Confidence About Iraq Hits All-Time High

Rasmussen Reports

Voter confidence about the situation in Iraq has hit an all time high.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 51% of voters now expect the situation in Iraq to improve over the next six months. That’s up two percentage points from the preceding week.

…Forty-two percent (42%) now believe the U.S. mission in Iraq will be judged as a success while 40% hold the opposite view and say it will be judged as a failure. A plurality of men say the mission will be seen as a success while women disagree.

Are You Connected?

Michael Yon emails

The outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections will have a profound impact on the war. Meanwhile, the day to day fighting continues. If Senator Obama is elected, I expect to spend a great deal of time covering the fighting. Judging by his words, Senator Obama must be watched closely or we might see some terrible decisions. I expect 2009 to be the worst year so far in the Af-Pak war, which has serious potential to eventually become far worse than Iraq ever was. If Senator McCain is elected, I’ll breathe easier in regard to the war.

And please don’t miss Michael’s latest Afghanistan dispatch.

The News Media's Withdrawal from Iraq

…Now that the story in Iraq has shifted from a daily litany of suicide car bombings, sectarian violence, and Americans soldiers killed, and turned instead into a focus on voter registration drives, campaigns for the Iraqi parliament, and reconciliation among previously warring factions, the American news media have lost interest.

…Another part of the explanation for declining news coverage from Baghdad is that it’s easier to cover a battle or car bombing than it is to cover the current complexities of forming a new government, establishing a legal framework for a continued U.S. presence, and dividing oil revenue among competing regions and sects.

And so, when the easy-to-cover car bombings decline, the coverage declines.

…As Gen David G. Perkins, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told the Washington Post: “There are a lot of things going on, a lot of very complicated things going on. And to cover that, you really have to understand the details and the sophistication of it. When you have a big explosion where 20 people die, it doesn’t take much understanding of the intricacies of what’s going on in the country to run out there with a camera and report that 20 people have been killed.”

…Yet another reason for the cutback in news coverage from Iraq is that the news media have a short attention span. After years of covering the Iraq war and its long aftermath, editors and producers are bored with the story. And so they have shifted their attention—and resources—to other stories.

…There is one more explanation for the news media’s rapidly declining interest in what’s going on in Iraq. That final explanation can be summed up by a cynical expression journalists sometimes mutter to each other over drinks after work: “Good news is no news.”

Cynical? Yes.

True? Unfortunately, yes.

More from Ron Nessen, Journalist in Residence at the Brookings Institution.

Iraq opens oil sector to foreign companies

Double production in three years? Yes it is doable. And I wonder what that will do to OPEC, where Iraq does not currently have a “quota”?

More than five years after the war began, Iraq is finally opening up its oil sector to foreign companies in a bid to get production back to—and eventually above—pre-war levels. What does Iraq’s new oil deal mean?

From an oil supply point of view, the Iraqi opening is unabashedly good news. Iraqi oil is among the easiest in the world to extract, unlike deep-water finds or unconventional reserves that have grabbed most of the attention lately. The proposed contracts with foreign oil companies call for help in doubling production at six big, existing fields.

That means production should ramp up quickly—depending on which foreign companies land the contracts—turning Iraq from a middleweight into an oil-patch heavyweight. Unlike plans to boost U.S. production with more offshore drilling, the new Iraqi scheme could pay dividends in as soon as three years, analysts told the WaPo. The Iraqi plan is to roughly double oil production from the current 2.2 million barrels a day to about 4 or 4.5 million barrels (that would be about 5% of today’s global oil production).

But for Western oil majors like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Royal Dutch Shell, the Iraqi proposal is probably a mixed blessing. While it finally offers a crack at the world’s second-largest oil reserves, the terms on offer aren’t as generous as some had hoped—and doesn’t reverse the long-standing ban in the Middle East on handing over control of oil reserves to foreign companies.

