Monday, April 23, 2007

More proof of the Bush administration's stupidity regarding Iraq (or more proof of what was ignored and disregarded)


On October 25, 2006, I published Part 6 of a retrospective series on why 1) the Iraq war was a bad idea, and 2) Jonah Goldberg is a putz. That post was based in large part on a post I published on September 30, 2004, Wolfowitz's Reason 3 why Shinseki was wrong. The primary point of those posts was to show that "Only someone who is a moron or delusional would not have foreseen what a mess Iraq would become after Saddam was gone."

I discussed many different reasons why Iraq was likely to become a complete cluster f#@!, but I want to reiterate a few of them because now a soldier who served in Iraq has corroborated those reasons. What is even scarier is that those reasons have not only become reality, they have largely spun out of control.

The previously discussed reasons I reiterate now concern the tribal and clan aspects of Iraqi culture. Here's some of what I wrote on October 26, 2006 (which in part quoted what I wrote on September 30, 2004):
"Iraq Backgrounder: What Lies Beneath," an October 1, 2002, report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), provided a good general statement of what was known before the war about how post-war Iraq might be.
Indeed, many tensions between opposition groups derive from deeper fault-lines that pre-date Saddam Hussein and are likely to survive him. These divides are principally along religious, ethnic and tribal lines...
For anyone thinking that the ICG must be some sort of crazy leftist group, perhaps this excerpt from a December 11, 2002, artice from the Wall Street Journal will be more credible:
If a U.S.-led force succeeds in ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the victors would inherit a traumatized society full of festering conflicts that didn't start with him and wouldn't suddenly fade with his departure...
tribal allegiances were and are very strong in Iraq. As the December 11, 2202, WSJ article put it,
Another potential powder keg: As civil order unravels, many Iraqis are likely to retreat into the protection of tribal clans. These play a major role in Iraqi society, and their intensely protective tribal codes could bring quick violent retribution for threats or injury to their members.
The October 1, 2002, ICG report explained that "Tribal identities have largely survived modernisation and the growing role of the central state and remain important social and political units in Iraq," and "The tribal ethos...currently is the principal dispenser of people’s identity, of regulation, and of authority." Why does this matter? Well, among other reasons, the Iraqi tribal system was "replete with shifts in allegiances, betrayals, conditional alliances and, above all, men in arms[.]"
The corroboration is an article published in the February 2007 edition of ARMY Magazine. Entitled "The Modern Seven Pillars of Iraq," the article explains in detail the impact of 1) tribal and clan society, and 2) our failure to take it into account.

The second paragraph of the article provides a good summation:
There is bipartisan and military recognition that the security atmosphere in Iraq is degrading. Insurgent and criminal violence is on the increase. And yet, continuing the same policies of the past four years, except with a larger force package (a “surge,” as it is popularly described), is the primary course of action being floated by the civilian leadership. Clinging to the belief that more military force is the answer to Iraq’s internal political struggles, despite four years of that policy gradually failing, reveals a fundamental weakness in this administration’s understanding of Iraqi political and cultural priorities.
Background on the author

The author of the article is Lt. Col. Craig Trebilcock, who is in the Army Reserve, a JAG officer (meaning he is a lawyer), and an Iraq veteran. He served in Iraq in the first year of the war. As described in the article,
During a one-year deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lt. Col. Craig T. Trebilcock was in daily contact with pro-Coalition Iraqi officials, uncooperative Baathist officials, Coalition Provisional Authority bureaucrats and, most importantly, the average Iraqi in the street. His mission to coordinate reconstruction of Iraqi legal institutions required him to lead convoys throughout southern Iraq six days of the week and then travel to Baghdad to report developments to the relatively isolated policymakers in the Green Zone on the seventh. This experience provided him with a unique vantage point from which to observe Iraqi culture and politics. It led him to further deduce that policymakers from Washington, during their short Green Zone tours, had little sense of Iraqi culture and priorities, nor did they significantly consider how such factors might impede the success of their plans.
Now I know what some of you are thinking--It has been three years since Trebilcock was in Iraq, so how can his article be valid? He addressed that question in a response to a letter to the ARMY Magazine:
I have not been in a box since 2003-04, and there was no intent to compare the current Iraqi police forces and the IFF in my article. The IFF reference was simply to show that looking out for one's own best interest is much more of a cultural value in Iraq than is sacrifice for the greater good of the nation...This information comes from civil affairs personnel I remain in regular contact with who are still in Baghdad.
And should anyone think that Trebilcock is or was against the Iraq war, an editorial he wrote in October 2003 should dispel any such notion. With this in mind, let's take a look at Trebilcock's "seven pillars."

