Friday, January 29, 2016

Reinventing the Modern System

There has been some news about promising progress in the training program for new Iraqi Army brigades. US commanders are talking about applying the lessons learned from the Ramadi battle and how this will become the new standard for churning out the 8 brigades need to retake Mosul. This, combined with the shaping operations need before taking the plunge in Mosul (think Hawijah, Sharqat, and surrounding areas) means Mosul will likely go through 2016 still in ISIS hands.

As a student of war and history, I can't resist drawing analogies to WWI (while fully aware of the astronomical difference in scale). Almost exactly a 100 years ago, European armies and their generals struggled to find ways to break the bloody stalemate that gripped the western front in 1915-1916. That excruciatingly painful learning process eventually produced what many today call the modern system of warfare (thanks, professor Biddle!).

The Iraqi military today is not relearning skills and methods they had known before but forgotten since the 2003 war. The Iraqi military, in my view, never fully internalized the modern system, and is therefore learning from scratch. There are good reasons the 1980-1988 war with Iran is sometimes called "the last battle of WWI." Similarly, the strategic posture of the Iraqi army during the Gulf War 25 years ago also reflected pre-modern system way of doing business. Of course, some units in the army had been able to conduct maneuver warfare during the late stages of the Iran war and during the invasion of Kuwait, but the overall posture and doctrine were outdated. The situation only got worse during preparations for contact with the US military in early 2003.

After 2003 the building of the new built military also missed an opportunity to include training needed to produce a force capable of conducting proper modern system/combined arms warfare. The result was a "checkpoint army" that, putting aside corruption and morale issues, was ill-prepared for the job.

There were several years of *relative* peacetime during which this kind of training could have been done...but it's better late than never. I hope this effort will continue to retrain the whole army, not just the minimum required for Mosul.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Iraq privatizing electrical tariff collection

The Iraqi government has officially begun the privatization of electrical tariff collection this week. The ministry of electricity reported today that a tariff collection in a handful of residential districts in Baghdad has been handed over to private companies.

There's a lot of money there. The ministry says there's about $2.5 billion worth of unpaid bills. The private companies will not be in charge of collecting on those old unpaid bills, though. Instead, the new effort will focus on collecting current and future bills.

The Kurdish Regional Government is considering a similar plan. Earlier this month, the deputy PM, Qubad Talabani, said the KRG was looking into monetizing parts of the power sector, namely bill collection.

Both plans by the federal and regional authorities will be hard to implement. Perhaps the KRG faces a relatively tougher challenge because a) people have less money in Kurdistan because the KRG hasn't been able to pay salaries, and b) Power supplies in parts of Kurdistan have seen, relatively speaking, a sharper decline in recent months.

That's not to say the federal authorities will be hugely successful. They will have an uphill, likely losing battle trying to expand tariff collection outside Baghdad to the provinces. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

KRG President Barzani says he’s ready to give up the presidency

KRG President Masoud Barzani reportedly told political parties at a meeting today that he’s willing to handover the presidency to someone who’s ready to take over the job. The report says no one at the meeting responded to Barzani’s offer. 

Was this a serious offer? Let's assume someone comes tomorrow and says: "I'm ready! give me the job." What happens next?

1) Does president Barzani have the power to transfer the presidency without elections? 
2) If so (or if that doesn't matter), how much legitimacy will that presidency have? 
3) How will other contenders react?

It's an offer no one can accept. Brilliant.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Peshmerga war crimes?

Amnesty International has a report that says there's evidence of a "concerted campaign" of displacement and destruction of homes by the KRG to punish Arab communities in northern Iraq for their perceived support of ISIS.

A couple of things must be said here. 

First, this is a reminder of the risks--for outside powers--associated with taking sides in a civil war. There's a dilemma. On the one hand it is imperative that you assist those who are willing to fight ISIS. On the other hand, most, if not all of those anti-ISIS actors have innocent blood on their hands.

Second, the actions the report says the Peshmerga did, if true, are reprehensible. But at the same time, it could've been worse. There are many shades of bad. I'll choose angry Peshmerga over smiling Badr any time. Ask Sunni Arabs in Diyala and Salahaddin. 

Third, war brings out the worst in people. It makes you paranoid and hugely increases the risks of giving others the benefit of doubt. Policies that look to an outside observer as collective punishment, are considered preventative/defensive in the eyes of those executing those policies. 

