Blind in Baghdad

Mesopotamia is once again descending into sectarian violence. Too bad nobody in the United States understands what's happening on the ground.

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.

The security metrics provided by the Iraqi government to the United States provide little help in deciphering what's happening on the ground. Baghdad's SIGACT data have more holes than Swiss cheese: They are incomplete, even compared with the incidents reported in the Iraqi press, and they systematically underreport violence in politically sensitive parts of the country. There is no system through which security incidents can be relayed by both the Iraqi military and the Ministry of Interior forces at ground level to a single headquarters.

How, then, is it possible to gauge trends in levels of violence within Iraq? The method used by most interested parties -- including the U.S. government -- is to track Iraqi press reporting of violence, which has been fairly detailed in many parts of the country throughout the U.S. drawdown. Yet this method has its drawbacks. For instance, press reporting in the vital city of Baghdad has been notoriously poor for years, in part due to the proximity to the government and the city's dangerous sectarian divisions.

The murkiness of assessing violence levels in Iraq leaves plenty of room for politics to enter the process. Analysts can count data differently according to whether they are under pressure to show improvement or deterioration in Iraqi security. An excessive focus on quantitative bean counting also sucks much of the marrow out of the analysis of Iraqi violence data, where the devil is in the details. It may be true, for instance, that today's car bombs are significantly less destructive than in previous years and that greater numbers of roadside bombs are found before detonation -- data that analysts often tout when they want to make the case that security is returning to Iraq. However, the fastest-growing class of violence comprises the "intimidation and murder" categories, including close-quarters shootings, under-vehicle bombs, fatal stabbings, punitive demolition of property, and the kidnap of children.

These are the categories of violence that are least noticed and least often counted by the Iraqi press or by foreign government agencies, yet they may be the most vital indicators of where Iraq is headed. Fewer people may be dying each month, but they are increasingly the right people -- in other words, illustrative violence against community leaders that has broad impact within communities and helps insurgents regain freedom of movement. This high-impact, low-visibility violence typifies the insurgency of today and tomorrow in Iraq. If we don't count such incidents, then of course Iraq will appear more stable.

So what is really happening in Iraq? Starting with the caveat that all violence statistics in Iraq are wrong -- because they do not capture all incidents -- it appears that Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has essentially replaced attacks on U.S. forces. A Washington Institute for Near East Policy dataset that relies primarily on Iraqi press reporting shows that the overall number of incidents has stayed remarkably flat since fall 2011, a period that saw the final U.S. military withdrawal, political crises at the national level and in several north-central provinces, and the Shiite religious festivals of Ashura and Arbaeen. Yet although there was no meltdown, there was also no drop in violence as U.S. targets disappeared.

The reason for this is clear: Average monthly reported Iraqi-on-Iraqi attack events were 18 percent higher from March to May 2012 than June to August 2011. If other categories of violence (such as the aforementioned militant-related murders and kidnaps) were counted for both sampling periods, the growth rate in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence would be higher -- probably around 20 to 25 percent.

The sky is not falling in Iraq, but the country is also not truly stabilizing. The toxic political environment is functioning as a life support machine for militant groups that should be on the verge of extinction by now. The numbers of incidents have gone down but nowhere near as fast as anyone would like them to. Iraq is stuck on a plateau of insecurity, particularly in western Baghdad and in the predominately Sunni Arab provinces of Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Anbar, as well as in multi-ethnic Kirkuk.

In Iraq, everything is about momentum: You are either going forward or going backward. Iraq's politics and security are inseparable; security stagnation has occurred because sectarian reconciliation has stalled, the Iraqi security forces have given up on population-focused counter-insurgency, and the political crisis has tempted politicians to use toxic sectarian and ethnic identity-politics to solidify their followings. If current trends continue, the predominately Sunni Arab provinces could ossify into sullen, violent regions that are perpetually under armed government occupation. Stagnation is not a win. It is not even a draw. In fact, it could establish the preconditions for a major surge in violence, and start slowly edging Iraq toward the loss column.

The time to get Iraq back on track is now -- before the bottom falls out of the security situation. A first step to resetting post-occupation U.S. policy on Iraq is to rebuild some of the situational awareness that has been lost in the last year. Arguing the facts about Iraq and relitigating the past is an analytical and political cul-de-sac. To take some heat out of the issue, all parties involved in the debate should try to look at 2012 as "Year Zero": A moment when Iraq policy is viewed afresh, setting aside, as much as possible, the political debates of the past. Iraq should once again be viewed as one part of a broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East -- just like any other country.



How to Get Your Country off the Sh*t List

An open letter to the leaders of Eritrea, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Sudan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and other countries too numerous to list here.

