2004 December 07 Tuesday
CIA Station Chief: Iraq Deteriorating
A CIA agent ending a 12 month tour as Station Chief in Baghdad says Iraq is getting worse.
But over all, the officials described the station chief's cable in particular as an unvarnished assessment of the difficulties ahead in Iraq. They said it warned that the security situation was likely to get worse, including more violence and sectarian clashes, unless there were marked improvements soon on the part of the Iraqi government, in terms of its ability to assert authority and to build the economy.
Of course the government is not going to markedly improve. Also, would economic improvement really help? Some of the insurgents hold day jobs in addition to their bomb making and planting work. So while I do not expect a large improvement in the Iraq economy it is not clear that an improving economy would really help anyway.
Oh, and yet another parallel with Vietnam:
The station chief oversees an intelligence operation that includes about 300 people, making Baghdad the largest C.I.A. station since Saigon during the Vietnam War era.
That is actually a pretty small intelligence operation if we measure it against the job of finding all the insurgents. Obviously that intelligence operation is not sufficient to identify the insurgents or, hey, all the insurgents would be identified already and the US military would be out rounding them up.
Bush doesn't want to admit to the size of the problem because that would require an admission that he made an absolutely gigantic miscalcuation. Well, a willingness to admit to mistakes is not exactly one of Bush's strong points.
Unless a huge set of technological advances are in the pipeline for fighting urban warfare the current troop level in Iraq is at best the equivalent of paddling to stay in place against rushing waters. So lots of Americans are dying and lots of money is being spent (at least $5.8 billion per month plus equipment wearing out and lifetime medical bills for the injured) to no productive end. Given a choice between upping the ante, withdrawing, or a strategy doomed to failure the United States government has opted for the strategy doomed to failure while pretending this is not the case. Lyndon Baines Bush is writing quite a bad chapter for himself in the history books.
Update: The best US hope for Iraqi help against the Sunni insurgency is from the Shias. The Shias are the majority. Will they start to feel any fire in the belly to fight against Sunni insurgents? After all, the Shias are going to be on top in the coming elected government. So why aren't Shias fighting in greater numbers and with more enthusiasm against the Sunni insurgents? Just what the heck are the Iraqi Shias thinking? That government is something Sunnis do and not something that Shias do? Or that they don't want to kill their fellow Muslims? Or that the government is a tool of America? If anyone has some insight into the Shia mindset in Iraq I'd like to hear about it.
Spending close to $100 billion per year in Iraq is 1 % of the GDP.
We need to start a Bronx Project for Energy as soon as possible. There are hundreds of avenues that
are very promising. Many of these developments are merely evolutionary, not revolutionary:
Diesel Fuel From Coal:
If we spend only half of the Iraq war money on Energy Research every year, I am absolutely sure that
within 5 years there will be new forms of artificial diesel fuel in the US.
Otherwise, this religious war, will escalate and become the first global guerilla war in history.
The Shia's comprise around 60% of the population, with the Sunni's comprising most of the rest (I think the Kurds are 2 or 3%??). Keep in mind that the social and philosophical differences between the Shia and Sunni aren't that great - especially, on average one isn't particularly more militant than the other.
As for getting Shia's to fight Sunni's for control of a new Iraq, I think the key difficulty is that allegiance to the State is not a strong driver for either Shia's or Sunni's. From what I've seen of the region (I'm not claiming to be a scholar in this area, its simply my observation), middle eastern society has five levels of allegiance (in decreasing order of strength):
1 Extended Family - always comes first, think blood feuds running for generations;
2 Tribe/village - again, think blood feuds;
3 Believing in God - regardless of the particular religion;
4 Religion - being a Muslim;
5 are you an Arab? This is the pan-arab nationalism movement (note this is not a country based nationalist movement, rather it encompasses the entire arab region).
Notice what's missing? Allegiance to the nation/state. The State are the guys who conscript you into the army, the State are the guys who arrest you for expressing dissent, the State are the guys who take your money in taxes to build palaces etc. No one does anything willingly for the State.
Notice what else is missing - being Shia or Sunni. I think a lot of us in the west mistake religious sects (ie Shia, Sunni) for ethnic groupings, but they are different. Sure there's a significant overlap, but what is really being invoked is not the religious group, but the ethnic group - ie the tribal level.
