About this blog...

I am a former leader of a Human Terrain Team in Iraq. My intent with this blog was to identify relevant, open-source materials on Iraqi culture, society, politics, religion and economics - just about anything on or about the Iraqi population in general.

I am continuing the blog now only sporadically, as a means of information distribution in support of efforts to improve a vital program hamstrung by failures in execution.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dropping the ball

I think enough has been written and observed about the soccer ball incident in Afghanistan that there's no need to make any heavy-handed observations or arguments about the role an HTT might have played in the planning. (Although, to be fair, this sounds more like a personal good-will initiative rather than a deliberate military effort, so an HTT probably wouldn't have actually mattered anyway...)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Once more, why we need HTS

Saturday's LAT had an article on troop morale. You can agree or disagree with the article itself -- odds are, she decided to write an article on low morale and went out and found evidence to support it (which would have been pretty easy). She could just as easily have decided to write an article on high morale, and she would have found evidence for that as well (it's out there too). This is the very reason why I have a tag called "shallow news."

But one factor, mentioned only in passing, highlights why it's so important that the Army as a institution develop a better understanding of the local population:

Soldiers' discomfort is compounded by the task of forging relations with people whom few trust, and who often make clear their dislike of the U.S. presence.

"All war is political, but usually privates and specialists don't have to think much about that part of it. In this conflict they do, to a much greater degree," Biddle said, referring to the community activities that troops have been drawn into. These include negotiating with tribal leaders who once harbored insurgents, striking deals with former insurgents to bring them into the Iraqi security forces, and listening to residents' complaints about lack of services.

"You have to help people despite the strong suspicion that lots of them mean you ill," Biddle said. "We're asking an awful lot of very, very young people."

The more we equip soldiers with knowledge of the population, the better prepared they are for this new type of mission. That understanding is equipment nearly as essential as a weapon or body armor.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Assessments Galore

For some reason, a ton of assessments have come out in the last few weeks. Maybe they're trying to preempt next month's report from the administration/GEN Petraeus (which will apparently be on Sep 11). Whatever the reason, here they are:
  • First to the numbers:
    • The first one is just a rundown of lots of numerical indicators from Iraq. It's from a blog, but all of his numbers are from major media sources. (That doesn't add a ton to the credibility, but at the very least, it's what's being reported.) The numbers are never clear, though: Iraq Slogger recently discussed a GOI official suggesting that there are a lot more detainees in Iraq than reported.
    • A report from the Fund for Peace based an analysis of 12 economic, social and pol/mil indicators over the last 4 years concludes that the only viable option remaining is to break Iraq into a "Union of Iraqi States" divided by sect and independent in every facet but economics. Even if you don't agree with the conclusion, the quantitative assessment of variables and factors that are exceedingly difficult to quantify can still be useful. So much of the writing about what's happening (and what should happen) in Iraq is anecdotal and opinion-based. The rare attempt to rigorously quantify something more complex than "number of attacks" is always a worthwhile contribution. An abridged version of the report is also available.
  • The Government of Iraq (GoI):
    • This Congressional Research Service (CRS) report assessing the GoI's progress towards meeting political benchmarks concludes that "little progress has been made on the most significant political reconciliation benchmarks, but there has been progress on some of [the] minor political milestones as well as on several security benchmarks." The report goes on to list each benchmark, its original deadline, and the current status. (For all the frequency with which they're discussed, this is the first time I've actually seen the benchmarks in detail...) And remember, the CRS is a nonpartisan research body--it's the same researchers doing the same work, regardless of who's in power.
    • The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) just put out this report on the progress of governance and public management (GPM). Actually, the report is on how to monitor and disseminate information about programs working on GPM (mostly for the GoI and aid agencies to coordinate programs). Since the system largely relies on self-reporting and voluntary coordination, it's not surprising that there are many projects that go unreported, and potential areas for collusion or conflict that are never coordinated. Although the report is more interested in reporting methodology, there are a lot of good charts and graphs breaking down GPM programs, and the GoI's level of cooperation with them. (You have to wonder about some of these goals, though. Does someone out there actually believe that the Iraqis are just clamoring for E-governance?? (p. 22))
  • This RAND Report is actually focused on potential Iraq strategies for the US. The recommendations here are completely devoid of cultural considerations, with suggestions like "Iraq's own security forces must become less sectarian" and arguments that the US should be "supporting a functioning national unity government, preventing a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk [and] forestalling the formation of new autonomous regions."
  • Another CRS report discusses Iran's influence in Iraq. Comments about Iran supplying weapons to some of the militias and religious and political ties between Iran and some Iraqi-Shia leadership are nothing new. However, the formal economic ties between the two countries (a free trade zone around Basrah, providing electricity, aid for infrastructure like a new airport in Najaf) are the types of ties that form a lasting and durable relationship. Iraq is now Iran's second largest non-oil export market (anyone know who's first?), with Iraq buying nearly $1.3 billion in Iranian goods annually. [And note, I am NOT NOT NOT saying these Iran ties are a bad thing; these two countries are each other's largest neighbor -- it is nearly inevitable that they either be close trading partners or end up fighting, and it's hard to call anything inevitable good or bad. Pragmatically, there's no point in judging something that will have to be accepted anyway. This relationship with Iran is simply something to be aware of, and planned for.]
  • Meanwhile, Iraq Slogger has a translation of an email allegedly making the rounds among Baghdad locals assessing the relative safety of each Baghdad neighborhood. If it is what they claim it is, these kinds of local perceptions are pretty critical, if a little vague.
I remain tremendously behind on reading, so I'm sure there's more to come soon. But I'm going to post what I've got now...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

