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Posts tagged ‘Iraq’

Is Obama Signaling the Obvious to Terrorists?

By Taylor Marvin

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies of Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

A helicopter carrying then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates flies over Baghdad in 2007. DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby.

After the stunning advance through northern Iraq last week by the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, and its allies, many are calling for US military action in support of the embattled Iraqi government and its security forces. American efforts would, most likely, consist of airstrikes targeting ISIS forces in Iraq, strikes the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has specifically requested. While the Obama administration has not ruled out airstrikes, many of President Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress have already begun to criticize the president’s inaction.

In particular, Senator Marco Rubio faulted the president for warning Friday that the United States would not send “U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.”* (Limited numbers of military personnel have already been deployed to the country, reportedly to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.) As Politico reports:

“I don’t think it’s wise for the commander in chief to step forward and immediately begin to rule options out. Even if he never intends to send a single American soldier, he shouldn’t be signaling that to terrorists,” Rubio (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “You should not be going around announcing what you won’t do.”

Daniel Larison sees Rubio’s statement as at best “a useless criticism.” The prospect of large numbers of American troops returning to Iraq so soon after the 2011 withdrawal that ended the US occupation of the country would be so unpopular with voters that Rubio would probably immediately disavow it if someone accused Rubio of actually wanting “boots on the ground,” and it’s particularly hard to imagine Rubio faulting the president for not wanting troops in Iraq if Rubio’s party was in a position to set foreign policy. Of course, Rubio’s disapproval of Obama’s refusal to consider sending troops to Iraq is probably best viewed as another aspect of the knee-jerk Republican criticism of all aspects of Obama’s policy choices, rather than a specific critique of a specific policy.

But what’s more interesting here is Rubio’s comment that Obama should not broadcast his intentions to “terrorists,” Rubio’s term for the broad ISIS-lead coalition of Sunni insurgents. The problem with this analysis — which echoes the long-time criticism that Obama should not have publicly set a withdrawal date to accompany his 2009 decision to “surge” additional forces into Afghanistan; see Vali Nasr’s 2013 book The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat for a more cognizant example of this argument — is that the various people Rubio accuses Obama of signaling to can make their own judgements.

We obviously cannot get inside the heads of ISIS commanders deciding whether to push towards Baghdad, Prime Minister al-Maliki judging how much help the US is prepared to give him, individual Iraqi soldiers deciding whether to fight or flee, or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani weighing his country’s options. But most of these people know that the US war in Iraq grew less and less popular with Americans as the conflict dragged on and more and more US soldiers came home dead or injured, all for little apparent gain. While many of these local actors may not be familiar with the realities of the United States’ democratic political system, it seems reasonable to suspect that the more astute of them realize that an American return to Iraq would be very unpopular within the US, and that President Obama — or any other president, for that matter — is unlikely to do so. If Prime Minister al-Maliki did not pursue meaningful reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis because he assumed that the United States would bail him out with ground forces if his government faced a serious threat from his disgruntled countrymen then he made a serious error.

If American management of the current crisis relies on, as Rubio frames it, a credible threat of sending substantial US ground forces to Iraq then this management will fail, because this threat simply isn’t credible. Obama’s announcement that he will not pursue a policy that would be incredibly unpopular doesn’t tell the “terrorists” much that they likely didn’t already assume.

*[Correction: June 19, 2014] This line originally read “significant numbers of ground troops to Iraq,” which isn’t precise enough framing, rather than quoting the president. As I noted in my Tuesday review at PVG and a commenter at Larison’s post remarked, advisers and special forces often accompany air campaigns in support of allied ground forces, though Obama presumably excluded this option from his July 13th statement that “we will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq.” On June 19th Obama announced that up to 300 special forces advisers will indeed be sent to Iraq.

Why Are Bombings Still the Weapon of Choice in Iraq?

By Taylor Marvin

Sectarian violence is again on the rise in Iraq. July 2013 was the country’s deadliest month in five years, and sophisticated bombings targeting civilians are increasingly common occurrences. While this recent uptick in violence hasn’t approached the intensity that marked the worst years of the American occupation and civil war, the country appears to be headed towards greater instability. Iraq’s Sunni population is reportedly growing more frustrated and resentful of the Shiite-dominated central government, and sectarian violence lead by al-Qaeda in Iraq targeting Shiites has intensified in the last two years. In April Kurdish authorities deployed militia forces to Kirkuk to help prevent what Erbil reportedly believed to be an imminent sectarian civil war, while the Iraqi government in Baghdad viewed the move as a simple grab for the city’s oil resources. Many of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority are now fleeing the country, with many fearing that all of the country’s Christians will soon be gone.

On Twitter, Danny Hirschel-Burns raised an interesting question: why do violent attacks in Iraq continue to be so characterized by bombings, as opposed to other methods?

I suspect that Iraqi militant groups’ apparent preference for bombings today has nothing to do with any conditions specific to the country’s recently-escalating sectarian conflict. Instead, it is likely the result of the continued application of the bombing-focused skill sets insurgents acquired during the American occupation of the country.

