Best quotes of 2007

From Glenn Greenwald, showing the absurdity of Washington:
"YAAWWN. That's my view of the Libby flap" -- Washington Post National Political Reporter Shailagh Murray, emphasizing how bored she is by the story of the President of the United States protecting one his top aides, a convicted felon, from prison.


"Does he have sex appeal? . . . Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man's shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of, a little bit of cigar smoke?" -- Chris Matthews, fantasizing about the pleasing, manly body smells of Fred Thompson.


"I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right" -- Joe Klein of Time Magazine, reciting the anthem of our modern press corps in explaining why he can't be bothered to correct the script Hoekstra fed him.


"It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don't be astonished if that is the case" -- Dean of the Washington Press Corps David Broder, February 16, 2007.


"Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive" -- Mitt Romney, invoking the cowardly flagship of the modern GOP in arguing for limitless presidential powers and, with one short sentence, completely repudiating the core, founding American political value as most famously expressed by Patrick Henry.
Many more at the link.

A deal in Iraq

A quick post while in the middle of vacation.

Lost in the coverage over Bhutto's assassination in Pakistan is news of an apparent political agreement in Iraq between the two Kurdish political parties (KDP and PUK, who stick together on the national scene) and Tariq al Hashemi, leader of the official Sunni Arab representation in Baghdad's government. The Kurds and Sunnis agreed on some bland stuff, but does it mean something more?

I think this is significant. The Kurds support Maliki's government (Shia Arab) because Maliki's government is weak. The Kurds want a weak government in Baghdad so that they can run their own show up in Kurdistan (which, as Chirol shows, ain't such a bad place, relatively).

My guess is that the Kurds are hedging their bets by making some connections with the Sunnis. This would be because the intra-Shia violence in Southern Iraq might mean Shia power is waning as they fracture, and the strengthening of the American-backed Sunni militias in central and western Iraq mean the Sunnis are on the rise. Rising Sunni power and falling of Shia power isn't the most likely scenario, but it seems prudent for the Kurds to hedge against it.

A Sunni-Kurdish coalition government in Baghdad would never be strong enough to threaten Kurdish independent actions, as Shia Arabs are the majority of Iraqis. Plus Hashemi does not have much real power - he was basically appointed to be representative of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad after Sunnis boycotted the elections. Hence he doesn't have power to give any concessions to Shia or Kurds. Instead that legitimacy lies with the sheikhs, many of whom are part of the Awakening movement. However the Kurdish political parties can't really make a deal with the Awakening movement, so perhaps Hashemi is the next best thing.

Of course looking at political events in Iraq are like reading goat entrails - you're usually wrong, and even when you're right, it's still nasty.

Looking at the Surge

With the withdrawal of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry this month, the first of the "Surge" brigades has returned from Iraq. This marks the beginning of the end of the Surge. So far, has the Surge been a success?

To answer this question, I'm going to compare the cost incurred by the Surge compared to the benefits of it. I'll try to disaggregate the recent positive trends (emphasis on trends - the overall rates of violence, etc. are still horrific) in Iraq from the effects of the Surge itself.


Costs fall in three categories - money, lives, and opportunity. It's difficult to estimate the monetary costs of sending five extra brigades to Iraq (the Surge). The Pentagon throws all sorts of junk in with their "emergency" funding requests for Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning it'd be extremely tedious to go through the text of their requests to see how much is budgeted for operations pre-Surge and post-Surge. The White House's estimate was $5.6 billion, while the GAO estimated that the costs will be "up to $27 billion" for the Surge (CNN).

It's impossible to measure the cost in terms of U.S. lives. The Surge has put more U.S. personnel in Iraq as targets for insurgents and terrorists, and U.S. casualties were the highest in early 2007 (the beginning of the Surge) as they ever were. However more brigades means Coalition military power can be concentrated in problem areas like Diyala. For my purposes I'll call the "lives" cost a wash.

In terms of opportunity costs, sending our last five brigades to Iraq means that we have no brigades in reserve. If something unexpected happens in the rest of the world - for example if North Korea crosses the DMZ - we'll be able to send no reinforcements. Of course this only matters if something like that happens- fairly unlikely, but of course the whole point we have an expeditionary military capability in the first place. Our lack of reserves also means we're unable to send troops to troubled spots like Darfur that need resources only Western militaries can provide, although it's unlikely we'd send troops there anyway.


