Monday, November 05, 2007

Brave Wingnuts in the Land of Nutrootia

Sister Toldjah lauds Charles Johnson for "bravely wad[ing] into the land of Nutrootia" to expose the foolishness of a Daily Kos post by one Brandon Friedman. The post attributes the reduced violence in Iraq to Moqtada al-Sadr's decision in late August to "suspend offensive operations for six months."

Johnson writes:

The military experts at Daily Kos have figured out why there’s been such a dramatic drop in violence in Iraq, and of course it has nothing to do with the surge or with a change in US tactics: Daily Kos: The Real Story Behind the Falling Casualty Rate in Iraq.

Long story short (these Kos Kook posts are always incredibly wordy): the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr has declared a cease-fire. That’s the only reason. Yep.

The Kos Kidz like to call this technique “reframing.”

"Figures," ST sniffs. "The ‘bats don’t have it in them to give Bush and Petraeus any credit for anything."

There's a lot of that going around. Example: Sifting through posts at Daily Kos until you find a diarist who has a shallow analysis on a particular point and then making believe that what he says is representative of the entire left, or most Democrats, or most liberals. That's not "bravery." That's lazy, craven, intellectual dishonesty.

Here is what Friedman writes:
When someone tells you that the "surge" is working, you must walk them through this chain of events:

On August 7, 2007, near the end of America’s bloodiest summer in Iraq, the New York Times reported the following:
Attacks on American-led forces using a lethal type of roadside bomb said to be supplied by Iran reached a new high in July, according to the American military. The devices, known as explosively formed penetrators, were used to carry out 99 attacks last month and accounted for a third of the combat deaths suffered by the American-led forces, according to American military officials." July was an all-time high," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said in an interview, referring to strikes with such devices.

Such bombs, which fire a semi-molten copper slug that can penetrate the armor on a Humvee and are among the deadliest weapons used against American forces, are used almost exclusively by Shiite militants.

The "Shiite militants" described by the New York Times were, in fact, members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. And, as we all saw this past summer, Muqtada’s fighters were really doing a job on American forces—despite the troop increase which began earlier in the year.

That was on August 7th. And remember, this was during a summer throughout which we were bombarded with news of Iranian/Shia efforts to kill Americans and destabilize the Iraqi government.

Then, barely three weeks after the New York Times article ran, 50 Muslim pilgrims were slaughtered in sectarian fighting in Karbala. In response, Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he had
ordered his militia to suspend offensive operations for six months.

No one saw this coming.
The surprise statement regarding his notorious Mahdi army, which is responsible for much of Iraq's sectarian blood-letting, not only caught British and American commanders off-guard but appeared to have surprised Baghdad officials too. Mowaffak al-Rubbaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said Baghdad would only welcome the move if Sadr's lieutenants stop attacks and their attempts to "blow up" the Iraqi government.

"I will see on the ground what is going to happen," he said. "It is good news if it is true. If it happens it will reduce violence in the country a great deal."

When this news was reported on August 30th, no one really believed it, much less expected the implementation of an actual cease-fire on the part of Iraq’s Shia fighters.

On September 1st, even the U.S. military admitted that this could be an important—if not the important—development in the situation on the ground in Iraq. According to CNN,
"Muqtada al-Sadr's declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear," the U.S. military said.

An end to Mehdi Army "would also be an important step in helping Iraqi authorities focus greater attention on achieving the political and economic solutions necessary for progress and less on dealing with criminal activity, sectarian violence, kidnappings, assassinations, and attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces," the military said.

When that was said by the U.S. military on September 1st, the "surge" was never mentioned. It was all about an Iraqi decision that would succeed or fail on Iraqi actions. The U.S. military was only observing.

Lo and behold, U.S. troop deaths began [to] plummet. American deaths dropped from 84 in August, to 65 in September, to 38 in October—the lowest tally for a single month in over a year and a half.

Having argued for months that Iranian-supplied Shia fighters were the most serious threat to U.S. forces in Iraq, those same forces had suddenly stopped fighting. And it showed.

On November 2nd, the Washington Post reported that
The number of explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) that have been detonated or found in Iraq has dropped by nearly half in recent months, from a peak of 99 in July to 53 last month, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander in charge of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, said yesterday in a videoconference with Pentagon reporters.

But rather than recognize this for what it was, notable Republicans and other right-wingers immediately began to spin the story as if this was the result of the "surge":
McCain told students at Coastal Carolina University that the United States has had "astonishing success" in Iraq as a result of the military strategy now in place.

Notice that Senator McCain never mentions the fact that our gravest enemy in Iraq--the Mahdi Army--has quit fighting. On November 3rd, the Los Angeles Times, reported of President Bush:
At the graduation ceremony, the president said that since the troop increase reached full strength in June, the number of roadside bombs had been cut by half. He said U.S. military deaths were at their lowest in 19 months.

Again, no mention of Muqtada al-Sadr, his Mahdi Army, or their decision to stop killing Americans. Instead, it was all about the "troop increase."

Even the London Times got in on the spin, stating explicitly:
This has not been an accident but the consequence of a strategy overseen by General David Petraeus in the past several months.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be calling our elected officials or the traditional media on this nonsensical idea that the "Petraeus strategy" should be credited with stanching the flow of blood. No one seems to notice that, as with everything else in Iraq, the Iraqis are going to do what they want, when they want. When al-Sadr lays down his arms, there will be relative peace. When he takes them up, Americans will die in dozens.

It's not difficult to poke fun at a one-note analysis like this. Never mind that the right's explanation for the drop in violence in Iraq -- that it's all or mostly because of "the surge" and the fine job our troops have done -- is just as one-note and just as shallow. But there are others whose observations are a great deal more nuanced. Interestingly enough, the same fantasy warriors who are so amused by the "foolishness" of the "nutroots" when it comes to obscure Daily Kos diarists are curiously indifferent to developing a cogent, intelligent response to commentators like Phillip Carter. That would require taking on an attorney and an Iraq veteran who also happens to be a first-rate writer and well-regarded contributor to Slate.

As it happens, Phillip Carter also brings up al-Sadr's decision to call for a moratorium on violence as part of the explanation for the plunging death rate in Iraq. He presents it in a far more nuanced way, as one factor among many -- and he is clear that it's difficult, if not impossible, to identify all the reasons for the drop in violence. He also cautions war supporters against being too eager to give all the credit to the U.S. military and the surge policy [bolds are mine]:
When Mark Twain lumped statistics together with lies and damned lies, he could have had Mesopotamia in mind. A new set of data from Iraq shows Iraqi civilian deaths on the decline, from 2,800 in January 2007 to about 800 last month. Other reports reveal that tens of thousands of Iraqis have joined local auxiliary forces to secure their neighborhoods and that U.S. forces continue to kill or capture many of the insurgency's top leaders. Violence is down sharply in most areas. In Baghdad, troops report weeks without a roadside bomb in neighborhoods that used to be hit every day; and in Anbar, things are so good the Marines held a 5K race on the streets of Ramadi two weeks ago.

Still, the truth behind these numbers is elusive. It's near impossible to discern whether they reflect the success of our military operations or some larger, deeper trends in Iraqi society, such as the success of the Shiite campaign to rid Baghdad of its Sunni residents. The situation does present a paradox, however. If the surge is the reason, as the generals claim, we're in trouble, because the surge is about to end. If Iraqi reconciliation and ethnic cleansing get primary credit, and the surge is mostly acting as a catalyst, our inevitable drawdown over the next six months to pre-surge levels may not be catastrophic, because the positive trends result more from Iraqi societal shifts and less from American soldiers brokering the peace. As commanders plan for the 2008 reduction in troops, they must try to reconcile these competing explanations and find a way to sustain the success when there are fewer—or no—American soldiers on the streets.

In a press conference Thursday, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno expressed cautious optimism about the trends, calling them "positive" but not "irreversible." He also took credit, saying the statistics "represen[t] the longest continuous decline in attacks on record and illustrat[e] how our operations have improved security since the surge was emplaced." Clearly, U.S. security operations are having an effect in Baghdad and beyond. Sectarian violence and insurgent activity in Baghdad has been tamped down by the aggressive U.S. strategy of basing troops in Iraqi neighborhoods and patrolling them on foot. Where we have sufficient troops to control the ground, the violence is down. That's no surprise.

