Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Comments on Iraq Study Group report

I just finished reading the Iraq Study Group report, a little over 100 pages including appendices.

What a fabulous document--well-written, comprehensive, and wise. I liked it almost as much as George Packer's Assassin's Gate (a must read for anyone looking to get the real story on Iraq). I was at first perplexed by the lengthy account and detail in the first part of the report about the current situation in Iraq. "Don't Americans know this stuff already?" I thought to myself. Then, I realized that most Americans certainly do not know the real state of the situation over there, because so much of the news is politicized. If you watch FOX news, you would get the warm, fuzzy feeling that we're winning the war, apart from a few setbacks. Other news sources, on the other hand, portray only doom and gloom and focus just on numbers of troops and Iraqis killed. How appropriate, then, of the ISG to come out with a bi-partisan look at the situation, one that Americans can trust as a de-politicized assessment, or at least one in which political biases have cancelled each other out.

The following points of the report really resonated with my experience in Iraq and thoughts on the predicament.

1.) "There is no guarantee for success in Iraq." Page 1, line 1 of the assessment says it all. In fact, I'd take it a step farther and propound that we're almost guaranteed NOT to be successful in Iraq if we pursue the same muddled policy. (The report mentions why the current policy is muddled, such as military ineffectiveness and lack of reconstruction coordination.)

2.) Current military operations are to no end. The report reads, "US forces can 'clear' any neighborhood but there are neither enough US troops present nor enough support from Iraqi security forces to "hold" neighborhoods so cleared." We saw this so many times in Al Anbar province (Western Iraq). The Army and/or Marines would do a large sweeping operation and so-called "clear" areas of insurgents, but the insurgents always knew the operation was coming, would hide out or hole up for a few days, and then resurface once our military units were gone.

3.) Iraq must be regarded in the context of the broader Middle East conflict, and therefore, congruent efforts must be made on the Arab-Israeli issue. Time and time again, this was mentioned in conversations with Iraqi politicians and in my experience throughout the Middle East. (See a recent article on this topic in the Christian Science Monitor:

4.) Oil revenues and resources must be under the purview of the federal government rather than Iraq's various regions. (YES, YES, YES!) The outcry this recommendation caused among Iraq's powerful Kurdish and Shia blocs just shows how little they are committed to an Iraq that benefits all its citizens. This is the one measure, that if carried out in the way most powerful political players desire (i.e. Kurds and Shia), GUARANTEES the continuation of conflict and violence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Sunnis, left in a region with no oil and no viable economy, will just be forever waging war on the other two regions in order to get some of the pie. Even more disastrously, the area, left on its own, without resources, and already home to a growing number of Sunni extremists, becomes fertile ground as a permanent terrorist safehaven.

5.) US diplomatic efforts in Iraq do not reflect the fact it is the US's highest foreign policy priority and critical to the future credibility and security of our nation. 33 out of 1,000 Embassy employees speak Arabic, states the report. That figure must include translators. There were only three Arabic speakers when I worked in the Embassy, plus the translators and some Arab-American contractors who worked in the Iraq Reconstruction and Management office. As one of those who did not speak a word of Arabic at the time, I know how hampering the language divide is. It required herculean efforts not to be in the dark about what was really going on inside government ministries, official statements and news, and biased who we would talk to (i.e. those who spoke English). Which brings me to the next point:

6.) ISG's key recommendation on US troops is to transition them out of Iraq by stepping up efforts to support, train, and equip Iraqi army and police. To accomplish this, the report calls for increased American troops as military advisors embedded in all the Iraqi units in the Army and police. I highly doubt that the US military has that number of translators who could work side by side with the military officers in these various units.

7.) The report puts forward a similar idea on training the Iraqi police. They call for more training of police units by civilians, who should be located side by side with Iraqis, even at police stations. Given the security environment, finding such individuals willing to take on those roles will be very difficult, if not impossible. If they do, it will come at great cost to the taxpayer to front the bill for the security teams to protect those US trainers. (For example, when I was planning to go to Baghdad last month, my security would have cost $85,000/month and that was only inside the green zone.)

More comments to come...

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