The "modern seven pillars" of Iraqi culture and society

Based on his experience, Trebilcock describes seven fundamental aspects of Iraqi society which he says must be the basis of American policy in the country.
1—Iraqi society is based upon a strict patriarchal hierarchy under which a sheikh has absolute power over his tribe. The concept of civil government centralized at the provincial and national level is still relatively new (only a few decades old) to the Iraqis, whose social structure remains tribal. As such, the Western concept of democracy and the value of sharing power is an alien concept within their society. It is only important to Iraqi officials while the U.S. officials coordinating reconstruction efforts are in the room dispensing benefits.
2—The primary concern of Iraqi officials is not democracy or the political evolution of a successful Iraqi nationstate. It is the use of their position in government to gain personal wealth, as well as benefits for their extended family, tribe or sect. This observation is not a character attack, but merely reflects the reality that in a Bedouin society, where the foundational social unit is the tribe, one’s primary loyalty and goals run to that tribe. Saddam’s government was packed with his family and tribal members because they were loyal and because it was expected of him, within the culture, to bring benefits to his tribe by virtue of his prominence. Other Iraqi officials are no different in this regard; it is their cultural norm for the political leader to work in his self-interest and for that of his tribe.
3—If Iraqis do not value something, they will not fight for it. This is one reason why the Iraqi army made such poor showings in the Gulf War and in Operation Iraqi Freedom-1 (OIF-1). They melted away because they were being asked to fight for something in which they did not believe. Yet these same Iraqis are tenaciously fighting the world’s predominant military power tooth and nail in their tribal areas and in their cities. What’s the difference? The insurgents are now fighting for something they believe in—expelling foreign troops and sectarian enemies from the tribal areas and cities that they hold dear.
4—In a society that is evolving from a difficult Bedouin desert existence, where water and other base staples of life have historically been in short supply, the Iraqis have learned that the group that controls the resources of the province or nation lives; he who does not dies. Sharing of resources or power with competing groups outside one’s own tribe is an unfamiliar and foreign concept.
5—Individually, Iraqis are a warm and generous people. As the size of their group grows, however, whether as a family unit, tribe or an entire sect, their generosity to those not within their social circle wanes. The historic sense that one only takes care of his own—borne of their harsh desert life—minimizes their collective willingness to compromise or share resources or power. The lessons they have learned through centuries of desert survival is that only the strong get the resources and survive. As such, armed struggle for power, not compromise and democratic-style debate, is the norm.
6—Trading and bartering for personal or tribal gain is part of the Iraqi/Bedouin culture. Self-sacrifice for the general welfare is not. Accordingly, our frustration with “Why don’t the Iraqis just try to get along for their mutual benefit?” is a Western, culturally based value judgment being applied to an Oriental society for whom violent conflict to gain advantage is the norm. If the current Sunni insurgency is to be stopped, therefore, we must demonstrate to the Iraqi insurgents that the personal benefits of a peace with the Shiites clearly outweighs the possible gain by continuing to fight for dominance. Increased U.S. military operations will inflame this struggle for political dominance, not diminish it.
7—Iraqis do not share Western concepts on the use, passage or value of time. They sincerely believe that if a matter is truly important, Allah will control the outcome, and the personal efforts of individuals are merely tangential to that outcome. This is a source of frustration for U.S. servicemembers who have served in Iraq and seen an apparent lack of resolve, follow-through or reliability from his Iraqi counterpart. The concept of inshallah—”God willing” or “only if God wills it, will it happen”—overshadows all aspects of Iraqi life, including reconstruction and political evolution. As such, the political resolution, if any, in Iraq will be achieved according to the glacial pace of Iraqi society, not based on a U.S. timetable. It is critical to recognize this concept if we wish to set realistic timetables for the continued presence and relevance of U.S. troops in Iraq.
(bold type in original)

Evidence and impact of the Bush administration's disregard for the seven pillars

Every paragraph of Trebilcock's article after listing the seven pillars is important, but I will quote only a few. He succinctly describes the overall problem as follows:
Under these seven pillars, relying upon foreign military forces to impose a lasting political solution upon the Iraqis will not work. In truth, the military victory was won in 2003. It is the peace and the postconflict stability that is being lost daily by our civilian leaders’ attempts to use the wrong tool (military force) to change Iraqi cultural values. Lack of political agility or introspection by U.S. civilian leadership is bringing us back to the brink of losing Iraq politically.
And that's the optimistic paragraph. The remainder paints a not very pretty picture. Trebilcock explains the problems with Bush insisting on "planting the flag of Liberty" in Iraq:
As the concept of democracy does not have significant value in Iraqi culture, the people’s willingness to fight and die for its success is virtually nonexistent. Instead, consistent with their cultural expectations, Iraqis will tend to use their official or security positions to gain personal and family advantage, even if “Rome” burns about them. The daily involvement of corrupt Iraqi police in kidnappings and extortion reflects this. Accordingly, the Iraqi troops we are training now will be enthusiastic to the extent they are being fed and clothed, as opposed to joining the 80 percent unemployment rate among young men in Iraq. It is naïve, however, to believe their willingness to serve is to preserve democracy or the U.S.-backed central government.

