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Iraq, Five Years In

So here we are on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and some sort of assessment seems almost mandatory. It doesn't start off with good news. The tenuous cease fire with the Iranian-backed Mahdi Militia broke down this week, leading to a new outbreak of violence in southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad. the U.S. death count in Iraq topped 4000 on Tuesday. But maybe we didn't notice, because the news media and the public seem to have lost interest and coverage of the war has been eclipsed by the economy and the election to the point that it's down to about 4% of what's mentioned in the news.

So the questions are where do we stand and have we made progress and will the war ever end? The answer isn't going to be terribly satisfying for those who support or those who oppose the war, because the basic assessment of the situation in Iraq is that we've achieved a level of managed chaos which could literally go on forever, or which could be ended through means that one or the other side finds absolutely unacceptable.

As demonstrated by recent events, the major downside of the situation in Iraq is that violence continues, although at a substantially lower level than in the past. Violence has become part of everyday life in Iraq, but it is at a lower level and it is no longer pervasive. Businesses are operating and people are going to work in most of the country. But the threat of violence remains present and people have just learned to live with it and accept it as inevitable. This balance of ongoing violence with some level of normality in life is relatively stable and could continue for a very long time. So long as American soldiers remain there they will suffer some casualties. So long as no absolute resolution of the various volatile issues in the country is found, civilians will continue to suffer and life will continue to be harsh and dangerous.

While the continuing violence makes Iraq a highly dysfunctional nation, at the same time there are some remarkable successes, especially on the economic front. The Iraqi economy can only be described as vibrant. Their banks are doing brisk business, their stock market is active and investment in business is booming. The oil industry is back on its feet, they just reopened their largest refinery and they are exporting oil at pre-war levels again. That is producing a lot of revenue for the government to throw at other problem areas like rebuilding infrastructure. They're even predicting massive budget surpluses, something cash strapped American leaders might be jealous of. Small businesses are open again, including markets, cafes and even liquor stores (despite Islamic prohibitions on alcohol).

Iraq is chimerical. A few areas are still plagued by violence, but at this point about two-thirds of the country is fairly peaceful. Kurdistan has been peaceful and prosperous since soon after the invasion. Anbar province has been a great success since Sunni tribal leaders allied with former insurgents to restore order. And with the introduction of more troops and new strategies, sectarian violence has largely stopped in Baghdad and life is slowly returning to normal. Violence remains strongest in the areas where the Iranians have the most influence through the Shiite militias, like the area around Basra. Things are going well enough that in a recent survey Iraq was rated more stable than 21 other countries, a number of which aren't generally considered hotspots of violence. In fact, the murder rate in New Orleans is higher than the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq, and overall there are more violent deaths in Mexico on a per capita basis than there are in Iraq. Yet Mexico remains a tourist destination, while Iraq is a source of horror stories. Of course, in Mexico just as in Iraq there are areas you'd be taking your life in your hands to visit and others which are stable and quite pleasant.

About Dave Nalle

  • Lumpy

    Nice to see someone even acknwledging that there is still something going on in Iraq. Ever since we started getting more good news than bad the nedia seems to be unble to find the country at all.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “the buy-off of Sunni insurgents in much of the country”

    This is what tempers my opinion that things are going so well. If we have to bribe people to stop killing one another, what happens when that money runs out? Is there some X dollar amount that when reached will pacify them into changing their ways, or will the Sunnis just go back to square one?

  • Dan Miller

    Dave, Your article is among the best I have read about the Iraq situation, and I thank you for the insights. Just a few comments, however.

    You state:

    “. . . the threat of violence remains present and people have just learned to live with it and accept it as inevitable. This balance of ongoing violence with some level of normality in life is relatively stable and could continue for a very long time.”

    Somehow, the thought of Israel popped into my head unbidden. It seems to me that we are doing quite a lot to bolster a dubious government in Iraq, which will never come close to our ideals, while trying to impose upon Israel a settlement of differences with a very dysfunctional Palestinian government even less likely to produce a result consistent with our ideals.

    Could it be that our focus is dysfunctional as well?

    I am most likely in the minority, but I think our invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do, and that our limited successes are important. Still, I think that Israel may, in the long term, be even more important. Israel has long been the ally of the U.S., to a much greater extent than many of he countries to which we have given our support, military and otherwise. She has many powerful enemies, and their success would be a bad thing for the principles which we claim to hold dear.

    I do not suggest that we send troops to Israel; she probably would not want them and at this point does not need them. I do suggest that while we are doing our level best to prop up a dysfunctional government in Iraq, we at least cease demanding that Israel make nice with her sworn enemies who show absolutely no signs of making nice with her.

