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February 3, 2007
NIE: It's A Civil War

The intelligence community released its National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq yesterday, a nine-page document that the Washington Post correctly characterizes as "bleak". It adopts the term "civil war" for the ongoing conflict in Iraq, and at the same time notes that the term doesn't do justice to the myriad of conflicts active in the country at the moment. However, it also warns about the effect a withdrawal would have on the region.

First, though, the bad news:

The U.S. intelligence community yesterday released a starkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq, warning that even if security improves, deepening sectarian divisions threaten to destroy the government and ultimately could lead to anarchy, partition or the emergence of a new dictatorship.

Citing "the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene," declassified judgments of a new National Intelligence Estimate predicted that Iraqi leaders will be "hard pressed" to reconcile over the next 18 months.

Despite the stepped-up training and U.S. support for Iraqi security forces -- major parts of the new Iraq strategy President Bush announced last month -- the estimate concluded that the Iraqi military will find it very difficult to carry out any new responsibilities or to operate independently against sectarian militias.

That's a pretty reasonable capsulization of the NIE's assessment. It does contain very pessimistic language about how the political situation will develop in Iraq without some change in strategy that will reverse some deadly trends. The biggest problem remains the Sunni minority's refusal to accept their loss of control over Iraq. They see the situation in very stark terms -- either they rule or Iraq becomes Persian. They see the Shi'a majority as a threat to the Arabic nature of Iraq, and they refuse to compromise with them and allow Iran to essentially make Iraq a vassal state.

The Shi'a, on the other hand, do not trust in their own majorities. Decades of oppression by the Sunni minority has left them "deeply insecure about their hold on power". That keeps them from reaching out to the Sunnis to reach the necessary compromises that would make both groups more secure about their place in the new Iraq. It also creates mistrust of the American efforts to forge those kinds of compromises, and the new American insistence on stopping Shi'ite militias compounds that mistrust.

That has fueled what the NIE now acknowledges is a civil war:

The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.

However, the NIE does not say that the situation is hopeless, only very difficult. It prefaces the entire report by saying "Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006." The NIE presupposes that the US will try to reverse these conditions with positive effort on the ground in Iraq, especially to try to tamp down violence in the short term in order to give the Iraqi government some breathing room to counter these trends. It also warns of the effects a withdrawal will have:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.

• If such a rapid withdrawal were to take place, we judge that the ISF would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries—invited by Iraqi factions or unilaterally—might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI would attempt to use parts of the country—particularly al-Anbar province—to plan increased attacks in and outside of Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.

They recommend that we at least keep our deployment at present force levels for the next 12-18 months, while working on new strategies to reverse the trends they describe. Given that advice, it's easy to see why the administration has decided on the surge strategy. They want to create enough room and enough of a reduction of the violence that fuels the split for the Shi'ites and the Sunnis to find some way to compromise on governance. The Shi'ites are a majority and the Sunnis are not, and the Sunnis will have to find their way to accepting that reality, The Shi'ites will have to learn that they cannot ever securely hold power without gaining the cooperation of the Sunnis. Those rational realizations will not take root until we clear the streets of the militias and allow both sides to see how to reach that accommodation.

The NIE is mostly bad news, and no one can doubt that. Those advocating for a bug-out want to take the one option guaranteed by the intelligence community to make Iraq exponentially worse than it is now, in a region where we cannot allow a failed state to serve as a host for parasitic terrorist groups.

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden correctly states the purpose of the NIE: "It is not a strategy. But it is a report that, by design, should be worst-case and pessimistic." That's what you will see when you read the 9-page declassified version of the NIE, but it does have some elements of strategy and optimism as well. They're just not making the headlines.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 3, 2007 8:42 AM

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