Something is stirring in Iraq. On July 3, car bombs ripped through mainly Shiite neighborhoods across the country, killing 36 people. It was the latest tragedy in a bloody month -- a prolonged political crisis has weakened the government in Baghdad, giving insurgent groups an opening to expand their operations. The consequent surge in violence has led some to fear that the country could once again be descending into civil war.
But just as Iraqi politics heats up, the United States is rapidly losing its ability to decipher events in the country. "Half of our situational awareness is gone," an unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal in June. "More than half," a serving U.S. military officer told me when I asked about the accuracy of that statement.
To Iraq experts, these statements ring true: At the height of the "surge," the United States collected fine-grain data from the 166,000 U.S. troops and 700 CIA personnel in Iraq, as well as a network of 31 Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Now, U.S. embassy staff enjoy very limited freedom of movement -- hemmed in by a suspicious government in Baghdad and a still-dangerous security situation. According to the Journal, the CIA station in Iraq may be reduced to 40 percent of its peak levels because the Iraqi government is extremely sensitive about its intelligence work with the Iraqi security forces.
The information vacuum has led Iraq experts and officials in U.S. President Barack Obama's administration to increasingly argue over basic facts. Note the hot exchange in Foreign Affairs between Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken and veteran Los Angeles Times journalist Ned Parker -- two men who dedicated much of the last decade to Iraq's future -- on the stability of the country. The fact that Blinken and Parker cannot agree on the basics -- such as whether violence is increasing gradually, as Parker asserts, or sits at "historic lows," as Blinken claims -- bodes ill for an informed debate on Iraq.
What a dramatic reversal from just a few short years ago. When the U.S. presence was at its zenith, the U.S. government developed what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl -- fingertip feeling. Read the hundreds of cables from Provincial Reconstruction Teams released by WikiLeaks and you will be astounded by the granular knowledge the United States developed on Iraqi personalities and local conditions. Although such insight into a foreign nation can be intoxicating -- even addictive -- it is not the normal state of affairs, and it ebbed with the military's withdrawal.
U.S. awareness in Iraq began to decline as soon as the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that determined American troops' departure date was signed in November 2008, and it accelerated as the slow drawdown of forces commenced. By the summer of 2011, U.S.-collected Significant Activity (SIGACT) reports on militant attacks were becoming ragged -- lacking detail, containing erroneous geospatial data, and only partially covering key parts of the country and certain classes of activity. In fall 2011, whole provinces began to "go dark" as the last U.S. forces left. And at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2011, the U.S. military incident reporting system issued its last SIGACT report. As ordered by its political masters, the U.S. military turned off the lights and locked the doors behind them.
The truth is that the United States is now flying blind in Baghdad. Since the U.S. military exit, situational awareness has reached an all-time low. Despite the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, U.S. government personnel have minimal freedom of movement due to security concerns and skyrocketing Iraqi government suspicion of any foreign information-gathering activities, however benign. As the Journal article noted, U.S. intelligence agencies in Iraq have also found themselves unable to maintain relations with the prickly and increasingly powerful civilian intelligence agencies in the country.