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NIE on Iraq: A Turning Point

Contrary to popular opinion, all is not quite lost

By Michael Tanji | February 2, 2007

Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the Key Judgments of the updated National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Contrary to the early interpretation of the report from some quarters it does not close the door on success. To wit:

… Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this Estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006. …

In other words a successful surge – or the broader idea that a political solution can only take root if there is a clamp-down on violence – will not be a waste of time or effort. Of course combat-related caveats to the viability of the best laid plans still apply.

Addressing the political issues in Iraq the Key Judgments are more news than intelligence: Shi'a are suspicious of the Sunni and of us; Sunni don't like their change in status and worry that Iranian influence will only make their situation worse; the absence of mini-Titos makes progress difficult as factions-of-factions tend to complicate the political process; and the Kurds are about the only ones who have their act together enough to make something substantial happen for them and theirs.

On the security front we get no great revelations: Sectarian divisions hamper effective military and police activities (we want them to think federal, they continue to act local); jihadists and insurgents still operate with entirely too much effectiveness; violence drives the refugee problem, which in turn complicates reconstruction (no rebuilding without a skilled domestic workforce).

Is Iraq in a civil war? The intelligence community says "yes and no." While "civil war" applies to aspects of the conflict in Iraq, things are much more complicated than blue on gray. That's not necessarily a good thing, but one thing is for certain:

Coalition capabilities, including force levels, resources, and operations, remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.

In other words if you want to guarantee failure in the near term, by all means engage in "redeployment" or any variation on that theme. Viewed from another angle they are reiterating that forward progress depends on the surge being a success.

Assuming a crack-down on violence works, solving the myriad problems in Iraq will require the soft-power solutions that many have called for but to date have been lacking. Stresses and tensions need to be eased, trust needs to be built, and all sides need to see sufficient progress in order to be convinced that federalism is the ideal way forward. This means not just working with political parties – a relatively new concept in formerly Ba'ath dominated Iraq – but with the tribal system as well.

The Key Judgments also assess that external players like Iran and Syria are a factor in internal violence, but not a major part, which is where we at ThreatsWatch would have placed a marker of dissent. The violence in Iraq is not quite the self-licking ice cream cone some make it out to be. Assume for a minute that other analyst's statements about the sheer volume of Iranian agents in Iraq is true, it is hard to argue that 10-divisions of spies, killers and provocateurs is not "major" in any way, shape or form. Assuming the size of the interfering force is much more modest, the level of effort and the amount of materiel those agents are employing is still substantial, as the recent kidnapping and execution of US troops by suspected Qods agents and the discovery of Iranian-made equipment indicates.

As both professional analysts and interested citizens prepare to assess the progress of the surge, it is important to take note of some key indicators the NIC notes will require monitoring: sustained mass sectarian killings, assassination of major religious and political leaders, and a complete Sunni defection from the government. Should the surge fail, there are a number of paths down which events may unfold:

• Chaos Leading to Partition. With a rapid deterioration in the capacity of Iraq's central government to function, security services and other aspects of sovereignty would collapse. Resulting widespread fighting could produce de facto partition, dividing Iraq into three mutually antagonistic parts. Collapse of this magnitude would generate fierce violence for at least several years, ranging well beyond the time frame of this Estimate, before settling into a partially stable end-state.

• Emergence of a Shia Strongman. Instead of a disintegrating central government producing partition, a security implosion could lead Iraq's potentially most powerful group, the Shia, to assert its latent strength.

• Anarchic Fragmentation of Power. The emergence of a checkered pattern of local control would present the greatest potential for instability, mixing extreme ethno-sectarian violence with debilitating intra-group clashes.

Readers of CTA's Achieving Victory in Iraq report could have read the same thing last month.

We have not reached the point of no return, but make no mistake: absent an abandonment of the Pentagon's ideal force posture and the deployment of a massive occupation force, the surge is the last best military-oriented hope for stability in Iraq.


Listed below are links that reference NIE on Iraq: A Turning Point:

» The Updated NIE on Iraq from The Political Pit Bull
Michael Tanji has analysis over at ThreatsWatch.... [Read More]

» NIE on Iraq: A Turning Point from Bill's Bites
National Intelligence Estimated Jules Crittenden Once again, the National Intelligence Estimate, turns out to be a good measure of national intelligence.* For example, why would the Washington Post, which is staffed by smart people, lede with this:The ... [Read More]

» Bill's Nibbles -- 2007.02.03 from Old War Dogs
Some Bill's Bites posts, some things I excerpted and linked but I'm sending you to the original post. I may rearrange the order of the links within this post as I add new things that I think belong above the [Read More]

» UPDATED --- Iraq: National Intelligence Estimate from Stormwarning's Counterterrorism
This is a summary of the unclassified and recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq (NIE). UPDATED: Its interesting how black and white statements (made in the NIE) can be interpreted in so many shades of gray. There are a [Read More]


What a lazy, not to mention, completely skewed analysis you make of the NIE. Did you actually read all 9 pages? did you miss this part:

"Nevertheless, even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate", as well as the half-dozen or so compelling reasons why the situation is so challenging? And you actually believe that 21,000 more U.S. soldiers is going to turn all that around?

