Wednesday, July 30, 2008

And the Winner is ... Iran

Lately, some are talking as if the 'surge' is winning the war in Iraq. While the surge, among other important factors (1), has definitely improved matters, let's see who is really winning and losing. To determine this, let's compare the condition of the major players before the run up to the war vs today. Here's the short story: the winners are Iran, the Kurds, the Shia, al Qaeda and Israel. The losers are America and the Sunnis.


Iran is by far the biggest winner, for several reasons:

  • Saddam Hussein was removed. Saddam's Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 killing half a million Iranians.
  • The current Iraqi government, far from being an enemy of Iran, is very close and friendly (2).
  • Iran is the center of Shia Islam, and Iraq is now controlled by Shia rather than Sunni
  • Iranian presence in Najaf, the Shiite spiritual center that actually controls the country, is very strong. Iran has even extended its power grid into southern Iraq [Engel 2008].

    The Kurds were terribly oppressed by Saddam. Although Kurdistan became quasi-independent after the first Gulf War with American protection, Saddam was an ever present danger. Iraqi-Kurdistan was never occupied by American troops and is independent in all but name today.

    The Shia have lived in Iraq for 1300 years under Sunni rule. Today the Shia control the central government and the southern oil producing regions.

    al Qaeda had zero presence in Iraq before the run up to the American invasion, Saddam made sure of that (3). Today their presence is reduced from its peak but still significant. The Sunni Awakening leaders are keeping some al Qaeda fighters protected for future use against Iran and the Shia, or America if we don't leave [Engel 2008]. Also, al Qaeda's strategy is to goad America into spending ourselves into bankruptcy, and the Iraq war has added nearly a trillion dollars to our debt. Excessive debt leads to bankruptcy.

    Israel suffered from suicide bombers subsidized by Saddam's Iraq. Iraq was also one of the strongest Arab countries committed to Israel's destruction. While this commitment doesn't seem to have really changed, there is no practical threat to Israel from Iraq today.


    America before the Iraq invasion had an unbeatable military, a balanced budget, a strong economy and unparalleled support around the world.

  • Today our ground forces are bogged down and no longer considered invincible.
  • We have added almost four trillion dollars in debt, with a projected deficit of a half trillion next year, pushing us closer to bankruptcy.
  • The economy's financial sector is in deep trouble, thousands of people are losing their homes each week, and the dollar is falling like a stone.
  • We have lost most of our international support and many see America as the land of torture and illegal invasion. This is very bad as international support is critical to winning the war on al Qaeda.

    The Sunnis have lost control of Iraq for the first time in 1300 years and about half of the pre-war Iraqi Sunnis are dead or have left the country. See Sunni Extermination?.

    It is possible to salvage something from America's Iraq disaster. Dunkirk was a terrible defeat for the British in World War II, but most of the troops made it home even if their equipment did not. England went on to win the war, primarily by enlisting the support of America and Russia. Perhaps we can salvage something from the ashes of our disastrous Iraq adventure.


    (1) Other factors reducing violence include:

  • Sunni Awakening, a movement that started about a year before the surge. Some Sunni tribes have, at least temporarily, allied themselves with the Americans and against al Qaeda in Iraq. This may be related to the huge losses Sunnis suffered when allied with al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants the Americans to leave and leads the largest Shia militia, declared a truce in August 2007. This decision may be related to the surge and/or a belief the Americans will leave sometime reasonably soon. Why get chewed up by American firepower if they will leave anyway?
  • General Petraeus took command of US forces in Iraq. Petraeus was the guiding light for the new
    US counter-insurgency field manual. One of the lessons therein: lose the moral high ground, lose the war.

    (2) When the President of Iran recently visited Iraq, his visit was scheduled, he arrived in broad daylight to a red carpet, drove from the airport to the Green Zone, and traveled about with little or no security. Contrast this with how American VIPs visit Iraq. For security reasons, Americans arrive unannounced, usually at night, fly to the Green Zone in helicopters, and only travel with massive security.