This history does not mean that Iraqis are not capable of securing Iraq in the long term. It does mean that it has to be done by Iraqis, on Iraqi terms and over values for which they are willing to fight. Self-preservation may be one of those values—democracy is not. Promoting the integrity and power of their respective tribes within a new Iraq is definitely such a cultural value. U.S. policies built on the premise that Iraqi officials and security forces will rally to Western political values if only we “stick it out a while longer” are naïve in the extreme and underlie our repeated shortcomings in trying to reconstruct Iraq.
What Trebilcock calls naivete I have called and will continue to call delusion and stupidity. Also, on August 16, 2004, I pointed out that Gen. Tommy Franks knew before the war that providing jobs for Iraqis should have been part of the reconstruction program. Instead, we established an 80% unemployment rate.

In analyzing the proposed surge, I wrote on January 17, 2007, that "the whole point of this 'new plan' is for the Bush administration to score some PR points here at home." Trebilcock supports that view and provides additional analysis:
It is against these seven cultural pillars that one can now evaluate the strategic merit of administration policies that rely on U.S. military forces to fight their way to a political resolution. Apparently, the logic runs that the Iraqi forces are not ready yet, but that with a few more months and some additional tens of thousands of U.S. troops all can yet be solved militarily—either by defeating the insurgents through the force of U.S. arms or by buying enough time for a meaningful Iraqi security force to stand up. This supposition, ignoring the seventh pillar, is based on hope, rather than cultural reality, as a cause of action. The policies to perpetuate and increase U.S. military involvement are underpinned with challenging phrases like "cut and run" and "not engaging in defeatism" to quiet critics, but are short on realism or appreciation of Iraqi culture.
(emphasis in original). Again, I say "stupid and delusional." In his next paragraph, Trebilcock provides a different type of explanation as to why the continued use of military force rather than incorporating the seven pillars will continue to fail.
The proposed surge also ignores the lessons of the past four years regarding the limits of what a PFC with an M16 really can and cannot accomplish on a street corner in Baghdad. The U.S. soldier or marine can secure his street corner, but he cannot make the Iraqis who walk past him care about their government. He can engage insurgents or criminals with effective firepower, but he cannot make the Iraqis willing to risk disclosing the locations of known insurgent cells when they do not believe in the U.S. mission. He cannot cause the Iraqis to forget hundreds of years of cultural hatred in order to accept that peace with one’s enemy is better than watching him die. Each of these goals is a necessary component for political stability in Iraq and must come from within, not from additional U.S. combat brigades.
(emphasis added). Or, as Wes Clark put it in a May 2004 article in Washington Monthly, "democracy in the Middle East is unlikely to come at the point of our gun."

Trebilcock then makes a point that Clark stressed repeatedly during the '04 campaign: "And so, while there is not a square inch of Iraq that we cannot occupy and control at any time of our choosing, that fact is largely irrelevant for the long-term stability of a country that requires a political solution, not a military one." (emphasis added). And yet it is beyond dispute that the Bush administration's primary tool has always been the military, and Trebilcock warns of a continuation of that policy:
There is no easy solution in Iraq, but the discourse in Washington that considers no diplomatic or political avenues to resolve a political problem stands an excellent chance of seizing strategic political defeat from the jaws of our 2003 battlefield victory. Clausewitz stated that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." Current U.S. civilian policymakers have morphed this into: "War is the only policy for political means in Iraq." This short-sighted view is the most likely to lead to the very political defeat the administration fears.
"Short-sighted" is defined as lacking foresight. While the term certainly is applicable to the Bush administration, I still maintain that "stupidity and delusion" are more accurate terms. In my January 17, 2007, post, I pointed out that the surge had been done before and had not achieved lasting success, and Trebilcock expounds on that point:
We have been squeezing the balloon with anti-insurgent operations for four years, clamping down on one area only to watch it bulge elsewhere. Today’s theory is that enough kinetic force exerted upon Baghdad and Al Anbar province will win the day or buy enough time for the Iraqis to "stabilize" and provide their own security. The fact that it has been tried before in Fallujah, Najaf and a variety of other Sunni Triangle hot spots, without resolving the long-term political problems, is not deterring the administration’s planners.
What terms accurately describe conduct which keeps implementing the same actions which do not work? Stupidity and delusion.