And you call yourself an analyst? What a joke!

Read my full criticism of your post at www.idolator.net.

Your post reminds of that old adage, "Hope springs eternal." Like the addicted gambler who always wants one more chance for the gold ring.

The situation on the ground in Iraq is not as bad as depicted by the mainstream liberal media and not as good as portrayed by the administration, but that's par for the course.

In a two-party republic the party out of power will squeeze politcal gains out of the perceived mis-adventures of the party in power and therein lies the rub.
Internal political dissent will always give the enemy encouragement to continue.

Bush has a little less than two years to mop things up and give the appearance of accomplishment before the democrats move into the Whitehouse and begin a withdrawal, but not an abandonment of Iraq. One of two things will happen; a "strongman will take control of Iraq and establish order under strict martial law or Iraq will break-up into a loose confederation of three states; Kurdistan, Sunniville, and Shia Town. And I still opine, that the Kurds will declare their own independent state. I know there are political and economic constraints, but Israel had the same basic constraints in 1948 and that didn't hinder them. As for the Kurds, if not now, then when??!!


If your argument is that you are a pessimist and I am an optimist therefore I am wrong, we've got nothing more to talk about. If you would like to make an honest effort to critique my comments and the NIC's findings then I welcome your participation in this forum.

If the NIC felt that any enhanced military response would be a wasted effort they would have said so. They did not. They said that clamping down on the violence is required if there is to be any chance of political success and I agree. They also said that there are no guarantees even if the violence is suppressed and again I agree. You think the point of no return has passed: both the NIC and I agree that it has not, but it is just around the corner.

Intelligence assessments do not predict the future but as we see in this particular NIE, they do plot out courses along which events may evolve. Tracking the indicators the NIC has provided – and others – over the course of the surge will be a better way to assess success or failure than simply taking the contrary position to those to whom you feel ideologically opposed.

I have two broad comments to add to those of my colleague:

1) There is nothing in the NIE that I consider clearly wrong, although I think that there are some important omissions and debateable conclusions. But while American media coverage of Iraq is pretty sketchy, there isn't a single element in the report one cannot pick up from reading an independent Arab newspaper. Perhaps there are some jewels in the classified section, but you don't need an intelligence apparatus to write something like this.

2) Where the NIE is questionable is in its description of the sectarian struggle for power, which it half-labels a "civil war." Two important facts about Iraqi society are omitted:
(a) the fact that the Sunni tribes, despite being anti-American and anti-Shia, have overwhelmingly turned against al-Qaeda, thus making their life in Iraq much more difficult, and
(b) the fact that mainstream Shia authorities have consistently opposed revenge attacks on Sunnis.

The fact that Sunni and Shia extremists, backed by foreign powers, are engaging in sectarian killing does not a civil war make. If one wants to see what a real civil war looks like, look at what is happening in Gaza right now; Fatah and Hamas are mainstream factions representing the bulk of Palestinian society, and they are daily killing each other in the streets. Neither is an extremist faction.

I also agree with Michael that the "self-sustaining" description of the sectarian conflict is questionable. I don't know how many agents Iran has in Iraq, but the fact is that all of the Shia and Sunnis who are engaged in the targeting of civilians are foreign supported, and many, especially on the Sunni side, aren't even Iraqis.

Agreed up to a point, Kirk.

Hamas and Fatah are not extremist factions?

Perhaps the families of Israelis killed by both - for the sins of riding on an Israeli bus or eating at an Israeli pizzaria - would energetically differ. If your premise is because they represent the bulk of Palestinians, that is a very questionable measure. Both of their charters call for the destruction of Israel.

This has nothing to do with the NIE, but I felt compelled to respond.


My issue is much more than a optimist v pessimist one. You pick one sentence from the report to support your claim that "a successful surge will not be a waste of time or effort." You cannot support that, Michael. It's pure optimistic conjecture on your part. Here's why:

You completely neglect to mention the very next sentence, which states one of the key drivers of the report:

"Nevertheless, even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate."

Then the authors list 7 linchpins supporting that driver: the inability of the Shia to hold onto power; Sunni Arabs unwilling to accept minority status; the absence of unifying leaders among the Shia, Sunni and Kurds; the Kurds ongoing effort to consolidate the KRG; inherent internal weaknesses within the ISF; radical Sunni and Shia extremist groups (Al Qa'ida and the Mahdi army); and significan population displacement (1,000,000+).

How many of these linchpins will be countered by a successful Surge? Zero.

So, Michael, I've now explained my contrary position. How do you defend yours?


I would say emphatically that Hamas and Fatah are not extremist factions, at least not in Palestinian society, which is the only context that matters for the purposes of discussing weather a civil war exists.