    My guess, and it is no more than that, is that Israel is potentially a more significant flash point than Iraq, that open warfare will happen regardless of our support for the “peace process,” and that the sooner we recognize this the better.

    Dan Miller

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    This is what tempers my opinion that things are going so well. If we have to bribe people to stop killing one another, what happens when that money runs out? Is there some X dollar amount that when reached will pacify them into changing their ways, or will the Sunnis just go back to square one?

    The bribery aspect actaully doesn’t worry me at all. It’s the way things are done in the Arab world. Those leaders will ALWAYS be looking for something for themselves or their people, and the Iraqi government can certainly afford to provide it to them. Their first loyalty is to their tribe and no one else, and Arab and European leaders have been buying their loyalty for hundreds of years.

    Dave

  • REMF

    HONOR THE FALLEN

    “Army Sgt. Thomas C. Ray II, 40, of Weaverville, N.C.; assigned to the 1132nd Military Police Company, North Carolina Army National Guard, Rocky Mount, N.C.; died March 22 in Baghdad of wounds suffered when his vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device. Also killed were Spc. David S. Stelmat and Sgt. David B. Williams.”

    - from the militarycity (valor) web site

  • http://cqpinion.blogspot.com Krutic A

    The silver lining to the current fighting in Basra is that Shiites are fighting Shiites. That tells me that the government is trying to be sect-blind and looking out for the greater interest of the country. It will help Sunnis trust the government and it also signals Iran that inspite of being Shiite, the Iraqi government is willing to fight Iran sponsored Shiite militias for the betterment of the country as a whole.
    So if the fighting doesn’t get too out of hand and is brought under control, the Iraqi government comes out stronger after this.

  • REMF

    “So if the fighting doesn’t get too out of hand and is brought under control, the Iraqi government comes out stronger after this.”
    - Krutic A.

    Who gives a fuck, Krutic? We shoulda never gone into that shithole in the first place.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Somehow, the thought of Israel popped into my head unbidden.

    I’m on the same page as you. Israel is one of the first nations I look to for a model of people living relatively normal lives in the midst of extreme violence.

    Could it be that our focus is dysfunctional as well?

    Heretic! How dare you question the validity of imposing democracy on tribal societies which neither want it nor know what to do with it.

    I do not suggest that we send troops to Israel; she probably would not want them and at this point does not need them. I do suggest that while we are doing our level best to prop up a dysfunctional government in Iraq, we at least cease demanding that Israel make nice with her sworn enemies who show absolutely no signs of making nice with her.

    As the Birchers will tell you at length, stabilizing Iraq ultimately helps Israel enormously. They’d have you believe we invaded Iraq specifically to help Israel and for no other reason. Recently discovered Iraqi government documents lend more support to that thesis, because they expose a level of Iraqi involvement in funding terrorism throughout the middle east which is far beyond anything previously suspected.

    Dave

  • http://nitpickingnightdragon.blogspot.com Mark Edward Manning

    Good analysis, Dave. Well done. You really summed it all up in a way that both the war’s supporters and opponents can agree with.
    Yes, we supporters of the war never envisioned being there five years later, certainly not at the level we still are. I think we must, however begrudingly, accept that the anti-wars were correct in their initial assessment that we had no plan for how to manage post-Saddam Iraq. We’ve been trying to learn ever since, for five years now.
    But, as you say, there is certainly hope for Iraq, if we can diplomatically deal with Iran, no doubt a major contributor to the violence in Iraq.
    The U.S. forces have done a truly remarkable job in earning the trust of former Sunni rebels and insurgents. The Kurds are largely at peace, a level of quiescence they never knew under Saddam and probably were never likely to know under any Ba’athist leader. As for the Shias, if we can quash Sadr’s uprising and get his followers to join the ranks of the Shia serving in the Iraqi forces, then that is one more major step on the road to what is hopefully long-term peace.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    While I agree fundamentally with Mark, the fact still remains that involvement in Iraq (while not getting rid of the 800 pound Wahhabi gorilla to its immediate south) is going to leave your country broke, and broken.

    And Dan Miller is right about a hot war headed our way here.

  • http://cqpinion.blogspot.com Krutic A

    Like I said in # 6 the Iraqi government comes out stronger after this and today Al Sadr announced a ceasefire to his troops. If it works, this is good news for the Iraqi forces because Al Sadr wouldnt have stopped fighting if he was winning. So even though there were reports of desertions and surrender by the Iraqi forces, on the whole they did a good job. No American lives were lost in the battle and I take this to be a big sign of progress.
    I think the Iraqi government’s next major priority should be oil revenues and production. If that happens, the whole scenario predicted by the US years ago where the oil money would pay for the war will finally come to fruition. Lets see if it does happen.

