A Quick Trip to Iraq
Just got back from a short trip to Qatar, which included a quick trip to Iraq, and then I leave for Oman this afternoon, so I'll forgo my thoughts on attitides towards the troops, academic bias, the state of military history, etc. and offer a quick impression of what I saw.
-Saw more evidence that Sunni leaders in neighboring Arab countries are worried about the Shia majority in Iraq acquiring political power. There is an awful lot of concern for the poor benighted Sunnis who have been hurt by the toppling of Saddam. While there are a lot of Sunnis who were not deeply involved with the old regime, there were a lot who were. When I hear commentators in this country bemoaning the lot of unfortunate Sunnis hurt by the war (former officers, for example) I always wonder why they weren't more sympathetic to White politicians who lost their jobs as a result of the Civil Rights movement, White South Africans hurt by the introduction of masjority rule in South Africa, or former communist officials who had to learn new sjkills after 1989.
- Got a good brief on the state of the Iraqi Security Forces, including a reasonable explanation for the seemingly constantly fluctuating numbers. There are two big issues here: (1) The ability of the Iraqi Government to actually track and account for people, and (2) the definition of trained.
On (1), most Westerners grossly underestimate the difficulty of accurately tracking personnel, especially when compounded by different concepts of what it means to be employed. Iraqis not only have a totally different approach to desertion, being "on duty," taking leave, and simply counting heads than us - they also have a long tradition of carrying people on the rolls (and paying them) without actually expecting them to show up. Yes, good old fashioned corruption, just like Tammany Hall or Cook County. At the user level, however, it's an entitlement program, and like any entitlement program it takes a lot of effort to break it.
(2) is a bit more difficult but much more important. When listing "trained" personnel, what does "trained" mean? I consider myself well trained (almost 20 years experience, staff college), but there are plenty of jobs in the US military that I am totally untrained for. More pertinently, they are units in my specialty (infantry) that would consider me untrained because I haven't gone through their training program. We also lack perspective on training, using the current US model, which invests a LOT of time and resources into training people, as the standard. Compare what the Iraqis are accomplishing with the US in most of it's wars (including WW II - for a short time in the earliest part of the war the US Marine Corps reduced boot camp to 3 weeks), and it doesn't look so bad. Bottom line - the Iraqi Security Forces are growing and they're doing better. They are not going to compare to US forces for a LONG time, if ever, but that's an unrealiastic standard. I can't guaruntee that they'll be able to defeat the Sunni inmsurgency and achieve stability, but they're making progress.
- Got to Baghdad for the first time. I was impressed by how fortified it looked, although I also noticed lots of normal activity by the inhabitants and, as always, the rooves were festooned with satellite dishes. Baghdad was WAY different from the way Mosul looked a year ago or from Basra looks even today (got there this trip, too). It drove home that a visit to Baghdad (which is where most reporters and other visitors go) gives a very distorted view of the situation in the country as a whole. Much as a visit to NYC gives a visitor a very distorted view of the US.
- A couple of interesting pionts were made about Al Jazeera (check out their English language web site at www.aljazeera.net. Don't go to the .com site - that's a different entity). Lots of people have lots of problems with AJ, and I'm one of them. AJ runs a LOT of stunningly hateful, inflammatory, and ignorant commentary, and it has a track record of passing on rumor as fact and heavily lacing its reporting with opinion. On the other hand, many of the same complaints can be lodged against FOX News, NPR, and CBS (memogate, anyone?). AJ has it's problems, but part of it's problem is an effort to determine it's code of journalistic ethics (again, something our paragons of journalism still struggle with. Ask Howell Raines and the NYT). It has also blown open the state controlled monopoly, leading to the creation of competitors like Al Aribya (run by the Saudis, no English language site that I could find). And AJ does report things that simply don't hit the western press. So while it is a real problem, and, in my opinion, massively irresponsible, I'm not sure that it's that much worse than our press. I think most of AJ's flaws result from the same factors that make our press flawed.
- Finally, a note about Qatar. At first glance, it seemed to be a decent place. The Emir, while maintaining his political control, appears to be making a real effort to move his country forward (working with US universities to create a center for Western higher education, for example). One of the first thing you notice there, as with most of the Gulf States, is the huge number of expatriate workers ("Gastarbeiter" in another context). Qatar has a population of about 800,000, of whom only about 200,000 or so are actually citizens - the rest are expatriate workers. The handful I talked to (Bangladeshi, Sri Lankin - also see a lot of Pakistanis and Filipinos) seemed to be happy enough - they work in the Gulf for a number of years (often more than a decade), but made a lot more money than they could make at home. It seems to me, however, that the issue of the Third Country National (TCNs, to throw out another term for them) is the real slumbering volcano for the Gulf States.
Off for two weeks (but please post comments anyway - it's the positive reinforcement that will keep me posting, when I should actually be doing something more productivs!)