Is this the end for Basra Heavy?

There was a piece in the news today about Iraq asking CNPC to go ahead with existing plans to ramp up production at Halfaya oilfield to 400,000 bpd on condition that CNPC accepts deferred payment.

The interesting, and alarming, piece of information that came with the story is that the cost of production at Halfaya is said to be $15/barrel. While this is still rather low by industry standards, it means that Basra Heavy is about to reach the point where extraction cost meets or exceeds the selling price.

Basra Heavy, which makes up roughly a quarter of Iraq's southern exports, was fetching about $24 in late December when Brent was hovering just above $36. Today Brent fell to $27. You do the math. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Saudi Arabia and the Case for Rebalancing U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States needs a new doctrine for the Middle East. This new strategy should acknowledge that some allies in the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia, no longer act as forces of stability. The U.S. administration must demand demonstrable changes in state-sanctioned religious indoctrination if it hopes to mitigate the increasing threats of international terror.

Wars in Iraq and Syria, more frequent attacks in Europe, and expanding Islamic militancy in Africa point to gaping U.S. policy deficiencies in its prevalent understanding of and vision for combating violent extremism in Muslim communities. Every time militants strike a Western city or establish a stronghold elsewhere, U.S. and Western allies rush to double down on airstrikes and issue calls for political settlements to civil wars. Yet these governments never confront their own allies in the Muslim world that have been helping to stoke the jihadi fires among Muslim communities. Instead, the most cost-effective answer to long-term terrorist threats is to stop Saudi Arabia’s policy of promoting Salafi Takfiri Islam.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Partition Checklist

People curious about Iraq often ask me this question: Would it not be better to just break up Iraq? Or, Do you think Iraq will separate it into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states?

In order to answer this question, I think one must first look at the set of issues that could decide whether Iraq will break down into 3 states. I will not discuss here whether Iraq should be partitioned into 3 states.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but these are in my opinion the key questions. Let’s call them, the partition checklist.

Will Iraq’s neighbors support its partition?

a) Will Saudi Arabia welcome an exclusively Shia Iraqi state on its northern border? Will it exacerbate a sense of encirclement? Think about the Saudi response to the rise of the Houthis in Yemen.

b) Will Turkey welcome the formation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state? Yes, the Turks like the Barzanis, but does this mean Ankara will not worry about other Kurds in Syria and Turkey itself following suit? Think about Erdogan’s renewed conflict with the PKK and his response to the YPG.

c) Will Iran prefer to have greater influence over part of Iraq (the new Shia state), or lesser influence over all of Iraq? What if you throw in geographic link to Syria and Hezbollah with the latter?

The Kurds aside, will the Shia and Sunni Arabs want partition?

a) Despite some complaints about the cost of fighting to retake Sunni areas from ISIS, there are few signs of support for partition among Shia Arabs.

b) The Sunni Arabs are, as usual, divided and unable to produce a unified vision for their future in Iraq. Perhaps we can loosely identify 4 schools of thought among them: 

1) Jihadists and right wing Sunnis who want to control all of Iraq (include ISIS and remnants of JRTN et al in this category); 

2) Federalists who wish to copy the KRG experiment and push for what we can call functioning federalism (this is more or less mainstream, as demonstrated by the 2011-2013 regionalization projects in Diyala, Ninewa and Salahaddin; 

3) Idealist nationalists who dream of a secular Iraq with strong central government (you could count Allawi’s supporters in this category); and 

4) Pragmatists/federalism skeptics who prioritize retaking Sunni land from ISIS (the must-have) over the delegation of power from the center to the province (nice-to-have, at best). This generally applies to anti-ISIS tribes in Anbar.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Conscription to replace National Guard?

There's talk in the parliament defense and security committee about preparing a proposal to reinstate conscription as an alternative to the National Guard project, which has been stalled from more than a year. Supposedly, the Speaker or one of his deputies is said planning to convene a meeting of the heads of political blocs to discuss differences over the National Guard proposal, and the potential for replacing it with conscription.

Interesting this is coming from Sadrist "lawmaker" and militia leader Hakim Zamili because the idea of reinstating conscription used to come from secular Sunni nationalists like DPM Mutlaq.

Charge of the Knights 2.0?

