Google Earth

If you haven't yet, you should try playing with Google's new Google Earth program (currently only for PC's). It's freakin' awesome. You can explore any part of the world from almost any height and any angle. I've already "visited" the pyramids, hoover dam, mt. everest, mt. saint helens, the grand canyon, eiffel tower, mt. rushmore (you can actually make out some of the faces), and several other places.

My only complaint is that searching for locations, even popular ones, can often be a pain. It will tell you "Your search returned no results" for some places even if, once you've found it manually, it recognizes the name you originally searched for. I recommend having a second internet window open to use to find the coordinates of the place you want to visit, then find it manually using those--I find it quite entertaining. (FYI: Wikipedia often has the coordinates of famous landmarks).

Good point

My favorite "contrarian", Christopher Hitchens, has a very informative/chastening piece on the preconceptions of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups and where they rest politically, check it.

Ever wonder how to piss off an Iraqi? It's relatively simple. Just ask one, no sooner than you have been introduced: "So you're an Iraqi? How absolutely fascinating. Do tell: Are you a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shiite?" This will work every time, just as it's always so polite and so useful to ask a brown-skinned American if he or she is Chicano or, you know … Latina.

When it comes to Iraq, one of the most boring and philistine habits of our media is the insistence on using partitionist and segregationist language that most journalists would (I hope) scorn to employ if they were discussing a society they actually knew. It is the same mistake that disfigured the coverage of the Bosnian war, where every consumer of news was made to understand that there was fighting between Serbs, Croats, and "Muslims." There are two apples and one orange in that basket, as any fool should be able to see. Serbian and Croatian are national differences, which track very closely with the distinction between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs. Many Muslims are Bosnian, but not all Bosnians are Muslim. And in fact, the Bosnian forces in the late war were those which most repudiated any confessional definition. (And when did you ever hear the media saying that, "Today the Orthodox shelled Sarajevo," or, "Yesterday the Catholics bombarded Mostar"?)

You should watch the "Colbert Report"

His debut ruled. I hope he can keep it up. Slate has a review.

An oldie but a goodie

Ever since I saw him on Charlie Rose a couple years ago, I've been terribly impressed with one Lt. General David Patraeus. I stumbled on this post from Tigerhawk a while back, and it addresses many of the worries folks like me have had about how things have proceeded in Iraq. I was reminded of it when reading about the recent voting for Iraq's constitutional referendum. This by no means provides excuse for those who have led poorly, but it does give me hope that there are some terribly competent folks out there doing their damndest to help this process to work and who are showing progress. What follows is copied directly from Tigerhawk's post and is long, but is quite engaging. If you'd prefer not to read it, here's the video (note, I got the realplayer link to work, but didn't have luck with the window's media player file).

In General Petraeus' conception, the Transition Command has five missions:

To "help Iraqis." "We believed what TE Lawrence said: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.”

To "organize" the Iraqi military. The task of building a functioning military and special police force is extremely complex, and the Iraqis are doing it with Coalition and NATO guidance. Iraq is doing its own "recruiting and vetting." We are helping them design the units, which includes the personnel and command structure of each unit from the platoon on up.

The organization of the training of the special Iraqi police had to be particularly original. We have "dramatically shifted" the police training from the Kosovo model. “Iraq is not a 9mm pistol world, it is an AK47 world.”

To equip the Iraqi military.

This is an enormous task. "I cannot overstate how big this mission is." More than 700,000 uniforms, 210,000 sets of body armor, hundreds of thousands of small arms, helmets, hundreds of million of rounds of ammunition, 20,000 vehicles and so forth have been distributed to Iraqi forces.

All these soldiers and equipment have been housed. We have built more than twenty facilities for the Iraqi military, including five large bases that can house an entire division, "each the size of Ft. Drum."

To train the Iraqi military.

Notwithstanding the huge size of Saddam's military, even experienced Iraqi officers did not know how to train. For example, they did not train with live ammunition because of shortages, and expressed wonder at American methods for teaching marksmanship. Historically, “the inshallah school of shooting” prevailed. Iraqi soldiers in combat would hold the weapon over their head, shoot wildly until the magazine was empty, and “inshallah -- meaning if God wills it -- you will hit something.”

To mentor Iraqi military and police leaders.

There are 115 Iraqi battalions in combat right now, and every single one of them has a ten man American training team. The American training team teaches the Iraqi officers how to lead and helps coordinate Coalition assistance in logistical matters and combat support. “A huge effort paying enormous dividends.”

So, what's the "bottom line up front?" Iraqi soldiers and special police are “very much in the fight,” as evidenced, “sadly,” by the casualties they have taken in combat, which are at least twice the American.

The most impressive thing about the Iraqi units is how tenacious they have become, notwithstanding early reports that they would cut and run. According to General Patraeus, since the January elections, from which the Iraqi security forces “took an enormous lift that still persists,” the Iraqi forces "have not run from a fight, they have not backed down." This strikes me, by the way, as enormously hopeful for the future of Iraq, the persistence of the counterinsurgency, and the power of democracy to motivate the fight against the war on terror.

More highlights from the Transition Command's work:

Under NATO's auspices, the Iraqi military academy is open with entirely Iraqi instructors. It might have been opened much earlier with foreign instructors, but the Coalition felt that it was important to make it an Iraqi endeavor. General Patraeus noted later that he was very unhappy that this achievement got essentially no coverage in the media given its importance to success in Iraq.

Short- Mid- and Long-Range plans for the future development of the military are in place and being executed, relating to force structure, training, institutions, equipment. This all being done in conjunction with Iraqis.