Over the course of the Surge, trends in Iraq have gone from entirely negative to mixed. According to DoD, violence against civilians is down to February 2006 levels (before the bombing of the Samarra mosque), while violence against Coalition targets is down to summer 2005 levels. These improvements are not entirely due to the Surge (and again I'll stress that the levels of violence are down to a time back when Iraq was widely considered to be in a civil war).

The decrease in violence is due to a number of converging factors. First of all, the Surge convinced many insurgent groups to lay low to wait out the temporary increase in American forces. When the additional U.S. forces leave, as they have already started doing, these insurgent groups may pick up their weapons again. Second, Jaysh al Mahdi (the militia loyal to Moqtada al Sadr) imposed a truce on itself after they massacred religious pilgrims in Karbala. Third, the U.S. forces' change in tactics from an enemy-centric strategy (i.e., where your focus is on killing bad guys) to a population-centric strategy (where your focus is on getting the local population on your side) would have resulted in lowering civilian deaths without a Surge (although may have raised American casualty levels in the short term). Fourth, ethnic cleansing operations in Baghdad and elsewhere have passed their peak as many neighborhoods are totally cleansed.

Finally and most important, the Anbar Awakening hit full force in Anbar province, coinciding with the Surge. The Awakening movement, now spreading across Iraq (but not without resistance from the central government), allowed the U.S. military to coopt the tribal forces that were allowing Al Qaeda in Iraq to target Americans in Anbar province. The U.S. thus eliminated an enemy and were able to assist local tribes eliminate an Al Qaeda safehaven in Anbar, lowering violence rates against both U.S. troops and civilians. I assume the Surge, giving extra units to Anbar, made the task of rolling up Al Qaeda cells in Anbar quicker, but that same effect likely could have been accomplished by transferring units from quieter parts of Iraq anyway.


Thus of the positive trends in Iraq, none of them have really been due to the Surge in American troop levels. In addition, the Surge has accomplished nothing politically in Baghdad - the Iraqi government in Baghdad remains as irrelevant as it ever has been. The Surge's original logic - to improve the security situation in Baghdad to give the central government the "breathing space" necessary to accomplish political reconciliation - has been a total failure, as the central government hasn't accomplished anything in months.

The Surge cost the U.S. billions of dollars and risked (and still risks) leaving the U.S. totally unprepared for contingencies around the world. In exchange we got little or nothing. While some insurgent groups may have decided to lay low during the period of increased American troops, that merely displaces current violence into the future, while those groups use the time to regroup, retrain and rearm.

Bush's Surge policy is/was a failure. Only the skill of a new leadership team in Iraq, the completion of Iraqi ethnic cleansing operations, and liberal amounts of luck have prevented the Surge's failure from being obvious. Instead, lazy journalists (and hacks) attribute the positive (and probably temporary) trends in Iraq to the Surge, giving Republicans (like McCain) political cover for failed policies. Credit, instead, should go to the mid-level officers who helped facilitate the tactical alliances with Sunni tribes in Al-Anbar, to people like Abu Risha and Abul Abed of Amariyah (a nutcase, but OUR nutcase), who took it upon themselves to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and to Lady Luck, the best ally of any military.


A good article from Brookings on the Bali conference on climate change.

Climate Change: Beyond Bali - David Sandalow

He says the three most important developments out of the Bali conference are:
  1. Developing countries stepped up to the table
  2. Deforestation's importance was recognized
  3. Adaptation's importance has increased with the recognition that some climatic change is inevitable
Increasing the resilience of communities in preparation for climate change should increase their resilience for other shocks as well, such as terrorism or economic crises, much the way redundant networks implemented for the Y2K problem helped the stock markets on 9/11.

