Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Insider's View of Evolving Events in Iraq and Iran's Proxy War

Col. H.R. McMaster has had several combat tours in Iraq and has served during the past year as a senior advisor to General David Petraeus. He is also a scholar and an author. He was recently asked to speak at an AEI Conference about how the situation in Iraq has evolved. He identifies ten "fundamental changes" on the ground in Iraq over the past year. He also spent a lot of time discussing the Iran's extensive involvement in a proxy war in Iraq, how Iran has been using violence and assassination to extend its hold on Iraq, and how militias and Iranian influence are being rejected by the populace.


The speech by Col McMaster is long and there is an extensive question and answer session at the end. Below is a summary of his speech including key quotes. I have included some of the questions and answers at the end of the summary. You can find the full transcript of the event here. And I would like to thank Linda Drinkwine of AEI for notifying me when this posted. This from Col. McMaster:

Iraq has changed on a fundamental level over the past year in a way that is “consistent with our interests, . . . [and] consistent with the interests of the Iraqi people as well.” Our fight in Iraq has been against two prominent enemies, al Qaeda and Iran. The former allied itself with elements of the Baathist regime, but is now near defeated. The latter's involvement in Iraq is extensive and has been through support for militias. Specifically, these include “Jaysh al-Mahdi, special group elements of Jaysh al-Mahdi, elements of the Bader Organization Corps and other groups that Iran has backed.” Iran’s goal has been to keep Iraq’s government “very weak” and to extend their influence over the country. That said, one of the fundamental changes over the past year has been:

. . . that the true intentions of Iran had been exposed and are more easily understood not just by us but also by the Iraqi people as really offensive in nature and really trying to keep Iraq deliberately weak so they have a weakened dependent government that has to look to [Iran] for support while at the same time [Iran] creates organizations external to the government, political movements and especially militias, that can be turned against the government they ostensibly support, the Iranians ostensibly support, if the Iraqi government turns hostile to their interests.

The counterinsurgency plan of the past year has included far more than simply “security actions.” Other critical actions have been aimed at building the Iraqi government’s institutional capacity in areas of “economic development, rule of law, security sector reform and really influencing not only key actors within Iraq but broadly throughout the region, to reinforce a movement toward political accommodation and ending the violence.”

Ten things of critical importance have taken place within Iraq over the past year:

1. Security: In terms of the security efforts, “Iraq’s communities have largely stopped shooting at each other.” That achievement belongs not just to U.S. forces, but also to “very courageous and determined Iraqi security forces who took extraordinary risk to make that happen.”

2. Political Accommodation: With the end of internal fighting, people have begun talking and “there has been some real bottom up movement toward political accommodation . . .” Moreover, the grass roots accommodation at the local level successfully placed pressure on the Iraqi government to follow suit. What we are seeing now is “top down movement toward political accommodation. . . .

3. "Hope:" Improvements in security and actions taken towards political accommodation have led to what Col. McMaster characterizes as “a rekindling of hope.” A year ago, Iraq was descending into chaos and on the cusp of a civil war. The big step away from that brink has led to a point where Iraqi’s of all sects and backgrounds are more concerned with “cross cutting issues” such as delivery of basic services, employment and making a “better life for their children.

4. “Al-Qaeda is on its way to defeat:” This is big in and of itself, but it has had huge second and third order ripple effects. The biggest has been “reducing the justification for militias.” As Col McMaster explains:

And I think it has been the effectiveness of operations against Al-Qaeda which has allowed the Iraqi government to have the kind of support it needs in going after the militia problem. Because militias can no longer say I’m a protector of your community. You put up with my thuggery or else there’ll be mass murder attacks in the marketplace tomorrow. That justification has been removed and now the militias are something that can be put on the agenda of the Iraqi government. We can work together to extend the government’s writ into these areas that have been controlled by militias.

And so what this has is it has the effect together – the effect against Al-Qaeda and the militias – of lifting the pall of fear off of these communities. Once you lift the pall of fear off of communities, they are no longer intimidated, coerced by either Al-Qaeda or militia. You have a great deal of freedom of action in other areas. You can begin to move toward political accommodation because you know somebody who is an extremist who controlled your community will not cut your throat if you say publicly I think we ought to reconcile with the tribe down the street.

