Belmont Club


The BBC asks whether Iraq is sliding into possible civil war again. “The sudden upsurge of violence in Iraq has set the alarm bells ringing and raised many disturbing questions. Does it mean the situation is sliding back out of control, as US troops prepare to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and quit Iraq as a whole by 2011?” In order to answer that question there are two pieces of information that would be nice to have.

The most important question is whether enemy morale, after having been broken or severely degraded by the Surge, is now back up again because they feel that victory will eventually be theirs because they calculate that new administration can be hustled out. In other words, have the signals sent by the Obama administration breathed new life into enemy calculations? This possibility was indirectly given credence by the statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The BBC says, “During her visit to Iraq on Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US troop drawdown would be carried out “responsibly and carefully”, and that Washington would ensure that the Iraqis had the tools they needed to ensure they had a secure country.” Then having taken care of that problem, Clinton turned around and sent another signal. “But she made it clear that the US remained committed to having its troops out of the country altogether in the next two years. In other words, the strategic goal remains the same, but withdrawal tactics might be flexible to ensure no dangerous vacuums were left and that Iraqi forces were up to the task.”

Even without the realistic expectation that they could reverse events, it would be natural for the enemy, like a boxer who has been beaten to a pulp, to finish with a flurry near the closing bell to plausibly claim victory. After all, if the US is certain to leave in 2 years there would be every incentive to chain up suicide attacks on innocent civilians to the limit of their capabilities. That would have no military significance, but it would enable al-Qaeda in Iraq to claim that they “drove out” the hated Americans.

The second question which we might someday be able to answer is whether the Obama administration policies have materially reduced the flow of intelligence, upon which the prevention of suicide attacks depends. The problem goes beyond specific policies about what might or might not be eavesdropped upon; or what interrogation techniques are allowable. The number of informants is positively correlated with the perception of eventual victory because everybody wants to join the winning side. Few will be motivated to remain with a side which can hardly bring themselves to utter the word “victory” and only reluctantly and churlishly accepts successes which they have spent the last four years denigrating. An informer (I mean intelligence asset) bets his life on who he thinks will remain in power to protect him. Create doubt about the outcome and you will probably reduce the motivation to inform.

A recent news report shows how both questions are intertwined. It also shows the context in which the Clinton promise not to abandon Iraq was made.

“Iraqi forces who arrested him based on an intelligence tipoff,” Iraq Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said. Al Baghdadi, not believed to be his real name, has issued audio and video statements in support of Al Qaida and an Islamic state in Iraq. In March 2009, Al Baghdadi issued a 17-minute audio message in which he declared U.S. plans to withdraw from Iraq as the mark of defeat.

Abu Omar Al Baghdadi’s recent capture creates the occasion for a thought experiment, which I would like to leave to readers in an open thread. If given the choice, would you want Baghdadi interrogated by US personnel, or left to be questioned by the Iraqis? One reason why intelligence officers wanted to create a facility to interrogate enemy captives under American custody after 9/11 was because they felt that a) American interrogation would result in more reliable intelligence than provided by foreign intelligence agencies; b) American interrogation even taken to the coercive limits now being denounced by Obama, would fall far short of the “treatment” the enemy would receive under “rendition”.  But since it is now conventional wisdom that Guantanamo Bay is the American Gulag and that this approach might have been a war crime, is it not better to leave Baghdadi to the Iraqis because he will be spared maltreatment?  But if you think that is ludicrous and have reason to suspect that  Baghdadi will be ill-used by Shi’ite interrogators, wouldn’t it be better to keep him in American custody anyway? That way he would be entitled to all the protection lawyers have argued he deserves. What would you do to Baghdadi? Doubtless Hillary would have no problem answering that question in a way that is sufficiently ambiguous; but if you were to answer it definitively, how would you? And what value would you assign any possible lost intelligence? If a number of suicide bombings are likely to occur in the next few weeks, which threaten to kill hundreds, restart a civil war or spark violence which would kill American troops, should we not ask Abu Omar Al Baghdadi about that? Or is that something Americans don’t do?

I think you can make arguments for either case. It’s important to think about the problem because it can’t so easily be solved with generalizations.