  • bliffle

    I see that some diehards and deadenders are still attempting to justify the Iraq Invasion.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    That’s nothing, Bliffle. There are still people trying to justify the Vietnam War.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    I’m still working on my justifications for the Spanish American War.

    Dave

  • STM

    Doc: “That’s nothing, Bliffle. There are still people trying to justify the Vietnam War”.

    Try this then: half of Vietnam didn’t want to be communist.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Nice try, Stan. I’m sure considerably more than half of the Soviet Empire didn’t want to be communist either. But a certain bloke from Austria, Adolf something or other, discovered exactly how bad an idea it was to wage war on them.

  • STM

    That Austrian upstart. That’s what must rankle the most with Germans looking back and navel-gazing on that stuff.

    He wasn’t even German.

    However, back to the issue at hand: as a person who lives in this region, and who has had a lot of contact with the large numbers of Vietnamese and their decendents in this country, I can tell you unequivocally, most of those who washed up on these shores with their brethren were not happy about the reunification of Vietnam.

    Whether you think their ideas were misguided or not and whether it was worth the cost in lives is another issue completely, but the fact is there were an awful lot of Vietnamese banking on the Americans because they didn’t want to live under communist rule.

    It’s worth remembering in any discussion of this that one group of people tried to impose their will upon another group that wasn’t interested.

    I’m not sure we should be rewriting history to make it a snug fit with our views.

  • bliffle

    If it were true that every South Vietnamese were in favor of independence then surely they would have been able, with US help, to hold off the invasion from the north. In fact, only a thin layer of privileged were violently opposed to the commies. The rest just saw it as a war between feudalism and communism: equal opportunity oppressors.

  • troll

    Like I said in # 6 the Iraqi government comes out stronger after this and today Al Sadr announced a ceasefire to his troops. If it works, this is good news for the Iraqi forces because Al Sadr wouldnt have stopped fighting if he was winning.

    ok…now how’s this for speculation: Al Sadr realizes that he is well on his way to religious/political legitimacy and that he will be running the country within a short time…he has been struggling to keep a lid on his forces while taking over responsibility for critical bureaucracy (health care – education etc)

    he never gave the order to his forces (estimated to be 2000,000 strong) to start fighting in response this “mopping up” operation and his call for a cease fire is a plea to the more radical among his followers not to fuck things up

  • troll

    that would be 200,00

  • troll

    0

  • bliffle

    I suspect that Al Sadr is maneuvering for a large political position, perhaps deposing Maliki, perhaps of a big part of a fractured Iraq.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Just take as many zeroes as you need, troll…

    ;-)

  • bliffle

    There’s a new PBS documentary on the action level of the war tonight:

    Bad Voodoos War

  • bliffle

    Today we had the pleasure of seeing the once glorious and confident Petraeus looking drawn and old and out of resources as he glumly sat in front of congress contemplating his own failures.

    Now we know why he wasn’t appointed top general in Iraq years ago: he can’t cut it. His one tactical idea (facilitated by al Sadrs hiatus) of seize-hold-hold-some-more has failed as a strategy to spread a love of democracy and western values among people who are more interested in allying with Iran. Indeed, the Maliki government scattered flower petals on the Iranian chief when he visited recently. By contrast the POTUS had to sneak thru town when he visited.

    Ptui!

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    I think that what we saw was Petraeus trying desperately not to admit the obvious – which is that we are no longer really needed in Iraq, that we COULD in fact pull out within a matter of 6 months or so, and that the Iraqi government actually is pretty damned close to being able to run things on its own, if somewhat incompetently and corruptly. All they really need from us is to keep Iran off their back, which we could do diplomatically.

    Dave

  • Bullman

    “In fact, the murder rate in New Orleans is higher than the U.S. casualty rate in Iraq”

    The US casualty rate in Iraq is around 450 per 100,000.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    If you follow the link provided in the article you’ll see that the comparison was for a one-week period. It’s equally valid if you take the last 6 months or full year and make the same comparison.

    Is your figure a cumulative rate and what period does it cover? Does it take into account rotations in deployment?

    Dave

  • Bullman

    We know the US deployment has consistently been 100,000 to 200,000 in the five years since the invasion.

    3376 hostile deaths of US soldiers/5 = 675.2 a year. Say the population of US troops is 150k, you end up with a hostile death rate of 450 per 100,000. 675 willful deaths annually (with a smaller population as well) is clearly far higher than New Orleans.

    Source