February 5, 2007

Iraq NIE: The outlook is bleak

This article appeared on the MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

Last week the National Intelligence Council released an unclassified version of the key judgments of its recent National Intelligence Estimate, “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead.” It included some tough assessments of the situation in Iraq and a rather bleak outlook for the next 12-18 months.

It is refreshing to see the intelligence community produce a realistic estimate.

As I read over the estimate (I have been involved in the NIE process in the past), I noted one recurring theme: the greatest threat to stability in Iraq remains sectarian violence - the civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs. Absent a solution to that crisis, there is little hope that the current government will survive, and the country will likely plunge into anarchical chaos.

I agree with that assessment. The depth of animosity between the two groups is astounding. Anyone willing to detonate a 2,000-pound truck bomb in a crowded marketplace, killing almost 130 people, anyone willing to fire mortars into a girls’ elementary school, anyone willing to attack Muslim religious observances is far removed from any political solution to the crisis.

The violence shows no signs of abating, yet it must before real progress can be made. Paraphrasing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Peter Pace and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, there will neither be peace nor progress until the Sunnis and Shia both love their children more than they hate each other. Obviously, that is not yet the case.

The current plan to “surge” American forces with an additional 21,500 troops is aimed at curbing this sectarian violence. The goal is laudable, but the means to achieve it is questionable. According to senior Defense Department officials, the troops will be deployed in the mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad where violence has been the worst. This time, after clearing the area, the troops will remain to keep the area secure. This is a welcome change, getting us out of the Vietnam-style firebase approach of clearing an area and then returning to base, an approach which inevitably allowed the newly cleared area to fall back under insurgent control.

The ideal solution is to go after the source of the violence. As the NIE states, “…the Sunni jihadist group al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shia oppositionist Jaysh al-Mahdi—continue to act as very effective accelerators for a self-sustaining inter-sectarian struggle….”

These two major groups supporting the violence should be the focus of our surge efforts. The military operation must include a demonstrated commitment on the part of the Iraqi government to crack down on both Shia and Sunni fighters. Reports indicate that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has warned the Shia militia leaders to seek refuge in Iran or Syria ahead of the surge. This undermines any confidence that that Iraqi government – as currently constituted – is capable of solving the security situation.

Indeed, to the Sunnis within and without Iraq, the Shia-dominated government is the problem. Iraqi Sunnis perceive (with some justification) that many Shia who participate in ethnic cleansing operations and join the death squads are part of the Iraqi army. The Sunni Arab governments in the area (as well as the Turks) are justifiably concerned about the presence of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad with close ties to Tehran, not to mention Iran’s ascendancy as a – if not the – regional power broker.

The American surge may be the last hope of avoiding just that.