Saturday, February 21, 2009

Don't you know there's a war on?

Updated You can be forgiven if you forgot, because you probably wouldn't know it if you were watching the news or even reading the lefty blogs (except for those specifically focused on the subject). It seems to have faded not only from the headlines but even from our consciousnesses. It almost - very nearly, in fact - seems that we have bought into the notion that "the surge worked" and what with that new "security arrangement" and the election of Barack Obama, well, we can move on to other things.

Wrong and wrong.

First, the easy part, so easy it's hardly worth arguing any more, but necessary for context: The surge didn't work. Yes, it had some limited and vastly-overstated role in reducing violence in the immediate area of Baghdad (see below) but not only did it fail to achieve the political opening that was its supposed goal, it had nothing to do with any cut in violence beyond the city.

More to the point, the reduced violence is actually due to a fact that is usually forgotten (deliberately by war supporters and obsequiously by the media): The civil war we were supposedly trying so hard to prevent has already happened and is already over (for now), with the Shiites (with US support) the victors, sitting in control of what passes for a central government and so poised to get the lion's share of the benefits of any new economic arrangements.

That civil war involved what Prof. Juan Cole accurately called a "brutally effective" campaign of ethnic cleansing, a campaign that by a year ago had turned Baghdad into a city of walls, a campaign so brutal that its effects could be seen in satellite images.
"By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left," geography professor John Agnew of the University of California Los Angeles, who led the study, said in a statement.

"Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning," said Agnew, who studies ethnic conflict.
Which means that the so-called surge, or if you prefer, the "enhanced intervention technique," didn't do a goddam thing to reduce ethnic violence. The real reason violence has declined is simply that Shiites and Sunnis rarely have any contact any more. Instead of true peace or the lower standard of "reconciliation" or the even lower standard of "progress," we have a long-term cold war of hostility, suspicion, and bigotry. Iraq is still a broken country, the surge never worked, and a more likely interpretation of the current situation is that two well-armed and mutually-antagonistic societies are simply biding their time.

And indeed, that war is not always cold, even now:
A female suicide bomber struck a tent filled with women and children resting during a pilgrimage south of Baghdad on Friday[, February 13], killing 40 people and wounding about 80 in the deadliest of three straight days of attacks against Shiite worshippers. ...

Casualty figures in Iraq often fluctuate but if the tally stands, it would be the deadliest attack in the country since Dec. 11, when a suicide bomber killed 55 people at a restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish officials were meeting with Arab tribal leaders.

The latest attack occurred one day after a suicide bomber killed eight people and wounded more than 50 in Karbala.

And on Wednesday, at least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in a series of bombings in Baghdad targeting pilgrims traveling to Karbala.

At least 36 people were killed Jan. 6 during a suicide attack against Shiite worshippers in Baghdad.
The attacks on the pilgrims continued as they returned home after the weekend, Reuters reports:
Roadside bombs killed eight Iraqis in Baghdad on Monday....

The first bomb killed four and wounded 13 on a minibus in the sprawling slum of Sadr City.... The second also killed four and wounded 13 in a minibus, this time in Kamaliya, another Shi'ite area.
And as is true for Iraqis that the flow of blood has slowed but surely not stopped, so it is for Americans, as AfterDowningStreet reports:
US military occupation forces in Iraq under Commander in Chief Obama suffered 22 combat casualties in the eight days ending Feb 18, 2009, as the official total rose to at least 71,142. The total includes 34,465 dead and wounded from what the Pentagon classifies as "hostile" causes and more than 36,677 dead and medically evacuated (as of Jan 31, 2009) from "non-hostile" causes.

The actual total is over 100,000 because the Pentagon chooses not to count as "Iraq casualties" the more than 30,000 veterans whose injuries - mainly brain trauma from explosions (TBI) [- were] diagnosed only after they had left Iraq.
But President O'Change will save us and stop the war! So what's the problem?

There are a few, actually. One is that, to state the obvious before moving to the less so, as long as the war continues so do the bloodshed, the occupation, the deaths on all sides. I will admit in all fairness that a shift in the debate from "Do we get out?" to "How fast do we get out?" is a positive one, but we can't ever forget that the rate at which people are killed and maimed matters little to those that are.

Another is that, as has been pointed out who knows how many times, Obama's plan is not for a troop withdrawal over 16 months, it's for a troop reduction over 16 months, one that specifically allows for maintaining tens of thousands of troops in Iraq well beyond that time for "counter-terrorism," training, and support. And he's already showing signs of going wet noodle on the timetable. Last month, even before the inauguration, then-Vice President-elect Joe Biden was telling Iraqi leaders that the Obama administration wants a "responsible" troop withdrawal that doesn't "endanger the security gains." The New York Times noted at the end of January that Obama "has recommitted to ending the war in Iraq but not to his specific campaign pledge to pull out roughly one combat brigade a month for the first 16 months of his presidency."

