Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Statistic and a Hope

Reading the GAO report on Iraq, I noticed in the average daily attack data on page 10 that violence would be considerably less if coalition forces were not in Iraq. Not only would the average number of daily attacks be considerably reduced, but the death and destruction wrought by American air and artillery response would cease. No doubt violence against civilians and Iraqi security forces would go up–not an unreasonable assumption–but I doubt it would be as pervasive as attacks on foreign occupiers and the consequent response.

This calculus of violence illustrates America’s dilemma in Iraq. We know Iraqis will attack foreign occupiers. We also know that they will kill each other but hope that we can craft some arrangement where they won’t kill even more of each other in the absence of American forces. So far, the violence has increased despite the presence of foreign troops. Right now, the US has no assurance that removing its troops from direct involvement in Iraq security operations won’t create even greater violence. (I use the term "direct involvement" because complete withdrawal is not really in the cards; the 14 permanent bases and massive US embassy will position US forces in a strategic region, just as US forces remained in Central Europe during the Cold War.)

I have little confidence that the continued presence of American forces in Iraqi security operations will effectively restrain and contain the violence as long as Iraqis feel threatened and dispossessed. The results of the “Surge” are clearly mixed at this point. If security has increased–not at all certain–efforts at resolving the major conflicts among Iraqis are slow and tenuous at best. Moreover, time is running out; the US doesn’t have the capability to sustain the current level of military operations in Iraq beyond next spring, without some extraordinary effort from an already stretched out military. The clock is running. Meanwhile Iraqis have their own agendas, interests and grudges that will play out with or without American forces.

Since American intervention and Iraqi political institutions have not yet demonstrated the ability to resolve conflicts without violence, other nations can and should become actively involved. Neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have great influence, not to mention direct interests, in regional security and stability. That influence, along with some financial and technical assistance, could help Iraqis to overcome their differences without more violence. Even countries well removed from the region can assist. This week’s meeting in Finland between 30 Shi’a and Sunni representatives and former adversaries from Northern Ireland and South Africa was a hopeful sign that other nations have non-military talents and resources they can offer to assist in Iraqi reconciliation. One source described the mood during the four days of discussions as guardedly positive. That’s better than more violence.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Accountability, If You Can Keep It

Before yesterday, most Americans paid little attention to government audits other than to lament yet another failure in public policy or insult to common sense. Yesterday’s report by the Government Accountability Office on Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq may grab their attention. It should. The report tells the country what CheneyBush’s occupation of Iraq has accomplished. The results are not good. Critical political reconciliation, economic and security goals are unmet. The few that have been met involve creating committees, not actual accomplishment. Here, America, are the fruits of the war initiated in your name, with the lives of your sons and daughters.

The report’s political critics try to marginalize its impact with allegations of “factually incorrect”, “outdated data” and “set up” to deliver a negative report. The military argues that GAO conclusions on violence levels would be different if only GAO has looked at August figures. Don’t buy any of this. I’ve heard it all before in the many program evaluations and performance audits I conducted over the past 30 years. Sometimes critics may be right or actually provide additional information that will change conclusions but, if the audit the evaluation is done honestly and competently, the criticisms have no weight, however loudly the critics howl.

GAO did an honest review of progress toward the benchmarks. I know because I do this kind of work. It’s been my career. I’ve evaluated everything from licensing funeral directors to corrections systems to highway construction and maintenance. I never evaluated a war or national security operation but I know the process. That part is simple. Any good auditor knows what to look for. Reading the GAO report, it’s clear to me that GAO did all the right things in its review.

The Comptroller General’s transmittal letter states that GAO conducted the review in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. The standards establish requirements for independence, competence, planning, supervision and reporting. In following the standards GAO ensures that it has the credibility to report objectively and accurately. The report begins by stating the basis for its review: the 18 benchmarks mandated by Congress in law. A handy figure on page 4 shows the origin of each benchmark and demonstrates broad agreement between the US and Iraqi governments about what the US is trying to achieve in Iraq and that these goals are consistent with the Iraqi government’s’ own goals. Although the benchmarks were mandated by Congress, they are drawn from US executive and Iraqi government sources. This is not Congress judging based on some obscure or narrow definition. This is judging based on what all participants have stated are the primary goals of US and Iraqi government policies. When you hear the politicians barking about “narrow definitions, “arbitrary either-or choices” or “not looking at the big picture”, don’ buy it. This IS the big picture.

