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May 31, 2006

Enduring bases, and Iraq after troop withdrawals

I can't follow the mass of speculation on the timetable for leaving Iraq, and I don't think anybody else can either. On the one hand we see continuing large-scale coalition involvement, such as the largest air assault since 2003 and the move of 3500 US troops back into Iraq. On the other hand, Nuri al-Maliki is talking about getting troops out of Iraq by the end of this year.

But that doesn't matter so much. The real question is what 'withdrawal' means. It doesn't mean abandoning political control of Iraq - that's something I'll write about more in a couple of days. But even militarily, it's unlikely that all foreign troops will leave the country. More likely, the Americans will retreat further into a few small strongholds, retain bases to enhance their regional power. They will keep some control over the Iraqi military with 'trainers' and 'advisers', and by ensuring that air power and other heavy equipment is kept for the Americans only.

People have been writing about this for some time now. The Iraq Analysis Group has collected some of the more prominent, and Sarah Meyer of GlobalResearch has collated many relevant news reports.

Below the cut, I delve into the 'enduring bases' theory, and swerve dangerously close to conspiracy theories. Please, please take this as me collecting my thoughts, and not as a prediction of what will happen....

The most commonly-predicted pattern sees the Coalition retreating to small, heavily-fortified enclaves, from which they can exert influence over Iraq while remaining relatively safe. This is what most Iraqis believe the US will do; according to a poll early this year, 80% of Iraqis believe that "the US government plans to have permanent bases in Iraq" even after Iraq is stabilized.

This suspicion appears to be confirmed by the Pentagon's plans for 14 "enduring bases" in Iraq. The term 'enduring' seems to have been chosen to avoid the political stigma of discussing 'permanent' bases, but in practice there seems to be little difference. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on building up these bases. Tom Engelhardt writes eloquently about them, "vast spaceships" planted in the middle of Iraq, full of advanced technology and 'geostrategic dreaming'. As Tom argues, the more resources are poured into these bases, the less likely they are to be handed over to an Iraqi government.

From these bases, the Coalition will continue to perform some of what it has been doing in Iraq for the past 3 years. Gone will be the military patrols and the occasional humanitarian work. The coalition will scale back to protecting its own interests: military campaigns against armed insurgent groups,projecting power across the Middle East, controlling the Iraqi security forces through 'trainers' and 'advisers', and possibly protecting parts of the oil infrastructure.

It appears that the military element will be focussed on large-scale air attacks on anti-government forces. It is striking that many of the 'enduring bases' are air bases: Al Asad air base, Balad air base, Tallil air base, among others. The reason for this was best explained by Seymour Hersh in a spectacular article in December's New Yorker. He argues that:

A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower.

This change from infantry to airpower will reduce the number of American casualties, while rendering the Iraqi government dependent on military assistance from the US

As for training, coalition officials admit that some of their officers will remain in Iraq for many years as trainers, working within the Iraqi army, police and security forces. How much power accrues to these advisers will depend on the balance of power within Iraq - namely, how totally the Government of Iraq is dependent on American support.

Then, we move onto an element of the 'enduring bases' strategy which taps into one of the most cherished themes of left-wing commentators: that the Iraq war was about increasing American power in the Middle East. Permanent bases in Iraq would confirm this fear, allowing the American military and air force to operate more easily throughout the region, including threatening Iran. As far as I know this hasn't been discussed by US military or political insiders, but then it would be politically dangerous to openly discuss this. Moreover, using these bases would drastically increase political tension in Iraq - for example, launching an attack on Iran from bases in Iraq would stir up immense anger among Shiite groups.

So, that's a first shot at what military withdrawal could involve, at least if you're of a fairly paranoid mindset. I've not even begun to think through the social and humanitarian implications of it. And then there's the whole political side of things to think through - which I might come back to in a day or two.

Iraq/Afghanistan roundup

Catching up with what the media is saying about Iraq and Afghanistan - yet again, I'm hiding it under a cut.