In the absence of a new national law regulating the oil industry, the Iraqi Oil Ministry created a hybrid service contract. Foreign companies will hold a minority stake, and be charged with ramping up production at existing fields. Rather than pocket a flat fee, foreign companies can earn more the more they boost output. But they won’t be able to include Iraqi oil reserves on their books, and that probably squelches any hopes that falling oil prices would mean an end to resource nationalism.

At the very least, an Iraqi resurgence should make OPEC summits more interesting. The cartel, which famously fails to stick to its output quotas, is now preparing to cut output next month. But sticky questions remain, such as how big the cut should be and which OPEC country should bear the brunt. With many analysts now expecting a prolonged economic slowdown—with an attendant fall in demand for oil—OPEC is desperate to avoid overproduction of oil lest it lead to a collapse in prices again.

Iraq is a member of OPEC, but the war-torn, sanction-weary country doesn’t have output quotas. How heated will the discussions over divvying up that pie become when Iraqi output doubles?

Iraq: still delicate work to be done

Jack Keane, Frederick W. Kagan & Kimberly Kagan were key architects of the new strategy generally known as “the surge”. Here’s their current thinking as of 09/22/2008:

…With Barack Obama’s recent declaration that the surge in Iraq has succeeded, it should now be possible to move beyond that debate and squarely address the current situation in Iraq and the future. Reductions in violence permitting political change were the goal of the surge, but they are not the sole measure of success in Iraq.

…Reducing our troop strength solely on the basis of trends in violence also misses the critical point that the mission of American forces in Iraq is shifting rapidly from counterinsurgency to peace enforcement. The counter-insurgency fight that characterized 2007 continues mainly in areas of northern Iraq. The ability of organized enemy groups, either Sunni or Shia, to conduct large-scale military or terrorist operations and to threaten the existence of the Iraqi government is gone for now. No area of Iraq today requires the massive, violent, and dangerous military operations that American and Iraqi forces had to conduct over the last 18 months in order to pacify various places or restore them to government control. Although enemy networks and organizations have survived and are regrouping, they will likely need considerable time to rebuild their capabilities to levels that pose more than a local challenge–and intelligent political, economic, military, and police efforts can prevent them from rebuilding at all.

American troops continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has not given up, and against Iranian-backed Special Groups, which are also reconstituting. U.S. forces support Iraqi forces conducting counterinsurgency operations in the handful of areas where any significant insurgent capability remains. But mostly our troops are enforcing the peace.

…Indeed, American combat brigades have become the principal enablers of economic and political development in Iraq. When an American brigade is withdrawn from an area, there is nothing to take its place–all of these functions go unperformed. Clearly, then, the number of brigades needed in Iraq should be tied not to the level of violence but to the roles the Americans perform and the importance of those roles to the further development of Iraq as a stable and peaceful state.

But American brigades do more than that. They also give us leverage at every level to restrain malign actors within the Iraqi government and to insist that Iraqi leaders make concessions and take political risks they would rather avoid. The notion, popular in some American political discussions, that withdrawing our forces increases our leverage is nonsensical. The presence of 140,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq requires the Iraqi leadership to pay attention to America’s suggestions in a way that nothing else can. Every brigade that leaves reduces our leverage just when we need it most.

For all the progress made to date, the next president will face significant challenges in Iraq. In recent testimony, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates enumerated them: “the prospect of violence in the lead-up to elections, worrisome reports about sectarian efforts to slow the assimilation of the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, Iranian influence, the very real threat that al Qaeda continues to pose, and the possibility that Jaysh al-Mahdi could return.”

The existence of malign sectarian actors in the Iraqi parliament and in the prime minister’s inner circle is not news. Nor is it news that Iraqi politicians, elected under a closed-list system that emphasized ethnosectarian identity at the expense of political interest, have weak electoral bases and much reason to fear the results of open and honest elections. It is similarly well known that Iran seeks to drive the United States out of Iraq and has been putting tremendous pressure on Iraq’s leaders to obey Tehran and reject Washington. These three factors help explain the development of significant negative trends in Iraq in recent months: the downward spiral of negotiations over the Strategic Framework Agreement, delays in the passage of an electoral law, escalating tensions along the Arab-Kurd border, and Iraqi government attacks on certain Sons of Iraq groups in and around Baghdad.

