Impressions from Iraq: Part One

This is my third trip to Iraq since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. I will be part of an official group that will assess the current situation. The group is composed of current and former government officials and some outside experts (Unfortunately, because this is an official trip, I am limited as to what I can write about). We arrived on October 11, 2009 and will remain in the country until October 25.

My first trip was in November 2003, the second in April 2007. The first trip was sponsored by the Department of Defense for the purpose of informing “opinion leaders” of the progress of the war and the second as part of a two-person team to assess the capacity of the Iraqi government to carry out its administrative functions. As a result of my first trip, I realized that the Bush administration had badly miscalculated how many troops were needed to secure Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and did not realize that its policies were empowering the insurgency. I saw no progress and a situation that was already spiraling out of control—something that neither the administration nor most of the leaders in Iraq grasped.

On my second trip, it became clear to me that the U.S. military was paying a heavy price to try to stem the communal violence that started sweeping the country in 2005 (2007 was the deadliest year for American troops). And even though American troops could diminish the violence—mostly by making deals with the Sunni insurgents and erecting blast walls to separate the Sunni and Shiite neighbors in the major cities—the Iraq government had neither the capacity nor the will to make the political compromises necessary to unite the country.

My colleagues at the Center for American Progress and I have been arguing for several years that the best hope for creating a stable Iraq and enhancing our ability to deal with the critical threats to our security—particularly in Afghanistan—was to set a specific date for withdrawal of U.S. forces. Although we were severely criticized by the Bush administration and its acolytes for “cutting and running,” we were vindicated when President George W. Bush, in November 2008, signed the security agreement that was part of the Status of Forces Agreement. The SOFA stipulated that all American troops would withdraw from the Iraqi cities to their bases by June 30, 2009 and not conduct independent military operations after that date. The United States also agreed to leave the country completely by the end of 2011.

After his election, President Barack Obama began implementing the strategic agreement and began to fulfill his campaign promise by agreeing to withdraw all combat troops by August 31, 2010 and all remaining troops by the end of 2011.

For this trip to Iraq we came by way of Ali Al Salem Air Force Base in Kuwait, where I spent about 24 hours. A KC-130 took us to Camp Victory where we boarded a helicopter for the trip to the Green Zone, the same way I did on my first trip. Interestingly, we had to wear body armor and a helmet, something we did not do on my first trip.

Based on my first two days in the country, which have been spent at the chancery—an office of the embassy—I have several impressions:

  • Our embassy compound is like a prosperous small city and the chancery is much more luxurious than the State Department building.
  • Setting specific dates to leave the cities and the country undermined the ability of several of the groups of violent extremists to get support from the people, something myself and Brian Katulis pointed out in CAP’s report Strategic Redeployment.
  • Defense and civilian personnel are working well together at the operational or tactical level.
  • As we draw down, the rules and regulations are increasingly in inverse proportion—trying to get on the Internet or make a phone call is much more difficult than two or six years ago.
  • Not surprisingly, the draw down is going well. As always, logistics is our military’s strong suit, something we pointed out in How to Redeploy.
  • The troops worry that given the attention of Afghanistan, Iraq has become the forgotten front in terms of money, talent, and attention.
  • While violence is down, Iraq is still dangerous. In August, there were still 20 attacks per day.
  • Many more people are involved in briefings than six years ago. In 2003, when we met with Ambassador L. Paul Bremmer and the generals commanding the divisions, three people would be accompanied by two or three aides. At our first meeting there were 75 people accompanying the leaders.
  • The briefings themselves are overwhelming—hundreds of Power Point slides per day by multiple briefers makes it easy to miss the forest for the trees.
  • Too many officers still rationalize the Iraqis’ insistence on an end date for the American military presence as a mere political ploy rather than the desire of the Iraqi people.

I plan on writing additional commentary in the coming days as my schedule allows.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

More from CAP on Iraq: