Anbar, the Washington Post and the Devlin Report
Another partially leaked report on Anbar province
The Washington Post has access to segments of the latest intelligence report on Anbar province, and reports the situation in western Iraq is dire. Military and intelligence sources that I spoke to who have read the report indicate that they largely agree with the most recent assessment of the situation in Anbar in Colonel Devlin's report, but not as presented by the Washington Post. The situation in Anbar province, they say, has not changed much since the release of the last report. And as I noted in September concerning the Devlin report:
I've talked to several sources in the military and intelligence who have actually seen the entire report (and not been fed excerpts). They are angry over the media's characterization of the report. Basically, the report indicated that the situation in Ramadi is dire, and that the political situation in Anbar as a whole as a result is in danger because of this.
Ramadi has been a problem for some time, but the major problem there has been the Iraqi government's lack of political will to act over the course of the last year. Even ceding the security situation to the tribes is a form of passing the problem on to the locals.
The same holds true with the current report. This is an 'executive summary, paints the situation in Anbar in broad terms, and Ramadi is the focal point of the problem.
The Washington Post report on Anbar certainly contains plenty of truth, which makes the argument effective. But the statements are excepted (and cleverly at that, note the breaks in the quotations) and the context is poor. Several examples:
Claim: The report, "State of the Insurgency in Al-Anbar," focuses on conditions in the province that is home to 1.25 million Iraqis, most of whom live in violence-ridden towns such as Fallujah, Haditha, Hit, Qaim and Ramadi.
Context: The majority of U.S. casualties occur in and around Ramadi, the provincial capital. While there is violence in Fallujah, Haditha, Hit and Qaim, describing the cities as 'violence ridden' is a stretch. I receive reports from Marines in these cities that paints a different picture. While al Qaeda is active throughout the province, the center of their efforts are on the provincial capital of Ramadi"
Claim: Between al Qaeda's violence, Iran's influence and an expected U.S. drawdown, "the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point" that U.S. and Iraqi troops "are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar," the assessment found.
Context: The problems in Anbar province and elsewhere in Iraq have always required a political solution. The deteriorating security situation in Baghdad and the fears of a U.S. withdrawal have exacerbated the situation. No one I have spoken to has ever said a military-only solution was possible. Reconciliation is a key element to reducing the violence, and this is why al Qaeda and Iranian backed Sadr have been stirring up sectarian violence. But it is nice the Washington Post noted the political situation in the U.S. and the calls for rapid withdrawal have a real impact on perceptions in Iraq.
Claim: That is why, it says, the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June "had so little impact on the structure and capabilities of al Qaeda," especially in Anbar province.
Context: Al-Qaeda in Iraq has become far more effective in Anbar and Iraq because it replaced Zarqawi, who was alienating the Sunnis, with Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who is an effective leader and has close connections to al Qaeda Command (specifically Ayman al-Zawahiri). The Coalition would do well to eliminate al-Masri and his senior leadership.
Claim: They have been increasingly abandoned by religious and political leaders who have fled to neighboring countries, and other leaders have been assassinated.
Context: When the Sunni insurgents were seriously considering reconciliation, Al-Qaeda in Iraq went on a campaign of killing or co-opting all of the major insurgent leaders in order to establish themselves as the unquestioned force in Anbar. Al-Qaeda in Iraq hunted down and killed a lot of leaders in groups that supported reconciliation with the government, such as in Anbar's Ansar al-Sunnah leadership. The Anbar chapter of Ansar al-Sunnah was willing to negotiate with the government over the summer.
Claim: [Colonel Devlin] described al Qaeda in Iraq as the "dominate organization of influence in al-Anbar," surpassing all other groups, the Iraqi government and U.S. troops "in its ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni."
Context: Al-Qaeda in Iraq is considered the "dominate organization of influence in al-Anbar" - among the insurgents. An intelligence source tells us al Qaeda in Iraq controls a majority of the insurgency in Anbar. Some insurgent groups have opted to side with the tribes (the 1920s Revolution Brigade) or are on the fence (The Islamic Army of Iraq claim to be working with al Qaeda but want to negotiate a settlement with the U.S.)
Concerning "[al Qaeda's] ability to control the day-to-day life of the average Sunni," this is referring to what is known as "the balance or terror." Al-Qaeda has instilled fear into the general Sunni population (particularly in Ramadi) and the Sunni tribes and Coalition forces are fighting to turn thsi around. Al-Qaeda has effectively terrorized western Iraq since the fall of Saddam's regime. But they cannot operate in the open, or stand up to American, or even Iraqi military formations.
Claim: Devlin suggested that without the deployment of an additional U.S. military division -- 15,000 to 20,000 troops -- plus billions of dollars in aid to the province, "there is nothing" U.S. troops "can do to influence" the insurgency.
Context: Anbar has a population of about 1.3 million, and is about the size of South Carolina. Both military and intelligence sources inform us the number of requested troops is accurate. The requested troops are the same number floated that is needed to clear Ramadi. They are not asking for more than a division of troops. Far more would be needed if all of Anbar was an issue.
Claim: Al-Qaeda itself, now an "integral part of the social fabric of western Iraq," has become so entrenched, autonomous and financially independent that U.S. forces no longer have the option "for a decapitating strike that would cripple the organization," the report says.
Context: Al-Qaeda integrated the six Sunni tribes in Anbar and formed the "Mutayibeen Coalition," which is comprised of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura, and some minor insurgent groups. The tribes have always been 'financially independent' (in fact, Saddam didn't really control much of western Iraq as much as he coexisted with it, and bought influence via bribes, political and military appointments and the secret police). The co opting of the six tribes gave al Qaeda a measure of financial independence. The Anbar tribes have made their living off of smuggling, and al Qaeda has access to this ready cash. However al Qaeda in Iraq has never wont for money from backers in the Gulf and elsewhere.
A source that read the report indicates there is mention of the Iraqi people's resistance to al Qaeda. The latest incarnation of this resistance is the Anbar Salvation Council, which just last weekend fought al Qaeda in the streets of Ramadi.
Where's the balance?
But with so few reporters in Anbar province, or Iraq for that matter (11 embedded reporters in Iraq is the last number I saw), what did the Washington Post do to assess the situation outside of the excerpted Devlin report? Why is it that Coalition press releases and statements from officers are often ignored, or must be balanced by outside reporting and observations (including the use of insurgent stringers, as bloggers Patterico and Flopping Aces recently documented), but the Devlin report is discussed without outside context? Michael Fumento and Martin Fletcher were recently in Ramadi, and told stories about grudging progress in the city, both militarily and politically. Grudging progress which can yield even further results if the necessary troops requested by the report are provided.
I'll end this by repeating what I said in September, as this is still true:
If the military community is unwilling to step up to the plate and defend itself, except in vague terms, about the situation in Ramadi then they will have to deal with the backlash of this decision. Good work has been and continues to be done in Anbar. The military has a problem with public affairs, plain and simple, and fails to realize that the impact on remaining silent on this report far outweighs the need to keep the information classified.
My sources, who will not go on record except under anonymity, are furious that the good work of officers like Colonel Devlin is being politicized through what appear to be selective leaks to media outlets. In many cases, this and other leaks are being perpetrated by a fairly select group of individuals whose identities are known within the intelligence community. Because the Defense Department leadership is unwilling to declassify the Devlin report or refute these leaks by placing the text of the report in its full context, they have effectively handcuffed themselves from correcting the record and the damage has already been done.