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What The NIE Really Says

This column was written by Frederick W. Kagan.

The summary of the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released today is the predictable product of the process that created it. The consensus report of 16 intelligence agencies is full of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand paragraphs that allow partisans of either side to make their points, if they are willing to quote selectively from the 4-page document. And it is a 4-page document (not 10 pages, as some media reports have it — the first six are title pages and descriptions of the methodology, and only the last four discuss Iraq). Its findings are broad and sweeping generalizations backed by little or nothing in the way of facts (which is natural, since intelligence agencies do not generally declassify the factual basis of such estimates).

The main conclusions of the document are clear: the strategy inaugurated in January 2007 has improved security in Iraq and will continue to do so; the development of grassroots movements within the Sunni Arab community focused on fighting al Qaeda in Iraq is an extremely important and positive development; Iraqi Security Forces are fighting effectively, if not yet independently of Coalition assistance; Sunni and Shia are not yet reconciled; the Maliki government is under great pressure and is not yet able to govern the country effectively; and Iraq-wide political progress will be required to solidify the gains made by the new strategy.

Many in the media naturally raced to flag all the negatives. The Washington Post online headline was: "NIE: Iraq 'Unable to Govern' Itself Effectively" — though the article reflects the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other presentation in the NIE more accurately than the headline. The New York Times titled its piece: "Report Cites Grave Concerns on Iraq's Government." It claimed that, "Implicitly, at least, the report questioned whether Mr. Maliki is willing or able to help the new Iraq become a fully functioning country." There is actually no basis in the declassified report for this statement. The report mentions Maliki in four places, noting that he was working to expand the size of the Iraqi Security Forces, that "divisions between Maliki and the Sadrists have increased" (which is a good thing, by the way), that Shia factions have explored alternative coalitions to the Maliki government (but have not yet formed any, we might note), that the "strains of the security situation and the absence of key leaders" have increased Maliki's vulnerability to other coalitions, but that Maliki will probably continue to benefit from the fear among his Shia rivals that attempting to replace him might paralyze the government. The Times article then features statements from a "Congressional official," Senator Harry Reid, Congressman Rahm Emmanuel, and "one official," all of whom focus on the negative statements in the report and add their own. Considering the relatively balanced nature of the declassified summary of the NIE, the Times' reporting can only be described as distorted.

The document itself is nevertheless weak. It significantly downplays important developments in Iraq on both the political and the military fronts. The NIE minimizes the efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces by focusing too heavily on the question of their ability to operate independently. It mentions only two significant ISF operations, both in Baghdad (although it notes that the ISF has met its goals for deployment of units in support of the Baghdad Security Plan, which was a Congressional benchmark), but ignores the following important activities undertaken by Iraqi Army units in recent months:

  • The 8th Iraqi Army division in Diwaniyah planning and conducting large-scale operations against JAM militias with relatively little coalition support;
  • The 10th IA division in Nasiriyah doing similar things;
  • The 5th IA division in Diyala conducting operations together with U.S. forces in the provinces against both AQI and JAM;
  • Two IA divisions and around 20k Iraqi police have been working with a little over 5,000 U.S. soldiers in all of Ninewah province, an area that includes Mosul (1.8 million people) and has been subjected to repeated AQI attacks;
  • Two IA divisions have been working closely with Marine and Army forces against AQI in Anbar.
That's tens of thousands of Iraqi Army soldiers, National Police, and local police fighting on the front lines against both al Qaeda and JAM. Can they sustain themselves logistically, move themselves, etc.? No. But that's only the metric of success if your objective is to withdraw. If your objective is to win, then what matters is how well they're fighting. Remember that most American allies depend heavily on the U.S. for many sorts of logistics, fire support, command and control, and so forth. The Iraqis have a way to go, of course, but we need to be realistic about the bar we're trying to set, and the obsession with the ability of Iraqi units to fight without any American help is foolish.

The assertion that there is "widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status," widely quoted in the media, is also problematic. It is probably true of the Sunni parties in the Council of Representatives, but it's becoming very clear that they do not represent the positive trends occurring within the Sunni community. It's also probably true if you look at Baathist websites. But the atmosphere in many Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, Anbar, and throughout Central Iraq strongly suggests that the Sunni increasingly understand that they've lost this round. And the key point is that Sunni Arabs who want to fight AQI are not asking to be set up in their own militias or local defense forces, but are asking to join the Iraqi Security Forces. Given the heavily Shia character of those forces, the Sunni will find it hard to turn their young soldiers and police into some sort of coup or civil war force. If they were asking to set up regional militias outside of the regular channels, that would be cause for concern. But their determination to participate in the government security apparatus is an indication of passive reconciliation that is underplayed in the report. It does not at all support the assertion that the Sunni Arabs are unwilling as a community to accept a role in the developing political process.