Nir Rosen (WaPo) has a pessimistic (or just realistic?) account of Iraq. It's one of those rare cases when emotive political journalism totally works:

Over the course of six weeks, I worked with three different drivers; at various times each had to take a day off because a neighbor or relative had been killed. And this quote gets to the heart of it: "it feels as if Iraqis are occupying Iraq"

The San Francisco Chronicle talks about services in Baghdad - water, electricity, rubbish collection. It's bad, but how does it compare to pre-war? And what about the world beyond Baghdad?

Minor political wrangling: attempts to reduce the powers of the speaker.

GoI is panicking about Basra, and Maliki is bragging that he'll use an 'iron fist' to pacify the city. Why has the situation there been hotting up these past few months? People being blamed: the British, the Iranians, the tribes, and the Sadrists. And the accountants; according to this article, Basra's oil 'accounts for virtually all of Iraq's state revenues'.

Iraq's foreign minister takes Iran's side in the nuclear dispute. Good tactics all round, I'd say: obviously plays well with the Shiites, some of the rest might like the idea of sticking a finger up at the US, and while this might piss off American pundits, it won't make them less likely to do what Zeybari wants in Iraq. Remember that half the reason they aren't leaving is that they're worried about Iranian influence.

The Haditha scandal seems boring and insignificant to Iraqis, and why not? Things just as bad are happening every day, and in the end it doesn't matter much who is pulling the trigger.

Flare-up in Afghanistan, as riots develop out of a panicky US reaction to angry locals. The riot is being described as the worst in Kabul since the war. I guess that's a good sign. Interesting that, as in Pakistan, the riot is coming out of a car accident.

Also in Afghanistan, a big US airstrike. As in Iraq, using helicopters rather than ground troops is a Bad Thing in humanitarian terms, although obviously there are sometimes god reas.

Brave writers in the Pakistan Tribune and USA Today tackle unemployment and the finances of the Afghan government, while the Toronto Globe and Mail writes (and writes well) about longer-term security problems:

Since their defeat in 2001, Taliban militants have been allowed to regroup, re-arm and re-exert their influence. Most of the southern countryside is now paralyzed, beyond the influence of Afghanistan's central government, lacking any government services and unable to break the Taliban's stranglehold. Just as it was in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation, the foreign troops control the major cities while the guerrillas control the mountains and villages.

May 30, 2006


Another brain-dump that's mainly for my own benefit. So once again it's going behind a cut.

Pundits have been touting Kirkuk as a flashpoint since long before the 2003 invasion. It's got everything: ethnically-mixed, important within the oil industry, the victim of one of Saddam's attempts at social engineerin, and with the potential to draw Turkey and Iran into a regional conflict if things go badly.

But despite a substantial amount of ongoing violence, Kirkuk hasn't yet exploded into full-scale warfare. It's even possible to hope that it will survive the next decade or so without being torn apart, something which seemed truly unlikely just a few years ago. What happened?

The reasons for expecting nastiness in Kirkuk were pretty sound. The ethnic mix of the city involves Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs and eight Christian sects. This mix would not necessarily lead to conflict, were it not for Saddam Hussein's policy of 'Arabization'. In the early 1990s he attempted to consolidate his control of the region by forcing more than 100,000 Kurds out of Kirkuk, and replacing them with Arab migrants. These Kurds are now returning to what they think of as their city. They intend to remove the recent Arab immigrants, reversing the demographic trend.

If reclaiming your homeland isn't enough, there's also the financial incentive. Oil was first found in Kirkuk in 1927, and proven reserves are currently around 10 billion barrels. Although the main outlet, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, has been reduced to semi-disuse by frequent sabotage, any group controlling Kirkuk's oil will have great political power.


While these tensions have not yet brought Kirkuk to full-blown civil war, there has been a constant stream of killings, now taking place on an almost daily basis. In the past few days the city has seen one person injured by a car bomb, a snper targetting policemen and civilians, the killing of a police officer in one incident and one policeman killed and four injured in another, four Iraqi soldiers killed, the kidnapping of a Turkmen politician's son, and numerous other explosions and attacks.

