Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Iraq Study Group Report -- First Blush

CNN had reporters at the White House and at multiple locations on Capitol Hill. One Capitol Hill location that used as a backdrop the white domed building that is home to the Congress, appeared to be outdoors. But with Members of Congress not bundled in coats sitting for interviews starting shortly after first light on a clear, cold morning, one suspects that this location was a mobile studio with an extremely large glass or plexiglass side – very clean and very polished.

The “event,” of course, was the delivery of the Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) long-awaited, much leaked, and somewhat discounted report whose most important section – “The Way Ahead – A New Approach,” is a challenge to the administration’s position of the last 45 months. Listening to President Bush’s remarks as he accepted his copy of the report from the ten-member bipartisan commission that was established by Congress, the extensive chill that pervaded the Washington weather seemed as nothing compared to the atmosphere in the White House.

To be sure, the politically correct phrases were there: careful review of the report’s recommendations by the administration; much hard work by the commissioners appreciated by the U.S. public; bipartisanship etc. But the White House clearly was not going to budge on two critical points: no schedules, or timetables for withdrawal and no one-on-one negotiations with Iran.

(White House press secretary Tony Snow made the latter point during the regular afternoon press gaggle. However, the ISG report did not suggest, let alone recommend, direct talks with Iran. It did say that Iran’s nuclear dispute should be handled by the UN Security Council and completely separate from the Iraq issue.)

In its analysis and recommendations dealing with the internal situation in Iraq, the ISG, disappointedly, did not acknowledge that the U.S. is responsible for the chaos affecting 40 percent of Iraq’s population. The report instead leaves open the possibility of adding more troops to be used, in part, for a further shift in the focus of U.S. military forces from combat operations to training and working with Iraqi military units even though that training and advisory effort has serious shortfalls.

Indeed, the ISG concedes that “A primary mission of U.S. military strategy in Iraq is the training of competent Iraqi security forces. By the end of 2006, the Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq under American leadership is expected to have trained and equipped a target number of approximately 326,000 Iraqi security services. That figure includes 138,000 members of the Iraqi Army and 188,000 Iraqi police,” with Iraqis exercising operational control over about one third of the total.

Even the army still has serious problems: “Significant questions remain about the ethnic composition and loyalties of some Iraqi units—specifically, whether they will carry out missions on behalf of national goals instead of a sectarian agenda.” Leadership is uneven, equipment is missing, people are often missing. These factors plus the report’s call for the U.S. to “significantly increase the number of U.S. military personnel, including combat troops, imbedded in and supporting Iraqi Army units” are reminiscent of the late 1960s in Vietnam when, as part of “Vietnamizing” that conflict, the U.S. ran “crash courses” in leadership and other military skills. Such efforts didn’t work then, and they probably won’t work now.

Where the ISG report seems most promising is its consideration of the situation outside of Iraq – recognizing that through a sustained New Diplomatic Offensive begun not later than December 31, 2006, the U.S. could draw on Iraq’s neighbors and other interested countries for support in ending the violence, stabilizing Iraq’s borders and economy, and aiding reconstruction. In particular, the report clearly declares that the U.S. “cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East” without dealing directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The civil war now raging in Iraq will not end until the large majority of nationalist insurgent groups are brought back into the political process. The report’s reference to the importance of national reconciliation, emphasizing the need especially to bring Sunnis into the political process; a comprehensive reworking of the provisions dealing with the distribution of revenues from petroleum exports; and the need to provide for a broad amnesty are all necessary steps, but insufficient in themselves, to escape disintegration of the country.

But combined with the sustained New Diplomatic Offensive that the ISG proposes, Iraq just might reach a tipping point that would allow the U.S. and other foreign forces to leave – and leave a survivable and viable Iraq to Iraqis.

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