Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Promising signs from Iraq

A special 4th of July correspondence from Phil O'Connor, who says that despite the gloomy coverage in the news, things are looking up in Iraq. He notes the Iraqi Parliament may soon approve a law governing the oil industry, making it a more productive body than the current U.S. Congress. Phil is a former political advisor in Illinois who took a leave from his post at an energy firm to help the U.S. State Department and Army Corps of Engineers as a advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

I am past due for a communiqué from Baghdad. My excuse is that I wanted to wait until General Petraeus said that half of all Baghdad neighborhoods are now under control as a result of the "surge." And so he has, just in time for the 4th of July.

I cite the definition of cognitive dissonance above because Iraq has a way of bringing deeply help beliefs in to conflict with empirical data. More to the point, Iraq has a way of confronting one with information that is subject to fundamentally different interpretations.

We get all the same news here that we would at home, thanks to newspapers and streaming on the Internet, Stars & Stripes, Armed Forces Network and BBC World Service. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance here since much of the commentary we hear form home about the meaning of information from Iraq conflicts the interpretations that one tends to find here.

For example, the 126 U.S. military fatalities (the third highest monthly tally so far) were taken by many as proof that the surge was failing and that we are losing. Also cited as evidence of a losing battle were the 1800 Iraqi civilian and 200 Iraqi security forces fatalities. On the other hand, counter-insurgency theory (and this is a counter-insurgency) tells us that this is precisely what was to be expected as our side began to seek out and engage the enemy and as the enemy fought back as it lost control of the initiative. So which is it?

In June, U.S. fatalities stood at 101 and Iraqi civilian deaths fell to 1150 and security deaths totaled just under 200. If rising casualties meant we were losing in May, do declining casualties in June mean that we are winning? I have noticed in the media coverage that the June data are being rolled into the past two months so that the unit of analysis is the "quarter," allowing the observation that the past quarter was one of the worst so far. The problem with all of this is not only that the information is open to different interpretation, but that one or three months is simply not long enough to figure out which direction a counter-insurgency effort is going.

So let me add my few bits of information, all of which is likely subject to multiple interpretations.

- Remember Al Anbar province? That's the area west of Baghdad and was known as the deadliest area of Iraq. No more. The Sunni tribes in Anbar have turned on al Qaeda which had found refuge there. The tribes figured out that al Qaeda was a bigger threat to tribal traditions and a decent life than we are. During a meeting at the Embassy with a Navy Commander serving as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) member working Anbar, we had to briefly move into a hallway after an alarm went off suggesting that a projectile of some sort might be coming in our general direction. He remarked that he was not too crazy about these alarms and was ready to get back to Anbar since things were pretty quiet there. Bottom line is that a place that was regarded as "lost" is now moving toward security and stability.

- When I first got to Baghdad in mid-March our morning security briefings usually included an item that 40-60 bodies had been found around Baghdad the day before. These would often be sectarian murders of Sunnis by Shia or vice versa. As more Baghdad neighborhoods are being secured that number each morning has fallen to 15-20.

- Downtown Baghdad has been fairly quiet with a whole month having gone by with no incidents on one of the major routes used by Coalition people to visit some of the ministries.

- While we see the news reports of a rocket and mortar attacks on the IZ, the take on them here is different than the tone I sense in the coverage. The attacks in no way interfere with the mission and the work here. There may be some inconvenience but if you happen to spend any time in a bunker waiting for the all-clear, impromptu stand-up comedy passes the time quickly.

- The finding of weapons caches, bomb factories and al Qaeda jails & torture chambers is way up. These types of discoveries occur only when local people feel fed up enough or secure enough to tip off the authorities. And the recent offensive in Diyala province east of Baghdad dislodged al Qaeda there. Let's hope they are kept out.

- The Iraqi Cabinet has approved a new law to govern the oil industry here and moved it up to debate in the Parliament. Passage will be a very big deal since it will embody an agreement on the sharing of almost all government revenues. There really are no taxes here and oil money pays for all government activity which covers most every nook and cranny of Iraqi life. We may see an Iraqi Parliament that is more capable of passing important legislation than is our own Congress.

- And we are not alone here helping the Iraqis. I have seen military, civilian contractors and private security people here from Australia, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Georgia, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa and, of course, UK. There are a lot of Iraqi-Americans here too.

I do not know if any of these are straws in the wind and suggest longer term improvements. There is a very long way to go. However, virtually everything that we see here right now is consistent with established counter-insurgency theory. It is a day-by-day thing. There will not be some big decisive battle or moment.

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