Dear Sirs (and you are all men, so I am safe in that generalization) —

All of your countries remain, to greater and lesser degrees, targets of international opprobrium. The reasons are largely predictable: corruption, repression, the usual extravagant mismanagement. Many of you have tried entirely predictable tactics to improve your standing: hiring small armies of expensive K Street lobbyists and paying for splashy 10-page advertising sections about your countries in Western newsweeklies. None of it has made much of a difference. The aid dollars are starting to dry up, or have already done so, and it is getting hard and harder to use the global war on terror to justify your stranglehold on power.

What to do? Well, there is a useful alternative if you truly wish to get your country off the international shit list. I present President Joyce Banda of Malawi, who has almost completely reversed her country's international image in the three short months she has been in power.

You may remember her predecessor, President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose style resembled many of your own. Once heralded as a reform-minded former World Bank technocrat, Mutharika degenerated as his behavior became more and more erratic and autocratic. In 2005, he abandoned the $100 million presidential palace in Lilongwe -- not because he was embarrassed by living in such outrageous opulence in a country where 90 percent of the population toil in poverty, but because he declared the residence to be haunted by phantom rodents that he could feel but not see. He subsequently purchased a 58-room mansion in his home district and put his wife on the payroll. Mutharika also purchased a $14 million private Dassault Falcon 900EX jet in 2009 along with a fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines. Trying to contain public outrage over the purchase of the jet and its $340,000 in annual operating costs, Mutharika insisted, "The jet is that I purchased is not mine. It belongs to the nation. It will be used by 10, 11 other people coming after me. So that's an asset."

Along with the high living, Mutharika grew increasingly intolerant of dissent. He accused opposition protestors of being "led by Satan" and warned darkly of foreign agents trying to subvert his rule. He expelled the British ambassador and told international donors to "go to hell." Freedom House warned that Malawi was spiraling downward "due to the government's violent suppression of public protests, intimidation of journalists, and threats to academic freedom." The result: The IMF suspended loans in 2011 in large part due a dispute over Mutharika's handling of the currency; British aid was halted; and the Millennium Challenge Corporation put its $350 million compact with Malawi on hold because of actions "inconsistent with the democratic governance criteria that MCC uses to select its compact partners."

In April, when Mutharika was felled by a heart attack (which he might have survived had the Ministry of Health been better stocked with medicines that were largely absent because of the currency crunch), his vice president, Joyce Banda, came to power.

Banda is an atypical African president. Not only is she a woman, she had a degree in early childhood education and ran a series of small businesses and NGOs before she got into politics. When Banda came to power, Malawi's former first lady, Callista Mutharika, was not amused. "She will never be president. How can a mandasi seller be president?" said Mrs. Mutharikain. (Mandasi are Malawi's version of fritters.) Banda reacted with aplomb: "Yes, she's right, I'm indeed a mandasi seller, and I'm proud of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us, mandasi sellers," she retorted.

What makes Banda such an important model for all of you is not her background, though, but the steps she has taken since being sworn in as president.

Declaring, "I'm already used to hitchhiking," Banda announced her plans to sell or lease the Dassault Falcon jet bought by her predecessor. "Why did we have this in the first place?" she wondered, as she demurred that she preferred to fly coach. Similarly, Banda declared that she would sell off the pool of 60 government-owned Mercedes. She fired the powerful police chief implicated in shooting 20 democracy protestors to death the year before, launched an investigation into the death of a prominent student activist, and devalued the currency by 40 percent -- long a demand of international lenders. Banda worked with parliament to rescinded draconian laws that made it illegal to be homosexual, pragmatically citing the importance of "our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws." With Malawi slated to host an Africa Union Summit in July, Banda made clear that Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir -- wanted on genocide charges in The Hague -- was not welcome. Tone-deaf African Union officials sniffed that Banda could not "dictate who could attend the summit." Banda suggested in reply that the AU could take its ball and go home. She noted that Malawi had commitments to other international institutions beyond the AU, and it did not need to host the summit, which will now be held in Ethiopia.

In June, Banda visited Washington, winning over officials and observers in the process. I watched her speak at a small gathering of powerful Washington women insiders, all of whom seemed genuinely affected when the president described how most women in her country have to take candles to the hospital when they deliver children because of the frequent power outages. She hammered home several basic points: She was committed to fighting corruption; Malawi needed to invest more in its women and children; and it was the people and their elected officials, not just her, that had to guide the country toward a better future.

Just like that, the IMF restored a $157 million loan, the $350 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact was reinstated, and other U.S. and British aid flows resumed.

Who knows how this plays out in the long run? It is important to remember that Mutharika launched promising reforms and had good relations with donors before he succumbed to advancing megalomania. Plenty of presidents start strong and then succumb to the usual temptations of power. Banda still has enormous challenges in front of her, and she'll need to match her savvy flair for public relations with sound day-to-day managerial and political skills. She will also need to tread carefully to ensure that her early efforts to curry favor with international donors do not trigger a nationalist backlash over the long haul. But for now, one of Banda's biggest challenges is coordinating all the people and organizations that suddenly want to help her country. There is a lasting lesson there for all of you, or at least any of you willing to make a change.

Oli Scarff/GettyImages