You might be surprised at number 3, but it was my experience in the region that when asked what religion you are (that's the arab equivalent of western small talk about the weather), replying that you didn't have a religion just didn't compute. I remember one instance where I said I didn't have a religion and the arabs I was with assumed they'd misunderstood and began to list a whole bunch of religions (memorably including zoroastrian). In the end I said I was Church of England and they were happy. My standard response became CofE.
There's an exception to number 5, no one likes the gulf arabs - they don't need to work hard like most arabs (oil rich) and this causes resentment when they throw their weight around (not so much the gulf states being obnoxious, more the citizens of the gulf states looking down their nose at everyone else).
The biggest flaw with the above points is that on its face it doesn't explain where Osama and his ilk come from. But really they are 'simply' a volatile mix of 5 & 4. Osama may be a gulf arab but he gets brownie points for giving up the easy life.
Those major obstacles in the way of allegiance to the Iraqi nation-state offer us our main chance. Iraqi patriotism is a bad thing for us: local patriots want the US out. And there is some patriotism even among the Shia: they did fight in the Iran-Iraq war, and they did express sympathy and offer aid to Fallujah in the spring.
As I just said, to the extent that Iraqis are patriots, we're hosed. Now if we can inflame Shia-Sunni passions enough, or maybe if it just happens naturally, why then we'd have a side (the Shia, presumably) - right now we really don't have one at all. Now spending hundreds of billions of dollars to install the People's Islamic Republic of Iraq may seem like a dubious achievement, but's the best option, assuming that we're crazy enough to stay.
The biggest reason that Iraqi National Guardsmen don't tell their families about their day job is probably just old-fashioned shame. Working for occupiers is shameful: being a quisling is shameful. But I'm sure that more training (as in Clockwork Orange) will fix all that. Why, I bet they get to like the idea of being forbidden cars, having to take retinal scans to get in and out of town, and having to wear an ID badge at all times (on pain of death).
Randall, I got my figures from go.hrw.com/atlas/norm_htm/iraq.htm Though I would opt for the factbook as a better reference. Indeed, just looked at the cia page and it looks like the hrw page 'borrows' most of its data from the factbook.
G & Randall, inflaming those religious rivalries is the problem though - I don't really think there's enough friction between Shia and Sunni to make them take up arms against each other. Its especially hard when both have a common and highly visible enemy in the US. Remember that the Shia (but more accurately ethnic tribes in the South) were not willing to put the effort into rebelling after Gulf war number 1 when Saddam was totally vulnerable (sure some tried, but they never had sufficient numbers to make a difference).
Also, if the US supports the Sunni against the Shia then I guarantee it won't take too long before the Iranians start shipping truck loads of manpads across the border. Ditto for any civil war scenario - Iran will inevitably intervene.
So, I suppose its only fair to tell you my plan? We'll I think I'd try to transform the US presence from an occupation force into a peace keeping force. What does that really mean? I'd start by moving all foreign troops out of the cities and into desert bases (not the outskirts of a city, but 100km away from the nearest civilisation) - no more regular patrols in populated areas, no more house-to-house searches, zero visibility. I'd hope that this will lessen the 'them & us' mentality, and the tempting targets that road blocks & patrols provide etc. The US would only intervene in a city if there is a total breakdown of law and order, at which point it will only intervene with concentrated force quickly applied and equally quickly removed.
The whole idea is that the Iraqi's will not be distracted by occupiers walking down the street, but instead will be able to develop their own ways of living with each other. Let politics do its work, but with the comforting knowledge that if someone tries to be a murderous strongman, then the US will take him out.
Politically the US can play around - supporting some, not supporting others - but that would strictly be a political process and not a military one. The political objective being primarily to ensure that there isn't a vacuum of leadership (otherwise another afghanistan looms), with only a distant second objective being the hope that the emerging leaders are pro-western.
Maybe its a bit unrealistic, but if it is then I think we can all agree that blood will be spilt - it just comes down to who is going to be supplying the blood.
I've just done a check of the pro-war blogs like Instapundit, Belmont Club and others and found no mention of the CIA report. It's the biggest story in most of the world's press today yet Instapundit proclaims the inauguration of Hamid Karzai the big story of the day. That the warbloggers only report positive stories from Iraq is more evidence that, like the mainstream media they attack, they are not interested in truth, just ideology and partisanship. It helps explain why so many people believe things like Saddam being involved in 9/11. Ignorance is a prerequisite for the successful promotion of the neocon agenda. This whole enterprise has been a catastrophe for the US and if the CIA report is accurate it's set to get even worse. I suppose the British experience in the Boer War would be
the most obvious historical parallel in its impact on the imperial power. Britain won the Anglo-Boer War but not only got a right bloody nose, its international standing took a serious hit as the perception grew that Britain wasn't as strong as the world had believed, while the well-publicised methods it used to win the war made it the most hated country in the world.
