As we enter the election year of 2008, the war in Iraq has become almost a secondary issue. Both violence throughout the country and U.S. casualties have dropped markedly. Such longtime supporters of the war as John McCain and Bill Kristol are basking in the surge’s apparent success. The current optimism extends even to such people as Democratic Congressman John Murtha, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s policy, who returned from Iraq in late November to report that real success on the ground was indeed being achieved.
Clearly, the situation in Iraq has improved over the past year. Statistics for once don’t lie; the mayhem and near anarchy of 2006 have been succeeded by a much lower level of violence. Has the surge then succeeded? Has a turning point in the war been reached?
These questions cry out for answers. Readers of Liberty may recall·that a year ago I predicted failure for the surge. Now, despite tactical successes on the ground, I see little that causes me to reconsider that prediction. I remain pessimistic for reasons that I hope this essay will make clear.
From the beginning of the surge to the end of August 2007, violence in Iraq declined by almost 50%. Even so, in August nearly 2,000 Iraqi civilians died violently. The improvement, though real, was impressive only in comparison to the carnage of late 2006 and early 2007.
What caused the drop off in violence? The new tactics introduced by Gen. Petraeus, such as movingU.5. troops out of large firebases and into Iraqi neighborhoods; erecting blast walls to deter car bombings, etc., unquestionably had some effect. More important, however, was the spread of the “Anbar Awakening” from that province to the rest of Sunni Iraq.
In late 2006, both U.S. military intelligence and the CIA concluded that Anbar was irretrievably lost to the Sunni insurgents. Beginning soon thereafter, however, a sharp cleavage arose among the Sunnis, pitting the majority against “AI Qaeda in Mesopotamia,” the fanatical and murderous Iraqi wing of that terrorist organization.
Al Qaeda simply had overplayed its hand. Fanatical thugs that they are, they had no compunction about forcing the population to adhere to their twisted version of Islam, under
Though battered, al Qaeda’s organization remains largely intact. Its surviving members have been content to move elsewhere and wait their time.
which a man could be murdered for refusing to marry his daughter to an al Qaeda member, or even for trimming his beard. Enraged by the behavior of their erstwhile allies, Sunni tribal leaders approached the U.S. command for help, offer- ing in return not just a trove of intelligence on al Qaeda – its operations, personnel, and facilities – but active cooperation in fighting it as well. Naturally, our military responded favorably, even going so far as to provide cash, arms, and training to its newfound friends. The result was the rout of al Qaeda in Anbar.
The idea of cooperating with the U.S. military against al Qaeda spread from Anbar to the rest of the Sunni community. Al Qaeda has been pretty much on the run ever since. In November, the U.S. command declared that it had been driven completely out of Baghdad.3 This clearly is good news – for us, and for the Iraqi people. Without question, the only good al Qaeda member is a dead one.
However, decisive success has so far eluded us. Al Qaeda has lost momentum, but it has by no means been finally crushed. Whenever it has been brought to battle by U.S. forces or our Sunni allies, it has been defeated. But these defeats have been relatively small-scale – 60 killed here, a couple dozen there. Though battered, al Qaeda’s organization remains largely intact. Its surviving members have been content to move elsewhere (the north of Iraq, for example) and wait their time.
For the U.S., the split between the Sunnis represented the killing of two birds with one stone. The majority of the Sunni insurgents stopped attacking us, while simultaneously taking up the fight against al Qaeda. Under such favorable circumstances, a nearly 50°,10 decline in violence was by no means surprising.
The million-dollar question is how long these favorable circumstances will persist. We should keep in mind that from the Anbar Awakening to the present, our Sunni allies have been operating on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” To say that they have become pro-American would be a gross overstatement. So long as they continue to receive American cash and arms, they should continue to cooperate with us. A diminution of U.S. largesse might cause them to resume the insurgency. Equally worrisome is the possibility that they will decide to take up arms once more against Iraq’s Shiites, rekindling the civil war that began in February 2006.
Shiites make up the majority of the Iraqi population. They dominate its government and armed forces. The Shiite militias, backed by Iran, constitute the most formidable obstacle to U.S. policy goals in Iraq.
On Aug. 30, 2007, Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric and leader of the largest Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, declared a unilateral six-month ceasefire, to include operations against the Americans. The event that provoked al-Sadr’s action was Shiite-on-Shiite violence during a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, in which dozens died? Four months old at the time of this writing, the ceasefire has so far been respected by the Sadrists.
AI-Sadr’s decision to stand down, together with the ongoing Sunni awakening, caused a further steep decline in violence. Iraqi civilian deaths fell from over 1,000 in September to 481 in December. U.S. combat fatalities, which hit a high of 126 in May, totaled only 21 in December.
AI-Sadr appears to have ordered the ceasefire in order to gain greater control over the Mahdi Army, which was splintering and becoming involved in faction fighting. According to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, al-Sadr was ordered to stand down by the Iranians.8 In the event, al-Sadr’s position has been weakened. U.S. forces have arrested hundreds of Mahdi Army leaders in Baghdad. The Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, which controls the other big Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade, has taken advantage of this to chip away at the Mahdi Army’s position in southern Iraq.
Why al-Sadr has remained passive in the face of these set- backs is unclear. He has indicated that he plans to extend the ceasefire beyond the end of the six-month period in February. This seems to be a tactical decision, based perhaps on his current weakness. He may prefer to accept a further, temporary erosion of his position in order to ensure the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops. Alternatively, he simply may be following Tehran’s instructions.