When we favor a group or leader we tend to call the moderate, and when we oppose them, we tend to call them extremist. But these labels are not useful in understanding them. Hamas has a fair amount in common with al-Qaeda in terms of end goals, short-term tactics and recruiting base, and mainly differs from AQ in strategy and politics. Hamas is extremist by the standards of some Muslim societies; in the context of Palestinian society, Hamas is very mainstream.

In the last election, the two groups received approximately 90% of the popular vote between them. I have seen no reason to think that the election was not reflective of true popular support, except to the extent to which it was partially rigged toward Fatah, since Abbas was buying votes with jobs.

Fatah I would describe as mainstream as well. Its political leadership contains a mixture of radicals and true moderates, and it has a terrorist wing, the AMB, as you know. But its public support is indisputable, even if it is less than it once was.

A final point: consider that there was a secular democratic alternative to Fatah, Fayyad's Third Way Party, and a radical Marxist terrorist alternative, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. They got three and four seats, respectively, or about three percent of the vote each. Hamas and Fatah got almost all the rest.

It was said to me offline that the thrust of your statement was relative to Palestinians and the state of the Palestinian civl war as compared to what is happening in Iraq.

And I will say to you the same as I said to the others offline: I understood fully your point and, further, do not disagree with the differences between Gaza, for example, and Iraq.

I disagree with your belief that neither HAMAS nor Fatah are extremist.

I disagree with your benchmark - "in Palestinian society, which is the only context that matters for the purposes of discussing weather a civil war exists." Perhaps you are too nuanced for my taste and asserting that, since one is no more 'extreme' than the other, then neither can be considered extremist in comparison.

They both attack and kill civilian targets within Israel and the Palestinian territories. This is the benchmark which I use. They do not exist in a test tube for labratory analytics or any other comparative analysis. Their 'label' is guaged by their actions, not by their relative posture compared to a civil-warring rival.

Were either or both to alter their respective charters, it would be a start. If Fatah would disavow the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and/or Hamas disavow the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees, that'd be a huge step. If one or the other would engage in a real effort to convince the Palestinian society to find peace with an Israeli neighbor and accept Gaza and the West Bank in some haggled over form as a Palestinian State and forgo the "River To The Sea" vision, then yes, one or both would no longer be considered by me as extremist.

Let's give al-Qaeda a political party with candidates in . Let them provide social services, education, policing responsibilities. Because they do these things, are they no longer 'extremist'?

All three would have objectives, responsibilities and elected leaders. Yet, so long as their activities include targeting civilians for death for the purposes of furthering any agenda, then all three are extremist groups, regardless of whether they exist in the same test tube or dispersed among truly non-extremist alternatives.

My point is, just because the Palestinian people continue to elect them and hand them the responsibilities of governance (civl war or none) does not make them any less extreme in their murderous practices. That Palestinian society has not found a way to empower anything less perhaps speaks to the Palestinians, regretably.

Like I said originally, I agree with you up to that point. Hamas and Fatah are extremist groups, no matter whether you compare them to each other or the Torries. They need not be 'extremely different' to be extreme.


I do think that we are using different benchmarks here. So I do want to make clear - I know you realize this, but some readers may not - that I do not mean to imply that we should accept violence by Hamas or Fatah simply because they are part of the Palestinian center. Certainly not, and I meant no insensitivity toward the victims of Palestinian terrorism. Yet I believe labeling them "extremist" is more than a semantic error, it can distort our understanding of what is happening on the ground. I have for a while now been more pessimistic on Palestine than Iraq for precisely this reason. Back in 2005 when world leaders were congradulating Abbas on leading the Palestinians toward democracy, I became convinced that it would all go awry because I saw Palestinians marching in the streets in favor of marketplace suicide bombers on Al-Jazeera.

I think Americans have likewise made a mistake in insisting that our terrorist enemies as some sort of fringe with little base in the Muslim world. Can an academic argument be sustained that terrorism violates Islamic law? I think so. Are Islamic terrorist groups a fringe element in Muslim societies? Sometimes, it depends on which society or group you are talking about. In west and northwest Pakistan, the Taliban is more mainstream than Hamas is in Gaza. I think that when we simply label such groups as extremist without regard to their real public support, we handicap ourselves by underestimating their staying power.

Moving back to the Iraq comparison, this analogy is useful. I believe that there is hope in Iraq because while there is much distrust and animus between even mainstream Sunni and Shia factions, there is, I believe, a since desire to live together if the right arrangement can be struck. The problem, in part, is that each sides distrusts the other so much that it demands more than the other is currently willing to give. That is a generalization, but I think that it is descriptive of most Iraqi factions.

In Palestine, by contrast, it is a true zero-sum game: Hamas' ideology requires that it not only destroy Israel, but dominate and ultimately destroy Fatah. There is no legitimate role for a group like Fatah in Hamas' world. And Fatah knows this. There is thus an inevitable fight, and someone will win. There will only be peace in Palestine if (a) Fatah beats Hamas, and (b) the moderates in Fatah overcome the terrorists in the group.

That is my take on the issue.