But where we don't have sufficient troops, as in volatile Diyala province north and east of Baghdad, violence remains high. The large northern city of Kirkuk, a powder keg of Kurdish and Iraqi Arab residents, continues to see significant insurgent activity. Over the past few months, Tal Afar and Mosul have also seen spasms of deadly violence. As a general rule, where Sunnis, Shiites, or Kurds live in close proximity and we have too few American troops on the ground, violence persists.

In fact, American forces don't control very much in Iraq. Rather, we influence events there by our presence and activities, and we exploit opportunities where they arise. Though our commanders may take credit for the reductions in violence over the past few months, this recognition is misplaced. Our paltry force of 169,000 contributed to an improved security situation, and likely catalyzed the Iraqi security forces to restore order in parts of Baghdad, but our security measures pale in comparison to the decisions by tribal leaders in Anbar and by Muqtada Sadr's militias to abstain from violence. Similarly, all the Maliki government's entreaties and statements make for good press releases, but they, too, have little to do with reality in Baghdad or in Iraq's provinces, because the corrupt and overly sectarian central government is still incapable of actually governing the nation.

Political reconciliation efforts have produced qualified successes in Anbar, Baghdad, and Diyala. Our security work complemented these political deals by rewarding the sheiks who worked with us, inducing many to stop actively or passively supporting the insurgency. These deals represent the increasing pragmatism of Sunni leaders who realize that the Shiite state is a fait accompli, and they must therefore do what they can to reconcile with each other and with the Americans (who they call the "al-Ameriki tribe") in order to survive. Our field commanders recognized an opening and exploited it, but we should be careful about claiming credit, and we should not consider these arrangements to be permanent. Our newfound Sunni allies have a keen sense of self-interest, and they will return to open violence or recalcitrance when it suits them.

Iraqi troops have also contributed to the statistical improvements in Iraq, complementing the still-too-small U.S. presence. Thanks to an intense American advisory effort, the Iraqi army has become one of the most stable institutions in the country, providing a reasonable degree of security where it is deployed in force. However, it still cannot sustain itself logistically, nor can it plan and execute complex operations. The Iraqi police force remains a mess, unable to protect itself from insurgents, let alone enforce the law or protect the Iraqi population. Worse, some members and units of the police force reportedly continue to moonlight as sectarian death squads. American commanders have backed the establishment of local citizen militias to hedge their bets on the police, and these groups seem to be doing a good job as an armed neighborhood watch. But the militias also represent a future risk, particularly if sectarian violence escalates again and these armed, organized bands decide to join the fray.

However, the most persuasive explanation for the good news is that the Shiites have won the battle for Baghdad. Shiite militias and partisans have killed or expelled tens of thousands of Sunnis, changing the ethnographic map of the ancient city. The few Sunnis who remain in Baghdad do so under the protection of U.S. military forces, secured by a labyrinth of concrete blast walls, checkpoints, and security bases. Violence is down because the Shiites have fewer Sunnis to kill, and the Sunni insurgents now find it harder to move around in order to strike with suicide bombers, rockets, and roadside bombs.

It would be unseemly for Lt. Gen. Odierno to claim credit for ethnic cleansing, or to find a silver lining in the deaths of thousands of Sunnis, but this is the unavoidable, if unspoken, truth about the decline of violence in Baghdad. But on Thursday, Odierno didn't just talk around or downplay the truth, he flatly denied it, saying, "I've not seen any significant shifts [in the ethnic composition of Baghdad] that have changed it from January, when we got here, to now." His own troops patrolling the streets of Sunni neighborhoods in Western Baghdad say otherwise, as do a number of reporters who have tracked the ethnographic composition of the city since the surge began. Baghdad has Balkanized into armed camps, protected for the moment by a mix of American troops and local militias.

I would love to see a cogent response to this from "brave" right-wingers like Charles Johnson and Sister Toldjah. But I won't hold my breath. It's so much easier to root around -- very much, actually, like a squirrel digging up an acorn -- for the easy laughs than it is to support your opinions against people who know what they're talking about.

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