In support of the civil war arguments by Randall and G, the NY times has an article about the CIA intel assessment and coincidentally says, "Since then, however, violence in Iraq has increased, including the recent formation of a Shiite militia intended to carry out attacks on Sunni militants." http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/07/international/middleeast/07intell.html
As for intervening only when there is a total breakdown of law and order: The official government would effectively be ousted in most of the Iraqi cities if the US withdrew from the cities. It has happened in some Iraqi cities already.
If the US entirely withdrew from Iraq now my guess is that the Sunnis would take over. The Kurds would probably manage to hold off the Sunnis in the Kurdish areas though. Also, if the US withdrew then Sadr would put his militia back together again and probably fight the Sunnis. Not sure how that would turn out.
I'm not surprised by what you found on the pro-war blogs. The inauguration of Karzai will make little difference on the ground in Afghanistan.
I think the neocon agenda is failing. They screwed up in Iraq and tied down all of the US forces there. This has strengthened the Mullahs in Iran.
I'm wondering how long it will take before before some of the Panglossian hawks wake up to the facts of the situation. A year? 2 years? Will the 2008 Presidential election be fought over whether to withdraw from Iraq?
If I were running Iran I'd be going flat out to develop nukes while the US is tied down in Iraq - also I'd be up front about it.
I'm sure the uniforms at the Pentagon are already starting to do the "We told you so" schtick when talking to the neocons. Oddly enough, Iraq breaks every rule of US military doctrine - use overwhelming force, have a clear objective. This is surprising when you recall that Donald Rumsfeld was a big backer of that doctrine (he being defence secretary(??) in the aftermath of Vietnam when the doctrine was developed, and also having pressured Nixon to either commit proper force or pull the troops out).
I suspect there is much less to this story than meets the eye. A pessimist (albeit highly placed) writes a negative report. Other pessimists leak it to the NYT who splash it accross the headlines. We've seen this many times, especially leading up to the US election.
You might call me an optimist, but maybe I've just learned to thoroughly distrust the pessimists. The NYT makes Tokyo Rose seem like a piker when it comes to systematically elevating the negative and supressing the positive. But it's hard to reconcile the NYT uniformly bleak view with the substantial positive news published in other news sources and rounded up periodically by Chrenkoff): http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/2004/12/good-news-from-iraq-part-16.html (And see the previous 15 as well). It's also hard to reconcile with the letters from the troops that, on the whole, seem to paint a more positive picture than NYT/CIA.
I recommend y'all just calm down, wait for the elections, and see where the chips fall. I predict things wind up like Afghanistan. A dismal failure if you judge it for failing to be a liberal Western democracy overnight. But a resounding success by any reasonable measure.
James: did you predict that we'd see a guerrilla war in Iraq? Did you predict that opinion in Iraq would turn dramatically against the US - as it has? Did you predict that we woud find that Iraq was no threat to anybody? Did you predict that we'd never get oil output up to prewar levels?
Did you predict that killing Saddam's sons would make no difference, that catching him would make no difference?
I did. Why the hell should anyone listen to you?
One nasty definition of happiness is the agreeable feeling that results from
contemplating the misery of other people. This is why I was not going to
compete with you and say that I was among the ones who loudly said that
invading Iraq was going to be a disaster for the US... However, the dark side is
winning out, and I have no choice but to compete...
But Randall Parker would testify that I did say that Iraq was going to lead to
a disastrous guerilla war for the US, similar or worse than Viet Nam.
The guy who calls himself Invisible Scientist was very emphatically telling me in private email many times in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq that Iraq was going to become an enormous debacle like Vietnam. He predicted the insurgency and that it was going to be very difficult to deal with.
I, on the other hand, figured that the Bushies would follow the Powell Doctrine and use such overwhelming force that an insurgency would be difficult to scale up to the level it has now reached. After all, Powell was in the Bush Administration and Cheney seemed so prudent in the first Gulf War. But as the war approached and the size of the invasion force was so small I began to worry. The Bushies were deluded. They thought they could play imperialists on the cheap. The level of brutality by occupying forces that would require is no longer politically acceptable. Of course they didn't think such brutality was going to be a necessary cost of being cheap, what with everyone in Iraq supposedly an oppressed bleeding heart liberal just waiting to throw flowers at the US soldiers. Well, what fools they were and still are.
