the blog of DC Drinking Liberally

August 30, 2007

Looking at the NIE


The talk today in the Post is all about the new GAO report on the troop surge: “Report Finds Little Progress on Iraq Goals.” The predictable debate over the report has already begun, with the White House dismissing it as an attempt by Democrats to undercut the White House’s claims of progress (the GAO is a legislative branch agency). Another pointless round of accusations and counteraccusations of bias.

So instead let’s look at the National Intelligence Estimate that came out a few days ago. Democrats have already complained that this report was softened in order to make things sound better, but it’s still interesting to look at the NIE’s judgments (warning: pdf):

There have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation since our last National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in January 2007. The steep escalation of rates of violence has been checked for now, and overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks. Coalition forces, working with Iraqi forces, tribal elements, and some Sunni insurgents, have reduced al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) capabilities, restricted its freedom of movement, and denied it grassroots support in some areas. However, the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively. (emphasis in original)

We assess…that Iraq’s security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.

These statements are almost self-contradictory, and seem to split the difference on the issue of progress/no progress. On the one hand they believe we’ll continue to see improvements in security. On the other hand, they are not willing to predict that 12 months of “modest” improvements in security would bring violence to a level significantly below what it is now. What are we to make of this? It sounds suspiciously like a cop-out.

These are some of their reasons for cautious sorta-kinda neither optimism nor pessimism:

Intra-Shia conflict involving factions competing for power and resources probably will intensify as Iraqis assume control of provincial security. In Basrah, violence has escalated with the drawdown of Coalition forces there. Local militias show few signs of reducing their competition for control of valuable oil resources and territory.

The Sunni Arab community remains politically fragmented, and we see no prospective leaders that might engage in meaningful dialogue and deliver on national agreements.

Kurdish leaders remain focused on protecting the autonomy of the Kurdish region and reluctant to compromise on key issues.

The IC assesses that the emergence of “bottom-up” security initiatives, principally among Sunni Arabs and focused on combating AQI, represent the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them. (emphasis in original)

In other words, political progress directly impacts on improved security and visa-versa, obviously.

[W]e judge that the ISF have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition on a sustained basis in multiple locations and that the ISF remain reliant on the Coalition for important aspects of logistics and combat support. (emphasis in original)

Militia and insurgent influences continue to undermine the reliability of some ISF units, and political interference in security operations continues to undermine Coalition and ISF efforts.

The Maliki government is implementing plans to expand the Iraqi Army and to increase its overall personnel strength to address critical gaps, but we judge that significant security gains from those programs will take at least six to 12 months, and probably longer, to materialize. (emphasis added)

The IC assesses that the Iraqi Government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months because of criticism by other members of the major Shia coalition (the Unified Iraqi Alliance, UIA), Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish parties. Divisions between Maliki and the Sadrists have increased, and Shia factions have explored alternative coalitions aimed at constraining Maliki.(emphasis in original)

The most favorable reading of this NIE is that we may have just reached a turning point where violence is just beginning to come down in Iraq (the decrease in overall attacks over the last 2 months). But we are also repeatedly reminded that we should expect to see violence and increasing Iraqi government instability for at least the next year — essentially, the forseeable future — before things start to get better. Hmm.

Sorry. No deal. If the level of violence (i.e. both overall attacks AND overall deaths) is just as high, say, 6 months from now as it is today, then the natural conclusion is NOT that we should reserve judgment and see if there’s progress a year after that, but that the surge — you guessed it — is not succeeding.

There are those on the other side of the aisle who show some ability to look at things somewhat more objectively, though. Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Secretary of Defense and a former aide to John McCain, is no proponent of troop withdrawal. But he visited Iraq this month and came back unconvinced that any of the examples of progress he did see (Anbar Province, Anbar Province, Anbar Province) have anything to do with the troop surge. Cordesman’s conclusion:

I did not see any dramatic change in our position in Iraq during this trip. … I did not see success for the strategy that President Bush announced in January.

Cordesman’s report for CSIS is worth a read as well. Not that I agree with all his conclusions, but his analysis of the evidence is way more nuanced than anything I’m seeing in the MSM. See here for an executive summary (with link to full pdf report).


DCDL is a blog by Washington, DC-area members of Drinking Liberally. Opinions expressed are the writers’, not those of Drinking Liberally, which provides no funding or other support for this blog.

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