At any given time, there are more than 3000 Iraqis out of the country training, including 2000 at a police academy in Jordan, and another 200 at an elite training facility “in a neighboring country.” It was obvious that this neighboring country is classified, and we can assume that it isn't Jordan, which he mentioned specifically. Assuming that it isn't Syria or Iran, that leaves Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Since there would be no need to keep a facility in Kuwait secret and since it would be in Turkey's external interest to be seen to be helping NATO (given its pending application to join the EU), my guess is that the secret training facility is in Saudi Arabia, which undoubtedly does not want to be caught collaborating with the United States to kill Sunni guerrillas.

General Patraeus' discussion of metrics was very interesting, but I was only able to capture some of it. He did, however, explain the "readiness levels" that have so bedeviled the discussion of Iraqi preparedness.

There are 105,000 “trained and equipped” Iraqi forces through basic training and in the field under the Ministry of Interior Forces, which covers police, police commandos, highway patrol, dignitary protection, etc. These units are not “fully independent,” but they are getting there.

Ministry of Defense Forces Trained and Equipped 89,000, including the Iraqi Army, Special Operations, Air Force, Navy, and Combat Support.

“These are not people who have just walked across the stage. They are out there and in combat. For example, this number is about 12,000 fewer than the number of police trained, because some of them don’t make it.”

Soldiers are graduating every day. By the October 15 referendum on the constitution (which Patraeus predicted will pass), trained and equipped military and special police will total 200,000, and 300,000 by next summer.

The progress since the summer of 2004, when General Patraeus assumed command, has been considerable. Fifteen months ago, only six battalions of Iraqi army (less than 2,000 men) were in training, and none were "in the fight." Now, 14 battalions are in training, and 74 are operational and in the fight.

A year ago, there were no special police units. Now there are 27 battalions in the fight, and five more serving as border patrol and emergency response. These are all top-down units, none that have failed “like the homegrown Fallujah brigade.”

These units are all classified according to "readiness reports" that are very similar to those used for the American army.

Level 1 is fully independent, “capable of planning and executing operations, and sustaining itself, without coalition support.” This is a very high standard, and because it requires no coalition support in combat, whether logistical or in the form of indirect fire support. As reported this week, only one battalion operates at this level now, but the press accounts did not make clear what a difficult standard this is. Indeed, two other battalions had reached this level but were downgraded because of personnel changes (my sense was that a key officer was transferred).

A significant and growing number of Iraqi units are at Level 2, which is substantially, but not totally, independant. Level 2 units are “in the lead,”, "capable of planning, executing and sustaining counterinsurgency operations with some coalition support." These units are substantially independent, but still need some assistance with logistics and indirect fire support. However, they operate independently for most intents and purposes. Level 2 battalions now “own Haifa Street” in a way that only local units can, and another unit -- the armored battalion -- is policing the airport road. Level 2 units also run Karbala and Najaf security.

Level 3, “fighting alongside”: "capable of conducting counterinsurgency operations in conjunction with coalition units." The goal is to get most of these Level 3 units up to Level 2 in the next few months.

So, over 115 Army and special police battalions are in the fight, the majority of which are “fighting alongside.”

The training of the special police is also proceeding well. Iraqi cops are learning basic criminal investigation, internal controls, interviews and interrogations, elections security, counter terrorism, SWAT, dignitary protection.

“Not FBI caliber, don’t let me mislead you, but it is still very useful.”

The general took a number of questions from the audience, three of which were interesting.

The first dealt with the controversial disbanding of the Iraqi army. "What lesson could we learn from the disbanding of the Iraqi army?" Patraeus substantially dodged this question as not having been his call, but left the audience with two impressions. First, that the existing Iraqi army was not very useful: “I do not necessarily accept the idea that we should not have disbanded that Iraqi army. It was bloated with general officers – there were 1100 generals in one province alone, each one of whom expected us to do what they wanted – and it was an army that had not fought.” Second, without saying as much it is fairly clear from his comments that he thinks that we blew the means by which we disbanded the army, particularly in not having a plan to employ its soldiers and officers afterward.

The other interesting question involved the "public relations" war. "Are we losing the PR war to the enemy? What are you doing on the marketing PR front?"

General Patraeus said that they have given the media an enormous amount of information, including countless important metrics for measuring progress, but that it is largely ignored. He observed that the enemy “On many days it is impossible to break through the steady drumbeat of sensational attacks occurring in Baghdad throughout the country. The opening of the new military academy got no coverage at all, even though it was a big event with the whole Iraqi government in attendance."

Patraeus is obviously extremely unhappy with the monomaniacal press coverage.

Finally, Anne-Marie Slaughter asked the Abu Ghraib question – “what can we do, going forward, to acknowledge what we have to acknowledge but also to restore the values that we stand for in others eyes?”

Patraeus said that Abu Ghraib had been very damaging, but that there has been “an enormous change in the detainee operations piece... One of the lessons is that the most important job of a commander or leader is the setting of a tone. That sounds very simplistic, but in combat setting the right tone is hugely important.” I think we have gone back and looked very, very hard the tone we are setting. We have 29 operations lawyers [Good God. - ed.]. Patraeus described a recent "very minor" incident, and "we brought in the lawyers, brought in the imams," to discuss it openly and resolve it. And we are doing things that seem unimportant to us, but which are very meaningful to Iraqis. One of the imams asked us to install clocks in the prison so that the prisoners would know when to pray, so we put in clocks.

“How do we portray our sincere desire to help? It is very challenging, because the other side is enormously skilled in information operations. In Fallujah, by the way, there were two broadcasting stations in addition to the car bomb factories and the arms caches. The enemy is very sophisticated."