I always thought that liberal democracy wasn't going to succeed in Iraq. But I definitely did underestimate the size of the insurgency and overestimate the competency and degree of realism in the Bush Administration.
The problem with allowing the Shia's and Sunni's go at each other is that FACILITATING QUASI-GENOCIDE IS IMMORAL!
Crikey, the warbloggers are even worse. "Let the Shia's wipe them out. They've made their own bed..."
Good heavens. Does no-one realize that by invading, the United States has taken responsibility for the lives of the Iraqi? If, by its actions, a million or so Iraqi die in an ensuing civil war, it will set the United State's ability to intervene anywhere back 50 years. (Unless a disaster of state-threatening magnitude occurs, and the American people are a long way from believing that...)
Going to war in a democracy requires at least a minimal consensus. While a significant number of people were willing to do so as a security threat, America has generally required the ability to "feel-good" about a war because in the end it is "helping the people". If massive numbers die in Iraq, it will require a fundamental shift to a "hell with the foreigners" attitude. Given the general outrage at Abu Graib and its ilk by even the pro-war crowd, I'd say that Americans are a long way from that point.
Dear Mr. West,
Please putt down the bong, this makes no sense.
"Does no-one realize that by invading, the United States has taken responsibility for the lives of the Iraqi? "
I did not break it, I don't want to buy it, certainly not at the price of my son being a conscript. The "United States" has not taken responsibility, a cowardly congress and the pres have unsconstitutionally sent troops.
"a million or so Iraqi die in an ensuing civil war"
As opposed to us killing them, if we stay long enough.
"it will set the United State's ability to intervene anywhere back 50 years."
This is a bad thing?
"Unless a disaster of state-threatening magnitude occurs"
Change the word "state" to "nation" and you a the only excuse for intervention anywhere. Of course you would have to get over your "state" worship.
Of course, I am not the most subtle person. Your post could have been tongue in cheek.
gochran: Congratulations on your Nostradamus-like powers, but what's your point? Lots of people predicted lots of things prior to the war. I'm not sure it matters now.
As for "Why the hell should anyone listen to you?". Because I'm making two simple points that have, especially of late, significant explanatory power: not everything you read in the NYT is true; some people in the CIA don't like GWB and do what they can to embarass him.
I don't want to seem Pollyanna-ish about this. If Iraq is a disaster, then we should know that and act accordingly. But there seems to be extremely wide variance in the news coming back from Iraq. And two things in particular seem to suggest it's not a disaster. First, the troops are connected to home as never before, and their accounts are generally much more positive than MSM (If someone can point to a trove of negative letters, I'd love the URL). Second, major social and economic indicators in Iraq suggest things are getting better. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is that expatriate Iraqis from around the world are returning home in droves. I'm guessing they have much better information than either you or I.
Call me crazy, but I no longer believe most of the "expert predictions" that appear in NYT, and I'm similarly unimpressed by people who cite them. How many times in the last few years have those dire predictions gone unfulfilled? Here's a partial list off the top of my head:
- Afghanistan = Graveyard of Empires
- Afghan Winter will kill millions
- Elections aren't possible in Afghanistan
- Baghdad = Stalingrad
- Fallujah_v1 + Najef = Civil War
- US won't transfer power on June 30
- Fallujah_v2 will be disastrous
How many times do you have to watch this movie before you can guess the ending?
None of this suggests that life in Iraq is a bed of roses. Insurgent bombs really do kill people (Iraqis and Americans) by the dozens on a depressingly frequent basis. All I'm saying is that most interesting trends are more positive than the CIA/NYT would suggest, and that this latest CIA "leak" should probably be significantly discounted. They next major, unambiguous milestone is the elections. Let's see how that plays out...
" They next major, unambiguous milestone is the elections. Let's see how that plays out... "
Time is running out. We need to understand that there are special interest groups, namely the oil companies
whic are connected with the current administration, are the great beneficiaries of the current static war because
the current indecision is slowing down the investments in alternative energies. In the long run, this is NOT in the
UNLESS we have a national decision to work on an independent energy policy, and to conduct the Bronx Project cohesively,
the long term survival of the USA will be at risk. While "we wait and see how the things play out", we must watch out
and anticipate the future trends in a decade or more, because if there is a worldwide chaos as a result of this war,
we do not know what kind of new fuhrers will come to power in the world.