Sunni Arab demands to join the ISF also naturally increase the pressure on the current government, which is being asked to take thousands of former insurgents into its security forces in a matter of weeks. That is one of the reasons for the "precariousness" of the Maliki government, and it is understandable. The pressure on that government will increase in the coming months, not decrease. Considering the pressures already on it, what's amazing is that it has not fallen yet. Should we be concerned if it does fall? Iraq has a parliamentary system. When we talk about the "government falling," what we mean is a parliamentary reshuffle that replaces the Prime Minister and his cabinet. This is a normal part of any parliamentary system. If the Iraqis have a peaceful reshuffle that replaces Maliki with someone else, that's probably a positive development — depending on who the new guy is. It may or may not make passage of benchmark legislation easier, but it probably would — the point of a reshuffle is to replace a PM who can't get things done with one who can. It's not inherently a problem for us if the Iraqis try to do that.

The key negative conclusion in the report is that the Iraqi Government has not yet made the political progress necessary to secure grassroots reconciliation initiatives. That fact should have been obvious to everyone and, in fact, it is. It has formed the basis of domestic discussions about Iraq for months.

The first question that follows is: can the government make such progress? The answer, of course, is we can't know. The NIE notes that the security situation is one of the major factors that is delaying such progress. That should be no surprise — it was always a core assumption of the new strategy that political progress would follow, rather than precede or accompany, the establishment of greater security. The NIE notes that we are establishing greater security. That means that at some point in the future we can reasonably expect to see greater political progress. Considering that the major military operations of the surge have been underway for a little over two months, it's not surprising that we haven't yet reached that point.

The second question is: how long do we have before failure to achieve national reconciliation begins to undermine local, grassroots movements? That question can't be answered either, of course, but there are some points worth noting. The grassroots movement has developed rapidly and spontaneously, and it continues to spread rapidly and spontaneously. It has now grown into important movements in almost all of Central Iraq. The Sunni Arab community may continue to be fragmented, as the NIE notes, but what is new is the appearance of groups of local Sunni leaders who are both willing to negotiate with the Coalition and able to deliver on their promises. This means the emergence of a new Sunni leadership that is likely to press its demands and desires on recalcitrant Sunni politicians in the Parliament, who were selected before the Sunni Arab community had decided to participate actively in Iraqi politics. The NIE notes dourly that "Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments." But there is such a shift underway — a tectonic shift within the community that had been the most committed to undermining the political process. And the shift is accelerating — more sheikhs and young Sunni men are negotiating with U.S. forces and volunteering for the ISF every day. There is no sign that the movement is being undermined at this point by the lack of national political progress.

The NIE is at best a snapshot of the current situation in Iraq. It should be a surprise to no one that significant problems remain, since neither the administration nor any of the supporters of this new strategy imagined or suggested that all of Iraq's problems would be solved by September 15th. The questions to ask are: Has the new strategy succeeded in accomplishing the goals it set out to achieve at this point? And are the trends positive or negative? The answer to the first is: definitely. The initial goals of the surge were to stabilize and then reduce sectarian and terrorist violence in Iraq, and that is happening. The answer to the second is: the trends are mostly positive. The NIE and many observers predict with confidence that security will continue to improve in Iraq, and the current trend of the grassroots movement toward reconciliation is both positive and important. There's no way to know for sure if or when the Iraqi Government will make the necessary national-level moves to secure the progress made to date, but the progress itself is unquestionable.

Finally, let's recall the purpose of this discussion. America's leadership will decide in a few weeks whether or not to continue with the strategy that has brought this progress. The NIE is unequivocal on that point:

"We assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safehaven would erode security gains achieved thus far Recent security improvements in Iraq, including success against AQI, have depended significantly on the close synchronization of conventional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. A change of mission that interrupts that synchronization would place security improvements at risk."
Critics of the current strategy can use parts of the NIE to raise concerns about the political process in Iraq. Using those concerns to justify abandoning the current strategy, as the NIE itself clearly states, will jeopardize the enormous progress already made against al Qaeda in Iraq, which remains a potent threat that could reconstitute itself rapidly if we lifted the pressure from it. The fact that we have achieved a great deal without yet achieving all of our objectives is not grounds for abandoning a successful strategy. It is grounds for continuing it.
By Frederick W. Kagan
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