Monday, April 23, 2007

Iraq: Surgin' Safari

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, says the ongoing surge of troops in Iraq is achieving "modest progress." But he also allows as how, yeah, there have been setbacks--devastating suicide bombings, penetrations of the Green Zone, blown up bridges and little stuff like that. Two months into the surge, Petraeus and other senior commanders say they see "mixed results." An increase in troop levels has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, they say, but attacks have increased elsewhere. Suicide bombings have increased 30 percent over the last six weeks.

If that's modest progress, cherry Life Savers are a modest cure for throat cancer.

Senior U.S. commanders admit that the real solution lies in political compromise among the various sectarian factions in Iraq, and they've been saying that all along. Security in Baghdad, in theory, is merely an enabling objective that will allow the political process to take place.

This line of reasoning is based on a flawed assumption, namely that the sectarian violence and the political infighting are separate issues. The key militia groups committing the sectarian violence are, for the most part, controlled by or loyal to the very members of parliament responsible for the political infighting. The "logic" behind the security strategy says that if we can (a) take away the politicians' militias then (b) the politicians will be forced to compromise. That's an overly optimistic expectation.

Even if (a) can produce (b), (a) itself has little likelihood of succeeding. As we have seen, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army to fade into the woodwork, thereby avoiding a decisive confrontation with U.S. forces. This leaves American troops with Sunni militias as the main available adversaries, and in the process of executing operations against the Sunni groups, we've allowed al-Sadr to manipulate us into doing his dirty work for him. Don't think we'll manage to take out the Sunni militias, though. They, along with the tiny al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, may continue to commit spectacular random acts of violence in Baghdad and elsewhere, but like the Mahdi Army, they understand that a key tenet of guerilla style warfare is to not risk defeat in a direct confrontation with a superior military force.

Adding to the difficulty of the military piece of the problem is lack of unity of command. U.S and Iraqi forces operate under separate chains of command, something that U.S. commanders claim has not caused major problems. One has to question that claim.

U.S. forces had planned to build a wall around Baghdad's mostly Sunni Adhamiya neighborhood. The neighborhood is a stronghold of militant Sunni groups, and the wall was intended as a means of controlling their movements. Last week, U.S. military officials described the Adhamiya wall as “one of the centerpieces of a new strategy.”

But Iraqis took to the streets in protest, and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered a halt to the wall's construction. American officials weren't eager to follow al-Maliki's directive right away, but on Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said, “Obviously we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister."

Interestingly though, according to other news sources, spokesman for the Baghdad Law Enforcement Plan Qassem Atta said on Monday that construction on the Adhamiya wall has resumed.

What's really going on over there? And who's really in charge? Petraeus? Al-Maliki? Ambassador Crocker? Qasse Atta? Ahmed Pyle? Anybody?

We get reports, mostly from mid-grade and senior U.S. officers, that Iraqi security forces are improving, but this kind of testimonial evidence is highly unreliable. We've heard this happy talk about "standing up" before, and it turned out to be false. Why should we believe it now? In the past, members of Iraq's security forces were known to be more loyal to the militias than to the government, and it's foolhardy to think that situation has changed significantly. Leopards and spots, and all that.

Petraeus met in Washington with Mr. Bush on Monday. At a press conference after the meeting, Mr. Bush said "As the general will tell the folks on Capitol Hill, there's been some progress. There's been some horrific bombings, of course." So it sounds like the company line on the surge progress is firmly established. Everybody's hunkered down behind the same pile of sandbags.

In response to a reporter's question regarding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's remarks that he is in denial about Iraq, Mr. Bush said, "I believe strongly that politicians in Washington shouldn't be telling generals how to do their job." Bush also told reporters "I will, of course, be willing to work with the Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, on a way forward."

Mr. Bush has always been willing to work with Congress--as long as Congress gave him exactly what he wanted. Hopefully, the rubber stamp days are over for good. It is, in fact, time for Congress to start telling generals how to do their job. We're not talking about the nuts and bolts of where and how to deploy troops and design operations. The kinds of things Reid and others in Congress are pressing for--timelines, deployment cycles, training requirements and so on--are matters of policy, not of strategy or tactics, and in the United States of America, generals do not dictate national policy. At least, they're not supposed to.

Further, assertions that foreign policy is the sole prerogative of the executive branch are specious at best. Articles I and II of the U.S. Constitution make foreign policy a responsibility shared by the executive and legislative branches, and the Constitution assigns the preponderance of war making powers to Congress, not to the president.

