The difference between a broken clock and the NYT agenda journalism on Iraq over the past five years has been that the broken clock has been accurate at least twice a day. That said, the quality of the NYT Iraq reporting has just met with a sudden and amazing improvement. For the first time in the past five years, the NYT manages to get two major points right about Iraq in the same article. The NYT hits the nail on the head at the beginning of their article Saturday, "Big Gains for Iraq Security, but Questions Linger:"
Violence in all of Iraq is the lowest since March 2004. The two largest cities, Baghdad and Basra, are calmer than they have been for years. The third largest, Mosul, is in the midst of a major security operation. On Thursday, Iraqi forces swept unopposed through the southern city of Amara, which has been controlled by Shiite militias. There is a sense that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government has more political traction than any of its predecessors.
And at the conclusion of their article, the NYT finishes by hitting the nail on the head a second time, discussing that the security gains are fragile and Iraq needs U.S. forces for protection against internal and external foes if it is to survive (the foes go unnamed, as apparently acknowledging the Iranian's acts of war is still a bit too much reality for NYT to take on at the moment).
This from the NYT, following the lead paragraph quoted above:
For Hatem al-Bachary, a Basra businessman, the turnabout has been “a miracle,” the first tentative signs of a normal life.
“I don’t think the militias have disappeared, and maybe there are sleeper cells which will try to revive themselves again,” he said. “But the first time they try to come back they will have to show themselves, and the government, army and police are doing very well.”
While the increase in American troops and their support behind the scenes in the recent operations has helped tamp down the violence, there are signs that both the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government are making strides. There are simply more Iraqi troops for the government to deploy, partly because fewer are needed to fight the Sunni insurgents, who have defected to the Sunni Awakening movement. They are paid to keep the peace.
Pehaps the least covered aspect of the Iraq War has been the surge in Iraqi forces, both in numbers and training. We have heard of a few Iraqi units that have faded under fire, but given that we are building Iraqi forces from scratch, the degree at which they are progressing is heartening indeed. This is not just picking up the pieces of the old Soviet model, top down military that Iraq had under Sadaam. The U.S. military model is competely new to Iraq. It relies heavily on highly professional junior leaders who are expected to display judgment and initiative - and they are grown over years. Later in its article, the NYT to its credit, discusses in detail the tremendous growth in the Iraqi forces.
That said, NYT just can't untangle themselves from the far left meme that Anbar is only quiet because we have bribed the Anbar Sunnis. The Anbar Sunni Awakening started of its own accord as a push back to the animalistic brutality and draconian treatment at the hands of al Qaeda. True, thankfully, the U.S. has exploited it, but to suggest, as the NYT does, that bribery is at the heart of the pacification of Anbar is dissembling.
To continue with the NYT article:
Mr. Maliki’s moves against Shiite militias have built some trust with wary Sunnis, offering the potential for political reconciliation. High oil prices are filling Iraqi government coffers. But even these successes contain the seeds of vulnerability. The government victories in Basra, Sadr City and Amara were essentially negotiated, so the militias are lying low but undefeated and seething with resentment.
This is the NYT back in its old, highly disingenuous form. Sadr's forces resisted in Basra, supported by Iran, and they suffered exceptionally high casualties over six days of fighting before they surrendered. Much the same thing happened in Sadr City, where Sadr waved the white flag after suffering high casualties and with a full scale offensive into Sadr City literally days away. To describe these actions as simple negotiations and to call the Sadrists undefeated is ridiulous. Iran's proxy Sadr has suffered a devestating series of reverses and their popularity is at its nadir. Sadr just demobilized the Mahdi Army. Is the NYT paying any attention at all?
. . . Attacks like the bombing that killed 63 people in Baghdad’s Huriya neighborhood on Tuesday showed that opponents can continue to inflict carnage.
This too is quite troubling. That bombing was carried out by an Iranian proxy against Shi'ites. That was not an "opponent" doing the bombing, that was an act of war carried out at the behest of a foreign power that wants the U.S. out and Iraq "Lebanized." Unfortunately, the NYT studiously ignores the Iranian threat and acts of war throughout its otherwise heartening article.
Perhaps most worrisome, more than five years after the American invasion, which knocked Mr. Hussein from power but set off great chaos, Iraq still lacks the formal rules to divide the power and spoils of an oil-rich nation among ethnic, religious and tribal groups and unite them under one stable idea of Iraq. The improvements are fragile.
A year ago, there were the eighteen benchmarks that the NYT trumpeted to show that Iraq was a failed state incapable of governing itself. Today, of those benchmarks, the only substantive one remaining is the oil law. To cite to the oil law while studiously ignoring all of the other progress is both disingenuous and a red herring.
What the NYT fails to say is that no one claims that the oil wealth flowing to the central government is not being shared and shared fairly. The system is not broken because of the lack of an oil law. There is no blood being spilled over the sharing of oil wealth. As to the "5 year" remark, the NYT fails to note that democratic government in Iraq just turned two years old. The Iraqis are still arguing over the precise contours of how an oil law should be set up, true, but their time frame to get legislation in place on this issue is hardly excessive, particularly when compared to our own government's years of inability to pass laws on such things as entitlement reforms.
