Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The View

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery in western Baghdad, has a good, thorough, no-nonsense report on the situation on the ground there up at The Fourth Rail.

Virtually all the U.S. officials with whom I spoke feel that American strategy now boils down to a single goal: strategic disengagement. That is, the U.S. wants to strengthen the Iraqi government to the point that it is self-sustaining enough that the country will not collapse into chaos as U.S. troops are brought back home. It’s unclear how long this will take. One Army staff sergeant who has worked closely with the Iraqi army and police thinks that “several years” is the best estimate. (The Iraqi forces will be discussed further below.) A U.S. official told me that in the past, the line was always that the U.S. was “six months” away from turning the country over to the Iraqis. This was detrimental to overall planning, because strategy was geared toward maximizing results over the six-month period before the handover would allegedly take place. Now the military’s plans are more long-term: they are trying to look at what will be best for Iraq several years down the line, and placing less emphasis on when the U.S. commitment expires.

U.S. strategy is not just military in nature. Rather, it is designed to eliminate some of the underlying conditions that sap the average Iraqi’s faith in the country’s civil society. For example, in the districts that 2-32 patrols -- Yarmouk and Hateen -- there are four lines of operation: security, governance, economy, and essential services. According to Major Brynt Parmeter, who works at the brigade level, the overall goals are to reduce sectarian fighting, increase the Iraqi security forces’ capabilities, and improve local government to empower it to provide the services that Iraqis need. The Iraqis lack a number of essential services. Right now the U.S. focus is on food centers, financial institutions, fuel, and medical needs—but the Iraqis are also lacking in trash collection, reliable sewers, electricity, and other services. The effect of the lack of essential services on Iraqis should not be underestimated. Gas cost 5 cents a liter under Saddam Hussein; now the official price has skyrocketed to about 70 cents a liter. But in practice it is far higher than that: according to Lieutenant Patrick Henson, there is only one government-run gas station in the Yarmouk district. When the long lines around the station are coupled with security concerns, it should come as no surprise that many Iraqis buy their gas from the black market, where prices can reach $2 a liter. In other words, Iraqis may be paying more for their gas than Americans -- and the average Iraqi income is substantially lower than the average American income.

Other topics: The Surge, The Iraqi Security Forces, The Effect of Deployments on U.S. Soldiers, Insurgent Weapons and Tactics.

And, of course, our perceptions from half a world away, and how we're just not able to see the thing whole:

Right now our country is embroiled in a critical debate about setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Unfortunately, this is one of the most intellectually impoverished political debates that I have ever witnessed, with both sides often resorting to sloganeering and demagoguery rather than substantive argumentation. One thing that my time in Iraq underscored to me is that, in looking at the country, many people see what they want to see. I would often think about the stories that journalists might write if they went where I went and saw what I saw. For example, after my first night on patrol—when the civilians we saw were clearly happy to see U.S. troops and felt comfortable around them—a conservative journalist might write a piece countering the stories about Iraqis hating us and wanting us to leave. Fine—but what about polls indicating that a shockingly high percentage of Iraqis think it’s okay to kill American troops? What about neighborhoods where U.S. troops would encounter a very different reception? On the other hand, a liberal journalist could write a very funny piece about the Iraqi army’s sloth and trigger-happy approach to the world, and conclude that we need to leave immediately because the Iraqi security forces are hopeless and at least a withdrawal will put some fire in their belly. Fine—but what about Iraqi soldiers’ improvements? What about the likelihood that pulling out would guarantee the Iraqi army’s failure?

There is some truth to both the right-wing and left-wing narratives above. But policymakers and analysts need to do better than having some truth to their positions. The Iraq debate is so important that politicians and opinion-leaders shouldn’t simply latch onto evidence that supports their pre-existing view. My intention in this report is to provide an objective assessment of a number of critical strategic trends in Iraq—and in that way help to advance public debate beyond where it currently sits.