It also allows people to become participants in their own security and in civil society and in Iraqi security forces. One of the things I think is often overlooked is that Iraqi security forces became unbalanced during this period of accelerating sectarian violence. One of the reasons was the lack of security in the Sunni Arab communities, where people, if they had joined the police, if they had joined the Army, not only would they have been killed but their families would have been killed by Al-Qaeda who controlled these areas. So this improvement of security also has the sort of second and third order effect on security sector reform, rebalancing the security forces. . . .

5. Rejection of Shia Militias: With improved security and their justifications for control no longer extant, Shia militias are being rejected by the communities in which they were operating.

6. Exposure of Iranian Activities and Their Proxy War: The focus on Shia militias has exposed the extent of Iranian activities in Iraq and the goals of those activities. As Col McMaster explains:

When I traveled through the south on a last couple of visits, what I heard – and this is again on the point of militias being increasingly discredited, and this is from Iraqi Shiite leaders who were saying things like Iran is the true occupier of Iraq. They would say jokingly that the Iranians are now all Iraqi nationalists, which is a thinly-veiled swipe at some of the militias in some of these areas.

And so whereas before about a year ago, you wouldn’t really hear Iraqi leaders, especially in these areas in the south, offering criticism of Iran and the parties and communities within Iraq who were playing host to Iranian influence but you hear that almost all the time now among Shiite Arab leaders. And also a connection to Iran, and this again affects the militias, is becoming a liability much like being connected to Al-Qaeda was a liability for so-called resistance movements in the Sunni Arab community. These are again changes that I’ve seen in the last year.

The contradictions of Iranian policies I’ve mentioned at the beginning have been exposed and Iraqis have to deal with them now. They have to deal with them again partly because of that pressure on the political parties, who are embarrassed by the connections to Iran and what Iran is doing. So the sixth thing is, no big surprise, the exposure of Iranian activity and Iran’s true intentions. There are some people in this room who have been way ahead on that and I think we’ve been way ahead on it but of course I think we recognize the fact, our government, our military, that the key thing is to work with Iraqis on this problem and here you have effort between us and Iraq leaders is critical to addressing the destabilizing actions and influence of Iran in Iraq.

7. Trust In U.S. Intentions: U.S. intentions are much more clear to Iraqis. The strategy of the surge and its effectiveness have engendered much greater trust of U.S. forces among the Iraqis.

8. Iraqis Taking Responsibility: Iraqis are taking much greater responsibility for their government and working hard to improve services, provide the conditions for economic growth and to address the employment issue. This is a real effort being made to reform the various Ministries and vastly improve their performance.

9. An Embrace Of Politics As An Alternative To Dispute Resolution By The Gun: Iraqis have embraced politics as a means to improve their lot and settle their differences. Deals are being made, and fighting against the political process means that you get left out of the deals. Also, making deals that are win-win instead of zero sum has never been a part of Iraq’s culture, but they seem to be catching on pretty quickly.

10. Greatly Improved and Expanded Iraqi Security Forces: Iraqi security forces continue to reform and expand and take an ever larger share of the load.

That concluded Col McMaster’s formal remarks. He also engaged in a lengthy question and answer session. I have included some of the more interesting remarks and exchanges below:

H.R. McMaster: . . . The war in Iraq doesn’t end if we leave prematurely. It gets worse. I think we’ve got a glimpse of that before

. . . The best pressure on Iraq in terms of leverage to put on them for reform is going to come from Iraqis themselves. Now, what you see is you see that happening already. Who really were desperate to get rid of the militias in Basra? The people were. And who were they calling on their cell phones everyday? The people within the Iraqi government, Iraqi security forces to do something about the problems in their neighborhoods.