That said, the biggest problems the Iraqi government faces is getting basic government services out to the people. This is the non-warfare part of supporting Iraq that goes unreported in our news but that is equally as important to long term success as the security gains. The LWJ did an exceptional article on this topic several months ago that is well worth the read. In essence, the problem is not sectarianism, but a highly inefficient bureacracratic system that is riddled with far too much corruption. The Iraqi government and the U.S. are making much headway in streamlining the system and rooting out the corruption, but the challenges are immense and the clock is ticking.
. . . The most obvious but often overlooked reason for the recent military success has been an increase in the number of trained Iraqi troops.
The quality of the recruits and leadership has often been poor, even in recent months. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, one Iraqi company abandoned its position in April, forcing American and Iraqi commanders to fill the gap with hastily summoned reinforcements. In Basra, more than 1,000 recently qualified soldiers deserted rather than obey orders to fight against Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army. One senior Iraqi government official conceded that the deserters simply “felt that the other side was too strong.”
But sheer numbers have helped to overcome the shortcomings. After the embarrassing setback in Basra, Mr. Maliki was able to pull units from elsewhere to provide reinforcements and saturate the city with checkpoints and patrols, restoring a measure of order after years of domination by Islamist militias and oil-smuggling mafias.
This continuing Basra narrative of painting it as an Iraqi Army failure because they did not blow through unexpectedly strong resistance in six days of attacking against defenders occupying urban terrain is just utterly ridiculous. As is the NYT's continued emphasis of a few military units that did not perform to standard under fire. That was a small part of the forces sent into Basra. And some green units failing under fire is as old as the military itself. For example, the word "decimate" comes from the ancient world's finist military, the Romans, who inflicted a decimation - the ritual slaughter of every tenth soldier - upon legions or cohorts that broke under battle. Suggesting that Iraq's newly minted military is somehow weak because of the actions of a few units under combat likewise shows that, while the NYT may understand agenda journalism, their understanding of the military and history is sorely lacking.
But the government’s successes in Basra and Sadr City were not so much victories as heavy fighting followed by truces that allowed the militias to melt away with their weapons. “We may have wasted an opportunity in Basra to kill those that needed to be killed,” said one American defense official, who would speak candidly about the issue only if he was granted anonymity.
Let's see, hundreds of Sadrists killed, hundreds of criminals captured, virtually all of Iraq now under government control, the Iranians exposed, Sadr exposed, the Sadrist trend isolated in the Parliament, and the Mahdi Army demobolized. If that does not sound like victories to the NYT, they need to radically up their meds. The goal never has been complete destruction of the Sadrists, its been to split off the majority from the trained and paid Iranian proxies. With virtually all of Iraq in government hands, the ability of any militia to operate is severely circumscribed. The government does not have to destroy the militias in cataclysmic battles to win. Just as al Qaedea hemmoraged people and support as the tide turned against it, so too is that happening Sadr and his militia.
I wont' bother to fisk most of the rest. The NYT spends several paragraphs reporting quite literally the wildest speculations it can find from various individuals who state things such as that Maliki is an agent of Iran, etc. Compare that to the reporting from ABC not long ago and from the Atlantic Monthly where both describe Malik's popularity as being at its zenith across all religious and ethnic lines in Iraq. No need to discuss that, though, when you can get a money quote from someone with an axe to grind or a conpiracy theory dreamed up below their tin foil hat. But when we finally get to the end, the NYT, to their credit, hits the nail on the head a second time.
The anti-government and anti-occupation forces have also stumbled. The Islamist Sunni insurgents alienated many Iraqis with a trail of blood and bans on alcohol and smoking. And as attacks on Shiite areas by Sunni insurgents dropped, Shiites who had looked to the Mahdi Army for self-defense were less willing to put up with abuses.
. . . Despite their newfound confidence, some senior Iraqi officials close to Mr. Maliki said that without an American military safety net they are vulnerable to threats from outside and inside their borders. One important but less-noticed element of the security negotiations has been Iraq’s effort to extract an American pledge to defend the government against foreign or domestic aggression. Mr. Adeeb, the top Maliki adviser, said officials wanted the Americans to protect the Iraqi government against anything the government viewed as a threat — not just what the Americans saw as a threat.
“Our political system is weak, the terrorists and former regime members are sparing no effort to overthrow the system, and neighboring countries have their own ambitions,” Mr. Adeeb said. “Our army is not qualified to defend Iraq yet.”
Amen. Which is why a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq as Obama has articluated is just incredibly wrong-headed and comes with existential implications for all the gains made in Iraq and for the national security threats we face from the mad mullahs in Iran. When even the hyperpartisan NYT is coming around to that conclusion, one wonders if the fantasy based folks on the far left will begin to see the light. Or perhaps this is just laying the groundwork for the mother of all flip flops from Obama once he has a chance to visit Iraq and consult with our military commanders - General Pew and Admiral Rasmussen in particular.
At any rate, my hats off to the NYT. They have raised their level of reporting on Iraq to the level of a broken clock. This is a heartening development indeed.