National Security

New Iraq study shows dramatic rise in violence

From the Post tonight:  

Violence in Iraq rose across the board this fall to the highest levels on record, fueled by the growth of Shiite militia that have replaced al-Qaeda as the most dangerous force propelling the nation toward civil war, according to a new Pentagon report released this afternoon.

Attack levels reached record highs in all categories as the number of coalition casualties surged 32 percent and the number of weekly attacks rose 22 percent nationwide from mid-August to mid-November, compared with the previous three months, according to the congressionally mandated Pentagon report.

The report documents that U.S. and Iraqi operations to quell violence in Baghdad ultimately failed, with attacks dipping in August before rebounding in September as death squads adapted to the increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Meanwhile, Iraqi public fears of civil war grew, while confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dropped significantly as Maliki's efforts at political reconciliation have shown "little progress," the report said.

Titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," the 50-page report is issued quarterly and compiled by the Pentagon at the behest of Congress.

It found that Iraqi civilian casualties rose 60 percent following the rise of the Maliki government in May.

So when folks like McCain propose a surge of American troops in Iraq, something rejected by the Joint Chiefs and Colin Powell, he is really talking about going after the Shiite militias, now an integral part of the Maliki government? I still can't really understand what the goal of the surge is. 

Update: The Times has a story this am about the failing electrical system in Baghdad:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.

The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.

And in a measure of the deep disunity and dysfunction of this nation, when the repair crews and security forces are slow to respond, skilled looters often arrive with heavy trucks that pull down more of the towers to steal as much of the valuable aluminum conducting material in the lines as possible. The aluminum is melted into ingots and sold.

What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.

More evidence elections a setback for Ahmadinejad

The Times has another story tonight on how the initial returns In Iran appear to be a setback for Ahmadinejad.

Iran Round-Up Part I

I watched New America Foundation's "Dealing with Tehran" event today and was impressed, as always, by the insight of NAF Senior Fellows Flynt Leverett and Steve Clemons.  Unfortunately, the event was overshadowed by apparent White House interference in the CIA pre-publication review process of an op-ed Leverett wrote for the New York Times.  As a former Senior Director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Leverett submits all his writing to the CIA to make sure it does not contain classified information.  According to him, Clemons and others, the White House requested the document from the CIA and redacted large sections of already publicly known information. 

You can read much more about this unprecedented move by the Bush Administration on Steve Clemons' blog The Washington Note. Expect this to be a big story going forward, especially following Tony Snow's denial at today's White House press briefing. Attempting to muzzle a widely respected expert on Iran and the Middle East like Flynt Leverett, just because he has criticized White House policy might be the ideal frame needed to explain the lack of transparency and flawed thinking of the Bush foreign policy team.

I'll have an in-depth wrap on the "Dealing with Tehran" event tomorrow, for those of you who missed it.  In the mean-time it's well-worth watching online in its entirety. 

While this important event, and ensuing drama, was going on, there were two important stories on Iran that may have flown below the radar.  First, Iran held elections on Sunday for its Assembly of Experts, the powerful body that selects Iran's Supreme Leader.  The Washington Post said:

Allies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to dominate elections for a powerful Iranian clerical body and local councils, according to early results Sunday, in what analysts said was a setback to the hard-line leader's standing...turnout of about 60 percent and Ahmadinejad's close identification with some candidates, particularly in Tehran, suggested a voter shift toward more moderate policies and away from the president's often-confrontational positions.

These election results support Leverett's argument that Iran is not a monolithic country, and that President Ahmadinejad should not be seen as all powerful in Iran's complicated political system.

Iran also announced over the weekend that it was switching its foreign currency reserves from dollars to euros in response to US restrictions on Iran:

An Iranian spokesman said all its foreign exchange transactions would be conducted in euros and its national budget would also be calculated in euros as well as its own currency.

"There will be no reliance on dollars," said Gholam-Hussein Elham...Washington has sought to exert financial pressure on Iran, which it accuses of flouting international law by trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

This development opens up a diplomatic window for the US as we attempt to apply pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development and stop supporting terrorism.  If Iran could be forced to give up its dollar holdings, surely it could forced to give up its euro holdings as well, leaving it without a strong foreign currency to support its economy. 

Of course that would require close diplomatic cooperation with our allies, not the Bush Administration's strong suit. 

White House attempts to censor debate about Iran

Follow this developing story at its source, the Washington Note, the blog of my good friend Steve Clemons.