So one of the key things I think that will be important to watch over this year is the development of newly elected provincial governments and how that helps increase social pressure on the Iraqi government at the center to provide better services for those provincial governments. We’ve also seen that work very in places like Anbar, where there was improved security, a functioning provincial government that then lobbied successfully its own government to get the resources it needed to begin the capital spending and improve basic services, improve the lives of their people. So that could be something we could facilitate more, it’s that kind of pressure from Iraq’s own people toward political accommodation.

. . . Demetri Sevastopulo: Hi, Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times. Could you give us a little bit more detail on what you think Iran is actually doing in Iraq. Because when you talk to senior military leaders in Washington, they say it’s very difficult to know if it’s increased or decreased. They say it’s not clear whether Basra is just exposed with everything already or whether they are doing more than they were a year ago. And we get very little evidence. So what have you actually seen?

H.R. McMaster: Well, I think it’s pretty clear. I mean, the evidence is really, you know, every time I see and I see a lot of my friends in the press room, you know I love it, I would never criticize the media. But this sometimes happens in the media when you see the word “alleged” in front of when you know in line of Iranian activity, I was just want to say, come on, man. Because you know if I was, as an Army Colonel to say something, to make a statement about that, there would always be some sort of effort to confirm what I’m saying.

In the case of what Iran is doing in Iraq, it is so damn obvious to anybody who wants to look into it, I think, that is drop the word “alleged” and say what they’re doing, which is, we know for a fact organizing and directing operations against the government of Iraq and against our forces – the government of Iraq forces and our forces – we know they have done that, certainly in the past. We know that they are supplying them with weapons and the most effective weapons that they used to attack the Iraqi people and our forces and these include the long-range high payload rockets that have been coming in from Iraq as well as the explosively formed projectile roadside bombs that come from Iran.

We know that they have trained forces in the employment of these munitions - and in pretty large numbers. We know that they were concerned that their maligned hand being obvious in Iraq would alienate their Arab neighbors so they try Arabize these efforts by using Lebanese Hezbollah for a lot of the training but it’s a pretty cosmetic shift that they’ve made in some portions of the training.

We know for a fact that they have directed assassination operations. They have a reputation of being some of the best assassins in the world. They’ve trained Iraqis to do that. They’ve trained them in skills not only for roadside bombs and in long-range rockets but also in snipers and other skills used to intimidate or kill individuals. And we know that they have been sort of backing all horses to destabilize the situation and we know that their support is continued to key Badr officials who are in influential positions who remain on the payroll of Iran and to advance the interests of Iran and, in some cases, to provide leadership for other militia organizations that are stood up.

We know that they ostensibly have supported this government but have armed, equipped and trained a militia that has been attacking the very government they ostensibly support. And this is not just something in Basra, this is last year. This is in Nasariyah, this is Samwa, this is in Diwaniyahm, this is in Amarah and it was in Karbala in August 26th and 27th of last year. And now again in Basra.

So I think it’s very obvious. Now on this specific question you have - has it increased or has it decreased? I think it’s very clear that what Iran has done over the last year is try to develop a considerable latent capability that it could turn on in short notice. And I think that it may have been that this bold and very quick action by the Prime Minister in Basra foiled what was to be perhaps a much larger and coordinated effort, maybe even coordinated with efforts in other places in the region, like what we’re seen happening right now in Lebanon.

So, anyway, I think it’s very obvious what they’re doing. I think it’s very obvious to Iraqis, it certainly is. The Iraqis I’ve spoken to are incensed about it and I think it’s no longer alleged. Yes?

Demetri Sevastopulo: If it’s been going on for so long, why is it you said earlier that the Iraqis are only recently starting to talk about Iranian involvement? Why did it not bother them before?

H.R. McMaster: Now, that’s a great point. Part of the reason is the intimidation factor. We know that Iran had really been able to establish a pretty high degree of control over some key officials, you know, provided them protection. And then also some assassination cells and elements of militia that would kill anybody who made a statement against Iranian interests. So what I think what has happened is Iran has so blatantly undermined the security situation and it’s so clear now that they want to keep Iraq as a weak, failing state, is what they would like I think, dependent on them for support that many more Iraqis now are disavowing connections to Iran and providing more space, more physical space in terms of intimidation. There’s more sort of a political space to address this issue than there had been previously.

