Permissible Arms

Lots of goldfish, one tiny fishbowl.

Posted in iraq, terrorism, united states, us military by Karaka on 9 November 2009

I admit, I find it surprising how much Iraq recedes in our view as 2010’s drawdown grows nearer; I suppose there’s only so much ink for a (electronic) page, and Afghanistan is in everyone’s minds. But Iraq remains a fragile state, and the US presence there is significant still. So, a few pieces from here and there that I thought I’d bring to your attention.

First, it did not go unnoticed that the Iraq parliament succeeded in passing election reform [WSJ]:

Lawmakers agreed Sunday on the key sticking point — how the vote will be held in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which is claimed by Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but at least it’s done now,” said Fryad Rawandoozi, spokesman for the Kurdish bloc.

Despite the eleventh-hour agreement, Iraq’s election commission said Sunday that it still didn’t have enough time to prepare for the January 2010 vote. The commission can’t delay the poll unilaterally, however, and Parliament’s agreement appears to have put the election back on track.

In the agreement hammered out over Kirkuk, eligible voters will be determined by 2009 voter-registration records, a condition supported by the Kurds. But a technical committee will be set up to review the votes. If there are a certain number of irregularities, the elections will be repeated in a year, a condition pushed by the Arabs and Turkmen.

I think the key word in the phrase “appears to have put the election back on track” is “appears,” though wrestling with the Kurd bloc is certainly a step in the right direction. Kurdistan has always fascinated me, an island unto itself, almost. However, if things truly proceed only a fortnight or so behind schedule, it shouldn’t compromise the US military withdrawal; though I still remain concerned that security in Iraq is of the smokescreen variety.

From Army News we learn of a key-giving ceremony, granting more MNF-controlled land back to, well, the Iraqis:

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, part of Joint Area Support Group-Central, helped contribute to that progress, Oct. 25, when they handed the keys to two large properties inside Baghdad’s International Zone back over to the Iraqi government — a symbolic gesture that transferred the property to the Iraqis.

“In terms of square footage of habitable structures, Essayons and Freedom Compound are the largest we’ve turned over so far,” said the 32nd Brigade’s Maj. Gregory Schlub, who is the officer in charge of real properties for Joint Area Support Group-Central, in Baghdad.

The two properties, formerly used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, include about 25 acres of land and buildings with about 380,000 square feet of floor space.

I really hope I’m not the only person rather uncomfortable granting a “key to the city” to the people who in fact possess it; methinks a press pool officer might’ve thought a bit harder about that one.

Stratfor, sharing my wariness about January 2010, writes of Iraq: A Rebounding Jihad:

The Sunni sheikhs are using the [Islamic State of Iraq] to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Sunnis must be accommodated if there is to be real peace and stability in Iraq. One sticking point for the Sunni elders is that a large percentage of the Awakening Council members have not been integrated into the security forces as promised. Of course, the Shia and Kurds then use these attacks as an excuse for why the Sunnis cannot be trusted — and it all becomes a vicious circle.

The political situation that is driving the security problems in Iraq is complex and cannot be easily resolved. There are many internal and external players who are all trying to influence the final outcome in Iraq for their own benefit. In addition to the internal squabbles over power and oil wealth, Iraq is also a proxy battleground where the United States and Iran are attempting to maintain and assert influence. Regional players like the Saudis, Syrians and Turks also will take a keen interest in the elections and will certainly attempt to influence them to whatever degree they can. The end result of all this meddling is that peace and stability will be hard to obtain.

This means that terrorist attacks likely will continue for the foreseeable future, including attacks by the ISI. If the attacks in August and October are any indication, the remainder of the run-up to the January elections could prove quite bloody.

Granted, had IED defenses not been put into place, the attack on Oct. 25 in Baghdad could have done significantly more damage, but in a sense this is the crucible in which ISF will indeed prove itself. Can ISF keep its citizens secure as the Americans leave? Can it prevent politically motivated terrorist conflict? Can it do so and remain a strong independent force not subject to corruption?

I hope so. But the first quarter of ’10 will be an important time to watch Iraq, I think.

Finally, Alissa Rubin’s column in the New York Times, From Iraq, Lessons for the Next War:

And victory in Iraq almost always begets revenge.

In my five years in Iraq, all that I wanted to believe in was gunned down. Sunnis and Shiites each committed horrific crimes, and the Kurds, whose modern-looking cities and Western ways seemed at first so familiar, turned out to be capable of their own brutality. The Americans, too, did their share of violence, and among the worst they did was wishful thinking, the misreading of the winds and allowing what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide” to swell. Could they have stopped it? Probably not. Could it have been stemmed so that it did less damage, saved some ofthe fathers and brothers, mothers and sons? Yes, almost certainly, yes.

