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Roundtable Roundup: Iraq Overview

We have had a number of excellent roundtables with officers in Iraq.  I'm going to combine these interviews into a single high-level overview of progress in Iraq. 

BLUF:  progress in Iraq is outstanding in the regions south of Baghdad, but is running much slower in the regions to the north.  In the west, Anbar -- though behind the southern regions by some measures -- has enjoyed an extraordinary turnaround from being the center of the Sunni insurgency to a region under Iraqi control.  Overall, even in the slow regions, post-Surge Iraq is on the right glidepath.  However, we as a nation do need to take the time to finish the mission responsibly in order to ensure that the victory is a firm and lasting one.

If you would prefer to read the original transcripts of these interviews, they are here:

With Rear Admiral Patrick Driscoll (Deputy Chief of STRATCOMM for MNF-I)

With Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan (DCG-O MND-C, 10th MTN DIV)

With Colonel Michael McBride (CDR 1/101 AASLT)

With Colonel Dominic Caraccilo (CDR 3/101 AASLT) (For some reason both his name and his unit are wrong in the official transcript -- this information is correct.)

With Colonel Tom James (CDR 4/3 ID)

With Colonel Philip Battagila (CDR 4/1 CAV)

The analysis is in the extended entry.

I will break this into two major sections, the kinetic/operational/maneuver section, and the nonkinetic/reconstruction/capacity section.


Progress is outstanding across the board, though some areas have progressed notably faster than others.  The regions south of Baghdad have moved faster than anticipated.  This is highlighted by some noteworthy troop reductions that the media reports have missed, because the debate in the American press is about American troops.  Multinational Division - Center has expanded to include much of Southern Iraq, taking over the regions formally held by the Australians before their departure.  The Georgian brigades were also largely based in MND-C, in Wasit province, and have left to handle their concerns at home.  MND-C includes the same number of American brigades as it did when it controlled only the southern Baghdad belts, plus Wasit:  now it is controlling that area plus Australia's MND-SE, with neither the Georgians nor the Australians remaining. 

Neither the departure of the Georgian brigades nor the departure of the Australians has created new instability, though both 4/1 CAV and MND-C have had to make adjustments to where they place soldiers.  MND-C has taken the Georgian departure as an opportunity to establish new joint security stations, to train the Iraqis in countersmuggling techniques and checkpoint operations.

That trend is set to continue in coming months.  3/101 took over the AO of 2/10 MTN when it arrived about a year ago.  It still controls that area, plus the area assigned to 2/3 HBCT -- one of the Surge brigades -- that was folded into 3/101's AO at the time of 2/3's departure.  3/101 is not expecting to be replaced at the end of their 15-month deployment with another brigade, but with a "Transition Task Force" (TTF) of 1/4th the BCT's size.  Thus, an area that a year ago was controlled by 8,000 US soldiers will require only 1,000 in a few months -- men and women whose job will be to finish the training of the Iraqi units who are already leading operations in the battlespace.

MNF-W, in Anbar, has ceeded control of the region to the Iraqi government.  Though that control has passed over only in recent weeks, initial signs are very good.  MNF-W and MND-C share a border right at 3/101's territory, and in the past there had been significant movement of accelerants -- suicide bombers, foreign fighters, munitions -- from the Sunni regions into Baghdad.  I asked COL Caraccilo about that, and he states that the smuggling appears to have stopped, new caches are not being found at the old rates, and Iraqi control of the regions formerly used by smugglers coming across the Euphrates is a success.

Security is also improved in the north, in the regions of Diyala, Tikrit, and areas that were the stronghold for Saddam's forces.  This appears to me to be driven by differences in the local tribes:  the Dulaimi ("Lions") reached out to us in Anbar, and it is in the regions where they are strongest that progress -- starting with the Sons of Iraq, and spreading to a general cooperation -- came fastest.  This happens to be in a ring around the southern edge of Baghdad, from Anbar through to Salman Pak.  The northern regions were dominated by tribes loyal to Saddam, and have moved more slowly to reconciliation.

Yet even there, progress is made.  The security gains are sufficient to allow farmers to move crops to market in cities through the region, and to the borders with the Kurdish areas.  (More about that shortly).  COL McBride states that security and reconciliation efforts in his AO are now "neck and neck."  In MND-C, in the southern belts, that parity came last January:  but now it has been achieved in Saddam's home territory.

In the southern regions, AQI and other extremist cells are heavily constricted:  estimates run at a few cells of around 10 actors per area of operations.  MNF-W shows serious constraints on AQI as well, with RADM Driscoll noting communications from al Qaeda's central unit to AQI complaining about the management of the war.  COL McBride reports continuing attacks in Baiji against the Sons of Iraq, but there is little reason to believe that the model will not hold there -- due to the tribal differences mentioned above, the SoI program was later getting started in his AO, and so it is not surprising to find progress running behind there. 


Iraq's central government has had a good year due to the inflated price of oil and the return of their oil industry.  (The US government has been complicit in keeping the price of oil artificially high through this period, by pursuing a weak-dollar policy:  the oil market runs on dollars, not Euros or other currency, and so our government is directly responsible for this flow of revenue to Iraq.  In terms of stabilizing Iraq, the economic boom our weak-dollar policy generated made tremendous sense, but I have yet to see the politician with the guts to explain it to the public in an election year.)