Next, GAO presents its conclusions on performance meeting the benchmarks. GAO uses a Consumer Reports format on page 6 to show results: blank circles indicate benchmarks “not met”, black circles show benchmarks “met” and half-filled circle represent “partially met”. Only three circles are completely black. Four others are half-filled. The remaining 11 benchmarks are unmet. GAO includes comments on the status of the benchmarks that provides some compelling insight on the results. Benchmark 9, providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations, is partially met; the status questions the reliability of the forces provided. Benchmark 16, ensuring the rights of minority political parties are protected in the legislature, is met but the status notes that the political rights of minority citizens are unprotected. Benchmark 8 is rated as met because committees have been established. It’s nice they have committees. I wonder if the committees are functioning and what they might be accomplishing. The comments suggests even less real accomplishment than the limited results reported.

The report discusses legislative benchmarks, legislation and parliamentary actions necessary to achieve consensus and reconciliation within Iraq, actions which all sentient observers recognize as the only long-term solution to Iraq’s instability and violence. Only one of eight of these benchmarks–protecting the rights of minority parties in the legislature–has been met,. The six unmet benchmarks are the key issues that have been at the center of conflict throughout the occupation: constitutional reform, de-Baathification and sharing oil revenues. Although CheneyBush claimed progress in legislative benchmarks, GAO’s figure on page shows how little has actually been accomplished.

GAO finds mixed results in meeting security benchmarks. Only two are met, creating committees to support the security plan and establishing joint security bases. The latter is probably the more significant. Progress on eliminating safe havens for militias and providing trained Iraqi troops is partially met but safe havens still exist, according to GAO. Even more significant are the five unmet benchmarks, all of which address critical security issues. GAO uses level of violence as a key measure and concludes that it is unchanged since February 2007 when the Baghdad Security Plan (aka The Surge) began. The military is arguing that August would show a significant drop. The Comptroller General responds that levels of violence are measured in a variety of ways and that GAO did not find agreement among the responsible organizations that violence is reduced.

On page 12 GAO compares its assessment of performance with CheneyBush’s progress report issued this summer. The latter is more positive but the two reports are not completely at odds. Neither is particularly hopeful; even the Administration claims satisfactory progress in only eight of the benchmarks, not even half. The two reports differ dramatically on only one benchmark, constitutional reform, rest are differences of degree and level of evidence. GAO clearly outclasses the Administration in documenting lack of legislative progress (Figure 3)and reports that the administration offered little information to support its claim of satisfactory progress on this benchmark. The administration does not even attempt to report progress on two benchmarks--amnesty legislation and disarming militias to ensure that security forces are accountable only to the government and loyal to the Iraqi constitution–only that “conditions are not present for these benchmarks”. Whatever that means. I believe it can only mean benchmark “not met”, which is also GAO’s conclusion. I sense that the “conditions are not present” language is the Administration’s excuse for no progress on the most vexing political and security challenges of the occupation.

The report is written in simple audit language with just enough detail in its 18 pages to convey a complete story. A classified (and no doubt longer) report was also submitted to Congress. GAO’s language does not sensationalize its findings, it simply characterizes performance and assesses results. Critics will dismiss GAO’s findings as simplistic, preferring to hear from the “commanders on the ground” when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker report to Congress next week. I’m pretty sure both will argue for completing the mission, giving the counterinsurgency strategy time to create the space for political reconciliation. That’s why they went to Iraq, to salvage the mission. They also both know that a military solution will not resolve Iraq’s political crisis. The only real solution is an Iraqi solution wherein Iraqis bridge their sectarian, ethnic and political divisions. I expect Petraeus and Crocker to argue for more opportunity to succeed, focusing on some limited successes. But in the end, the real job is an Iraqi one. Congress should be skeptical when