Ricks tipped me off to this article, and while I find it to be one of the least compelling styles of journalism–personal experience masked as opinion masked as news–I do find it interesting to read in the context of the leavetaking that is being prepared. Lessons learned, people? Bring ’em here.


Wednesday, one more.

Posted in iraq by Karaka on 28 October 2009

Poking my head out from under my duvet to post this quote from The Forever War (which I still haven’t finished because I’ve been too wrecked to read, but I will finish tonight! I will!) that seems relevant in light of the (potentially) forthcoming Iraq elections. Page 243:

A few miles away, a woman stepped from the voting booth at Yarmouk Elementary School, named for the largely Sunni neighborhood where it was located. Yarmouk was slipping fast, but some of the Sunnis were still coming out to vote. Her name was Bushra Saadi. Like Batool al-Musawi, the young Shiite woman, Saadi covered her hair with a scarf tightly wrapped. But she was older than Musawi and carried herself with greater dignity. Her face was drawn, and her eyes looked as hard as little diamonds. Her neighbors shuffled past her to go inside.

Why vote at all? I asked Saadi. Why not just stay home?

She shot me a withering look.

“I voted in order to prevent my country from being destroyed by its enemies,” she said. She spoke English without an accent.

What enemies? I asked Saadi. What enemies are you referring to?

She began to tremble. “You–you destroyed our country,” Saadi said. “The Americans, the British. I am sorry to be impolite. But you destroyed our country, and you called it democracy.

“Democracy,” she said. “It is just talking.”

It is a heavy weight we carry in Iraq.


Posted in afghanistan, american media, iraq, us military by Karaka on 23 October 2009

My city is cold, rainy, and covered in fog, and I think I love it even more for that. Except for the bit where my umbrella broke this morning.

I started Dexter Filkin’s remarkable book The Forever War a couple days ago and haven’t been able to put it down; it’s incredibly gripping, and his writing style shows far more than tells, and the showing speaks volumes. I’m about a hundred pages out from the end, but there are a couple passages that really stood out to me.


Page 35, Afghanistan 1998:

Dissent was best expressed in cars. Cars were among the few places you could feel safe talking to people. “Educated people don’t fight,” Humayun Himatyar, a shopkeeper in Kandahar, said from the driver’s seat of his parked car. he was looking straight ahead. I was in the back. “That’s why there are no schools. If you’re educated, you won’t fight. All the Taliban wants is war.” He wasn’t doing badly, he said, clearing a dollar a day. It was much worse before. Seven militias had controlled different parts of the city. “They put a tax on everything–meat, milk, bread. Even for parking your scooter they charged a tax. If you resisted, they beat you. Now the militias are gone, and if you go out at midnight, you will have no fear.”

Page 51:

People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got underway. On Tuesday, you might be part of fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

Page 80-81, Iraq 2003 onward:

Wijdan al-Khuzai’s cell phone would ring and a sinister voice would promise her a terrible end. Drop your campaign for the national assembly, the voice would tell her, or you are going to end up like the others. “Terrorist,” Khuzai would say as she snapped her cell phone shut. Sometimes as she drove around Baghdad to campaign for votes, Khuzai would glance into the rear mirror and notice a car trailing behind.

And then she would get on with her campaign. It was the winter of 2004 and hope was still thriving, even in the ruins. The first election for the new National Assembly was only a month away. There was a new secular constitution and a quarter of the seats were being set aside for women.

Khuzai, forty-seven, belonged to the Independent Progressive Movement, one of the many parties with earnest-sounding names that had come together as the elections approached. She was one of those people found in dreadful countries the world over, fearless and determined and unwilling, for reasons always unclear, to make the same calculations of personal safety as everyone else.

…Khuzai returned to Baghdad and, like many Iraqis, took up the promise of liberation. She wasn’t along, 7,471 Iraqis signed up to run for the 275 seats in the new parliament. Not many of them, though, were brave enough to campaign openly, like Khuzai, or to travel without armed guards. It wasn’t like she didn’t know what she was up against. “These people,” she told her family, “I am their worst enemy.”

An American patrol found her body on Christmas Eve 2004, on the road to Baghdad International Airport.

page 179:

He was the chief, Major Ali Shamad…[he] sighed, in the weary manner of someone tired of having to explain his civilization to the unknowing. “The thing you need to understand,” the major said, “is that people on both sides of the border are related. Syrians and Iraqis–same thing.” They belonged to the same tribe, smuggled the same goods, grazed their sheep on both sides. No one had ever stopped them from doing that before. “Why don’t the Americans understand these things?”

I very much recommend it. Maybe a couple more passages as I near the end; about 2/3 of the book is about post-invasion Iraq, and the first third is about pre-invasion Afghanistan, in the ’90s around the time of the Taliban ascendancy. Filkins’ profile of Stanley McChrystal’s Long War is also excellent.