And then also, if you remember Iran was a big supporter of the militias which before and this goes back to the effective operations against Al-Qaeda and the importance of it, those militias were justified in large measure because of the perception that they were protectors against these Takfirists and Salafi jihadistss who play with Al-Qaeda, and the Baathists, the former regime. So all these, what Iran could do was raise the specter of terrorist attacks against Shiite communities as a justification for its support in nefarious activities. Now, the contradiction of what they’ve been doing is much more obvious to many more people than it had been previously.

Kimberly Kagan: I actually would just like to follow up that for a moment because at The Institute for the Study of War we’ve been tracking Iranian influence in Iraq through open sources since this time last year if not before. And I do just want to point you to some references where you can find fully documented reports on what the Iranians had been doing in Iraq and you can make your own conclusions about their efforts. They’re on our website, http://www.understandingwar.org/ and you can find them in our Iraq Report 6: Iran’s Proxy War. You can find them in some of the recent materials that Marisa Cochrane, our research coordinator, has produced on Special Groups activity in Northeast Baghdad.

In fact, she had tracked at the beginning of this year an uptick in Special Groups activity in Northeast Baghdad in part by the bringing in of weapons caches and their discovery and in part by the activities of their network and it seemed to us, at ISW, that that was perhaps a sign that Iran and Special Groups intended to escalate later in the year. And that these actions that we’ve taken both in Northeast Baghdad, Sadr City and down in Basra were, in fact, a response to an escalation on the part of the Iranians. So, I refer you to our website for that issue.

. . . Mark Lavin: Great. Thank you, sir. Brave Rifles by the way. My name is Mark Lavin. I’m a Congressional fellow working on the House Oversight on Government Reform Minority Staff. The question I have for you, sir, was the two organizations are actors in Iraq as our adversaries. How do we define their centers of gravity but also how do we define for them that golden bridge that they can cross over and how do they define our center of gravity?

H.R. McMaster: . . . Our center of gravity, I mean popular support obviously in a counter-insurgency type of environment and what they’re trying to do is gain some degree of popular support sponsorship among the communities in which they operate. They need some kind of freedom of movement and they need safe haven and support bases. These are you might call decisive points for this particular enemy.

I think for some of them it’s critical that they retain some degree of external support for their operations. For example, Al-Qaeda still needs to tap into the so-called foreign fighter terrorist supply network though Syria. They also need to be able to access some of the considerable funds available in the external regime of Saddam Hussein in Damascus and in Amman, Jordan, UAE and other places to continue finance the effort for those who are operating under Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri and Muhammad Youssef Ahmed’s wings of the former Baathist regime but are still funding Al-Qaeda activities as an example. So those are three things. Any extra support, safe havens, support basis and freedom of movement being one. And then, any kind of support from the population.

The golden bridge is political participation, you know. If you want to participate in the future of this country in a way that allows you to represent the interests of your community in the political process, that door is open. There are provincial elections coming up. Also many of these factions, for example if you look at the Office of the Martyr Sadr representation, the Council of Representatives, they are represented within the government. They do have representation within the city government of Baghdad and the provincial government. They control resources that they could use if they chose to do so to actually improve the lives of people rather than to focus on a militia type of approach to advancing their interests, which is obviously utterly failing to improve the lives of their people.

. . . Stanley Kober: Stanley Kober with the Cato Institute. Back to Iran, you said there’s a process of escalation. Escalation sometimes leads to outright war. What if that were to occur? How would that affect the situation?

. . . H.R. McMaster: I would just point out a sort of ironic -or paradoxical situation I guess would be a better word choice - Iran says that what it’s trying to do in terms of supporting violence in Iraqi is to avoid a confrontation with the United States yet these actions obviously put it on a collision course. So I think it’s clear that it’s in nobody’s interest for there to be a expanding conflict, a regional conflict, leaders have made that very clear and so I think, you know, that’s all I can really say about it.

I mean, obviously it we are not doing anything to inspire Iran providing militias with ammunitions that attack Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and our forces. So it’s a, obviously this is a clear choice that someone within that Iranian military and political hierarchy has decided to do.

