September 18, 2006

About the Mosul chemical weapons lab

Every now and again I see reference to the Iraq insurgency's "chemical weapons lab" found in Mosul a year ago. The initial story was fairly alarming.

There's a slightly more revealing story in the Air Force Times that really should be read in conjunction. It's here.

Initial testing by chemical teams from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) found no evidence of chemical warfare agents, but more detailed tests are being conducted in Baghdad as well as the United States, said Maj. Michael Petrunyak, chemical officer for Task Force Freedom.

Petrunyak said the home-made equipment found at the chemical plant could be used for mixing these industrial chemicals into some type of weapon such as an accelerant for explosives. He said there was no evidence as to whether the plant existed before the start of the U.S. war in Iraq in March 2003.

"There are ways to make explosives more powerful,' Petrunyak told reporters today, but added that it will take time to sort out the truth. "Itís not going to be as easy as this is X, Y and Z ó itís what does this and this make when itís mixed together."

The plant is a one-story, concrete building in an industrial area of eastern Mosul. Inside there are several containers of Formaldehyde and bags of Sodium Hydroxide, or caustic soda which can be used as a strong base, Petrunyak said.

Of course, formaldehyde and sodium hydroxide can also be found in close conjunction with each other in a meth lab, but let's say that the int guys got that much right and this was actually an insurgent hideout. The most likely explanation is that the bad guys had acquired two-thirds of a common recipe for HMTD high explosive. The missing third ingredient would have been ammonium sulfate, found in fertilizer.

What it could be is evidence that, at least around Mosul, insurgents are finally beginning to run out of easily procurable surplus explosives and have had to start making their own. What it is definitely not is evidence they were in the chemical weapons game, which requires somewhat different ingredients.

Posted by BruceR at 04:58 PM

On the incompetence dodge

Re Matthew Yglesias v. Jonathan Chait on the incompetence dodge in Iraq:

The debate is whether Iraq was lost from the beginning, or lost through American incompetence in execution. Well, the history of this blog shows my own extreme skepticism that the fantasies of the war backers were achievable months before the actual invasion. But I still thought then there was a long-shot chance of eventual success, and I wouldn't retract that now.

Why? Well, because of the successful historical examples of West Germany and Japan to start with. Both countries had as little a successful history of non-authoritarian rule as Iraq did, in a way, but they were effectively reconstructed. Looking at the history of German reconstruction in particular shows two huge political differences with Iraq, and the Marshall Plan isn't one of them.

First off, much of the German army was kept in being or reconscripted into labour battalions to assist in early rebuilding. I identified the May 23, 2003 decision to permanently disband the Iraqi military and aggressively de-Baathify the civil service as a huge error in September of that year, and nothing that's happened since has changed that opinion.

The other big difference between Iraq and Germany was the way German politics were slowly reconstructed democratically from the municipal level on up, starting with town and city elections in January, 1946, through provincial elections, and then national elections and the passing of the Basic Law (the new constitution) in 1949. By comparison, the American model in Iraq was inordinately rushed, with U.S. appointed, undemocratic local councils within two months of Baghdad falling and a series of increasingly divisive national election events since. In Germany, the Americans gave Germans time to learn democracy at the most immediate levels before forcing them to use it to solve national problems... a lesson that was completely lost in Iraq. A German model would have seen an Iraqi constitution and elected national legislature still off in the distance (late 2007). This, however, would have meant a greater commitment to the long haul than Americans this time proved capable of selling to their public.

It's hard to overstate the political impact of these two errors. Corruption and cronyism in colonial occupations is historically pretty much a given, regardless of the intentions of the occupiers. So are immediate post-war enrichment and looting. So is the intrusion of externalities like neighboring nations complicating your efforts. But to make these other gigantic errors on top of the usual factors has proved unforgivable, and unfixable.

The difference is, of course, that there was no real commitment from the Bush administration to democratizing Iraq. They clearly expected pre-war to hand the country over to another strongman (Chalabi) and make another Egypt out of the place: a friendly authoritarian regime, with basing rights. If they had been truly committed to rebuilding Iraq in America's image, they would have taken a more measured course. In this way, they, not their opponents, sold their pro-democracy supporters, right and left, in-blogosphere and out, completely downriver.

History will show that these early political errors of the summer of 2003 contributed greatly to the climate that led to the onset of increasing military errors in early 2004, particularly the April 2004 failed assault on Fallujah, where Marine Commander Gen. Conway and his superiors in Washington not only overruled, it now turns out, the advice of the division commander on the ground that they should adopt a more measured response to the deaths of four U.S. paramilitaries, but did so at the same time that the CPA chose to launch its ultimately ineffective political offensive against Sadrism. In retrospect, the U.S. came astonishly close to losing the whole country that summer, ultimately settling for the achievement of none of their original stated aims: neither the capture of the contractors' killers, nor Sadr and his henchmen, either. But the important point is that the political errors clearly preceded these military ones.

The other important point is that to say that the Bush administration conduct of the occupation was of average competence in the face of an insoluble solution is the same as to say that the entirely successful and nearly violence-free reconstruction of West Germany in the face of similar pressures was one of the most unlikely and remarkable achievements of an impossibility in all of human history. Impressive it was, yes, but you only need to attribute a divine infallibility and brilliance to Harry S Truman if you still believe the Bush performance to this point has been average or better: that's not tenable.

It should probably also be noted that a country that took mobilization to a cause as seriously as the U.S. did after 1941 is going to be better equipped to put the right people in the right jobs for a subsequent reconstruction than a country that did nothing much in the way of national rededication after 2001 and that accepted persistent and ongoing mistruths from their leaders about the cost, duration, and reasons for their foreign adventurism. The U.S. Army was able to put a lot of good people into important administrative roles in Germany in 1945 because by that point the U.S. Army had a significant portion of the nation's good people in their ranks and already pre-committed to a cause greater than their own personal interest.

UPDATE: The secondary-level U.S. military error, which did compound the effects of the errors above, was undermanning the mission. I really don't think they undermanned by a completely unrealistic amount, however: at most a factor of two. Historical comparisons would tend to suggest that a coalition with a maximum surge capability of up to 250,000 non-Iraqi troops during the immediate postwar phase and available again in the case of crisis, something less than that (the current 150,000 or perhaps less) the rest of the time, throughout the first three years of occupation, probably would have blunted a lot of the impact of the political screwups, and things would be much better today than they were. That force level might have been achievable with a greater attempt by the Bush administration to build a pre-war consensus, bringing in India, Turkey, and Egypt for starters (good, with the right incentives, for 20,000 men each). Which is basically what I said back in February, 2003: that it would be better to wait and coalition-build some more then attack when they did, and that chances of long-term success if they went right away were slim at best.

Posted by BruceR at 12:55 PM

Things you won't hear me say too often, no. 43

Good for the Pope.

Posted by BruceR at 10:04 AM