American errors have contributed to these developments. At the outset of negotiations over the Strategic Framework Agreement, for instance, we should have offered Iraq a security guarantee. Iraq’s signing a Strategic Framework Agreement would have openly and publicly committed themselves to the United States–and against Iran, in the zero-sum thinking of Tehran. It was only reasonable that Maliki and others in the Iraqi government should have expected an American commitment to match their own, and we should have given it to them. But American domestic politics made that impossible.

Leading congressmen and senators insisted that a security guarantee would raise the Strategic Framework Agreement to the level of a treaty requiring Senate ratification–which is true. They also made clear that no such ratification would be forthcoming if the document bound the next administration. The Bush administration therefore had to tell Baghdad at the outset that America would not match the commitment we were asking the Iraqis to make with an equal commitment of our own. American domestic politics also prevented the administration from placing the security agreement in the larger context of a U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership, since that concept was ridiculed by those who refused to accept the possibility of success in Iraq.

The Iranians sensed an opportunity and responded with a massive public information campaign in Iraq and a virulent private campaign to put pressure on Iraq’s leaders. America’s refusal to offer a long-term security guarantee gave weight to the constant Iranian refrain that Iran will always be there, while America will ultimately leave Iraq to its fate. Shrewdly refusing to admit the degree of direct Iranian pressure, Maliki and his associates used the cloak of “Iraqi sovereignty” to conceal their uneasiness at taking responsibility for making a deal with the United States–uneasiness not before their own people, but before Tehran. As a result, the negotiations have dragged on, Iraqi demands have increased, and it is possible that Maliki will now wait until after the American election to see who wins–all because domestic political constraints prevented the Bush administration from making the necessary opening bid.

Maliki has been using “Iraqi sovereignty” to do more than delay those negotiations, however. He has also used it to insist on the accelerated transfer of Iraq’s cities, especially Baghdad, to Iraqi control and the withdrawal of American forces from those cities. As a result, the problems that premature transition can cause are on display in the city of Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad.

Michael O’Hanlon, Kenneth Pollack were equally cautious in the Brookings symposium Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges This Fall and Beyond. I recommend a careful read of the transcript, and their related Foreign Affairs essay Building on Progress in Iraq:

…Today, however, there is reason to believe that the debate over Iraq can change. A series of positive developments in the past year and a half offers hope that the desire of so many Americans to bring the troops home can be fulfilled without leaving Iraq in chaos. The right approach, in other words, can partly square Obama’s goal of redeploying large numbers of U.S. forces sooner rather than later with McCain’s goal of ensuring stability in Iraq.

If the prognosis in Iraq were hopelessly grim, it might make sense for the United States to threaten withdrawal, hold its breath, and hope for the best. But the prognosis is now much more promising than it has been in years, making a threat of withdrawal far from necessary. With a degree of patience, the United State can build on a pattern of positive change in Iraq that offers it a chance to draw down troops soon without giving up hope for sustained stability.

The last 18 months have brought major changes in the underlying strategic calculus facing Iraq’s main combatants — undermining the Sunni insurgency, weakening the Shiite militias, severely degrading al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), strengthening the Iraqi security forces (ISF), and creating new, more positive political dynamics and incentives. But these developments have also brought new, if less acute, challenges to the fore — demanding corresponding changes in U.S. and Iraqi strategy. Simply staying the course will not work under the new conditions in Iraq.

Both to deal with the new problems and to guard against any revival of the old ones, any further troop drawdowns, now that the “surge” is over, should be modest until after Iraq gets through two big rounds of elections — in late 2008 at the provincial level and in late 2009 at the national level — which have the potential either to reinforce important gains or to reopen old wounds. But starting in 2010, if current trends continue, the United States may be able to start cutting back its troop presence substantially, possibly even halving the total U.S. commitment by sometime in 2011, without running excessive risks with the stability of Iraq and the wider Persian Gulf region.