There's good news for Basra today. PM Abadi, who is in town for security meetings and a ribbon cutting for a new 500MW power plant, has ordered a heavy security force to be sent to Basra to restore order and disarm tribes that have been wreaking havoc there. The force, including Abrams tanks, started arriving this morning.

It is very positive that Baghdad can now afford to redeploy (and hopefully sustain) some troops with teeth back to southern provinces after the ISIS war forced the government to send almost every unit that can fight to the front lines in Anbar, Salahadding, Diyala and around Baghdad.  If this effort in Basra proves successful it will have great implications for the broader struggle for restoring state authority.

The big difference between Charge of the Knights in 2008 and the mission that started today in Basra is that there are no American or British troops to help the ISF. Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shia Kurds told to leave Sadr city

This is curious. Hakim al-Zamili, the senior Sadrist who, quite unfortunately, chairs the Parliament security committee, told the press that Shia Kurds residing in Sadr city have received threatening phone calls telling them to leave the area.

Zamili then contradicts himself. On one hand says that the threats were made by groups that want to displace Kurds and commandeer their homes "like what happened to Christians." On the other hand he says those threats are not serious and are meant to make Sadr city look "unsafe, militia-infested."

This doesn't smell good. This guy is up to something. 

Diyala scares me

The ISIS attack on a mall in Baghdad yesterday was nasty, but for some reason attacks in Diyala tend to be scarier in terms of the escalation and retaliation that follows. As usual, retaliation means collective punishment against the suspect community. In this case several mosques and shops were torched and about a dozen people were executed on the streets by unknown militants. Sunni residents were told to leave the town. Worse things could follow...

What will it take for the human race in general, and people in the Middle East in particular, to recognize that collective punishment is a failed counterproductive policy?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Erdogan says attempted attack in Baeshiqa "vindicates deployment", but PUK says there was no ISIS action

Erdogan today said that ISIS was about to strike camp Baeshiqa, where Turkish troops are deployed, with rockets. Turkish soldiers accompanied by Iraqi volunteers preempted the attack, according to Erdogan. He said the incident shows that Turkey was right to deploy additional troops last month to protect Turkish advisers training anti-ISIS Iraqi volunteers.

However, a PUK source says there was no attack and that "the Baeshiqa sector did not see any ISIS movement worth mentioning."

Interesting to see a PUK guy go out of his way to contradict Erdogan and Nujaifi even though the alleged incident is way out of PUK areas. 

Sistani disappointed by inaction on corruption

Sistani's Representative in Karbala, Ahmed Safi, relayed in Friday's sermon the Grand Ayatollah's frustration with lack of results in prosecuting the "heads of corruption." Safi had this to say: "The year passed without clear achievements on the ground...this is very regrettable...I will not say more at this point."

The tone is different from what it used to be 6 months ago when the reforms initiative was launched. Today it is more indicative of frustration than of resolve. This a worrisome sign.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Funny one! Gorran wants Abadi to help remove Barzani

Things are getting uglier between the KDP and Gorran. Yesterday there was news that the KDP wants to sue Gorran's leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, over the unrest back in October. Today, a Gorran MP in the Iraqi parliament says PM Abadi should intervene to remove Masoud Barzani from office, saying his stay in office is illegal...Not the best display of internal cohesion when you're trying to sell your plans for independence.

Pipeline to send Kirkuk gas to Turkey?

So supposedly the Kirkuk administration agreed with Erbil to build a pipeline to send gas from the Bai Hassan field to Turkey. Question is, who's going to pay for it when both Erbil and Kirkuk are broke? I think the chances of this idea becoming a reality are pretty slim. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A three-year deadline for Kurdish "amicable divorce from Iraq"?

Anyone ever heard of, Aziz Ahmad, the person who supposedly wrote this article on Newsweek?
I have not. Why three years? I have many questions about this piece. It's too simplistic in its narrative, yet strikingly specific when it comes to the policy changes it demands. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Peshmerga digging new trench around Kirkuk

So apparently the Peshmerga is making is making progress establishing a new trench system south and west of Kirkuk city. The new trench will reportedly be supported by "fortresses" every 300 meters.

This is not the first time the Peshmerga dig a defensive trench around contested territory. But this one is said to be a little different. It includes GPS beacons, and, rumor has it, is meant to function as a new permanent border.