#Regional Implications

What's worse, any conflict in Kirkuk has the potential to degenerate into a regional war. Turkey has a historical interest in Kirkuk, which was part of that country until the First World War. Occasional nationalist demands to retake Kirkuk are of minor importance, but many Turks feel they should protect the Turkomen residents of Kirkuk, whom they think of as countrymen. More important to Turkey is the perceived threat from any strong Kurdistan with Kirkuk as its capital, which could potentially whip up anti-Turkish sentiment among the many Kurds living in Turkey. Some form of political solution is required to fend off these dangerous possibiliteis.

Kirkuk in Iraqi politics

Potential political solutions do exist, but none are easy or uncontroversial.

The Transitional Administrative Law laid down a process for the future of Kirkuk in Article 58. This article seems to have been included in the final Iraqi constitution, although some of the versions of the constitution circulating on the Internet do not include it.

Article 58 requires the Government of Iraq to remedy Saddam's changes to the demographics of Kirkuk by returning Kurds to their homes, offering Arab residents compensation in return for leaving teh city, and promoting employment opportunities within Kirkuk.

Whether or not this clause is included in Iraq's constitution, it has not been fully implemented. Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been blamed for this, but some Kurds also complain that current president Jalal Talabani has been avoiding the issue. Talabani, a Kurd, might be expected to take a strong line on Kirkuk, but doing so would court controversy and could potentially jeapordize his own position. Similarly the Kurdistani bloc in the Iraqi parliament has been criticized for being 'passive' about Kirkuk.

This is not a case of disagreements over what to do with Kirkuk - Kurdish politicians are all but unanimous in their desire to claim Kirkuk as part of the region of Kurdistan, and most would like to make it the regional capital. It is simply that the realpolitik at a national level makes it hard to force the issue.

At a regional level Kurdish voices are much more dominant, and so they have been able to stretch their political muscles. For example they have pushed for the increased use of the Kurdish language in official contexts, to the chagrin of other politicians with no knowledge of Kurdish languages.

...and there I'll leave it - incomplete and unsatisfying, but I want to go and buy food before the supermarket closes.

May 28, 2006

Police in Iraq

Below the cut is a braindump on what's going on with police forces in Iraq at the moment, and in particular why they are getting such heavy media coverage right now. I've not quite got my head around it, so it's a splurge more than anything coherent.

[not cross-posted to IAG until I can make more sense of it all]

I've noticed a lot of talk recently about Iraq's police and other sub-military forces in Iraq. I can think of several possible reasons for this, but I have no idea which are the most plausible:

  1. Recent developments in Iraq have made the police more of an issue. Either the death squads are becoming a bigger issue, or the communal violence since February has focused attention on the police's role in sectarian violence
  2. The Coalition has decided to promote problems with the police to journalists. Perhaps this as a way of putting pressure on the interior ministry, or simply because they consider it an important issue. The high number of reports on the police coming from embedded reporters makes this a more likely explanation
  3. Some prominent journalist noticed the Iraqi police, and the rest are following like sheep

If it's the third, the likely goat is a Newsweek article noticing that Coalition forces were outnumbered by the 146,000 security guards in a sprawling government agency known as the Facilities Protection Service (FPS). The FPS has been portrayed by some (including then Minister of the Interior Bayan Jabr) as an out-of-control mesh of militias, accused of carrying out sectarian killings. This partly results from its organizational structure: when the American administration created the FPS in September 2003, they designed it to be beyond the control of any ministry.

This is one reason for a recent attempt to consolidate control of all government security forces within the Interior Ministry. A sensible idea – the problem is finding somebody trusted to take charge of the Interior Ministry. Previous abuses there were commonly blamed on the Minister, SCIRI member Bayan Jabr, who was accused of supporting Shiite groups within the Interior Ministry security forces. Now more than ever Iraq's politicians want to avoid any one of their rivals holding all the security cards: they are aware of the possibility of civil war. The result is that Iraq has no interior minister: Nouri al-Maliki could form his cabinet only by leaving that post vacant.

