Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More on Relative Progress

Libby had a good post yesterday riffing on what relative progress means in Iraq, and I want to follow up some more on it as there has been a pattern of lulls and valleys in violence and then a resurgence before. Some of those lulls have been seasonal when it is too damn hot too fight, some political, some military, and some inexplicable for any single causal factor to have significant explanatory power. Hopefully the recent downward trend in violence continues AND a political agreement(s) can be hammered out, but there are a couple of points we need to remember.

First, Joe Klein at the Swampland refreshes our historical memory a little bit and echoes an argument that Cernig and I have made numerous times:
The New York Times reports real progress in Iraq over the past few months. But 575 attacks a week averages out to better than 80 attacks a day. Back in 2005, when I was first contacted by intelligence officers who were disgusted with the Bush Administration's handling of the war, they cited the level of violence--80 attacks a day!--as evidence that things had spun totally out of control.
The Brooking's Iraq Index published for October 1, 2007 has the following chart on p.7, and I added the red line to indicate roughly where the current level of weekly attacks are today.

Remember, Iraq was a failing state due to targeted violence against key system nodes and highly skilled people by the fall of 2003 when the attack levels were around 30 attacks per day. The political-military situation fell apart after the April 2004 Fallujah campaign when attack levels were around 50 per day. As I noted previously, we probably would need to see 90% to 95% reduction in attacks per day for something resembling sustainable stability to start appearing.

Furthermore as Eric noted earlier this afternoon, MNF-I is noting the Newshogger hypothesis on the impact and political poll of Sadr and his supporters is correct ---he is the heavy player with a reasonably disciplined militia at this time who is playing multiple level games quite well.
U.S. commanders say that the Mahdi Army's quiescence is a significant factor behind the recent drop in attacks in Baghdad—by a third compared with six months ago, according to one estimate.
Back of the envelope math suggests that the Mahdi Army or at least the factions that are under fairly good discipline were responsible for up to 50 to 60 attacks per day, although the phrasing of this sentence could lead to a more plausible 30 to 40 attacks per day. So Sadr's ability to control the Mahdi Army is responsible for at least 40% of the drop in attacks. As Eric noted, the Mahdi Army has improved in quality and performance over the past four years, as the British now believe that the Basra contingent would wipe the floor with its main opponent; the Badr Organization which is the primary US ally in the Iraqi government.

Finally, I want to grab a good post from Dr. Taylor at Poliblogger that is covering the same ground as I am today:
The fact that violence levels are back to where they were in early 2006 isn’t exactly victory–as in early 2006 it was hardly the case that a) there was a functioning, stable state in place and, b) we were preparing to withdraw with a pat on the back and the assurance of a job well done. As best as I can remember in early 2006 we were still looking at a long stay in Iraq, and I can’t see that anything has changed in that regard at the moment, even if violence has receded....

A main issue that remains unresolved is whether the current downturn in violence isn’t simply the result of successful ethnic cleansing of specific neighborhoods and the forced segregation of Sunnis from Shi’ites.

Ultimately, the real question is whether we are closer to a viable Iraqi state, and it does not appear that we are. The Surge was designed not to quell violence for the sake of quelling violence, but to give political leaders in Iraq the time to forge a political consensus going forward, yet it is unclear that that has been achieved.
If we are back to January 2006, then the surge has failed. A positive read could be drawn in that the increased complexity and violence unleashed by the systemsphunkt of the Samarra Mosque attack forced the insurgencies to increase their scales of complexity to a level that the US is more familiar and comfortable targeting. John Robb notes that the formation of larger units and organizations as well as crosscutting organizational fronts created centers of gravity that could be destroyed or co-opted. So that is one reed of hope but I think it is a thin one as the initial ethnic cleansing campaign has been completed in Baghdad and groups can shrink and still effectively operate at levels beneath the US level of competence to squash or co-opt.

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