However, and this is another and potentially much more serious problem, the apparent debate may reflect a conscious campaign by elements in the military who dislike both Obama's timetable and the security agreement that requires a complete withdrawal by the end of 2011 and who look to a much longer commitment, to undermine Obama's authority by engaging in a public relations campaign of hints and targeted leaks to pressure him into supporting their preferences. A sort of slow-motion coup to maintain and secure military dominance of foreign policy.

According to Gareth Porter, at a meeting in the Oval Office on January 21, the day after the inauguration,
Gen. David Petraeus, supported by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, tried to convince President Barack Obama that he had to back down from his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months....

But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that he wasn't convinced and that he wanted Gates and the military leaders to come back quickly with a detailed 16-month plan, according to two sources who have talked with participants in the meeting. ...

Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office, according to one of the sources. A White House staffer present at the meeting was quoted by the source as saying, "Petraeus made the mistake of thinking he was still dealing with George Bush instead of with Barack Obama."
If true, props to the Prez. Still, having failed to convince Obama to support a plan "aimed at getting around a key provision of the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement" by simply re-naming combat troops as "support troops," Porter says,
[t]here are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.

A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilising public opinion against Obama's decision.
One sign of that, Porter says, is that very New York Times article I just quoted,
ostensibly based on the premise that Obama had indicated that he was "open to alternatives".

The Times reported that Odierno had "developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama's campaign timetable" and had suggested in an interview "it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly".
In fact, that very NYT article opened this way:
As President Obama moves to redefine the nation’s mission in Iraq, he faces a difficult choice: Is he willing to abandon a campaign promise or risk a rupture with the military? Or can he finesse the difference?
Watch the progress of a PR campaign. It started the very day of the Oval Office meeting, as that evening
retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop surge policy and a close political ally and mentor of Gen. Petraeus, appeared on the Lehrer News Hour to comment on Obama's pledge on Iraq combat troop withdrawal.

Keane, who had certainly been briefed by Petraeus on the outcome of the Oval Office meeting, argued that implementing such a withdrawal of combat troops would "increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months". He asserted that it would jeopardise the "stable political situation in Iraq" and called that risk "not acceptable". ...

Keane, the Army Vice-Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003 [and the central figure manipulating policy in order to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as possible], has ties to a network of active and retired four-star Army generals, and since Obama's Jan. 21 order on the 16-month withdrawal plan, some of the retired four-star generals in that network have begun discussing a campaign to blame Obama's troop withdrawal from Iraq for the ultimate collapse of the political "stability" that they expect to follow U.S. withdrawal, according to a military source familiar with the network's plans.
The very next day, Gates, who remember was one of the people who wanted Obama to drop his 16-month pledge, said at a press briefing that Obama's plan
is one of the options currently being studied at the Pentagon. ...

"From really ever since the election, we have been looking at several options, and obviously 16 months is one of them. We are very aware of what the president has said and we have an obligation and a responsibility to provide him with a range of options that include the one that he has spoken about," he said. [Emphasis added.]
A week later came the NYT article focused on an interview with Odierno and a week after that came two anonymous "officials" to tell AP that
[t]he White House is considering at least two troop withdrawal options as it weighs a new Iraq strategy - one that would preserve President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to get all combat brigades out within 16 months and a second that would stretch it to 23 months....

Under either timeline, the U.S. would hope to leave behind a number of brigades that would be redesigned and reconfigured as multipurpose units to provide training and advising for Iraqi security forces, one official said. These brigades would be considered noncombat outfits and their presence would have to be agreed in advance by the Iraqi government, which under a deal signed late last year insisted that all U.S. forces - not just combat brigades - be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
That is, this would be exactly the plan to evade the 2011 deadline presented to and supposedly rejected by Obama at the January 21 meeting. The same story, in addition to reprising the standard "something wicked this way comes" innuendos about the implications of a US withdrawal, suggests that the change in timeline is close to a lock:
The fact that Obama did not immediately order his generals to begin withdrawing - as some might have expected, given his emphasis during the campaign on refocusing the U.S. military on Afghanistan - is evidence that he recognized, even before assuming office Jan. 20, the dangers of a precipitous withdrawal.
After taking careful note of the hint that a gradual reduction over 16 months constitutes "a precipitous withdrawal," recall that Porter's info is that on his first full day in office Obama ordered the military to come up with a plan for carrying out his campaign pledge. Obviously, I would have preferred if he had said "start getting out right now and finish it as quickly as possible," but since the issue at hand is a PR campaign to make him back off his pledge for a limited withdrawal over 16 months, the difference between the two versions - Porter's and AP's - is what's important. Considering that Obama could easily fulfill that campaign pledge without an immediate start of a withdrawal makes the claim about his having "recognized ... the dangers" suspect and Porter's account clearly the more plausible of the two.