Lamentably, in today's American political scene, the question of delegation of constitutional foreign policy powers has become moot because the people who now formulate that policy--and its companion strategies like the "surge"--are Bill Kristol's neoconservative cabal, the same folks who got us into our Iraq fiasco in the first place, and they don't have any authority under the Constitution.

The new "way forward" looks more every day like an extended run of "stay the course." Some of the featured players have been recast, and the script has been rewritten slightly, but it's still the same freak show.

The House-Senate Conference Committee announced late Monday that it has approved the Iraq Accountability Act. The Act covers troop readiness standards, benchmarks for the Iraqi government, and mandatory U.S. troop redeployment dates. Kudos to Congress for making a full court press to stop the Bush administration's Middle East madness. Hopefully, their efforts will be successful, and will come to fruition in time to keep the stern of our ship of state from disappearing under a sand dune.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at Pen and Sword.


  1. Anonymous2:14 PM

    Compliments of MeMyselfEye

  2. The clowns may change their makeup, but it's still the same ol' circus.

    No offense to any actual clowns intended, of course.

  3. A question, sir: Would you mind if I quote some of your writing in translated norwegian in a article I am writing? Ill send you a carbon-copy if you want.

  4. Jeff:

    Here's a question I can't seem to find an answer to - perhaps that's understandable but I think the question should be asked.

    Has our military leadership in Iraq developed contingency plans for a withdrawal from Iraq; one likely to occur under very chaotic/violent conditions? And if so, is that plan being constantly updated and revised in accordance with the changing situation on the ground? I ask because I believe that sooner or later, an event will occur that will signal an imminent departure of US troops from Iraq. It could be the U.S. election results in 2008 or some other event that occurs sooner.

    When that event happens, many things -- most of them not condusive to an orderly withdrawal -- could begin to happen quickly. Time to react to these events may be very short. Our military should be prepared to withdraw in a way that limits casualties. Advance planning could obviously make a dramatic difference. And the lack of such contingency plans at this point would be, in my opinion, bordering on irresponsible.

    Can we know this or at least justifiably assume that such a contingency is being adequetly planned for? I certainly hope so.

  5. MK,

    I'd be honored to have you quote me. Thanks, and thanks for asking.


    I don't know how to answer your question. William Lind wrote a piece on this recently for,15202,130593,00.html

    Lind, in essence, says he hopes somebody somewhere if figuring out a way for U.S. forces to withdraw through Turkey the way the Greeks did in 400 something B.C.

  6. Jeff,

    Thanks for the link to Mr. Lind's opinion piece. Obviously, others are concerned with this same issue. But maybe not all the right "others".

    I'm not familiar with William Lind so I'm unsure how much weight to give his opinion. But if he knows his stuff, it's more than a little frightening. Mr Lind's suggestion that "every American battalion and company in Iraq to have its own Operation Anabasis plan" seems to suggest that Lind, at least, does not believe senior command is taking this prospect seriously enough. Ironically, the reasons Mr. Lind gives for possible reasons for a retreat (Israel attacking Iran, Shiites inside Iraq) don't take into account the effect of the political landscape here in the U.S that prompted my question. So to Mr. Linds proposed reasons, I add my own.

    It's good to know that at least someone else is considering the same question -- but I did not find comfort in Lind's article. Just the opposite in fact.

    Thank you.

  7. WilliamBollinger8:12 AM

    Y'all are forgittin that the Decider has decided, and that we is gonna to succeed! You dont need continj..., corntin..., a backup plan unless you is plannin to fail, and we aint gonna, cause he decided! Failure is what them Defeatocrats talk about. Refantasycans live in a better world that they make up as they go, and in that world, we win!

  8. As long as the US Embassy roof can support the weight of a helicopter, and there's a place in the embassy compound from which to take an iconic photo, we'll be OK.

  9. WilliamBollinger1:12 PM

    Was that US Embassy built by KBR?

  10. EdNSted5:18 PM

    Hmmmmmm... From the MORE IS LESS department:

    Extended Deployments Should Lessen Army Stress, Commander Says

    "Extended overseas deployments affecting soldiers serving in Afghanistan and other locales overseen by U.S. Central Command should help to alleviate the stress on the Army, a senior U.S. officer in Afghanistan told Pentagon reporters today.

    The 15-month deployments are needed to ensure that the Army retains the capacity to sustain the deployed force, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said April 13 from Baghdad during a teleconference with Pentagon reporters.


    The tour extensions will provide more predictability and stability for soldiers and their families, Odierno said, noting the policy “will ensure 12 months at home station between rotations.”

  11. EdNSted5:20 PM

    Errata: The ellipse should have gone between quoted paragrphs 1 and 2 in the post above.

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