2007 August 22 Wednesday
US Army Noncommissioned Officers Paint Bleak View On Iraq

Six sergeants and a specialist in the US Army's 82nd Airborne have a highly recommended op/ed in the New York Times arguing that the conditions in Iraq are deteriorating and the US can do little about it.

VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day. (Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

This is a highly insightful article by people who demonstrate an amazing nuance in their understanding of what they've witnessed first hand while in danger for an extended period of time.

The Iraqi Army and police are not our allies.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

The recent chorus in Washington DC about how well things are going in Iraq is working is "misleading rhetoric". Gotta agree on that score. No, the surge is not working. No, Iraq isn't going to turn the corner under our occupation.

The Shia goal of consolidation of their power puts them in conflict with the American goal of reconciliation with no group coming out as losers.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force (then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

There's no way to reconcile this conflict of interests. What can we do? Stop trying to protect Sunnis from Shia depredations? We aren't going to exercise the level of brutality needed to put down insurgencies of this sort. In my view US interests are not at stake in Iraq. Al Qaeda isn't going to take over. The neighbors won't all invade if we withdraw. Iraq's oil reserves are depleted just like Saudi Arabia's. For energy security we need to look at developing non-oil energy sources. We really can leave. If we need to improve our security then the money we'll save by leaving can be spent on measures that will make us safer. Keeping over one hundred thousand troops in Iraq battling all the factions there does not make us safer.

They say there have to be losers in Iraq. But who gets shafted? My answer: The Sunnis have to get shafted. Maybe the Kurds get shafted too. Probably some Shia factions get shafted by other Shia factions. The Christians and Turkomen and other groups are big losers. Either that or every group gets its own country from a big partitioning. But too many factions in Iraq oppose partition and some of those factions will get shafted instead.

Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution wrote a very different op/ed in the New York Times entitled "A War We Just Might Win" arguing a very Panglossian view based on their recent trip to Iraq.

Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.

Anthony H. Cordesman, who is a strong supporter of continued US military operations in Iraq went on the same Iraq trip as O'Hanlon and Pollack but came back with a much less optimistic analysis of the situation.

The attached trip report does, however, show there is still a tenuous case for strategic patience in Iraq, and for timing reductions in US forces and aid to Iraqi progress rather than arbitrary dates and uncertain benchmarks. It recognizes that strategic patience is a high risk strategy, but it also describes positive trends in the fighting, and hints of future political progress.

These trends are uncertain, and must be considered in the context of a long list of serious political, military, and economic risks that are described in detail. The report also discusses major delays and problems in the original surge strategy. The new US approach to counterinsurgency warfare is making a difference, but it still seems likely from a visit to the scene that the original strategy President Bush announced in January would have failed if it had not been for the Sunni tribal awakening.

He's doubtful that we'll be successful there. Yet we thinks the cost of giving up is too high. I think if he didn't see such high costs for giving up he'd be even more pessimistic in his appraisal of conditions in Iraq.

Anthony Cordesman presented his views at a briefing which you can watch as a video (I happened to catch it on C-SPAN). Here are excerpts of his briefing on his report.

I should stress I did not see any dramatic change in our position in Iraq during this trip. Many of the points, the problems that exist there, are problems which have existed really since late 2004, if not earlier. I didn’t see a dramatic shift in the ability of Iraqis to reach the kind of compromise that is almost the foundation of moving forward, although there were some elements of progress. And I use the word “tenuous” in talking about my trip and strategic patience simply because the risks are so high and they are higher than even – or lower than even, I should say. We really have problems even in defining success.


One of the most critical problems is the prime minister’s office. And since I did not speak to the prime minister, I want to be careful about using the term “office.” But throughout the visit, time and again people said that the prime minister’s office had been involved in the support of Shi’ite ethnic cleansing, that in had intervened in detainment or military operations against Shi’ite militias, that it had refused to act in moving forward in areas where the prime minister had direct authority in bringing Sunnis and Sunni tribal elements into the government and into the security structure.


It is clear that in some ways our intervention in Iraq has allowed the Sadr militia and shi’ite extremist groups to operate in terms of sectarian cleansing with more freedom than they had in the past. This is an ongoing problem, and it is a very serious one. It is also clear that we face a growing threat from the more hostile elements of those Shi’ite militias, and that they have had stronger Iranian backing and new forms of Iranian arms.

Cordesman does not see partition as a solution.

It is also clear that while there are still some American politicians talking about partition as if this was soft and manageable. It is brutal, it is repressive, it kills people, it injures them, it drives them out of their homes, and it drives them out of the country. To talk about this as if it was something that is gentle or non-violent is simply dishonest, it has not happened, and it cannot happen in the future.

Clue train to Anthony Cordesman: But the partition is happening anyway. I repeat: The partition is happening anyway. You even say so. We can't stop it. We might as well help the Shias and Sunnis move away from each other under our protection so that they don't get killed or injured. We might as well help Sunnis and Shias basically swap homes and to help them build homes where they flee to.

The battles in the south are between Shia factions.

The south is effectively under the control of struggling Shi’ite factions. It is quite clear that the British have been defeated, that they are essentially marginalized in an enclave. We are watching struggles between Shi’ite factions, many of which are a little more than criminal gangs. We are not even able to have our PRTs operate in some of the problems involved, and we simply will never have the military forces to intervene both in Baghdad, the northern and central areas like Diyala and the south. Whatever happens, there has been a kind of partition already.

The struggle for Baghdad is still going on street by street, area by area. There is still sectarian cleansing in the south, there are still battles in Diyala, in Ninawa, in the north-central areas.