Powell agrees Bush will not offer a better way forward

The Washington Post has a very good story on the former Secretary of State adding his voice to the chorus voicing doubt about the Administration's current thinking on the Middle East:

Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell said today that the United States is losing what he described as a "civil war" in Iraq and that he is not persuaded that an increase in U.S. troops there would reverse the situation. Instead, he called for a new strategy that would relinquish responsibility for Iraqi security to the government in Baghdad sooner rather than later, with a U.S. drawdown to begin by the middle of next year.

Powell's comments broke his long public silence on the issue and placed him at odds with the administration. President Bush is considering options for a new military strategy -- among them a "surge" of 15,000 to 30,000 troops added to the current 140,000 in Iraq, to secure Baghdad and to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others have proposed; or a redirection of the U.S. military away from fighting the insurgency to focus mainly on hunting al-Qaeda terrorists, as the nation's top military leaders proposed last week in a meeting with the president.

But Bush has rejected the dire conclusions of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendations to set parameters for a phased withdrawal to begin next year, and he has insisted that the Iraq insurgency is not a civil war.

"I agree with the assessment of Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton," Powell said, referring to the study group's leaders James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton. The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating and we're not winning, we are losing. We haven't lost. And this is the time, now, to start to put in place the kinds of strategies that will turn this situation around."

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," Powell seemed to draw as much from his 35-year Army career, including four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as from his more recent difficult tenure as Bush's chief diplomat.

Last summer's surge of U.S. troops to try to stabilize Baghdad had failed, he said, and any new attempt was unlikely to succeed. "If somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question . . . is what mission is it these troops are supposed to accomplish . . . is it something that is really accomplishable . . . do we have enough troops to accomplish it?"

Although he said he agreed with Central Command head Gen. John Abizaid that there should be an increase in U.S. advisers to the Iraqi military, "sooner or later you have to begin the baton pass, passing it off to the Iraqis for their security and to begin the draw-down of U.S. forces. I think that's got to happen sometime before the middle of next year."

Before any decision to increase troops, "I'd want to have a clear understanding of what it is they're going for, how long they're going for. And let's be clear about something else. . . . There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops."

"That's how you surge. And that surge cannot be sustained." The "active Army is about broken," Powell said. Even beyond Iraq, the Army and Marines have to "grow in size, in my military judgment," and Congress must provide significant additional funding to sustain them.

Powell also agreed with the study group's recommendation that the administration open talks with Syria and Iran as it gropes for a solution to the Iraq problem. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have explicitly rejected talks until Syria ends its destabilizing influence in Lebanon and support for anti-Israel militants, and until Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment program. The administration has charged both countries with aiding the Iraqi insurgency.

"Do they get marginal support from Iran and Syria? You bet they do," Powell said of the Iraqis. "I have no illusions that either Syria or Iran want to help us in Iraq. I am also quite confident that what is happening in Iraq is self-generated for the most part. The money, the resources, the weapons are in Iraq already."

"Are Iran and Syria regimes that I look down upon? I certainly do. But at the same time, I've looked down on many people over the years, in the course of my military and diplomatic career, and I still had to talk to them."

A better way forward

As I wrote the other day, it increasingly looks like whatever "way forward" the Administration offers in January, it will not be a better one.  Today we learn that Secretary Rice has dismissed talks with Syria and Iran, a remarkably modest step and one essential to any improvement in the economic and political prospects in the region. 

The American people are facing a difficult period.  They overwhelmingly believe our policies in the Middle East have failed.  They voted the Party of the Iraq War out of power.  A very credible independent study group recommends an urgent change of course, focusing on lessening our military presence in Iraq and opening up new diplomatic channels to restore stability to the region.  An emerging political leader of this Iraq War Party, John McCain, recommends more troops.  The country's military leaders reject that path, publically.  Reasonable people across the world urge some kind of regional peace process.  The Administration rejects it.  A US Senator goes to Syria to explore a new path forward, the Administration attacks him. The Administration talks about a "Shiite tilt" in Iraq, Saudi Arabia says a regional war may erupt if we proceed down that path....

Battered by the elections, the Administration is turning inward, and becoming more isolated from reality and the wishes of the American people.  Their management of the War has already cost America too many lives, too much money and too much loss of prestige.  Their management of the "way forward" process in recent weeks reinforces that they are lost, weak, unclear where to go, unwilling to listen to new ideas.  Their leadership of the country is no longer just wrongheaded, but is becoming dangerous to our national security interests.  As progressives, we have an extraordinary obligation to challenge a lost and wayward Administration, and to find not just a way forward in the Middle East, but a better way forward.  And it must include, as the ISG suggested, an aggressive diplomatic effort to restore stability to the region.

Joint Chiefs No on the "Surge"

The nation's military leaders reject the McCain strategy, and advocate a new mission for the troops in the Middle East. 