Iraq's police force has become embroiled in, and tarnished by, the sectarian violence that has been increasing since the Samarra mosque bombing of February 2006. Shockingly, many communities are now more afraid of the police than they are of American soldiers. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on a common view among Sunni communities in Baghdad: Sunnis say militias affiliated with Shiite political parties have infiltrated the police and are using their status to kidnap, torture and kill Sunni civilians. Shiite officials have denied the accusations. American troops are forced to tread a fine line in their relations with the police. Indeed it may well prove impossible for them to retain good relations with the Interior Ministry while pursuing their other objectives. In November 2005, the Coalition challenged the Ministry by raiding one of its prisons in the Jadriyah region of Baghdad. They found that many of the detainees had been maltreated or tortured, and publicized this revelation in a way very hostile to the Ministry. Perhaps in retaliation, the Interior Ministry has refused to employ policemen trained by the US and UK. This has all but invalidated the CPATT, or Civilian Police Assistance Training Team. The Interior Ministry defends this position on the grounds that “they have no control over the CPATT's selection process”.

May 23, 2006

The Washington Post tries to be snarky about Bush's language:

Bush has declared turning points and milestones in the war before. He called it "an important milestone" when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003 and "a turning point" when sovereignty was turned over to the interim government in June 2004. Elections in January 2005, he said, were both "a turning point in the history of Iraq" and "a milestone in the advance of freedom." He called it a "milestone" in October when Iraqi voters approved a constitution and "a major milestone" two months later when they elected a parliament -- a moment he also termed "a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom." The selection of a prime minister last month was "an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq" and, a week later, "a turning point for the Iraqi citizens."

The thing is, these really are milestones; they're some of the biggest dots you'd put on a timeline of Iraq. So

Bush 1 -- 0 WaPo

In more important news, I've just discovered Spurl, and started using it to keep track of articles on Iraq. I'm feeling pretty upbeat about my chances of using it to make a lot more sense out of what's going on in the country these days. But, as always, time will tell...

May 18, 2006

Pontificating on the Russian Soul (almost)

This post almost nails something about Russia:

"The fetishization of actual freedom [pop culture]...has allowed for the restriction of formal [political] freedom"

Almost, but not quite. There has never been either actual/economic/pop-culture freedom or political freedom in Russia, during or after the USSR. The difference is what gets fetishized or dreamt about most.

In the Bad Old Days (tm) there was relative prosperity (everything is relative), no political freedom, but an idolization political freedom. Now there is relative political freedom, economic collapse, and dreams of consumer culture.

[all this brought to you by the talking-out-of-my-ass department: obviously I don't have any real knowledge here]

May 9, 2006

Channel 4 does Iraq

Channel 4 yesterday had two documentaries on Iraq - both with good aspects, but both quite seriously flawed.

The first was devoted to Dispatches: women in Iraq. It's quite poorly edited and planned for a mainstream documentary like Dispatches, the same footage keeps on cropping up multiple times, and there are some dubious-sounding statistics. Despite that, it's good to see footage of Iraq from beyond the usual 'violence and high politics' perspective, and having programmes made by Iraqis rather than Brits is a Good Thing.

Then a couple of hours later we had John Snow in "the real Iraq", talking about why documentaries like that one are made by Iraqis - or rather, about how impossible it is for Western journalists to get enough access to interact with the real Iraq. He's right, and it's a useful thing to drum on about. But it all falls down because his perspective is not "why the world can't know about Iraq" but "why Jon Snow can't know about Iraq".

It doesn't do the rest of us any harm at all to be forced to rely on Iraqi journalists and bloggers, and to ignore Western reporters for anything except high politics.

He did at least make a very good point about the lack of nuanced understanding of Iraqi current affairs, in what could almost be a mission statement for the Iraq Analysis Group:

"What we have in iraq as a result of bloggers, fledgling journalists, new media of all sorts, is a kind of scattergun effect - we have a a little bit of knowledge about different bits and pieces. What there is very little of, partly because there is so little western media here, is any real analysis or interpretation of events that we can relate to"

Bridge-city of Zeugma

Zeugma is such a fantastic name for a city; I'm disappointed not to have run into this one before. Ho-hum, yet another mostly-ignored corner of the ancient world then.

Also, the BBC finds underground pyramids in Bosnia, including one with a 2.4-mile-long underground tunnel. That's pretty huge, no?