As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fourthbranch, Diplomat

So given that I consistently rip the Iraq disaster to shreds, I ought to pipe in when there are brief signs of hope, as there was yesterday.

A member of Iraq’s Presidency Council, whose objections had blocked a law calling for provincial elections by October, withdrew his objections on Wednesday in a sudden turnaround that raised hopes for long-sought political progress.

The Presidency Council, in a statement, said the law would now go into effect.

Not surprisingly, it was a meeting with Fourthbranch Cheney that prompted this change of heart. This has been the model of American meddling in these Iraqi decisions. However, the "compromises" are always based on extremely thin promises of future negotiations. This is how the Constitution got ratified, with promises to revisit Sunni participation and federalism, and the promises were eventually broken. This sounds like the same:

Mr. Mehdi’s objection was widely viewed as reflecting a deep-running feud between his party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which controls provincial councils in most of the Shiite-dominated south, and the party led by the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Laith Shubar, an adviser to Mr. Mehdi, said the vice president had decided to withdraw his objections after he received a promise from the Parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashadani, that lawmakers would discuss the possibility of making changes to the legislation. After the law takes effect, Parliament must still fill vacant election commission seats and approve an election law before the provincial elections can take place.

It's also true that provincial elections, particularly in Kirkuk, are going to be deadly, although they're needed because the citizens aren't getting proper participation from the government.

So we get these bridges built from straw and bubble gum, and they last for a few steps until they break, and then there's another intervention, and the bridge is rebuilt. We shouldn't look at the situation in Iraq and think victory when we actually can't leave or it'll all fall apart. This is true from a security standpoint as sure as it is from a political one.

In a brilliant and much-circulated essay written in August 2007, "Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt," David Kilcullen, a veteran Australian officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus during the early days of the surge, wrote, "Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require 'Coalition-in-the-loop,' thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the Coalition to disengage in favorable circumstances." We have achieved some security in Iraq, though even this should not be overstated. (Violence is still at 2005 levels, which were pretty gruesome.) But we have not built a sustainable security architecture.

How does one create a self-sustaining process that leads to stability? Do we need more troops? Longer rotations? Kilcullen points in a different direction: "Taking the Coalition out of the loop and into 'overwatch' requires balancing competing armed interest groups at the national and local level." In other words, we need to help forge a political bargain by which Iraq's various groups agree to live together and not dominate one another. "These [groups] are currently not in balance," Kilcullen wrote, "due in part to the sectarian biases of certain players and institutions of the new Iraqi state, which promotes a belief by Sunnis that they will be the permanent victims of the new Iraq. This belief creates space for terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, and these groups in turn drive a cycle of violence that keeps Iraq unstable and prevents us from disengaging."

Watching the recent spike in suicide bombings, one has to wonder if we are watching precisely that cycle start up again. The sectarian tensions in Iraq have not improved much. The Sunni militias—who switched sides over the past six months—have developed some trust for the United States but little for the Iraqi Army. Reports suggest that as the Iraqi Army gets stronger and better trained, and gets more expensive weapons—none of which are shared with the Sunnis—the latter are becoming more worried that they have made a bad decision. In the crucial province of Diyala last week, thousands of members of "Concerned Local Citizens" groups (CLCs) stopped working in protest over the sectarian activities of the local police force and its chief. U.S. officers have kept promising that a significant number of CLC members would be given jobs in the regular Army and police. That does not appear to be happening anywhere near as fast as it should. At the same time, the new provincial elections that Sunnis and many Shiite groups have demanded for years have once again been delayed. Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar province, publicly warned that if these polls were not held as promised by Oct. 1, it could mean more violence.

And despite the agreement yesterday, there remains no guarantee that the elections will go forward. Never believe the first press release in Iraq.

The most important thing we can do right now is resist the President's illegal status of forces agreement that he seeks with Iraq, which would constrict the ability of the next President to actually withdraw.

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