Iraq, the US, an American Vice President, and the Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

American Vice President Joe Biden has an interesting piece in the New York Times, here. His article starts off with all of the usual fluff, about how the US has stood by Iraq and her people and her government, how Iraq has made such progress, how things are going so well, and yes, how the Obama administration has kept its promises about drawing down the number of forces in Iraq.

But the most telling section was this one, the 9th paragraph and one near the end of the article.

Nevertheless, Iraq’s security forces are not yet ready to operate fully on their own, and we must continue to support them. We must also help Iraq’s leaders with a range of challenges that lie ahead: conducting a census; further integrating Kurdish security forces into the Iraqi security forces; maintaining commitments to the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni groups that banded together against insurgents; resolving disputed internal boundaries and the future of the northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds; passing a hydrocarbon law that would distribute oil revenues and maximize the benefit to all Iraqis; stabilizing the economy through foreign investment, private sector development and new sources of revenue beyond oil; passing a fiscally responsible budget; and bringing to a close its post-Gulf war obligations to the United Nations.

I’ve not read a more sad piece by an American Vice President since, well, I don’t even know when. Iraq does need our help, and will need our help. But she won’t need US troops on the ground in Iraq, not after 2011. And she won’t ask for US troops to stay beyond 2011.

Yes, I do understand that this must sound odd — who the hell am I to argue that our American VP is wrong? He was, after all, a long-time member of the US Senate, and a long-time member (and later Chair) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He obviously knows enough to know what Iraq needs, right?

Don’t fall for this logical fallacy of an appeal to authority. You know that even Einstein’s wife wasn’t afraid to tell him he was wrong.

1a. Iraq’s security forces aren’t just ready to operate fully on their own, they are operating fully on their own. The rank-and-file Iraqi Iraqi Army units are out there, every day, conducting operations on their own, even as you read this. Ditto for the police, ditty for the National Police, ditto for the security forces on the Iraqi border. Iraq has a military that has, almost exclusively, been oriented towards internal security threats, the one time when it was otherwise was during the 80’s when it was balanced between internal threats and the war with Iran. Yes, we must continue to support them, but no, that doesn’t mean US forces on the ground, or a change to how things use to be (embedded US forces as ride-along advisers and door-kickers), and it certainly doesn’t mean that we need to talk them into buying American-made weapons systems like the hard-to-maintain M1 tank or the harder-to-maintain M16 of M4. The Iraqi military isn’t some Mini-Me of the US Army; they have their ways of doing things, from door-kicking to intelligence gathering to targeting bad guys. We need to help them, but in ways in which they want and need to be helped, not in a role we really, really want us to play.

1b. Actually, I suspect that the VP is talking about commandos and counter-terrorism forces. Guys who go out into the night and capture / kill the worst of the worst. My $3 bet says that the Iraqis would be willing to give this a go themselves, but would welcome our guys tagging along, so long as our guys brought they gadgets and toys and neat things that Iraq can’t buy on the open market. In all honesty, I’d rather we partner with the Iraqis to work with them on the stuff that’s in FM 3-24 (also here), our counter-insurgency doctrine field manual. I guess I’m old school, wanting to end the fighting instead of getting the high score for the most bad guys captured / killed.

2. The Iraqis do not need our help in conducting a census. My goodness, I think everyone understands how to do that. If not, there’s this thing called the Google that they can consult. I know what you’re thinking — why in the world would the American VP even include this in his laundry list of issues, much less include it as #2 in the list? The census actually reflects three things — the Iraqi government actually deciding to do it, and then what the results are (and with that, just how much corruption is involved), and lastly, how the census data is used. The ground truth is this: there will be no Iraqi census, not any time soon at least. There could be one in, say, 20 years. But I doubt it’d be in any time less than that. No one in Iraq gains from Iraq actually having a census; the census would then bring to a head a number of ugly, ugly issues — like the future of the Kurds. Like the distribution of oil revenues. Iraq is a land where isn’t not the facts that matter, but the deal that can be made. An actual census would be counter-productive, and I’d venture to say, an un-Iraqi thing as well.

3. There will be no further integrating Kurdish security forces into the Iraqi security forces. Can I say that any more clearly? The leaders of the Kurdish tribes, and yes, I do mean Barzani (President of the Kurdish Regional Government and head of the KDP) and Talabani (President of Iraq, and head of the PUK) might call their militia forces “Peshmerga“, but really, they are tribal militias local to their tribes. There is no unity in Kurdish forces, and there never will be. When the Kurdish tribe calls, their fighters answer. The Kurds would like for the Iraqi Government to pay for the Kurdish fighters, from salaries to new weapons, so that the Kurdish regional Government or, really, the Kurdish tribes don’t have to, but there will not be a day when a Peshmerga unit is reflagged as an Iraqi Army unit and sent to Basra. Kurdish security forces, from the Peshmerga to their security and intelligence forces, are loyal first to their patrons, then to the Kurds, and then to Iraq. Integration is a pipe dream.

4. Iraq’s problems with maintaining its commitments to the Sons of Iraq isn’t an issue of willingness, and it’s a problem with the agreement itself. To be blunt, it’s a no-win situation. Yes, some 205 to 25% of the Sons of Iraq were integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces — into the Army or police or similar. But for a group of militiamen who took up runs with their tribe, to provide localized security in their tribal areas, I’d be willing to bet good money that most if not all of them would want or maybe even expected to be transitioned into Army or police jobs in their same neighborhoods. After fighting Al Qaeda in Anbar for 5 years, who wants to go to Basra to train as an electrician to then work for a local school? Who wants to lose the prestige of providing security to their own tribe, or to leave their own area? Yes, Iraq has a long history of the central government being the main employer of Iraqi people (OK, men), but the coffers are empty, the price of oil is in the toilet, and oil production is lower than the optimistic Iraqis projected. The Iraqi government can’t just put these guys on the payroll and leave them where they are, but the Sons of Iraq don’t want to go to where the jobs actually are.

5. Don’t believe this stuff about the need to resolve the disputed internal boundaries and somehow settle the future of the northern city of Kirkuk. American isn’t helping on this one. The Kurds would like to be Kurds, with a Kurdish land under Kurdish rule. Call it the Kurdish Regional Government, or call it the dreaded K word — Kurdistan. Whatever you call it, it is an issue for the Iraqi people to resolve themselves. It is not possible to have both a strong Iraqi government and an independent Kurdish land in Iraq. Iraq will end up with either a weak central government that tolerates the Kurds having their Kurdish Regional Government so long as they behave, or Iraq will have a strong central government which will bring the Kurds back under more direct control. It’d be easy to look at the new government and say, “Wow, that’s a weak government, so I guess the Kurds are going to have it good for a while.” But all Iraq needs is a single strong leader with control of the use of force, and he can crush any renewed dreams of a Kingdom of Kurdistan. This isn’t about boundaries or about Kirkuk; it’s about Iraq as a state and a nation, versus ethnic and sectarian divides between Kurds and their Sunni and Shia Arab brothers.

6. And a lot of the same things can be said about VP Biden’s call for an American role in helping the Iraqis pass a hydrocarbon law that would “distribute oil revenues and maximize the benefit to all Iraqis.” This is about Iraqs internal struggle over having a strong central government, or having a separate states within Iraq. The Kurds would like to control their own oil production and oil sales, and to keep their own oil profits, but the Shia of Southern Iraq raise those same issues from time to time, too. With the bulk of the oil outside of Baghdad, it’s not hard to see why many Iraqis question why the profits flow to Baghdad. But keep these things in mind. Oil production and sales in Iraq is a nationalized industry; it is the central government of Iraq who does it. And oil is the basis of the national economy, almost exclusively; there would be no power for the national government if it did not control the oil revenues. Those same funds, though, drive the nepotism that is such a key part of the Iraqi way of life. Both corruption and the distribution of wealth, I think, will be tolerated so long as they work.

7. And seriously, I have no idea what VP Biden means by suggesting a US role in stabilizing the economy through foreign investment, private sector development and new sources of revenue beyond oil. Sure, I understand that American companies would like the US Government to help them in securing oil contracts in Iraq, but beyond that, well, there isn’t much. Exporting dates or pomegranates won’t come close to exporting oil any time soon. Iraq isn’t going to start making exotic cars, or fine watches. I suspect American businesses on the whole would have issues with how business is done in Iraq, and the rules (official or otherwise) they’d be expected to follow there. I mean, really — what American firm would pay the jizya, and what American stockholder would accept that it needed to be paid? If you’re not thinking of investing in oil, I don’t know what you’re thinking.

8. I wonder what the Iraqis would say, about VP Biden’s comment on the need for Americans to help the Iraqis in passing a fiscally responsible budget. The Iraqis, after all, do read CNN and the NY Times, and they are aware of what has been going on in the American economy and budget. Hell, all they need to do it watch videos on YouTube and they’d probably turn down our offer to provide financial advice.

9. And lastly, Iraq can bring to a close its post-Gulf war obligations to the United Nations all on its own. In fact, I am kind of surprised to see VP Biden raise this issue. After all, Germany took 92 years to pay of its war reparations from World War I. So, it’s not like Iraq us up against the clock on this one. Germany has been and remains one of Americas closest allies, and if it takes the US 92 years of helping for Germany to bring her war obligations to a close, well, Iraq may not want or need our help on this one.

I’m not saying I understand Iraq better than VP Biden. I’m just saying that Iraq isn’t America, that Iraqi ways aren’t American ways, and that Iraqi problems and interests aren’t American problems and interests. America can be a good friend by starting every day by asking the Iraqis, “So, how can we help you today” and patiently waiting to hear how Iraq answers. Some days, there will be pointed requests, but on other days, I suspect Iraq will say, “You know, I’m good today. Thanks for asking, though.”

One thought on “Iraq, the US, an American Vice President, and the Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

  1. Well said Art, for telling it from where you’ve been and the knowledge of living it! I truly Thank You & All!

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