Quote from above:
"..The Bush administration's retreat from its vision of a transformation to market democracy for Middle Eastern states is evident in the lead-up to the December 11 summit meeting in Morocco intended to promote democracy across the region. U.S. officials have made clear that they will not demand the region's leaders to reform, instead coming with a package of financial and social initiatives -- plans that will not create much discomfort in the region's autocracies. Middle East analysts Tamara Cofman Wittes and Sarah Yerkes of the Brookings Institution point to the problems of this strategy: "Economic reform is something for which nearly all Arab governments are willing to accept assistance, regardless of the donor, but whether economic change can contribute to the degree of liberalization that the United States sees as necessary to reduce political extremism is uncertain.".."
It's a long article. Tragically, the deaths of countless Iraqis are a testament to the neo-crazies' (neo-cons') 'armchair general' approaches to world issues. Yes, the US will and is already paying a stiff price for its mistakes. If the dollar fails and accelerates in this 'redraw' of political goals overseas, I hope (for my selfish reasons, also) that enough capital is left over to redraw the energy strategy (see above, esp. Invisible Scientist's ideas).
Nobody answered Randall's question about Shiites, so here goes; the website above gives a very concise explanation of the Sunni-Shiite reality.
"..As you can see, Shiite grievances are genuine but Sunni dominance of government was not through armed Sunni-Shiite conflict as has been repeatedly suggested. It was mostly foreign interference and influence first and then power and politics and power-politics throughout the past century of modern Iraqi history.."
We put the warlords of Afghanistan our payroll and have looked the other way as they brought the opium industry back on line.The moment they see greater benefit going independant,"Afghan Democracy" is over.
Again,democracy is not just a politcal system,it's also a cultural habit,a habit most of the world doesn't have.We tried to plant a democratic habit in Haiti from 1915 to 1934,didn't take root,ditto in the Phillipines from 1898 to 1948(tho it does seem to be sprouting now).Neo-cons only want to talk about Germany and Japan,which have nothing,culturally,political or economicaly in common with the middle-east.Both were advanced industrial countries with a well developed sense of res publica,which is completely lacking in the ME.
Stephen is right,identity is powerful and arabs identify thus:
"1 Extended Family - always comes first, think blood feuds running for generations;
2 Tribe/village - again, think blood feuds;
3 Believing in God - regardless of the particular religion;
4 Religion - being a Muslim;
5 are you an Arab? This is the pan-arab nationalism movement (note this is not a country based nationalist movement, rather it encompasses the entire arab region)."
I should point out that in Darfur #5 supercedes #4 and #4 most certainly supercedes #3.
to James: Any reasonable set of predictions is based on a theory of how things work - you know what a theory is, right? There are good theories and bad theories: the predictions of bad theories don't come true, while the predictions of the good theories do, or at least come close.
My theory of Iraq works. The Administration's theory does not: I gather yours doesn't either. I never thought that Fallujah II would be militarily disastrous: never thought that we'd lose or come close to losing. Nobody who knew anything about modern war woud ever have thought anything else - not that many people do know anything about modern war. But I did think that the Administration talk about lots of 'foreign fighters' - other than us, I guess - was either mistaken or a lie, probably a lie. And of course it was false : less than 2% of those we captured in Fallujah came from outside Iraq. The Administration theory was that Fallujah had been captured by terrorists, and those poor Fallujans didn't like the hajis among them and welcomed our conquest of Fallujah. That was a lie: virtually everybody in Fallujah hates us. They _like_ seeing local boys blow us up. We were not liberating anybody, we were imposing our imperial will in our usual dipshit way. We made most of the population of Fallujah refugees, and t they're not coming back as (except for the occasional guerrilla) as long we intend to make Fallujah a prison camp, which is our intent: mandatory IDs worn on pain of death, banned private vehicles, forced labor - what would you call it? I predict that those quarter of a million refugees are going to give us all the trouble they can: a finite amount, not enough to make us lose, but enough to cost us tens of billions of dollars. Our way of war entails low casualties but huge expense.
Fallujah is worse than average, but pretty much all the Sunnis hate our guts. The Shiites hate us somewhat less, on average - as much as anything they despise us. Although I figure a fair number of the next-of-kin of the people we blew up in East Baghdad bear a grudge. Continual airstrikes on cities we supposedly control: you probably don't know it, but that's highly abnormal.
