaps it would be wise to remove American forces entirely.

This suggests that an alternative strategy would be based on a division of the country analytically along the following lines:

(1) Relatively peaceful except for attacks on Americans and those considered collaborators
(1a) Sunni
(1b) Shi’a
(1c) Kurd

(2) Embattled: mixed areas

The pacification effort would then proceed in two stages.


In Sunni provinces such as Anbar, it may be found that violence is largely directed at Americans and those considered to be collaborating with them or other outsiders (for example, police forces recruited in other parts of the country). In such provinces (or portions of more complex provinces), an attempt should be made to work out local peace agreements predicated on the withdrawal of American and other outside forces. Local leaders in these provinces would then be asked to guarantee the peace in the area after the withdrawals. For those persons or groups that are not satisfied that they will be protected by such arrangements, it might be agreed that the present “occupying forces” would assist in their evacuation from the province.

Some Shi’a provinces of the south and east could fit into the same category, even though at present violence levels against any “enemies” may be relatively low. Nevertheless, similar agreements should be worked out in these areas. This would have the benefit of transferring security almost entirely away from the foreigners. This kind of local guarantee of security already exists in Kurdish areas. All that would need to be done here is to make more explicit the boundaries of responsibility.

This approach should be possible in more than half the country, an area that includes perhaps half of the population.

Negotiation for full central government control in “areas under agreement” of these kinds could be left to a later stage, probably well after American and other Coalition forces have left the scene.


The rest of the country would then be analyzed, intellectually and by agreement, into smaller territorial units in which cohesive ethnic or sectarian groups (in a few areas Turkoman as well as those mentioned) would agree to take on the responsibility of ensuring the peace. In Baghdad, the units would be neighborhoods (which are steadily becoming less mixed as the fighting continues). Support for the reassortment of people on a more micro level to make this feasible would be offered along with relocation camps for those not able to benefit from such arrangements. As described in the November 9 blog, installing CAP units might make self-defense more feasible for local people who might otherwise feel surrounded by enemies. The use of foreigners in this role would be advantageous in those communities in which it has been reported that locals have come to trust government forces even less than the foreigners. Limiting CAPs to these situations would have the added advantage of keeping all foreign forces in a more limited area in which supply and reinforcement would be more feasible.

Moving from this stage to full government control in these areas would take a longer time, since the pattern of territories so defined would not fit the political units recognized by the central government. But at least the problem should be more manageable than it is at present.


In parallel with this pacification of populated areas, Coalition forces should concentrate on the protection of infrastructure and infrastructure projects (oil and water pipelines, sewerage treatment plants, electric grid capacity etc.) These efforts would bring immediate benefits for all and would involve less need for offensive operations in highly populated areas than is now the case. It is the offensive, anti-terrorist operations that have brought the coalition forces into such a negative relationship with the population that most Iraqis are said by public opinion polls to wish the foreigners to leave as soon as possible. Unless we improve our image by more positive works and less intrusive attacks, no strategy can succeed.