The Work Behind Our Iraq Views

How can one gather and assess information about Iraq—collected on a trip or from any other source? Information from a war zone is difficult to attain and interpretation is open to many views.

Unfortunately, much of the blogosphere and other media outlets have emphasized the wrong question, challenging the integrity of anyone who dares to express politically incorrect views about Iraq. Last week, Jonathan Finer criticized on this page [“Green Zone Blinders,” Aug. 18] a New York Times essay that Ken Pollack and I wrote, as well as the comments of several senators, for claiming too much insight based on short trips to Iraq. Finer suggested that we did not leave the Green Zone, although we frequently did, on this and other trips, and he ignored how critical Pollack and I have been of administration policy in the past.

Worse, Finer and critics such as Rep. Jack Murtha and Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald have suggested that our analyses are based on a few days of military “dog-and-pony shows.” Our assessments are based on our observations as well as on years of study. That experience creates networks of colleagues such as military officers whose off-the-record insights can inform ours and who in the past have often told us when they did not think their strategies were working or could work. While hardly making us infallible, this also led each of us to oppose predictions of a “cakewalk” before the invasion and to join Gen. Eric Shinseki in criticizing invasion plans that had too few troops and too little thought given to the post-invasion mission.

Still, it is true that we must critically assess the quality of information from Iraq to assess and improve current policy. In addition, the U.S. government needs to improve information gathering and share more information with the public; a recurring theme on our trip last month was the classification of far too much data. Consider the evidence behind arguments Pollack and I have made:

Iraqi civilian fatality rates are down. The U.S. military has reported throughout much of 2007 that extrajudicial killings—largely revenge murders by Shiite militias against Sunnis—were down substantially since January. During our trip, the Pentagon showed us data illustrating that overall death tallies from all forms of sectarian violence were down about one-third from last winter’s average. That estimate is imprecise, and vulnerable to reversal from events such as the Aug. 14 truck bombings in Nineveh province, and Iraq remains roughly as violent as it was in 2004-05. But the trends are moving significantly in the right direction, and the military is now doing a better job of measuring actual casualty levels (whereas in the 2003-05 period, it failed to carefully track many types of violence, such as murders, and often failed to appreciate how unstable Iraq really was).

Counterinsurgency tactics are much better. Working closely with Iraqi partners, we are trying to provide security to civilian populations. Previous tendencies were to concentrate Americans at large forward operating bases and patrol in rapid, “drive-by” fashion. Our weekly numbers of joint patrols tripled early in the “surge” and remain high. U.S. and Iraqi security forces have widely adopted the extensive use of sand berms, concrete barriers and vehicle checkpoints in the tensest areas, further reducing fatalities.

Iraqi forces are improving. This finding admittedly must be more hedged than the first two. While U.S. forces are more satisfied than before with the collaboration they receive from Iraqis, huge problems remain. Most commanders of Iraqi battalions (perhaps three-quarters in the Baghdad area) are judged to be relatively dependable today by American counterparts, but we do not know how they would behave if U.S. forces left. And while the interior and defense ministries have approved firing some commanders who have been guilty of clear bias or corruption, they still protect Shiite militias. They also often interfere with the hiring of security forces, particularly in Sunni regions such as Anbar. It is for such reasons that bold ideas for shaking up Iraq’s politics need to be taken very seriously this fall—ranging from holding new elections to convening a major regional peace conference to considering a soft partition model for the country.

Economic reconstruction is improving. Militarily embedded provincial reconstruction teams now make our development specialists more effective by providing protection in the field. We are also placing greater focus on small-scale efforts rather than on massive infrastructure projects that are particularly vulnerable to single-point failures and thus sabotage.

Iraqi resources are starting to flow from Baghdad to at least some provincial governments, fostering reconstruction and helping local politicians work together for the good of their constituents. We saw evidence of such cooperation across sectarian lines in Hilla, Nineveh and Baghdad provinces, among other places.

That said, Iraq’s economy remains fairly flat, with utility performance no better than in Saddam Hussein’s day and job creation weak. A Depression-style job creation program must be considered to reduce the number of angry, disenfranchised young men on the streets.

In the end, even if Iraqis cooperate more at the local level, our strategy for Iraq probably cannot work absent major national political cooperation across sectarian lines. With Americans dying in large numbers, it is reasonable that some conclude we have already shown enough patience. But with battlefield dynamics and some local economic and political efforts gaining considerable momentum, and with several big ideas for transforming Iraq’s politics still untested, this would be a sad time to conclude we have been defeated.