The Kurds like us protecting them against the Iraqi Arabs, which they fear: but they don't like us. Hell, we're hard to like. Anyone who can level a town and then complain about how ungrateful the locals are is always going to be hard to like.
They don't want us. Look at the polls. They don't like us. They won't fight for us - and why should they? They don't want us running their country. We have no legitimate reason for even being there: they never attacked us, didn't back anti-US terrorism, while the 'Iraqi Peril' never even existed, except in the heads of morons and dupes ( i.e. most people).
Do I say and think this because I'm a 'Bush-Hater' Contrariwise: I'm a Bush-Hater because of Iraq. I voted for him in 2000 - what a mistake.
"they never attacked us, didn't back anti-US terrorism, while the 'Iraqi Peril' never even existed,they never attacked us, didn't back anti-US terrorism, while the 'Iraqi Peril' never even existed, except in the heads of morons and dupes ( i.e. most people)."
It appears that although Saddam was exaggerated, nevertheless he was still in the process of working on weapons of mass destruction,
and there are some indications that he shipped them to Syria and Lebanon before the US invasion. But the real danger that the US
government (I mean the people who are working behind the scenes) saw, was that Iraq was in the middle of the chessboard, a
step stone for Iran to take over Saudi Arabia.
1) The imperial ambitions of Iran,
2) the danger that oil will be priced in euros instead of dollars,
3) and the danger that the oil money will be controlled by Al Qaeda,
basically caused the Bush administration to worry and try to control the center of the chessboard.
I am sure that had a Democrat such as Al Gore been the president instead of Bush, the only reason he
would not have done the same thing would be that the Democrats are less influenced by the oil industry.
"didn't back anti-US terrorism"?
Maybe not directly, but up until at least 2000 the IIS was providing bomb-making training to Al Quada. There was a desperation between bin Laden and Hussein to keep any communication secret--Iraqi intelligence even used liquid paper on an internal intelligence document to conceal bin Laden's name. The Iraqi Ahmed Hikmat Shakir was directly involved in aiding some of the 9/11 hijackers through customs in Malaysia, and when he was detained and interrogated by CIA officials in Jordan on his way back to Iraq, there was reported pressure from Saddam to have Jordan release him, though his connection with the Iraq gov't is unclear.
The Iraq threat, though minor in comparison to other parts of the MI, was not non-existent, and "legally" it was the easiest one to do something about.
gcochran writes: "Any reasonable set of predictions is based on a theory of how things work...while the predictions of the good theories do, or at least come close."
I completely agree. That was the crux of my two previous posts: by tuning your model to heavily discount most articles in the NYT, especially those based on CIA leaks, you will find the accuracy of your predictions increase dramatically.
As for the rest of your post...it's more trouble than it's worth to untangle your mixture of facts, "facts", good arguments, and weak ones. I hereby surrender and accept that you are a veritable genius, whose intellectual and moral superiorty warrants the astonishing level of condescenion you display.
Before the invasion of Iraq Judith Miller of the New York Times wrote a series of articles which wildly exaggerated the threat of WMD in Iraq under Saddam. Miller took dubious sources brought forward by the Iraqi National Congress and others and, like the CIA and the Pentagon, attached too much importance to their fabrications. Miller was hardly the only reporter for that newspaper who wrote stuff before the war that helped the Bush Administration make their case. So the NYT is hardly a simple leftist pacifist paper.
But the NYT is not making up fake quotes from US officers in Iraq. It isn't making up a fake report about what the CIA Chief of Station in Baghdad is saying.
The error of the NYT was in not knowing before the war who to listen to. But it actually reported what various people said correctly. It is no doubt doing that now as well. But now the people it is quoting (e.g. officers and CIA agents in Iraq) have far more experience and better character than the fabricators who were trying to build a case for war before the invasion.
I'm not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination. But I look at the NYT as a valuable news source because it is. The NYT has great reporters in Iraq (e.g. John Burns) who report a lot of real information about what is going on there.
Looking at the record thus far, you do indeed need to somewhat deweight reports from the New York Times: they're overly prone to buying into Administration horseshit. They, in particular Judith Miller, purveyed lots of nonsense about the Iraqi WMD effort before the war- the effort that didn't exist. I didn't believe that Iraq even had a live nuclear program, and of course they did not. People like Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, all said that there was one and it was a threat. Either I'm a lot better at this than they are, better than the whole US government is, or they're liars. You decide. Or, covering all the possibilities, maybe they're incompetent _and_ liars.