The #1 question that I ask in order to understand reconstruction efforts in Iraq, however, is the state of their agriculture industry.  Iraq has traditionally been the breadbasket of the Middle East because of the fertility of Mesopotamia -- the region 'between the rivers' of the Tigris and Euphrates.  Saddam let that industry fade, but it is of critical importance to Iraq's future for two reasons:

1)  While a limited number of Iraqis can be involved in the oil industry, agricultural wealth is how Iraq's population is fed.  This is true in terms of actually growing the food to eat and sell; or in terms of eating food grown at home instead of shipping hard cash abroad to buy it; or in terms of profiting on the trade, and bringing in hard cash from abroad.  If Iraq's oil industry does well, it's good for the government and some minority of the population.  If their agricultural industry takes off, it's good for the whole people of Iraq.

2)  With rising food prices worldwide, and with the integration of the food and fuel markets due to biofuels, agriculture has a potential to be a source of wealth rivaling oil in Iraq's future.  If the agricultural industry is properly capitalized -- that is, if they have adequate tractors, machinery, fertilizer, etc -- there is a massive amount of wealth to be had there.  Unlike oil, this wealth won't go away if it is nutured.

For these reasons, the success of Iraq's agriculture is a good proxy for the success of Iraq in nonkinetic terms. 

How is it doing?  RADM Driscoll, speaking for MNF-I, provides a high-level picture:

The problem is twofold, really. One, just like every other segment of the economy here, Saddam just ignored the infrastructure. And so, you know, there's not -- there's only, you know, a handful of dams that support irrigation, and then all the irrigation infrastructure, if you will, has been -- is in disrepair. And so that -- that's really hurt the agricultural initiative.

Number two is, they're really suffering one of the worst droughts they've had in years. And so it's really, really hurt the agriculture up in Diyala and south of Baghdad, in the areas where they've grown a lot of agricultural products. That said, lots of work going on right now in the agriculture area. The efforts by the commanders of small units out there working day by day with Iraqi farmers is kind of a small operation.

But it's having some pretty big results. We've seen some just amazing initiative in order to help get water and seed and fertilizer to locals through the commanders emergency fund, to get these guys back on their feet. We -- down south of Baghdad there's a program going on right now where they've got windmills, believe it or not, that they're putting up that drive pumps into the ground and pump water out. And they have local irrigation that has gotten -- you know, agriculture locally back on its feet.

Now that's kind of the micro approach. On the macro level, State Department, with -- is working closely with the government of Iraq to have a -- you know, a major overhaul of the irrigation system throughout the country. And this irrigation system obviously is key to really getting the agriculture back on its feet.

Additionally, this year we had a very successful spray program for the date palms, which had been ignored for years. Now the issue is, we got a lot of date palms; now we need to get, you know, the trucking industry and the picking industry back on its feet to get these things to market in order to market them.

So there's no shortage of challenges in terms of agriculture, but we have a lot of people here working in the PRT teams, the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, that are out there. We've got agricultural folks from the United States that are now bringing in hybrid seed that are ideal for this kind of soil and these kind of water conditions. And I think in the next couple years you're going to see the agriculture really take off here, which is great because a lot of Iraqis' money right now is being spent on imports of food when they really should be exporting to their neighbors here.

The regional results largely mirror the security results, which is not surprising:  the end of the war means that farmers are freer to farm, fertilizer can be used for crops instead of producing HME ("home made explosives"), and crops can get to market.

Small farmers markets such as COL McBride describes began to crop up in the southern belts late last year, spurred by Coalition investment in the security of such markets v. car or suicide bombs.  The result is a flowering of the local economy, as small pools of capital begin to form, which can be used for additional investments in the farm.

COL James referred to the success of the Iskandariyah tractor factory in selling its locally-assembled tractors to Iraqi farms.  RADM Driscoll's statement about fertilizer distribution programs, crop spraying programs, and other similar initiatives shows that the Coalition remains aware of the importance of agriculture to Iraq's well being.

COL McBride is self-critical of the agricultural industry in his area, and states that it is honestly not where he would like it to be.  However, again we must remember that the counterinsurgency program took longer to root in Saddam's homeland than it did in Duilaimi regions.  It is no surprise that he is six or nine months behind COL Caraccilo's region in agriculture, since he is also in security.  The fault isn't 1/101's, but lies with the fact that Saddam's tribal loyalists simply took longer to convince that this was in their best interests.

Yet it is in their best interests, and we can expect them to progress in wealth (as they have begun to progress in security) along the same line as the southern and western regions.


Iraq is in a vastly healthier case post-Surge.  Two of the three problems that bedeviled Iraq a year ago are well on their way to a negotiated solution.  (Problem three, Kirkuk and the Kurdish north, is latent).  The Iraqi polity is increasingly turning to work and politics as a means to their ends, rather than attempting to fight for control of territory or populations as a means to their ends.

The post-Surge standdown is farther along than is generally appreciated, as shown by the ability of MND-C to absorb huge new swathes of territory while still standing down major Coalition partners.  Far from generating new instability, progress in those regions has continued apace.

The Iraqi security forces are praised across the board:  all of our Colonels have good things to say about the quality of the ISF they are dealing with today.  In many cases this represents another dramatic improvement.

However, we are also reminded by BG Buchanan and others that we can stand down only so fast without creating a vacuum.  The ISF are making dramatic improvements and taking over primary control even in regions like Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni insurgency.  Yet this is a process that we must finish with patience and responsibility, to ensure that the victory is stable and lasting.