After the American invasion, anti-US insurgent groups quickly found that directly attacking American military units in Iraq’s crowded urban environments was dangerous at best, and often suicidal. These groups realized that bombings, overwhelmingly utilizing IEDs, were a safer, more effective means of successfully attacking US soldiers and killing large numbers of Iraqis, given the American military’s control of the country. While the vast majority of attempted IED attacks did not result in US casualties, they grew more dangerous over time. During 2003 and 2004 IEDs were responsible for 20 percent of US soldier deaths, but 50 percent in 2007, with the number of incidents peaking in late 2006. This rational, asymmetric response to coalition forces’ overwhelming military superiority quickly became the hallmark of the Iraqi insurgency.

Acquiring the skill set required to mount sophisticated bombing attacks is costly. During the American occupation insurgent groups continually improved IEDs and their techniques for employing them, leading to an arms race between insurgents and coalition forces; in a mutual learning process, as coalition troops grew more adept at countering IEDs, the bombs became harder to detect and deadlier. Tom Ricks profiled the early stages of this process in his 2006 book Fiasco

“Even these fairly primitive devices had their own evolution. At first, during the summer of 2003, almost all were hardwired — that is, attached by the lines used to detonate them. US forces learned to look for the wire and kill the person waiting at the other end. By the following winter, about half the bombs were remote-controlled, frequently set off using cellular telephones, car alarm transmitters, or toy car controllers.”

This evolutionary logic encouraged insurgents to become skilled at bombing warfare — those that didn’t either quit, or were killed.

After the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, bombings are a less necessary component of militants’ arsenals. Today’s Iraqi security services are far less capable than the US military, meaning, like in other violent societies, non-bombing attacks now have a greater chance of succeeding. But it’s reasonable to suspect that Iraqi veterans of the occupation and civil war remain influenced by the skills and operational practices they acquired during that conflict, practices optimized for operating in an environment of overwhelming military inferiority. The sophisticated coordinated bombing attacks that are a hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq require significant organizational experience to conduct. Given how steep the learning curve to acquire this experience is, militant groups not facing the evolutionary pressures of military occupation by a superior force are unlikely to acquire them at all, despite the potential payoff from doing so.

The Wrong Lessons from Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq continues to draw revealing reflections on the lessons of the war. Ezra Klein attributes his (admittedly, college-age) support for the invasion to the influence of Ken Pollack’s The Gathering Storm and warns against trusting what “everyone knows”, while failing to mention that numerous IR academics presciently warned against the invasion.

Elsewhere, Daniel Larison fears that many Americans have failed to learn from the war, and still view preemptive invasions as a “legitimate form of self-defense.” Stephen Walt voices similar concerns over policymakers’ continuing failure to consider tangible American interests when proposing foreign military interventions, a clear rejection of both neoconservative and liberal interventionist policy. Both Larison and Walt make valid points — while the abject failure of the Iraq War seems to have conditioned many Americans to reject boots-on-the-ground military adventurism, it doesn’t appear to have sparked a popular rethink of the purpose and limitations of US foreign policy as a whole.

Like Larison, my fear is that future observers will attribute Iraq War’s failures to factors specific to the conflict itself, rather than general limitations on the United States’ ability to successfully use force to remove and replace foreign regimes. These implicated determinants can be specific to Iraq — the country’s sectarian and tribal divides, for instance — or the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s this incompetence that has the potential to be truly blinding. While the decision to pursue war with Iraq itself was misguided, the Bush administration’s initial missteps were so mistaken that they draw the analytical spotlight:

  • Invading with a post-Revolution in Military Affairs force that was ultimately too small to provide security after the overthrow of the Hussein government and secure the weapons depots that would later provided insurgents and IED makers with armaments.
  • The decision to base the astoundingly lightly-sketched visions of post-Hussein governance around Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who enjoyed no legitimacy within Iraq. Chalabi had every incentive to mislead Bush administration officials, and it should have been extremely obvious that he would not be a viable leader of post-Hussein Iraq.
  • Paul Bremer’s disastrous order to the disband the Iraqi Army, which — to the horror of US military officials — dumped thousands of unemployed and angry armed men into already unstable Iraqi society. “There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept,” Steve Saideman recently wrote, terming it, not the decision to invade overall, the single worst US foreign policy decision ever.
  • Bremer’s similarly-misguided policy of de-Ba’athification, which removed Hussein-era Iraqi elites from civil society and demolished state governing capacity.
  • The Bush administration’s tragically comic policy of turning the Coalition Provisional Authority administration over to young American graduates, nearly all of which had zero relevant administrative or cultural experience.

All of these decisions were indefensible at the time, and reveal both arrogance and astounding general incompetence on the part of the officials responsible.  But the scope of these errors has the potential to obscure the Iraq War’s real lessons. David Ignatius explicitly qualifies his condemnation of the invasion with this logic, remarking that “we’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.'” But this qualification misses the general point. The invasion wasn’t “risky”, because it had little hope of meeting its stated goals in and of itself — even if none of these decisions had been made it’s still difficult to imagine the invasion’s aftermath proceeding according to plan.