And when Petraeus and Crocker talk about success, remember the war reported by so many of “the troops”: the junior officers, NCO’s and enlisted men on the ground fighting this war. Most recently they wrote about the danger and uncertainty of fighting in a multi-dimensional civil war where your friends during the day are helping your enemies at night, where you cannot trust anyone. The pace of combat operations in Iraq and the repeated deployments into what has been a deteriorating situation for years has pretty much exhausted the Army and Marine Corps. They will be a long time rebuilding.

The GAO report is a significant achievement in legislative oversight. It won't end the war but for the first time Congress has an independent view of the Operation Iraqi Freedom, the official name of the occupation. Members of Congress are in a position to critically evaluate Administration claims and hyperbole and they damn well better use that information to ask questions and demand straight answers. If they do, perhaps Constitutional government will survive the CheneyBush years of predation.

Above all don’t be distracted when you hear CheneyBush and his apologists say that they need more time to make the new strategy work. The GAO is reporting on Iraq FOUR AND A HALF YEARS after the United States began its experiment in “democratic reform. The results we see now clearly document CheneyBush’s inability to use American resources and assets to provide for the common defense. Congress and the American people have every right to demand a change, that our government secure America’s foreign interests without resorting to unprovoked war, that American policy support local and regional initiatives to stabilize Iraq and create non-violent alternatives for resolving differences.

It’s about fucking time.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Blogging These Days

Nothing like a two week hike to change perspective. Being on the trail the past few weeks took me away from events and affairs completely. Back now, I am less inclined to spend a lot of time writing or reading blogs. My main interests are getting packed and organized to move to Olympia, writing an account of the hike and taking care of personal business. Writing yet again about how CheneyBush is endangering America and the world with his pig-headed foolishness just doesn't seem to be the best use of my time right now. Nor does reading about it. My interest in society and the world is no less; I'll keep up with the news and favorite blogs. It's just that I can use a break.

Less blogging probably won't affect my traffic. My average daily traffic is down about 25% (that would be four or five hits) from my peak months. Overall, I seem to get not much less traffic when I don't actively blog. I don't get many comments but the ones that do come in are always appreciated. What all this tells me is that I can keep this blog going indefinitely in some form with minimal effort. I'll probably do more than the minimum, but don't expect great outpourings of text and thought in the immediate future. At a minimum, this blog has been an opportunity to think and reflect. I now have a thick notebook of essays that records my thinking during a critical period. I want to review that record and see what emerges that may inform my future thought and life. I have plenty to keep me thinking and writing.

Another major occupation these days is Prince, the Dalmatian who is still on his last legs. Those legs have been surprisingly long lasting but he is slowly declining, becoming more feeble. So far Maggie and I are able to care for him but we are both wondering for how much longer. While I was hiking, Maggie says she spent much of her time attending Prince in some way. Never a good thing when you are self-employed. With two of us, it's a bit easier. Prince is almost 15. He looks pretty good, is lively and interested in the world (especially food) and still shows bursts of energy but his back end is very unstable. Walking is difficult and slow.

Writing my account of the PCT hike has been as much fun as the hike itself. Maybe more, since it's not nearly as physically challenging. I am in the "dump stage" of writing where all I do is record events, thoughts, people and places from the hike in a daily log. I'll sort out the results when I'm done and maybe something will show up in a future post. In the meantime, it's fun to see where the story takes me and how the hike looks in retrospect with feet that are much, but not completely, healed

Manuscript News:
A publisher requested a copy of my Appalachian Trail manuscript, Rez Dog Walking, in response to a query letter and sample pages I submitted. I mailed a hard copy manuscript, the first include text and drawings, early last week. A second publisher responded that my work did not fit their catalogue (it was a long-shot, anyway). I'm far from published but I was pleased to get such a positive response first off.

Happy Labor Day, All.