Signs that Trebilcock is right

"The Modern Seven Pillars of Iraq" was written before the surge had had time to accomplish anything, but now there are signs that Trebilcock's views are in fact correct.

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an article entitled "Top U.S. Officers See Mixed Results From Iraq 'Surge'." The first two paragraphs support Trebilcock's assertions that the surge would not succeed and that a political, not military solution is required.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved "modest progress" but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed.

Assessing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital, senior American commanders -- including Petraeus; Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of military operations in Iraq; and top regional commanders -- see mixed results. They said that while an increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, attacks have risen sharply elsewhere. Critical now, they said in interviews this week, is for Iraqi leaders to forge the political compromises needed for long-term stability.
The article goes on to state that while sectarian murders in Baghdad went from 1200 in January to 400 in March, "suicide bombings have increased 30 percent over the six weeks that ended in early April." The U.S. commanders see this as "among the most troubling trends...because they risk reigniting sectarian revenge killings and undermining the government." In other words, while the surge thusfar has arguably reduced sectarian murders, it has resulted in an great increase in another type of murder and violence, which itself could lead to an increase in sectarian murders. What makes the increase in suicide bombings particularly disturbing is the tremendous difficulty in stopping such attacks.
It is virtually impossible to eliminate the suicide bombings, the commanders acknowledged. "I don't think you're ever going to get rid of all the car bombs," Petraeus said. "Iraq is going to have to learn -- as did, say, Northern Ireland -- to live with some degree of sensational attacks." A more realistic goal, he said, but one that has eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces, is to prevent the bombers from causing "horrific damage."
So, the surge really cannot stop suicide bombings, and those suicide bombings present a direct and indirect threat to maintaining whatever success the surge has achieved so far and to the overall objective.

The WaPo article has an explanation from Petraeus about the use of concrete walls and barriers as part of the overall plan:
Another part of the strategy is to wall off communities along their traditional boundaries to control population access and prevent attacks.

"That's part of the concrete caterpillar," Petraeus said, pointing out a barrier going up in a neighborhood in west Baghdad. "That market was shut completely down when I took command -- now it has 200 shops," he said.
Ah, but there is a major problem with this barrier strategy, namely that the Iraqis are upset with it and stopping at least part of it. As explained here, here, and here, the U.S. was building a 3-mile concrete wall between a large Sunni neighborhood and Shia-controlled areas of Baghdad, but the Sunnis protested strongly, and Prime Minister Maliki has ordered that construction be stopped. These events support Trebilcock's assertion that any "solution" is going to have to be something the Iraqis want, and they point out a related fact. We cannot do anything in Iraq that the Iraqis say they do not want. Relying primarily--if not almost exclusively--on military operations is not going to change that simple fact. Ultimately, we are not in total control of the situation--and we never will be. This reality necessitates the use of diplomacy and political (as opposed to military) tactics, just as asserted by Trebilcock. Moreover, for such tactics to be effective, our government must accept Iraqi culture as described by Trebilcock and act accordingly. The Bush administration cannot continue to ignore those matters as if our Western and American customs and mores trump everything else in the world.

What lies ahead

As shown above, Trebilcock says there is no easy solution. Indeed, other parts of his article suggest a course of action that will result in an increase in sectarian violence. However, a major point of his article is that pursuing the same course as the last four years will not and cannot work. The last two paragraphs of his article offer a new course of action as well as a warning if a new approach is not taken:
In light of the seven pillars, if one ties the duration or size of the U.S. military presence to political progress by the Iraqi government, one better strap in for a mission of indefinite duration and perpetual sectarian violence. Conversely, if one wishes to jump-start Iraqi political progress, reducing the presence of U.S. troops or their active involvement in combat operations (accepting that this will lead to greater sectarian bloodshed in the short run) creates a possible incentive for the Shiite and Sunni desert traders to barter terms for coexistence—survival and preservation of their tribal social orders.

Our civilian leadership, desperately seeking to avoid the embarrassment of political defeat in Iraq, proposes to send in its military reserve, calling it “a temporary surge” for political consumption. From a military operational standpoint this will enable us to kick in more doors, kill more bad guys and secure more territory—in the short run. From the strategic political standpoint this will expose the inability of a weak Iraqi government to rule its own people, create more civilian casualties among an already embittered populace and likely become the final straw, rendering open domestic political opposition to our continued military presence in Iraq acceptable to a war-weary citizenry. In the end, by ignoring the cultural and internal political realities of Iraq in favor of a one-dimensional approach based upon military remedies, the civilian leadership of our military will likely win the battle and lose the war.


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