The reality is that there never was a plausible case that invading Iraq would lead to the at least-nominal goal of installing a stable democratic government. The 2003 US military was entirely unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency, and no matter how much administration and military leaders pretended otherwise there was never justification for the assumption that Iraqis would go along with the administration’s post-war plans.

Instead, the clear lesson of the Iraq War is that US strategy should not be benchmarked around predicting the behavior of an indigenous population. Every initial, binding mistake of the war comes back to this assumption. Sufficient troops to secure and guard weapons depots would not be necessary, because post-invasion resistance would be limited to regime dead-enders. Troop numbers necessary for the high counterinsurgency threshold were excessive, because ethnic conflict was not expected. The CPA’s counterproductive policy of de-Ba’athification would not be problematic, because the Ba’ath party was a hated, tiny minority.

But the problems inherent to human behavior-assumptions don’t appear to have been incorporated into today’s interventionist theory. Most advocates of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities base their proposals on the ludicrous assumption that an unprovoked attack on Iran will not permanently damage perceptions of the US among Iranians and empower Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates, or, most fantastically, strikes will cause Iranians to rise up against the regime. This dumbfoundingly optimistic assumption grimly echoes Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war assertion that “people with limited experience in the Middle East” wrongly believe “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Americans may, as Dan Drezner recently argued, have internalize a more realist post-Iraq outlook. But this really only extends to boots on the ground interventions. Given US policymakers’ perpetual temptation to leverage airpower and unconventional forces into low-commitment military interventions, this argument is almost peripheral to the general debate.

Messaging, Not Cost

By Taylor Marvin

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison refutes the notion — argued by the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson* — that cuts in US military spending will significantly restrain American leaders’ interventionist tendencies. ” The decision to intervene in other countries’ conflicts and internal affairs is not necessarily prevented by a relative lack of resources,” Larison writes, noting that “the [US] military interventions of the last twenty years have been almost entirely optional.”

I agree with Larison, and think the entire question is largely irrelevant. US military resources will never be a constraint on potential military interventions, because the advocates of strategically-unnecessary wars have every incentive to downplay their expected force requirements and costs. Interventions are inevitably framed by their proponents as low-cost ventures and wars’ expected costs, when they are offered at all, are equally inevitably reliant on optimistic best-case assumptions. The invasion and initial occupation of Iraq was benchmarked around Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks belief, passed on to the wider Bush administration, that small numbers of highly-mobile troops were sufficient to occupy the country and nation-building would be unnecessary; a fantastic assumption. In turn this expected light-footprint informed — or, for the cynical, was mandated by — Dick Cheney’s assertion that Iraq’s oil wealth would pay for the war. Even if the United States spent significantly less on defense war advocates still would have been capable of justifying the invasion on their best-case assumptions.

The same is true for other potential US interventions. Advocates for military interventions will never offer reasonable and measured assessments of conflicts’ likely costs and benefits. This isn’t necessarily a deliberate bias: while advocates of intervention are obviously informed by the need for good public relations, Iraq hawks seemed to genuinely believed that a lengthy occupation was unlikely. Drawing the wrong conclusions from the Gulf War and 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and their own post-Vietnam distaste for counterinsurgency, these advocates refused to consider the possibility that the coming war wouldn’t conform to their neatly drawn assumptions.

This remains true today. When Senator Lindsey Graham claims he “doesn’t care what it takes” to contain Syrian chemical weapons, he likely isn’t referencing the assessment that it would take over 75,000 troops to secure Syrian chemical sites. Instead, he’s simply following the Iraq playbook, offering a worst-case take on the costs of inaction and nebulous-at-best consideration for potential costs. Of course Graham’s enthusiasm for intervention in Syria has little practical effect on US policy, which remains unlikely to turn towards entry into the conflict. But Graham’s attitude does illustrate this dynamic. The practical constraints that govern US entry into overseas conflicts isn’t practical resource or cost concerns. Instead, it’s simply the ability of war advocates to message their cause in the most urgent and least objectionable terms possible.

*Gerson uses the phrase “Shiite bomb” as a self-evident explanation for why the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, which is pretty damn unconvincing.

Birth Defects in Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

Via @pourmecoffeeThe Independent reports a huge rise in Iraqi birth defects, caused by lead and depleted uranium rounds used during the war:

“The latest study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10. Prior to the turn of the millennium, fewer than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004, up from only 10 per cent before the bombing. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.”

This is awful, and as @pourmecoffee notes, underreported in the US media — no one likes to read about the long term damage caused by their country’s wars, especially when the harm causes is something as vicerally awful as  birth defects.

I think an interesting avenue for research would be how war affect fetal health outcomes through the maternal stress channel, rather than environmental toxicity. In a recent thesis project I looked at whether earthquakes in Chile raise the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies through maternal stress. I found a small but significant positive correlation between earthquake intensity and the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies in the third trimester, as well as increased diagnosis of mental health issue in women who experience earthquakes during their first trimester. It is reasonable to suspect a similar relationship for war-related stress, and a quick literature search turns up few previous studies.