But back to the idea that you get better predictions by discounting New York Times pessimism -= which is, by the way, shared by the entire press corps, in fact by everyone there who can speak the language. Like what? Give us some particulars. Could it be that properly discounting the NYTImes allowed you to predict that the number of translators working for the US in Mosul would drop from 70 to 4? Did you manage to predict that we would never manage to secure the road from Baghdad Airport to the Green Zone?
Good analysis on the priority ordering of Iraqis' loyalties, Stephen-- not much more that I can add to that. (FWIW the Kurds comprise about 20% of the pop., the vast majority of them Sunni. The "20%" figure tossed around in the media, in reference to the Sunni pop., is Sunni Arab; total Sunni pop. is roughly 40%.) You're right that loyalty to the nation-state is way down on the list for Iraqis, and this is not only b/c of the traditional tribal society that's predominant there but that, in essence, Arabs in the Middle East have never really accepted the borders of the region. Those frontiers were, after all, drawn predominantly by British and French imperialists with the Sykes-Picot Treaty in 1916, imposed from the outside during and after that utter disaster of WWI with the complicity of corrupt rulers at the time. (One more example of how we're still dealing with the bitter consequences of WWI, a century later.) In fact, the lines demarcating Iraq were largely drawn by a British bureaucrat named Sir Percy Cox in 1922, with little attention given to the local traditions and tribal/ethnic/religious loyalties. Iraq was created partly to appease mutually incompatible interests of local sheikhs (a compromise that satisfied nobody, as Trevor Royle's article in the Sunday Herald notes), but also to pit ethnic groups against each other, so that the Brits could seize the oil fields.
Of course, in this case the Iraq schemes blew up in the face of the British, who were ignominiously kicked out after a chiefly Shiite-Kurdish rebellion in the 1920s-- but the lines on the map remained, and now we're stuck with the consequences since the people in Iraq really don't have a cohesive sense of nationhood, for obvious reasons. Thus in the minds of the locals in the Middle East, there's little legal standing for the nation-state of Iraq, and they have little loyalty to it, especially when it's run under the shadow of a foreign military occupation (in this case that of the USA, Britain's successor as hegemon in the region) and they can be branded as a quisling for it. Putting the shoe on the other foot-- if the US were invaded and occupied by a foreign coalition, even if that invasion overthrew a tyrannical native ruler, I doubt that many Americans would rally to support the hegemon. They'd be branded as traitors and hunted down. That's the case for Shias as much as Sunnis.
This is a reason why a direct propping-up of or alliance with the Shias would probably backfire disastrously. For one thing, the Shias are hardly a monolithic block themselves. There are longstanding, bitter, and severe disagreements between the dirt-poor young urban Shiites (the ones who flock to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army) and the more yuppie-ish, affluent Shias in Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf for example (at least before Najaf was pummeled into rubble back in July and August). The Shiite Arabs fight with each other far more than they fight against the Sunnis, and the followers of different ayatollahs (e.g. Sadr vs. Badr) or native vs. exile Shia parties (Dawa vs. SCIRI) or secular vs. religions Shia organizations are constantly feuding with each other. Any attempt to ally directly with Shias would probably lead immediately to demands of special favors and further splittism among the Shias since they're hardly unified to begin with.
The Shias are also anything but pro-American. They're at best suspicious and cautiously cooperative with the US authority b/c they see a chance to grab extra power in elections, but they're not allies; the ayatollahs basically see their current actions as manipulating the situation we've fostered to gain authority. Classic power politics. In fact, a substantial number of the attacks against Coalition forces, on a constant basis these days, take place in Shia areas like Sadr City; we just don't hear of the assaults as much b/c they tend to be less militarily effective and lethal than the ones in Fallujah and Ramadi (where many of the well-trained and equipped Republican Guard and fedayeen settled down after April 2003). One other factor to remember here is that the Shias in Iraq are mostly in tow to the religious authorities in Iran, who are obviously vehemently anti-American. If the Shiite Iraqis gain too much power, and oil-rich Iraq becomes a virtual satellite of Iran, then Iran will effectively have a new ace in its deck to use against the US and Israel. I tend to question much of our involvement in the region to begin with and would support some degree of disengagement from the Persian Gulf, but as current policy stands, Iran is the most potent single foe to the USA there, and a further empowered Iran could stir up trouble. It's all about checks and balances, and any single ethnic group or intervening nation with too much power could be dangerous.
