Thursday, December 07, 2006

I Read the Iraq Study Group Report

For the past nine months the ten person, bipartisan Iraq Study Group (a.k.a. the Baker-Hamilton Commission) of elderly public figures has met, and in the process their much-anticipated report was expected by many to be the last, best hope for fixing what's gone wrong with the war.

Well, the report dropped yesterday, and as can be expected, reactions were all over the place. Some hailed it as a bold acknowledgement of mistakes and a call for change, some were offended by perceived threats, and some yawned and suggested that the report was exactly the kind of thing that would be produced by a large group of people with opposite ideologies who are forces to come to a consensus. That is to say, a painting brushed with broad strokes, a lot of stating the obvious. That is what I was expecting, but I had to read it for myself, and I would encourage you to do so as well.

Instead of running out to Borders or clicking over to Amazon to buy the ISG Report for $10.95, you can do what I did and read it online for free. At about 60 pages excluding appendices and surprisingly easy to read, the ISG report is helpful even for those who are not too familiar with the details of the situation in Iraq. The report provides background on the security situation, sectarian conflict, political and religious leaders, legislative and judicial issues, economic implications, and more.

All the news reports have focues on the two main recommendations from the executive summary, which are described below:
  1. The U.S. needs to ask its bitter enemies Iran and Syria for help in stemming the flow of insurgents and encouraging Iraqi national unity. This recommendation is already causing indigestion amongst many hawkish conservatives--a guest on the conservative blog PowerLine ridiculed the notion of getting "terrorists [sic] supporting countries involved in fighting terrorism." The ISG also generically recommends diplomatic initiatives to resolve tensions in Lebanon and provide a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel dispute.

  2. "Significantly" more troops should be sent to Iraq temporarily to help with security, but most American forces in Iraq could be withdrawn by early 2008. I agree with this position, but I know it's bound to draw fire from both critics and supporters of the war. The former will not want to send more men and women to die in Iraq, and the latter will refuse to give up on the mission or abandon the Iraqi people.
While the above two recommendations have generated much of the headlines, I found several interesting insights in the background assesment part of the report. What follows is the rather lengthy list I wound up jotting down (all emphases added by me unless otherwise indicated):
  • Props for not mincing words and stating the obvious from the get-go: the intro paragraph in the first section says "The level of violence is high and growing. There is great suffering, and the daily lives of many Iraqis show little or no improvement. Pessimism is pervasive." To its credit, the ISG denounced "staying the course," an acknowledgement that the war is going badly, and was equally disparaging to the idea of withdrawing immediately.

  • How bad is the security situation? "Total attacks [against U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi security forces] in October 2006 averaged 180 per day, up from 70 per day in January 2006...Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month."

  • On the sources of violence in Iraq: "Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency...It has significant support from within the Sunni Arab community." The Bush administration, by playing up al Qaeda's role, does not acknowledge the fact that the main troublemakers are themselves Iraqis. To be fair, although al Qaeda plays a small role, "that includes some of the more spectacular acts: suicide attacks, truck bombs, and attacks on significant religious or political targets." Its goal is to incite all-out war between Shi'a and Sunni.

    The main problem, though, remains sectarian violence, which "causes the largest number of Iraqi civilian casualties." Shiite militias/death squads include two prominent groups: the Mahdi Army (which has "as many as 60,000 fighters"), led by Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Brigade, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, which is closely tied to Iran.

  • How are Iraqis being affected by the war? "The United Nations estimates that 1.6 million are displaced within Iraq, and up to 1.8 million Iraqis have fled the country."

  • We have trained and equipped 326,000 Iraqi security forces (police and Army). The Army is making "fitful progress"--it is described as "one of the more professional Iraqi institutions." That said, sectarian divisions run rife even here, and large parts of the Army apparently refuse to carry out their assigned missions. Then there's the whole lack of leadership, equipment, personnel, logistics, and support.

    That's at least better than the police, who "cannot control crime" and who "routinely engage in sectarian violence, including the unnecessary detention, torture, and targeted execution of Sunni Arab civilians." The police forces are heavily infiltrated by militia members, assasins, and other thugs.

  • The report on the political and religious leaders in Iraq is bleak: Prime Minister Maliki is beholden to Sadr, who has built a political party within government and maintains an outside armed militia in a manner reminiscent of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, the moderate Ayatollah Sistani, wants a unified Iraq, but his influence is declining. Iraq's third major ethnic group, the Kurds, want their own state--their leaders certainly don't care much for the idea of the Iraqi nation.

  • The Kurds already have their own autonomous regious, and the Shiites may press for one in the future. The Sunnis want a unified Iraq, but only with themselves as the rulers. There is no economically feasible independent Sunni state, because Iraq's oil reserves are all located in Kurdish or Shi'a areas.

  • Do these guys make Ken Lay look tame? "Corruption is rampant. One senior Iraqi official estimated that official corruption costs Iraq $5-7 billion per year."

  • Regarding the economy: "Growth in Iraq is at roughly 4 percent this year. Inflation is above 50 percent. Unemployment estimates range widely from 20 to 60 percent."

  • The cost of war for the U.S.: $400 billion so far. We are currently spending $8 billion each month! The ISG says the final bill could be as high as $2 trillion.
After the report concludes the Assessment portion, it moves on to recommendations. And you know how old people always love to give advice? This panel certainly did--79 recommendations in all, with perhaps the two most important described above.

Of the rest, they range from consequential to mundane, with some maddeningly generic. For example, they call for "significantly greater analytic resources to the task of understanding the threats and sources of violence in Iraq." In any case, I'm sure over the next week or two, we'll see more discussion and debate of the specific recommendations. At that time I might have more to say about them.


Andrew said...

When I read about how divided the population is, I get very depressed. I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but when I see that my reaction is "it sounds like most of them don't WANT a unified Iraq, and if that's the case, why are we even there trying to help them hold it together?" I see the parts about the army refusing the carry out orders and the police engaging in the violence they're supposed to be stopping and I think, "there's no national allegiance, no patriotism, so why waste lives trying to keep that nation together when it apparently would rather tear itself apart?" I just...don't have a solution.

Jay said...

Yeah, it's hard to build an Iraq when large segments of the population aren't interested in an Iraq. But it's hard for me to believe that the majority of Iraqi people prefer anarchy over a democracy, so then there must be some hope.

The interesting question, to which we don't know the answer yet, is whether our presence there now is preventing a real resolution. In Friday's NYT, Tom Friedman described the current situation as "controlled chaos," where other Middle East states like Iraq and Syria are enjoying the U.S.'s struggles. But if were to leave, Friedman says, then what? Then it's not just chaos, it's all out war--and Sunni Syria would support one side, Shi'a Iran the other.

Friedman argues that if we're not willing to spend "10 years" in Iraq to fix it over the long-term, we should leave in "10 months," trying the route described above, and let those guys figure it out. It doesn't sound like that an appealing an idea, but it may be the most realistic option we've got.