He admits that we do not have enough soldiers to fight in the south. The battles between Shia factions and the ethnic cleansing in many areas are beyond our ability to stop.

I am amazed that we are over 4 years into the Iraq debacle and yet George W. Bush and other war supporters can still orchestrate rah rah episodes in the press about how things in Iraq are starting to turn around in our favor. Some of our top military officers tell lies about how long it would take to pull out of Iraq. Lunatics write op/eds arguing that we are making progress in Iraq. Our leadership and public intellectuals are pretty lame.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 August 22 10:24 PM  Mideast Iraq Exit Debate

John S Bolton said at August 23, 2007 2:09 AM:

One question that arises on the subject of partition,
is whether a false dilemma, equivocation and smearing type of
rhetorical approach is not being used here.
Is 100% ethnic cleansing really the result of any sort of partitioning?
Or is it not much more likely that there is no need for that
degree of purity, if the objective were only to stop the Sunni from
initiating waves of terror offensives, since they have no sovereign assurance in territory,
that Shia supremacy will not be their future? Millions of
Shia could live quietly in Sunniland, as they did before.
The revolution of rising expectations has been unleashed though,
that the majority shall rule.

Rick Darby said at August 23, 2007 2:28 PM:


Could I suggest that you put paragraph breaks in your comments? It would improve their readability dramatically.

Your lines seem to end at odd places rather than filling out the space. Are you inserting "hard returns" instead of just letting the text wrap as it's designed to?

Trent Telenko said at August 23, 2007 3:07 PM:


I would not trust any report of the NY Times on Iraq.

They are professionally invested in America losing there.

Cordesman is a good source, but is too invested as an acedemic in politically correct interpretations visa vi ethnic cleansing.

The reality is that the Iraqi Sunni will be reduced to less than 5% of Iraq's population. They had an opportunity to be reconciled with being a minority and decided to go for broke and retake Iraq from the American military. They blew it an are now going to become the next "Palestinian problem" for future generations.

Tough for them.

The reality of Iraq is that it will only be secure when the Sunni are gone and Iran's mullahs have been over thrown. Until then it will be an active theater in the war.

gcochran said at August 23, 2007 4:35 PM:

But what about the _real_ threat to American security? Which is you and your fellow assholes.

Randall Parker said at August 23, 2007 5:42 PM:


What about those 82nd Airborne sergeants? Can't trust what they say because the NY Times published their article? Are you being serious?

I think the war party has a lot to answer for. I think they invested in a really stupid war and they've set us up to fight for no good reason. We would gain by withdrawing from Iraq.

Randall Parker said at August 23, 2007 9:09 PM:


The Christians and Yezidis are getting purged from Iraq. Did they also blow their chance to be reconciled with being a minority?

Try thinking seriously. Admit you made a massive mistake by supporting this war. Admit that your methods of reasoning about US policy toward the Middle East are deeply flawed.

Christopher Kallini said at August 24, 2007 11:28 AM:

To be fair to the issue, here is a rebuttal of the NYT article from other vets who are currently serving in Iraq:


I'm not saying they're correct, but we can't look only at the opinions of soldiers who agree with us and declare them to be the correct ones.

bobalou said at August 24, 2007 7:46 PM:

I don't normally post, but its clear that it was the intent of the US to divide up Iraq in the first place. Forget all the rhetoric, divide and conquer is the plan. If the US were really concerned about establishing a democratic Iraq and leaving, they wouldn't be building huge permanent military bases. And if they were upset by a Saddam Hussein who didn't play ball their way, why would the US ever let a democracy exist there, when the US had been continually bombing the country for the prior 12 years, killing hundreds of thousands? You think these people ever loved us? Think again. Realpolitik is power or money, but it ain't democracy or love. I would expect people to be a bit more cynical about the government/corporate complex, including the media, which routinely publishes the lies of either the respective D or R administration.

You are being played.

Paleocon said at August 25, 2007 7:44 PM:

gcochran said: "Which is you and your fellow assholes."

Wow! How eloquent! You apparently belong to the same debate team my nephew in junior high is a member of.

Back on track: Partition is the way to go. Yes it will be bloody and messy, but most things in the Middle East are bloody and messy.

gcochran said at August 25, 2007 8:06 PM:

The people who believed that invading Iraq made sense were ignorant, stupid, or gullible. The people who persist in that enthusiam after every reason given for the invasion has turned to ashes are worse. If they were sane at all, they would have to be considered active enemies of the United States. When I called them 'assholes', I was holding back. I'm tired of these creeps. I'm tired of people ignorant enough to think that the Moslem world is an existential threat, that 'they're coming for us', that fighting tribesmen in Anbar who never did a thing to the US before we invaded them somehow protects us from jihadists. I'm tired of people pretending anything the Administration said in the runup to the war made sense. I'm tired of people who think that Democracy is going to 'bust out all over' the Middle East if we just start enough wars. I'm tired of people too stupid to realize none of the 9-11 hijackers came from Iraq, Syria, or Iran. I'm tired of a Congress that nods wisely when told that there's some unpublicized natural law that makes withdrawal much harder than invasion against organized armored divisions.
I'm tired of hearing the Government of the United States tell me that we have to stay in Iraq prevent the rebirth of the Caliphate. I'm tired of lies. I'm tired of people who have swallowed lie after optimistic lie, watched them all be proved false by experience, and then eagerly swallow the next one. They're worse than Charlie Brown with the football.

I'm tired of a President who only listens to vicious sycophants. Get the picture? I'm tired.

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