ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

NIE on Iraq: A Turning Point

Contrary to popular opinion, all is not quite lost

By Michael Tanji

Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the Key Judgments of the updated National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Contrary to the early interpretation of the report from some quarters it does not close the door on success. To wit:

… Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006. …

In other words a successful surge – or the broader idea that a political solution can only take root if there is a clamp-down on violence – will not be a waste of time or effort. Of course combat-related caveats to the viability of the best laid plans still apply.

Addressing the political issues in Iraq the Key Judgments are more news than intelligence: Shi'a are suspicious of the Sunni and of us; Sunni don't like their change in status and worry that Iranian influence will only make their situation worse; the absence of mini-Titos makes progress difficult as factions-of-factions tend to complicate the political process; and the Kurds are about the only ones who have their act together enough to make something substantial happen for them and theirs.

On the security front we get no great revelations: Sectarian divisions hamper effective military and police activities (we want them to think federal, they continue to act local); jihadists and insurgents still operate with entirely too much effectiveness; violence drives the refugee problem, which in turn complicates reconstruction (no rebuilding without a skilled domestic workforce).

Is Iraq in a civil war? The intelligence community says "yes and no." While "civil war" applies to aspects of the conflict in Iraq, things are much more complicated than blue on gray. That's not necessarily a good thing, but one thing is for certain:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.

In other words if you want to guarantee failure in the near term, by all means engage in "redeployment" or any variation on that theme. Viewed from another angle they are reiterating that forward progress depends on the surge being a success.

Assuming a crack-down on violence works, solving the myriad problems in Iraq will require the soft-power solutions that many have called for but to date have been lacking. Stresses and tensions need to be eased, trust needs to be built, and all sides need to see sufficient progress in order to be convinced that federalism is the ideal way forward. This means not just working with political parties – a relatively new concept in formerly Ba'ath dominated Iraq – but with the tribal system as well.

The Key Judgments also assess that external players like Iran and Syria are a factor in internal violence, but not a major part, which is where we at ThreatsWatch would have placed a marker of dissent. The violence in Iraq is not quite the self-licking ice cream cone some make it out to be. Assume for a minute that other analyst's statements about the sheer volume of Iranian agents in Iraq is true, it is hard to argue that 10-divisions of spies, killers and provocateurs is not "major" in any way, shape or form. Assuming the size of the interfering force is much more modest, the level of effort and the amount of materiel those agents are employing is still substantial, as the recent kidnapping and execution of US troops by suspected Qods agents and the discovery of Iranian-made equipment indicates.

As both professional analysts and interested citizens prepare to assess the progress of the surge, it is important to take note of some key indicators the NIC notes will require monitoring: sustained mass sectarian killings, assassination of major religious and political leaders, and a complete Sunni defection from the government. Should the surge fail, there are a number of paths down which events may unfold:

• Chaos Leading to Partition. With a rapid deterioration in the capacity of Iraq's central government to function, security services and other aspects of sovereignty would collapse. Resulting widespread fighting could produce de facto partition, dividing Iraq into three mutually antagonistic parts. Collapse of this magnitude would generate fierce violence for at least several years, ranging well beyond the time frame of this Estimate, before settling into a partially stable end-state.

• Emergence of a Shia Strongman. Instead of a disintegrating central government producing partition, a security implosion could lead Iraq's potentially most powerful group, the Shia, to assert its latent strength.

• Anarchic Fragmentation of Power. The emergence of a checkered pattern of local control would present the greatest potential for instability, mixing extreme ethno-sectarian violence with debilitating intra-group clashes.

Readers of CTA's Achieving Victory in Iraq report could have read the same thing last month.

We have not reached the point of no return, but make no mistake: absent an abandonment of the Pentagon's ideal force posture and the deployment of a massive occupation force, the surge is the last best military-oriented hope for stability in Iraq.