[Image by Matt Cook, via the BBC. Link takes you to a presentation of his work.]

Wednesday Errata

Posted in afghanistan, american media, iraq, pakistan, united nations, united states, us politics by Karaka on 21 October 2009

H/t Dawn Patrol, Obama’s press conference with Maliki:

From the Times of London, Violence threatens Barack Obama’s pledge to pull troops out of Iraq:

General Ray Odierno said that militant groups were likely to conduct a bloody campaign in the months ahead, as Iraqis prepare for national elections at the beginning of next year.

“It’s clear that al-Qaeda and other groups do not want the elections to occur,” he said in an interview. “What I think they will try to do is discourage people from voting by undermining the authority of the Government of Iraq with attacks, so that people lose faith in the democratic process.”

As the fourth of five parts of David Rohde’s account is published, Noah Schachtman at Danger Room draws this criticism from it about the use of drones in Pakistan: But, in the next breath, Rohde also validates some of the criticisms of the robotic assaults — that the drones are handing the Taliban a propaganda win, and driving fresh jihadists to their ranks. Interesting. Also, on Pakistan, Ahsan Butt makes four good points about what we don’t know about Pakistan’s offense against the Taliban in Waziristan.

Starbuck collects a couple thoughts on terrain and the Battle of Wanat; I read Hershel Smith’s post at The Captain’s Journal this morning and think he has a point, though I remember reading somewhere that the placement of those bases had as much to do with usable MSRs as anything else. Though I can’t remember where I read that, so I might be misremembering.

The UN says Afghan opium fuels ‘global chaos’, which seems to be a surprise to squarely no one:

Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium, with the equivalent of 3,500 tonnes leaving the country each year.

Most of the opium that leaves Afghanistan makes its way through Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran, leaving a trail of addiction, criminality and death in its wake, according to the report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

It says more people die globally from Afghan opium than any other drug but just a tiny percentage of what is produced is seized on route.

From Afghanistan–My Last Tour, I found the account of Drinking Tea with the Sgt. Major to be illuminating:

As we sipped our tea, the conversation switched to the HA drops in the villages. The CSM gave me some insight about how people steal these items and who to trust and who not to trust. I was totally dumbfounded when he said, “Please don’t give me any of those items, because I would be tempted to steal them too.” I explained our process on how we hand out items. We do not give them to select families, instead we provide to an entire village or school. He nodded in agreement.

Our conversation continued to revolve about the corrupt government and how millions if not billions of dollars of foreign aid have been siphoned off by corrupt government officials. But he put it into perspective and compared it to the United States. Afghanistan doesn’t have the lobbyist organizations like the US. Instead it utilizes tribal connections and nepotism. Enterprising businessmen and government officials who receive the money subcontract out using inferior quality and then pocket the rest. As a result, individuals who are illiterate become millionaires over night. We also discussed about US contractors working in Afghanistan. Most of them get paid over $100,000 and then the parent company charges the US government double or triple this rate, but nobody in the US seems to complain about this. It’s just a different way of doing business.

Well, not nobody.

Stratfor’s account of the US Challenge in Afghanistan is well worth the read, as is Tom Ricks’ article at the Daily Beast. See also Gilles Dorronsoro’s op-ed and Diplopundit’s following of the Department of State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

I’m going home to the dog and chicken alfredo over homemade pasta. Take it easy, blogosphere.

I wonder if Gil Grissom is available for insect work.

Posted in iraq by Karaka on 20 October 2009

Some things about Iraq:

Last week the Iraqi government announced that at least 85,000 Iraqis were killed between 2004 and 2008; that doesn’t include deaths during and post-invasion, but does include those involved in the sectarian civial war. It also doesn’t include insurgents, though I’m not entirely certain how they distinguished insurgencts from militias from civilians.

Worth bumping from last month, Iraq is finding itself unable to meet the cost of its expenses, and not unrelatedly, the country is having trouble attracting investors to its oil industry. Most importantly: On Tuesday, the Iraqi government said it would need to borrow money from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to close a growing budget deficit. Oil revenues, which pay for more than 90 percent of Iraq’s expenses, are down sharply from last year because of flat production and lower international prices.

Nouri al-Maliki is visiting the White House today to speak with President Obama. In addition to the economic challenges, Iraq also faces an uncertain election timeline, as violence steadily continue.

But, because sometimes I leave the things that amuse me for last, Iraqi crime scene investigators receive top-notch training from US Army News:

This is the fourth class of five for these policemen, according to Howell. She said other classes designed to improve their skills as investigators taught putting together an evidence packet, working and preserving crime scenes, community policing and collecting evidence.

“Every police officer in the states is expected to know how to do these things,” said Howell.

That kind of made me smile this morning.

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