A laugher from Heritage

I was doing a little research on the hypertoobz (I'm still in the finals crunch) and just found this paper from Heritage, dated January 15th, 2004: The Iraqi Mafia: An Evolving Insurgency, by Dana Dillon and Melissa Parham. Check out this line (emphasis added):
Despite presidential candidate and retired general Wesley Clark's comment that the war in Iraq is a "$150 billion mess," and Al Gore's declaration that it was a "catastrophic mistake," Saddam's capture is more proof that the democratic transition in Iraq is progressing well. America is developing new methods and tactics to defeat an unpopular and increasingly criminal Iraqi insurgency. The U.S. will drive that insurgency out of existence by hitting it where it hurts the most: the pocketbook.
If I had unlimited time I would go through all the DC think tanks' publications and see which had the best track records on Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't think Heritage would fare well.

Iraq's soccer team voted team of the year

Readers of the magazine World Soccer voted Iraq as the team of the year, ahead of European champions AC Milan and Spanish side Sevilla FC. From World Soccer:
Iraq’s extraordinary journey from war-torn also-rans to continental champions with victory at the Asian Cup earned them the team award, the first time it has gone to an Asian side. Milan were second and Sevilla third.
Iraq won with 22.2% of the vote, ahead of Milan at 21.5%.

Stuff I've been reading

I'm in the finals crunch now, which means I've been catching up on various reading as I've been procrastinating. A selection:

Olly's Onions - White House Latest Victim of Subprime Crisis
I thought that Halliburton owned the White House, but apparently it is the Providence Lending Corporation.

Sebastian Junger - Into the Valley of Death
Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington write a piece for Vanity Fair about their stay with Second Platoon, Battle Company, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne).

Swedish Meatballs Confidential (warning - not safe for work) - Anti-Iran IO loses a paramount theme
Effwit over at Swedish Meatballs Confidential exposes the Administration in a lie over the latest NIE on Iran. If you want to know what the US Intelligence Community will say a year before they say it, read Swedish Meatballs Confidential!

Haft of the Spear - Gaming Intelligence
Michael Tanji's thoughts on the new NIE on Iran: "either we have multiple, unimpeachable sources of intelligence that have shown us the light; or the information we have is all over the map and drawing definitive conclusions is next to impossible... the latter case is more likely." Tanji wrote more on the NIE here and here.

ThreatsWatch - The Fiction of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Missing Links - Baghdadi Speech
Two pieces on Al Qaeda in Iraq (which may or may not exist as a formal organization) leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (who probably doesn't exist himself).

The Strategist - Power from the Desert and Coming Anarchy - DESERTEC
Two different perspectives on a proposal for the EU to get lots of solar power from North Africa.

Abu Muqawama - "We are the irreverence"
Abu Muqawama provides insight on why the US continues to use air strikes in counterinsurgency operations - because we can.

Investigating Terrorism


Reporters Expose Airport Security Lapses By Blowing Up Plane

Not a joke:
As a terrorism analyst, I am both appalled and confused by many of the post-9/11 articles published at home and abroad, in newspapers, news magazines and academic journals, as well as on the Internet.

Many of these articles have clearly identified for terrorist groups the country's vulnerabilities -- including our food supply, electrical grids, chemical plants, trucking industry, ports, borders, airports, special events and cruise ships. Some of these articles have been lengthy and have provided tactical details useful to terrorist groups. No terrorist group that I am aware of has the time and manpower to conduct this type of extensive research on a multitude of potential targets. Our news media, and certain think tankers and academicians, have done and continue to do the target vulnerability research for them.
Pluchinsky (a professor in my program) can only even bring this up as an issue because of the assumption that the operational tempo of terrorist groups is much faster than that of the US government. i.e., that a terrorist group would be able to exploit information published in a NYTimes scoop faster than the government would be able to fix the problem. Yet the only solution ever put forward is to restrict the press....

Cholera and security in Iraq

Mark Drapeau, who works down the hall from me, has a piece in the New York Times today on the cholera epidemic in Iraq - A Microscopic Insurgent. Abu Muqawama picked it up and agrees with most of it, but I was struck by one comment he made:
Abu Muqawama isn't sure disease-prevention should be elevated over providing local security in our list of priorities...
I feel this is a false dichotomy between disease-prevention and security. Disease prevention IS providing local security (a fellow commenter on Abu Muqawama agrees). I'd like to show how by relating it to my analysis of attacking the Iraqi national identity that I posted last week.

Going back to that post, we remember that "Groups providing security and social services will be able to charge prices at a level inverse to the degree of state failure." As the demand for security goes up, the prices non-state groups can charge go up as well, assuming the state is unable to provide.