Something that may or may not be a part of the campaign but surely will be used by it was the February 8 publication of The Gamble, Thomas Ricks' new book on the way, as Ricks tells it, Petraeus and Odierno and Keane saved the day in Iraq by making an end run around the military chain of command and pushing for their escalation plan aka the surge, directly to George Bush, boldly overcoming political opposition from across the spectrum along the way - the whole story of which, and its results on the ground, leave Ricks "saddened by the war" but ready to declare "we can't leave" because, of course, things will be so much worse if we did.

Even some overall favorable reviews were given pause by the way Ricks "lionized" some of his subjects and Jeff Huber at savaged it:
It's not pleasant to call Ricks out for prostituting his credentials, but you can't sleep in a general's tent for years the way Ricks has and pretend not to be a camp follower. Ricks has become for Petraeus what Ned Buntline was to Buffalo Bill Cody: his official legend-maker.
Huber notes that two years ago, "when Petraeus became the new commander of forces in Iraq, Ricks described him in an interview as a 'force of nature'" and that
almost the entirety of Ricks' surge saga is told from the perspective of Petraeus, Odierno, and the rest of the surgin' safari.
Huber makes a decent case that what Ricks unintentionally reveals is that "Petraeus was plotting all along to create a situation we couldn't extract ourselves from" and was trying (these are Ricks' words)
not to bring the war to a close, but simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it even longer.
In other words, to pull off, as I said before, a sort of coup to, as Ricks told David Gregory on Meet the Press, put Obama over a barrel and force him to serve the military's desires.

Has the plan, the pressure, the Petraeus plot, had any effect? Perhaps: Reuters said a few days ago that
Barack Obama will make a decision in weeks, not "days or months," on cutting U.S. troop levels in Iraq, a senior administration official said on Tuesday. ...

"We are aggressively working Iraq and we expect a set of decisions on the responsible drawdown forthwith - not within days or months, but weeks," the administration official told Reuters.
The fact that any final decisions are being put off that long - "weeks" taking it at least well into March - is an indication that there is indeed some impact. If there was none, there would be no need to put off a decision that long, if at all. And the longer it drags out, the more the PR campaign can try to do its work.

However, the whole story may not be written just yet. Now, Saturday, comes MSNBC with the statement that
President Barack Obama faces split opinions within the military on whether to make the speedy withdrawal from Iraq he championed on the campaign trail.

Obama's top generals in Baghdad are pressing for an elongated timetable, while some influential senior advisers inside the Pentagon are more amenable to a quicker pullout.
Leave aside the question of if Obama's plan is for a "speedy" withdrawal or even a withdrawal as opposed to simply a reduction and stick to the article. It notes Odierno's desire for a longer, slower timetable than Obama has proposed, but also notes that Gen. David McKiernan, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, "sees his battlefield as an increasingly urgent priority."
At the Pentagon[, it goes on], a more mixed view prevails. The uniformed service chiefs see Iraq as a strain on their troops and, more broadly, a drain on their resources. ...

It boils down to this: How much more effort is the Iraq war worth? What is the risk of leaving too soon?

Is the 16-month timetable too short...?

And is anything substantially beyond 16 months too long...?
The PR campaign is clearly visible not only in the repeated boogeyman of "uncertain stability" but in the claim that
[n]otably absent, at least so far, is even a whiff of public pressure from fellow Democrats to stick to a 16-month timeline. That suggests Obama's party might be satisfied so long as he makes early and clear steps in the direction of ending U.S. combat involvement in Iraq, even if on a somewhat longer timeline.
Thus putting out the message that there would be no political price to pay for submitting to the coup-meisters.

So where is my "however?" It lies in the fact that taken as a whole the article strongly suggests there has been some real pushback of late, both from the uniformed service chiefs concerned about the strain on the military and from those focused on Afghanistan, looking jealously at the resources devoted to Iraq.

Now, of course I'm not looking to draw down in Iraq in order to build up in Afghanistan. But right now that's not the point. How many recent articles on this topic have even raised the question of "How much more effort is the Iraq war worth?" How many have even hinted at the possibility that more than 16 months might be "too long?" So the point is that the Petraeus cabal is meeting opposition both political and from within the military, meeting forces running counter to their dreams of dominating Obama the way they dominated Bush. And for now, for today, I'll take that.

But I still say STDD/GTHO and the sooner the D, the better.

Footnote: The cartoon is from Town Called Dobson: Blue Life in Red America.

Another Footnote: Odierno was quoted in the last article cited as wanting to "lose" no more than two brigades before the end of the year at the earliest because "he sees 2009 as a pivotal year."

Quick quiz, boys and girls: Can any of you name a year in this war which has not been called "pivotal" by the generals?

except it really isn't. I accidentally published this a couple of hours before it was finished so if you read it before something after midnight Eastern time, you didn't read the whole thing.

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