. . . Yochi Dreazen: Hi, Yochi Dreazen from The Wall Street Journal. One of the other factors that brought violence down obviously in the last year or two years is that mixed communities have become homogenous, so places where you have seemliness between sects, where that could have been a source of friction, they have now separated themselves out further. I’m curious, do you think the new normalcy is that you have homogenized communities, provincial elections perhaps even reify that further. Or do you think that you begin to see these communities reintegrate themselves? And if the latter, what do you think are the possible sources of friction and difficulty as that process unfolds?

Nancy Youssef: I’m Nancy Youssef from the MacLatchy Newspapers. I have a question for you about the current Sadr City offensive. Where does that offensive ,which was pushed by Nouri al-Malaki, fit into this broacher idea of reconciliation and improvement in the security situation and what are some of the risks in executing it given that so much of the violence that we’ve come to know in Iraq has been spurred by outbreaks of violence in Sadr City?

H.R. McMaster: I’ll take a quick crack at these two. First of all, that is the reason why some of the violence has decreased along some of these fault lines within Baghdad. Doug Altman would know even more about this in terms of several months ago how some of these communities began to reintegrate. And I’ve just been reading a lot of the press accounts of Sadiyah, for example, as being one of the neighborhoods where people are coming back together. I think it has to be for it to success.

It can’t be sort of these homogenized pockets because as you know, Iraq is kind of a crazy quilt of ethnicities and religious sects. You know there is a high degree of intermarriage within tribes, for example. And really the key factor that pitted these communities against each other were not just their ethnic or their sectarian identity, it was extremists who were able to operate with relative impunity within these areas to pit these communities against each other through violence and then citing reprisals that led to a kind of a cycle of destructive violence.

So what are the points of friction as they get reintegrated. A lot of it had to do with property claims and whose house is whose. My limited experience has been that Iraqis sort that out better than anybody. I mean, they can figure out by getting, you know, the Muktars, the Sheikhs together, how to broker this but the conditions had to be set security-wise first, which is the biggest obstacle to overcome. And that really is that you have security forces in place that are trusted by both communities.

And there is a certain degree of redundancy there within those security forces or checks maybe between local police forces and Iraqi army forces which may not be directly from those communities and also the back up effect of a Iraqi backing up for these such that the forces that are now securing these communities and people move back in, not only have the strength to deal with current threat but where we’re operating right next to them, but also can deal with intensified enemy actions that are almost certain to come as we reduce our effort and as the communities begin to move back in together.

The other key thing is to bring community leaders together and create some kind of mediating mechanism or forum for them to meet with on a regular basis to talk about their grievances and stress these cross cutting issues to get them off the ethno-sectarian narrative.

Another key thing to do to make it more permanent is to, as we’re talking about earlier, get the Iraqi government should be able to provide the basic services on a nonsectarian basis. And then when people have certain needs, the communities would fall in on themselves, they won’t go to the Imam or the Sheik, they’ll be able to go to their government who is providing security and services for all the communities in a particular neighborhood or district or something at the provincial level. So those are just some quick thoughts on that.

On the Sadr offensive I wish I could comment authoritatively on it but I’m just reading the reporting myself. It’s been in the press since I left and immediately since I left on the first of May so it’s kind of dated almost by now. But I do know that there was a dual effort, a military and security effort as well as a political effort led by the Prime Minister’s office. And there had been a great deal of response to that political effort in the form of, you know, sheiks and community leaders from Sadr city in particular, coming to meet with the Prime Minister, meeting with Iraqi security forces on the group to try to come to some kind of an agreement that would allow the government to establish control in an area that had become a safe heaven and support base for actions directed against the government of Iraq.

And so, the key thing I think would be to extend the writ of the Iraqi government, not just security but also services and capital spending and all the things that Sadr City needs desperately, health care, to Sadr City in a way that has not been possible before based on the capture of that ground by these criminal gangs in that neighborhood. . . .

1 comment:

Belisarius said...

You always seem to find the best stuff. Thanks!