The same holds true for social services such as health care. Assuming the Iraqi Ministry of Health is dysfunctional (which is is), anti-cholera campaigns will have to be done by either charities (which can't function in Iraq due to the security situation), the US military (which does not view this as a priority as far as I can see), or tribal and sectarian hybrid militia groups. As the cholera situation worsens, which it will due to the nonexistent sanitation services in much of Iraq (look at this picture of Basra), these non-state groups will pick up the slack from the government, and will correspondingly gain power and legitimacy.

Thus anti-cholera campaigns are every bit as integral to US goals in Iraq as training the Iraqi army. Both are capacity building, but it happens that our security organizations are much better suited to build up Iraqi military capacity than its public health capacity. In my view, that's the primary reason why training the Iraqi army is viewed as security and disease-prevention is viewed as hippy-dippy do-gooder work for the pinkos at OxFam to take care of (not that counterinsurgency-types like Abu Muqawama feel that way, but many 'hard security' types do). Disease-prevention would be yet another security task a SysAdmin force would be useful for in Iraq.

Collateral damage from Information Operations

Broadly defined, collateral damage is unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces.
US Air Force Intelligence Targeting Guide.
Noah Shachtman has a post up at Danger Room on a US military Psychological Operation. Basically, in 2006 a Sergeant Colabuno in Anbar province kept sending back reports to his superiors saying that in order to get Sunni Arabs on our side in Fallujah, we'd do well to talk tough on Iran. Then in January, White House rhetoric changed from concentrating on Iran's nuclear program to alleged Iranian support for Iraqi armed groups. Colabuno: "That overnight changed the attitudes of the people towards us. They took it as almost an apology."

Given the level of coordination between the military effort in Iraq and the information operations run by the White House, it would take a lot to convince me that the rhetoric from the White House was in any way related to requests from Iraq. The way I read it, there was a pull environment in Iraq, where an audience (Anbar Sunnis) wanted to pull a specific message out of the Americans. The Bush administration wanted to push the same message out at either its domestic audience or at Iran for diplomatic reasons, and that message spilled over to Iraq. By pure chance, the Bush administration's rhetoric on Iran happened to line up with what Iraqi Sunnis wanted to hear. This raises the question of "what if"?

What if we had an administration that took seriously the need to integrate all aspects of national power (military, economic, diplomatic, and information) in wartime, and thus executed an information strategy coming out of the White House that is tailored to events in Iraq and towards an Iraqi audience? There would be collateral damage on the American domestic scene. The message would have to come out of the White House to have credibility. The global reach of even local newspapers means that any story resulting from an information operation could leak into the American press, further bolstering the case for war with Iran by providing "independent" corroboration. The American electorate could mistakenly push its own government into a war with Iran. (Right now, over a third of Americans polled believe we should bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.)

MountainRunner, my go-to blog on matters for public diplomacy, information operations, et al, has noted a few times that the Smith-Mundt Act, which governed the actions of the now-defunct US Information Agency and now governs the actions of the Bureau of the State Department that the USIA was folded in to, was not designed to protect American audiences from US government propaganda. Rather, it was designed to help guide the USIA to counter Soviet propaganda. The Department of Defense, despite not being covered by Smith-Mundt and therefore theoretically being free to propagandize whomever they like, is skittish in doing anything that could be labeled as propaganda for fear of collateral damage. The few times they have, it blew up in their faces and they were charged with propagandizing. Unfortunately I haven't seen anything by MountainRunner or anyone else in the hypertoobz on whether there might be a solution to the problem of collateral damage in information operations.

There are going to be many challenges in information operations against Al Qaeda, of which collateral damage is only one. The dispersed nature of Al Qaeda and its potential support that we must try to influence means that we can't limit information operations to specific media outlets. The potential for political blowback for almost any operation combined with natural CYA instincts mean that our operational cycle will be long, as things have to travel up the chain of command to get approved. And of course there will always be a credibility problem - if any stories are exposed as either planted or false, all pro-American stories in the media will be dismissed whether they were the result of US information operations or not, and whether they are true or not.

Lots of problems, no solutions!

(P.S., MountainRunner wrote a good piece on the obvious need to update the Smith-Mundt Act for Small Wars Journal.)