Most Americans have a mental image of Iraq that is defined by the chaos of 2006. But Iraq today is a very different place than it was two years ago. Overall violence is down at least 80 percent since the surge began, and ethno-sectarian violence — the kind that seemed to be sucking Iraq into all-out civil war in 2006 — is down by over 90 percent. Through June, the number of violent civilian deaths has averaged about 700 a month in 2008, a lower rate than in any previous year of the war (with the possible exception of 2003). U.S. military deaths in Iraq have dropped from about 70 a month in early 2007 to about 25 a month now, and the death rate for the ISF has fallen by half, from 200 a month to about 100. Although refugees and internally displaced people are not yet returning home in large numbers, so few Iraqis are now being evicted that the net displacement rate is about zero.

…But today, there is a real chance that U.S. persistence in the short term can secure a stable Iraq and enable major withdrawals in 2010 and 2011 without undermining that stability. The American people — to say nothing of the servicemen and servicewomen who are fighting — have every right to be tired of this war and to question whether it should have ever been fought. But understandable frustration with past mistakes, sorrow over lives lost, anger at resources wasted, and fatigue with a war that has at times seemed endless must not blind Americans to the major change of the last 18 months. The developments of 2007 and 2008 have created new possibilities. If the United States is willing to seize them, it could yet emerge from Mesopotamia with something that may still fall well short of Eden on the Euphrates but that prevents the horrors of all-out civil war, avoids the danger of a wider war, and yields a stability that endures as Americans come home.

Obama's Position on the Troop Surge

Obama likes to talk about his “judgment” in opposing the war in Iraq. But if he is going to use that as the big test of his wisdom, you also have to consider his judgment with respect to the troop surge in Iraq. As indicated in the chart, Obama introduced a bill to withdraw U.S. forces even though sectarian violence was at its very height:

More analysis of Obama’s judgement by John Wixted.

Michael Yon reports enroute to Afghanistan

Just received an email from Michael Yon from Bangkok:

I have just left Nepal and landed in Bangkok, en route to Kabul. My plan is to spend some time in Afghanistan, head back over to Iraq in late September, then possibly return to Afghanistan before the year’s end. In any case, I plan to keep my boots in Iraq and Afghanistan through the U.S. elections.

Meanwhile, Michael just put up a dispatch which begins:

By now, no credible person denies the dramatic success that continues to manifest itself in Iraq. No doubt, there will be years of political dramas ahead for that country, and when they occur, we will blame ourselves for them, as is our habit. Americans have a tendency to blame ourselves nearly everything from wildfires to genocidal wars on the other side of the globe. And what we don’t blame ourselves for, others will. Some might see our ability to take initiative and shoulder responsibility as naiveté. I think it’s one of America’s greatest strengths.

Many people around the world see America in decline. As someone who travels a great deal, I see the opposite. America is just getting started. Yes, we face enormous challenges and dangerous enemies. But the soul of our country, the initiative of our people, and the depth of the collective intelligence are all far stronger than our critics, and even many Americans, imagine. Al Qaeda thought that America would fall to her knees after 9/11. They were wrong. Today we hunt them like jackals.

Of course, the Iraq war has led some to think that the United States has committed a tragic imperial overreach. Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, a truth widely accepted by the international community. Yet the international community can do little about evil tyrants. They leave that up to us, complaining when we do nothing and criticizing when we take action.

However history finally judges him, President Bush will be remembered for two decisions. In 2003, he invaded Iraq. And in 2006, he did not surrender.

Whether or not the first decision was right seems difficult to answer definitively without falling back onto ideological bias, partisan politics, or wishful thinking. Reasonable people likely will disagree about that decision for as long as the event is remembered. If Iraq falls apart or again becomes a tyrant state, then Bush was a brash, imperialistic President invading a sovereign nation without cause, who made things worse and spent lots of money and lives in doing so. If Iraq becomes a stable and prosperous nation even vaguely similar to the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, then most fair-minded people likely will judge Mr. Bush as a little-understood visionary who paid a moderate price to dramatically improve an important region of the world.