We should also recall that, although Shiite Arabs hold the majority in Iraq, they're anything but in the region as a whole, and if the USA is seen to be siding too closely with the Shiites and pitting them against Sunni Arabs, this would enrage neighboring Sunni countries (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey) so much as to fray crucial alliances we have there. Saudi Arabia would probably intervene in some fashion, and possibly mess around with their own oil spigots or otherwise risk a popular anti-American revolution within their own borders. Frankly, the biggest single reason the Shiites probably won't square off against Sunnis is that they have little interest in it; they have close links, often blood ties, with their fellow Muslim and Arab Sunni Iraqis, and probably respect them more than they do us overall. Sorta like Catholic vs. Protestant Americans-- bitter disagreements on some matters, but in the US at least they'd be disinclined to take up arms against each other. Even with the bad blood from the Saddam years, there were after all many Sunni Arabs who died at Saddam's hands along with the Shiites, and since the US supported Saddam for so long in the 1980s there's understandable suspicion about our own intentions. People don't like to be manipulated, especially by what is seen as a foreign interloper with its own ax to grind. We just can't afford to be seen playing sides here, as difficult as it is to address the current situation-- it would just be asking for a nasty civil war.
IMHO the greatest threat to long-term Iraqi stability and unity may not come from the Sunni Arabs at all, but from our current allies the Kurds. More than any other group, they just want out of Iraq, want to have their own nation. In fact, the Kurds joined in with the Sunni Arabs in demanding a postponement of elections recently, and the Kurds are if anything even more apprehensive of Shiite authority than the Sunnis. Much of Ayatollah Sistani's bile seems to be directed at the Kurds, and in fact Sistani directly intervened to thwart the Kurds in their desire to have a veto and autonomy in the Iraqi Constitution. This is where the most intractable, irreconcilable difference lies-- Sistani simply will not budge on the Kurdish autonomy issue, while the Kurds will simply not agree to stay in Iraq if Sistani's demands are acceded to. The Kurds want to break away-- they've been screwed too often in history by the great powers and they see a rare opportunity here, as painful as the resulting conflict would be. They're certainly not going to be subjected to a Shiite-dominated Iraq.
The best solution IMHO is for the USA to ensure an ultra-federalized system in Iraq, if a civil war and a regional catastrophe are to be avoided. Such widespread autonomy would have its own problems and may be putting off the day of reckoning when the inevitable conflicts over such a federalized system (taxes, oil proceeds, foreign policy) arise, but the Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, and Turkomen won't accept a Shia-ruled Iraq. For that matter, it's questionable whether even the Shias can hold together for more than a couple months w/o the old rivalries among rival Shia factions sending them at each other's throats again. Also, as if it hasn't been emphasized enough, we absolutely need to have more troops and civilian officers on the ground who can speak Arabic and interact with the local population. There's this continuing moronic attitude in the USA that anybody who's anybody speaks English, and b/c of that there's been at best a pathetic effort to really master the local languages and customs of Iraq. The result, of course, is those inevitable miscommunications that leads to American soldiers getting confused and shooting up Iraqi civilians in Nassiriya, as well as the severe paucity of reliable intelligence. Back when the French, British, Dutch, Portuguese, Belgians, and Germans were running their overseas empires in the 1700s and 1800s, or even just negotiating with foreign tribes, they made a special effort to train foreign officers who were well-versed in the local languages and culture, which helped enormously in administration and reduced tensions somewhat. We've utterly refused to do that, and that alone will bring defeat to the USA in Iraq unless we change the policy quickly. It's ludicrous that we've been in Iraq for a year-and-a-half, yet still have such a piss-poor familiarity with Iraqi Arabic and the local culture.
Wes, I did a lot of nodding while reading your insights. It does feel like old imperial mistakes are being repeated.
Re the Kurds, I agree entirely with your comments and would emphasise that I don't see the US allowing the creation of a Kurdish country.
Federalism would be perfect (assuming the model is that the component states have full legislative power while the national government can only legislate on limited topics), but it doesn't really feel like its the arab way. I once participated in a formal discussion about different forms of government in the region contrasted with how things worked in western political structures - general amazement (bordering on disbelief) among the group that many national governments in the west have limited control over what their component states can do.