At some point the media is going to start writing about how McCain's stance on Iraq means big trouble for him in 2008.  He has been the staunchest defender of what has been arguably the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history, and an issue that helped sweep the Republicans from office in 2006. 

Vali Nasr on Iran in the New Republic

A new favorite of mine, Vali Nasr, has a good piece in the New Republic this week.  An excerpt:

OOver the past three years, and with mounting alarm, Iran has steadily held Washington's gaze, gaining ever more notoriety as one of the most serious foreign policy challenges confronting the United States. An Islamist regime that was being written off on the eve of the second Gulf war is now asserting itself on the world stage and shows no sign of being subdued. Iran sees itself as a great power, and it is pursuing the nuclear capability that would confirm this self-image. It believes that it can play a global role and expects to be treated as a peer by the United States. Washington was certainly caught off guard by the surge in Iranian influence, and more so by the confident and provocative attitude that the country's hard-line leadership has lately put on display. As Iran has become more important to the United States, so has the problem of dealing with the Iranian question become the bugbear of the Bush administration. America's Iraq policy is becoming more and more overshadowed by America's Iran policy, whatever that is. The Bush administration has staked a very great deal on Iraq, but in the end it may be the administration's handling of Iran, more than of North Korea or even of Al Qaeda, that defines the Bush era in foreign policy.

No Way Out

The postponing of the Administration's new plan for Iraq until next year makes it clear the Administration no longer has any idea what to do in the Middle East, and that their inability to let go of a discredited and failed strategy in Iraq is endangering our national security and driving the Middle East to further chaos.

At the core of the Administation's ideological struggle is their inability to admit there is no longer a way to solve the problems of the Middle East through war and military means. Everywhere one turns there is mounting evidence that one of the core recommendations of the ISG Report - a massive diplomatic effort to restore political and economic stability to the region - is an essential part of any future strategy, but that of course would mean the Administration would have to acknowledge the limits of the military path.

Lets review the dead-ends we keep hitting: The Saudis again warned that the region was about to descend into a Sunni-Shiite war. The Administation's idea of a "Shiite tilt," would certainly accelerate this regional war, and would of course strengthen the region's Shiites, including Iran and Hezbollah, no friends of America. The Iraqi PM this week announced that a significant increase in American advisors to the Iraqi police and military - an idea central to virtually every American plan for Iraq - was a non-starter. Gruesome killings and bombings continued this week. And things have become so bad that the Pentagon leaked a plan it is hatching to restart government run factories in Iraq to help tackle the 70% unemployment we have come to the point where our most conservative government in over a century is resorting to a Soviet-inspired public jobs program to bolster their prospects in Iraq.

So what is the one idea that seems to be gaining currency in the White House? More troops. But to do what? Crush the Sunni-led insurgency in the center and north? Disarm the Shiite militias, supported by Iran and a critical part of the current coalition government? Attack the growing Al Qaeda presence in Anbar? While important, it is certainly not a critical step to restoring stability to the country. How can 20,000 additional troops solve the political and economic challenges underlying the current descent of Iraq, and solve the problems we've been unable to solve these past 3 1/2 years?

As the Inspector General of the Iraq Reconstruction said this week: "The solution in Iraq is not primarily a military one. It is primarily an economic and political solution."

Until the Administation comes to terms with this essential reality, there is no way forward, and no way out, of our current terrible troubles in the Middle East. And as the ISG Report made plain, the current path leads to a diminshed America, a regional Sunni-Shite war, a renewed Al Qaeda in the heart of the Middle East and oil soaring to new and dangerous levels.

Read "The Shia Revival" by Vali Nasr

Few books have taught me than Vali Nasr's new book, The Shia Revival.  It has influenced a great deal of my writing in recent weeks, and is essential reading for those wanting to better understand what is happening in the Middle East today.  From its closing chapter:

It is clear today the America cannot take comfort in an imagined future for the Middle East, and cannot force the realization of that future.  Such an approach guided the path to war in Iraq and has proven to be unworkable.   The lesson of Iraq is that trying to force a future of its liking will hasten the advent of those outcomes that the United States most wishes to avoid.   Through occupation of Iraq, America has actually made the case for radical Islam – that ours is a war on Islam – encouraging anti-Americanism and fueling extremism and terrorism.  The reality that will shape the future of the Middle East is not the debates over democracy or globalization that the Iraq war was supposed to have jump-started but the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis that it precipitated.  In time we will come to see this as a central legacy of the Iraq war.  

You can buy it now on Amazon or at your local book store, and is a very strong complement to the new Iraq Study Group report.  It can be a little dense at times, but it is well worth the effort. 

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