But few reasonable people who have been paying attention can disagree that the second decision was correct. In January 2007, one prominent Senator predicted that the Surge would only deepen the sectarian conflict in Iraq. “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there: In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

Now it’s difficult to tell exactly what Senator Obama thinks about the Surge, for each remark he makes on the subject seems to veer in a different direction without ever actually going anywhere.

More… And please don’t neglect the “tip jar” or buying Moment of Truth — the only financial support Michael has for this mission.

Iraq: then and now

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson reflects on then and now, separated by only 12 months:

A little more than a year ago most Americans—and nearly all the Democratic opposition in Congress—opposed the surge of troops into Iraq and Gen. David Petraeus’s change of tactics.

The conventional wisdom after four long years of war was that we were stuck in the middle of a hopeless civil war. There was no American military solution to quell the violence. The Iraq government was not only incompetent, but proof that democratic government itself was incompatible with Middle Eastern culture and religion.

Pundits were advocating trisecting the country into separate Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish enclaves. Our presence in Iraq caused us to have taken our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, while empowering Iran, and helping al Qaedi to gain new recruits in a new theater of operations. Democratic presidential candidates were hammering each other over Iraq and demanding that those who had voted to authorize the invasion apologize for their vote. Barack Obama wanted all American troops out by March 2008.

A New Political Reality

And now? July is closing with the fewest number of American combat fatalities since the war started. There is no civil war. The Maliki government has put down Shiite militias and won back Sunnis into the elected administration, and, as an autonomous and confident government, is in tense negotiations with the US over future basing of American troops. Al Qaeda has been humiliated and routed from Iraq. American troops, versed in counterinsurgency, are being redeployed to Afghanistan to reapply what worked against jihadists in Iraq. Iranian-backed militias are being disbanded or have fled back into Iran. The additional surge troops are now out of Iraq. Democratic opponents suddenly concede that the withdrawal of American troops should be predicated on conditions on the ground. Anti-war activists critique Iraq more as a possibly successful war not worth the human and material costs rather than an effort long ago lost.

What Happened?

So what happened in the last twelve months to cause such a radical turn-about in Iraq and here at home? The surge added some needed troops, but more importantly sent the symbolic message that the United States was not leaving, but determined—militarily—to defeat terrorists and give the Iraqi government critical time to consolidate its authority.

The so-called Anbar awakening in which Sunni tribal leaders turned on al Qaeda and joined forces with us was not caused directly by the surge, but would have failed without the confidence more Americans were on the way to support their fight against al Qaeda. Americans began to turn from counter-terrorism to counterinsurgency tactics that meant dispersing combat troops out of compounds and into Iraqi neighborhoods where they could protect Iraqis who resisted terrorism.

Don’t Forget …

Two critical developments are relatively unappreciated, but likewise proved critical. The first was the continual growth and improvement in the Iraqi security forces that now include many veteran units that have learned to confront and defeat terrorists.

Second, between 2003-7 American forces took an enormous toll on jihadists. We have heard mostly how many Americans have been lost, rarely how many of the enemy they have killed or wounded—but the aggregate number is in the tens of thousands. Even in postmodern wars, there are finite numbers of skilled combatants—and many of them simply did not survive their encounter with American troops.

Althouse on the Obama coverup

…McCain said we had to win the war, he pushed for the surge, the surge worked, and now we will have that victory that he would not give up on. Obama said the war was hopeless, we’d have to accept loss, and the surge would only waste more lives.

More from prof. Althouse in this column that is mainly focused on the meltdown of Joe Klein.

Mr. Obama in Iraq: Did he really find support for his withdrawal plan?

The Washington Post July 23

THE INITIAL MEDIA coverage of Barack Obama’s visit to Iraq suggested that the Democratic candidate found agreement with his plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces on a 16-month timetable. So it seems worthwhile to point out that, by Mr. Obama’s own account, neither U.S. commanders nor Iraq’s principal political leaders actually support his strategy.

…Yet Mr. Obama’s account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is “the central front” for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country’s strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world’s largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama’s antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable.