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Correcting George Will on Iraq



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In his latest column, about Iraq, George Will writes:

“More than 725 Iraqis have been killed by terrorism since the June 30 pullback of U.S. forces from the cities.”

That’s an annual death rate, on the Iraqi population of 28 million, of about 15 per 100,000, assuming it’s accurate — such figures vary widely and are not generally verifiable. Nevertheless, using Mr. Will’s number, we should note that according to the FBI, the U.S. national average for murder and manslaughter in 2007 was 5.6 per 100,000. On the other hand, the Louisiana average for 2007 was 14.2 per 100,000. Steven Lee Myers put the problem in excellent perspective in an August 28 blog post for the New York Times:

August is already the bloodiest month for Iraqis since April 2008 . . . And yet the number of security incidents — defined as all manner of attacks, from sniper fire to roadside bombings — is lower than it has been for much of the year, according to statistics released by the American military this week. . . . One conclusion: fewer attacks are having deadlier results. Does it mean violence is worse or better than before?

The terrorists conducting these attacks are in large part al-Qaeda members attempting to restart the sectarian conflict and prove their continued relevance to the international militant Islamist cause. They have thus far failed to reignite sectarian conflict — we have seen no reprisal attacks against Sunnis by either the Iraqi government, Shi’a militias, or Iraqi citizens. The attacks have focused on the security forces, including the Sunni Sons of Iraq, and have killed both Sunni and Shi’a. The security forces have stood their ground and fought back, including the Sons of Iraq. In other words, Iraq continues to wage a determined struggle against al-Qaeda, spending its own blood to defeat our common enemies. Again we should note that more Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed fighting al-Qaeda than those of any other country in the world, including the U.S.

 

Mr. Will continues:

 

“Already [the U.S.] presence is irrelevant to the rising chaos, which the Iraqi government can neither contain nor refrain from participating in.”

The current situation in Iraq — as I saw as recently as last month (after the transition of security responsibilities in the city) — is not chaos. There are isolated terrorist attacks, but nothing like the violence I saw on my previous trips in April, May, and July of 2007 or even February of 2008. Most remarkable is something Mr. Will entirely ignores — the Shi’a militias have dramatically reduced their violent activities both against U.S. forces and against Iraqi Security Forces and government officials, and their activities remain low. One of the most important remaining Shi’a extremist groups, Asaib Ahl al Haq (a military splinter of the Sadrist Trend organized by Qais Khazali, who remains in U.S. custody — go to the Institute for the Study of War website for details on this organization), is negotiating its reconciliation with the Iraqi government. We’ll see if that happens, but it is a remarkable development considering the previous role of that organization in using Iranian aid to kill Americans and Iraqis.

The U.S. presence is far from irrelevant. American combat forces are out of the cities, but they are continuing to operate aggressively in the areas around the cities that have traditionally served as safe havens for insurgents and terrorists, as Gen. Ray Odierno explained in a recent interview. They are playing a critical role in supporting the Iraqi Security Forces in these areas as the Iraqis take responsibility for protecting their own cities. In addition, American forces of all varieties continue to conduct operations against al-Qaeda fighters and remnant Sunni insurgents in ways that the Iraqi Security Forces cannot now replicate. U.S. forces also provide essential logistical support, intelligence support, and control and defense of Iraqi airspace (without which Iraq would be unable to defend its territorial sovereignty) and, of course, continue to train, mentor, and partner with Iraqi Security Forces.

The Iraqi government, contrary to Mr. Will’s assertions, has done a good job of containing the violence. It is no accident that violence rose as the U.S. withdrew from cities. The Iraqi Security Forces have to learn how to plan and conduct complex counter-insurgency operations to defend large urban areas on their own — which one would have thought was a good thing. In doing so, they inevitably make mistakes, as they did when the insurgents managed to set off a large bomb near the Foreign Ministry. They are now engaging in a process of trying to learn from that mistake and are rethinking their security posture. The enemy, moreover, knew the precise date of the handover and planned an offensive to test the ISF. That, of course, is one of the reasons why I and many others have always opposed publicly announced timelines. The ISF has done a better job of disrupting and soaking up this offensive than could reasonably have been expected, all the while conducting a relief-in-place of U.S. forces on a massive scale. Yes, Mr. Will, it is still a war, which means that the enemy is still trying to kill people and occasionally succeeding. Both American and Iraqi forces are energetically resisting the enemy’s attempts to do so, and they have done pretty well so far.

 

“Security forces seem to have been involved in the recent robbery of a state-run
bank . . .”

 

If Mr. Will peruses American newspapers, he will find more than a few instances of American police and even American military personnel committing crimes in the United States. One sensationalized (and unverified) anecdote does not make an argument.

 

“Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s links with Iran are so close that he ‘uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel.’”

I don’t know what kind of plane with what kind of crew Maliki uses. I do know that in March 2008 he launched — on his own initiative — Operation Knights’ Charge (described by ISW here) against the most thoroughly Iranian-backed and -controlled militias in Basra. When Iran’s proxies expanded the conflict to Baghdad by rocketing the Green Zone, Maliki committed significant numbers of Iraqi forces alongside American forces to clearing Sadr City — one of the most important bases of Iranian influence in the country (described by ISW here). Maliki has consistently supported American operations against Shi’a militias supported by Iran.

U.S. forces still hold a large number of Shi’a militia leaders and terrorists at our detention facilities at Iraq’s request, including Qais Khazali and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Ali Mussa Daqduq. Maliki has had the legal right to insist on the release of these detainees—something the Iranians would dearly like — since January 1 and has not done so.

In addition, Iran conducted a massive information operation in 2008 aimed at preventing Iraq from signing the strategic agreement that provides legal sanction for the continued American presence in Iraq after expiration of the UN Security Council resolution. Maliki — and most of the rest of Iraq’s Shi’a leaders — resisted that pressure and signed the agreement, to Iran’s evident displeasure.

Iranian leaders have also worked tirelessly to ensure the formation of a new Shi’a political coalition including all major parties. They attempted to cajole Maliki into joining it, but he has refused and the coalition was announced without him.

 

“The militia parties that ruled Iraq from 2003 to 2007 remain, [Ken] Pollack says, the major political parties, although mostly without militias.”

That is precisely the objective of reconciliation, and it is how most insurgencies and civil wars end — organized groups that had been fighting put down their weapons and join the political process. A little more than a year after the hard fighting stopped, significant problems remain in Iraq’s political fabric, including the dangers and challenges that Ken Pollack rightly identifies. Mr. Will has here taken a reasoned and thoughtful exposition of problems and dangers ahead as the basis for an argument that nothing has changed, which is absolutely false.

The quotations from Ken Pollack’s article are extremely selective, to the point of seriously misrepresenting his assessment and his thesis. Here are some others for context (the article is here):

As always, nationalism is a double-edged sword. It has started to heal the rifts between Sunni and Shia. And it has been the most important factor in limiting Iranian influence. The more Iraqis feel confident in themselves, the more they push back on the mostly despised Persian interlopers.

Before the sentence Mr. Will cites, Ken Pollack wrote:

But democratization is happening in Iraq, and it is transforming the Iraqi political landscape. It has brought new people and new parties to power, it has redistributed power among the old parties and it is creating new incentive structures everywhere. The January 2009 provincial elections killed off at least one of the old militia parties (Fadhila in southern Iraq) and heralded the emergence of at least one major new party (al-Hadba in northern Iraq). Moreover, Iraqi politicians everywhere are learning — like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim — that prospering in the new Iraq means responding to the will of the Iraqi people.

Pollack later explained (in advance) why Mr. Will’s argument is so wrong-headed:

It is worth considering the many sources of American influence there. We provide training and logistics for Iraqi security forces; we are the honest broker for the Iraqi people; our presence ensures that a policeman coming to knock on their door is not a death squad; we still provide critical economic and political assistance — microloans, military equipment, technical expertise; American provincial reconstruction teams are still demanded by Iraqi governors and mayors; American businessmen are pursued avidly, even amorously. There should be no question that the United States retains great influence in Iraq and will continue to do so for some time to come, as long as the referendum on the security agreement doesn’t fail.

Pollack’s overall assessment: 

Iraq has made a great deal of progress since 2006 and the evidence indicates it could make a great deal more. But it is not going to make progress if left to its own devices. If the United States walks away from Iraq or if we are evicted too soon, the old patterns of Iraqi politics will subvert the new patterns of democratization and the country could easily become yet another data point on the academic graphs that demonstrate how pitifully few countries can escape the civil-war trap.



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