Congressional Visit to Iraq, Part II: Observations on Strategy (My Return to Iraq, 1.5 Years Later)

From an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East... I am writing most of this entry from the backseat of a helicopter bound to Mosul from Baghdad.
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From an undisclosed location somewhere in the Middle East...

I am writing most of this entry from the backseat of a helicopter bound to Mosul from Baghdad. Wearing my flak jacket and helmet, grasping my laptop and typing, I see the Iraqi landscape beneath us, my earplugs protecting me from the roar of the blades and wind.

Scratch our destination. Due to weather, we actually didn't make it to Mosul and had to land and spend the day at an Air Force Base in the middle of Iraq. We are near where the Tigris and Euphrates split at Joint Base Balad, home of the 332nd, the descendants of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

We spent the day learning about the airbase (which is a likely candidate to remain in operation after the "withdrawal") and visited the air command center, saw a Predator (unmanned drones), visited their hospital, and their chapel where their chaplain happens to be one of the few Rabbis in the Air Force.

We had lunch in the expansive mess hall and I sat at a table with servicemen from other parts of the country and listened to their experiences and opinions, drinking purified water from the Tigris that they bottle on campus!

Upon arriving in Iraq yesterday, our first briefing was with General Ray Odierno, the Commander of the Multi-national Force in Iraq and the Charge D'Affaires and Interim ambassador Patricia Butenis.

Iraq is still waiting on the Senate ratification of Obama's new ambassador, Christopher Hill, so we have a Charge D'Affairs as acting ambassador, as she is the highest ranking state dept official in Iraq. Hopefully the ambassador will get here soon as surely this is one of the most complex and delicate diplomatic assignments in the world for the United States.

The General presented a simplified summary of the sectarian concerns as summarized in a quote from Ambassador Ryan Crocker: "Shia fear for the past, Sunnis fear for the future, the Kurds fear both" and gave us the big picture on our operation in Iraq and his command.

In the afternoon in Baghdad, we went to the Iraqi Parliament and met with two female members. Both covered their heads and wouldn't shake the hands of men. One said that no men wanted to be on the Family, Women, and Children Committee because they considered that a woman's committee. I have to admit, it's depressing to see the role that women are relegated to -- even more so in Iraq -- which has historically been more progressive in that regard than our allies in Kuwait. The Iraqi Parliament is 25 percent female, by law. Parties who compete have to list one quarter female candidates. Considering that our own Congress is only 18 percent female, we must remember that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, although to our credit we do enjoy the diversity we have, absent any quota.

The two members of parliament were the only Iraqis we formally met with; this visit was skewed toward visiting with our own military and learning about our mission and successes and failures from the American perspective. The few times we talked to Iraqis on their own, they told us only what they want American officials to hear. I learned more about the situation in Iraq on my previous visit, in November 2007, when I met with Iraqi refugees in Jordan who spoke much more freely about their observations and opinions.

Falling oil prices have devastated the budget of the Iraqi government. Iraqi oil was bringing in $1.3 billion/week at its height and is now bringing in around $300 million/week. Given the continuing lack of other meaningful economic activity, the government relied on this revenue for rebuilding. They have a huge budget gap to fix. The silver lining is that the decrease in oil prices and global recession is giving their fledgling democratic institutions a real-world chance to make tough decisions. It will be nice to have an Iraqi election this coming December that is likely to revolve around economic messaging rather than ethno-centric or theo-centric messaging.

One of the more interesting briefings was by the multi-national security transition command team led by General Frank Helmick. He is charged with building the capacity of the Iraqi military and police forces. For better or worse, we are doing an excellent job increasing the capabilities of the Iraqi military. Several Iraqi military leaders have stated that their military is stronger than it ever was.

Some credit increased stability and progress in Iraq to our troop surge that occurred around the same time the violence started to decrease, but I believe that the surge was incidental and that the real factors in the decrease of the violence, which also occurred around the same time as our surge, to be:

1) The use of Sons of Iraq or Awakening CouncilsMany former members of the resistance are now on the payroll of the US government as militia security forces. There are just over 100,000 "Sons of Iraq," potentially a potent fighting force for stability or instability. Many are former Baathists, former military and police officials under Saddam Hussein, and former members of the post-invasion resistance. If we had started this policy sooner after the invasion, we no doubt could have prevented loss of life. As can be expected, some of them turn out to be corrupt and attack us anyway but most seem to be helping to keep the order. The challenge is to bring them into the fold of the new Iraqi government and a proper chain of command structure.

2) The completion of ethnic cleansing in many areasBy 2006, many Sunni majority areas were purged of Shias, and Shia majority areas were purged of Sunnis. The families kicked out of their former neighborhoods are still by and large in exile, with 750,000 internally displaced peoples and over 2,000,000 Iraqi refugees residing in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.

3) The growth of strength of the Iraqi government and its willingness to take on Shia militias.While our "surge" increased the American troop presence from 132,000 to almost 170,000, the Iraqi military has grown to 220,000 members from about 130,000 in June of 2007. In addition to the increase in numbers, their training, equipment, and command structure has improved tremendously.

The Iraqi security forces are probably the single largest cause of the decreased violence. The security of the green zone itself was turned over to the Iraqi security forces on January 1, 2009, although I'm still not sure what that means as the actual security of the green zone still resides firmly in the hands of Peruvian mercenaries (I will write more about this later).

According to our military, the Iraqi special ops force is now the most capable in the region.

The Iraqi military has ordered M1s, C130Js, and is considering purchasing a few dozen F16s. Our mission to remilitarize Iraq is succeeding. Our command, charged with setting up an effective fighting force in Iraq, has already achieved its mission and built a force more powerful than the pre-invasion Iraqi military.

As we assess the success of the capacity building command, we need to ask ourselves if it makes strategic sense to have another highly armed power in this volatile region. While the answer may indeed be yes, it's not an easy calculation and deserves due consideration.

While the existence of a Costa Rica or a Japan of the Middle East might not seem realistic given the geopolitical and military climate of the region, we have been down this road before and armed those who became our enemy or the enemy of their own people.

The hippie in me (my family legacy - my parents were hippies) bemoans the fact that we defeated the Iraqi military only to help them build an even stronger one that might one day be used against children and innocents, as often is the case. When will all the killing end? Where have all the flowers gone? And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and they shall study war no more.

Alas, the Iraqis are studying war under our all-too-capable tutelage.

More soon on mercenaries, logistics, and Kuwait.

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