    (3) Saddam was our de facto ally in the war with al Qaeda, but just before the invasion Saddam allowed al Qaeda to establish a presence in Iraq. This was probably related to his strategy to make Iraq ungovernable for the U.S. [Scheuer 2008]. He also let thousands of prisoners out of jail, perhaps for the same reason.


    [Engel 2008] "War journal: My Five Years in Iraq," Richard Engel, NBC News Middle East correspondent.

    [Scheuer 2008] "Marching Toward Hell, America and Islam after Iraq," Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA bin Laden unit.

  • Saturday, July 19, 2008

    The Next Commander in Chief

    "You cannot kill your way out of an insurgency, you have to turn them" General Petraeus, the most successful U.S. commander in Iraq. Without the support of the Muslim world, no matter how many al Qaeda operatives we kill, they will simply be replaced. If killing were decisive, John McCain might be a good commander in chief, but it isn't. Victory requires turning the Islamic world into our friends and allies, for that we need Barak Obama.

    Related posts

  • This U.S. Military Will Surprise You: a discussion of The U.S. Army - Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the rather surprising lessons it has for Iraq, Afghanistan, and the struggle against al Qaeda.
  • Winning the War on al Qaeda.
  • Monday, July 14, 2008


    I finally found out what the almost-never stated provisions of FISA are:

    1. Wiretapping of American citizens within the US requires a warrant.

    2. Wiretapping foreign nationals in foreign countries does not require a warrant. This is true even if the foreign national overseas is conversing with an American in the US.

    I'm not sure about foreign nationals inside the US or US citizens in foreign nations.

    Leaving aside abuse, for the moment, here are the questions: Is today's FISA the right balance between fighting al Qaeda and the privacy rights guaranteed in the Constitution? If not, what is the right balance? And finally, can reasonable people disagree on the last two questions?

    My answers: Probably not. I don't know (1). Yes.

    Here's the presidential question: fixing FISA will require public pressure. Is this more likely to succeed with an Obama administration or a McCain administration? (hint: starts with an O)

    (1) Here's a case to consider: we know al Qaeda has bases in northern Pakistan. Technically, we could monitor all the communications out of that region (or at least those passing through the US), and send them through computers looking for key words. When the computers find something suspicious, they could pass the communication to a human for analysis. This would be enormously useful, and is probably being done as we speak.

    However, it's impossible to get probable cause for an entire region of the Earth, so warrants in the current legal framework don't work. How do we craft a law that allows us to go after al Qaeda in this or similar ways and that also passes Constitutional muster?

    Sunday, July 13, 2008

    Obama and the media

    Lately, the press is going through one of its periodic bash Obama phases (to be fair, they are bashing McCain too). Here's my take:
  • Iraq. The media claim Obama is reversing course because he says he'll 'refine' his position based on the unfolding situation. This is exactly what I want my president to do -- respond to changing conditions. Obama has been crystal clear from the start that he wants out of Iraq. If anything, recent events (1) suggest that 'refinement' may well mean an earlier withdrawal.
  • FISA. Much is made of Obama's vote for the flawed FISA bill. For the life of me, I cannot find a simple list of all of FISA's provisions. While there are some obvious problems, Obama is a constitutional lawyer with a history of supporting the little guy. Furthermore, we face a real enemy, al Qaeda, using modern communication systems and new approaches are needed. Finally, even the telecom amnesty does not include amnesty from criminal prosecution. All in all, I trust Obama's judgement that these compromises are the best we can do right now. That said, I'll give money to the ACLU to fight the worst provisions.
  • Some media outlets say Obama and McCain are starting to look the same. This is ridiculous. It's true that McCain is closer to Obama's positions on the environment and stem-cell research than Bush; and McCain has even proposed a pull-out date for Iraq (2013). However, McCain is very conservative and Obama is fairly liberal. Just one example, if McCain becomes president, Roe v Wade is toast.

    (1) Obama has suggested a roughly 16 month withdrawal period, but that was when violence was much higher and before the Iraqi government started insisting on a timetable. It was also before a senior U.S. commander suggested that we could withdraw in 2009. Any refinement will probably mean a quicker redeployment.