America's cultural blinders

This recent commentary in Foreign Policy holds America and Americans responsible for the turn things have taken in Iraq: we assumed that all peoples--including Iraqis--ultimately share our cultural values, and that was the source of most of our missteps. So, "through our refusal to deal with alien peoples on their own terms, and within their own traditions, we have killed any real hope of a positive outcome in Iraq." This is exactly why the Human Terrain System exists. (Full disclosure: The author, COL (Ret) Patrick Lang, conducted part of our initial training this summer.)

Internet access in Kuwait is pretty limited, so I haven't been reading much, which means I haven't been posting much. I've started to catch up a little in the last few days, though, so there should be lots to come as I catch up...

Friday, August 17, 2007

Yazidis in Iraq

The big discussion in the last few days has obviously been the big attack in the north. It didn't get much coverage at first (beyond this WP article), but the attack was on the Yazidis, one of the very small minority groups. The LAT finally had a decent discussion of the Yazidis yesterday.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Yet another assessment

This assessment was released last week by CSIS. Most of it is more geopolitical than anything else, making the case for the CF remaining in Iraq. But parts of it discuss the oft-cited improvement in tribal cooperation in the west (but with some actual numbers to back it up) and some of the emerging techniques and goals of JAM (along with the political response to JAM). The second half is a list of problems and challenges facing Iraq, but even those that are more Human Terrain-relevant are to abbreviated and shallow to be of any real utility.

Blogging from Iraq

This is a little old, but I'm still catching up on news from over the last week (I've been traveling). This is a WaPo OpEd from an Iraqi dentist, who also keeps a blog. Of course, this kind of single-person account can be dangerous -- it's impossible to discern how representative his sentiments and observations are (mistrusting the militias, for example, rather than seeing them as a source of security). This is a particularly relevant question given that he is an educated doctor blogging in English. But he nonetheless seems an articulate and conscientious observer, and at the very least, it can't hurt to see what he has to say. It may not represent the views of every Iraqi, or even most Iraqis, but it represents at least one.

Ayatollahs on the Ascent

ISN has an interesting piece today on self-declared Ayatollahs that are challenging the traditional Shia power structures. Moqtada al-Sadr is the best known in the west, but there are others that present even clearer challenges to Shia authority figures. Meanwhile, this Carnegie commentary discusses different models of Islamist participation in political processes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Iran in Iraq

There's not a ton of original stuff in the Washington Post article on Basrah - most of it is stuff that's already been noted elsewhere. The interesting bit to me is the bit that Foreign Policy's blog, Passport, picked up on as well: that the Iranian influence in Iraq may have a lot more to do with Iraqi Shia using the Iranians than the other way around...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Humanitarian Status

The NCCI (an organization that coordinates NGO work in Iraq) and Oxfam (a British aid organization) released this report last week on the humanitarian situation in Iraq. I haven't had a chance to review their stats and see how credible they sound, but it is probably a pretty good snap shot of the current status for a lot of the civilians - food, education, employment, refugees, water, electricity, etc...

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Iraqi Stock Exchange

This story is a bit superficial, but I thought it was a little interesting. Apparently, Iraq has a functioning stock exchange. Now, it was launched in 2004, which probably means it was some sort of CPA thing that the Coalition decided to "bestow" upon Iraq as part of its reconstruction. But, the fact that it's still functioning, and even growing, is arguably a sign of something. I've always been a firm believer in the ability of economics and market forces to trump almost anything else--politics, religion, security, whatever--this could potentially be an indicator of that.

The Hand of Allah: Counter-productivity in Action

Sharon Weinberger over in the Danger Room -- Wired Magazine's defense technology blog -- has a great post about an Army spokesman demonstrating the need for Human Terrain Teams. Apparently, when describing a new guided MRLS system (a type of rocket the artillery guys use), some COL claimed that "the enemy" refers to the MRLS rockets as "the Hand of Allah." Nice.