As I predicted in this magazine’s pages last year, the U.S. military chose not to force a military showdown with the Sadrists. An all-out assault on the Mahdi Army, which would have given the surge a real chance for long-term success, was never contemplated, for the simple reason that it would have led to very heavy U.S. casualties. Additionally, it is unlikely that Iran would remain indifferent to such a U.S. escalation. Finally, an operation on this scale would threaten to wreck such infrastructure as remains in Baghdad and elsewhere.
Instead, the U.S. is supporting the Islamic Supreme’ Council as a counterweight to the Sadrists. This is a dicey proposition, given that the ISC wants an autonomous Shiite’ entity in Iraq (the Sadrists support a unitary state, which is in line with Bush administration policy). The U.S. appears to have adopted a policy of divide-and-rule toward the Shiites, just as it has with the Sunnis.
A very disquieting recent development is the emergence of Shiite street thugs, very· young men prone to murder and other crimes. They have filled the vacuum created by the absence of senior leaders.of the Mahdi Army, men currently detained or in hiding. These Iraqi “technicals” could conceivably turn Baghdad into another Mogadishu as U.S. troops depart.
One further factor has contributed to the decline in violence: sectarian cleansing has virtually ended. The segregation of the sects in Iraq is now all but complete.
The overall decline in violence is, then, the result of events not directly connected to the surge – the Sunni awakening, al-Sadr’s stand down, Iran’s new moderate line, and the end of ethnic cleansing. The surge operations have played a secondary part.
Perhaps the surge itself was a prerequisite for at least some of these developments. That is to say, without more U.S. troops on the ground, the local actors (Sunnis, Shiites, al Qaeda, and the Iranians) might have behaved differently (Le., worse). If the purpose of the surge is defined simply as the creation of a more peaceful environment – one that would permit Iraqi political factions to reach some sort of compromise concerning their country’s future – then, obviously this much has been achieved.
But the quiet seems unlikely to last. That is not merely my own view. Some members of the policy community have expressed the same opinion. The crucial factors in the reduction of violence have been the Sunni awakening and al-Sadr’s stand down. Increased U.S. forces and improved tactics have played a part, but a lesser one. In any case, the U.S. troop presence will soon be back to its pre-surge level, with further reductions to follow. As the U.S. presence withers, violence is almost certain to increase.
Should this occur, what of a lasting nature would have been achieved by the surge? There is precious little evidence to show that Iraqis are coming together to build a nation. If they indeed fail to do so, then the surge will be nothing more than a footnote in history.
I could of course be wrong. Perhaps Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities will tire of the violence and the waste of their human and natural resources, and come together to forge a reasonable, livable outcome to the American intervention. But the evidence for this is very, very slight.
We already know that an American-imposed solution is beyond our ability. Probably the best the U.S. can hope for is something that looks like de facto partition, with American
Post-Cold War America is repeating the experience of Rome after the defeat of Hannibal. Like Rome, we have reached out to the east to counter perceived threats and secure wealth.
influence maintained by each side having to rely to a greater or lesser extent on us for support. To me it seems more likely that the majority Shiites will seek to dominate the Sunnis. This could lead to sectarian conflict on a regional basis. A major Shiite-Sunni war in the Persian Gulf would make the Saddam Hussein era look golden by comparison.
The Bush administration is planning for a long-term presence in Iraq. It expects to have at least 100,000 troops in the country when the president leaves office. In this scenario,
One further factor has contributed to the de- cline in violence: sectarian cleansing has virtually ended., The segregation of the sects in Iraq is now all but complete.
the Army and Marine Corps will remain under unprecedented strain. Both services are experiencing recruitment and retention problems.15 The war in Afghanistan is not going well, and the whole region from Pakistan to Lebanon and south to the Horn of Africa is brimming with crises, anyone of which may eventually require U.S. armed intervention.
Iraq is but one symptom of a larger American problem – the crisis of empire. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I got rid of my copy of Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” Surely I thought, we will now begin to redress the overextension of our nation’s power overseas and the militarization of our society at home. At first, this seemed to be happening. Under Bush I and Clinton, U.S. defense out- lays were cut by about 30%. Given the fact that no real threat to U.S. security existed, the cuts were eminently justified. They helped bring about a balanced federal budget and with it the possibility of paying down the national debt.
Peace seemed to have broken out – and why not? The one potential threat on the horizon, China, was 30 years away. The conflicts of the post-Cold War period looked to be short and, as wars go, cheap – vide Gulf War I. We could lick our Cold War wounds and plan for the future of America – America first, as opposed to an American global empire.
In retrospect, we can see that Gulf War I was a hint of what was to come. Now, almost 20 years after that swift but incomplete victor~ it is clear that post-Cold War America is repeat- ing the experience of Rome after the defeat of Hannibal. Like Rome, we have reached out to the east to (A) counter perceived threats17 and (B) secure wealth (for the Romans, gold, slaves, and Greek objets d’art; for us, oil).
Imperial overstretch was a key factor in the death of the Roman Republic. To say that history repeats itself may be too facile. Nevertheless, the fate of Rome stands as a warning – a warning that virtually no one of influence deigns to acknowledge. Defense Secretary Gates, without question the ablest person to serve under Bush II, is creating plans for fighting future Iraqs – he simply wants to do it better next time.
We do need to fight better. War is not going to go away anytime soon. But the mindset that accepts U.S. military interventionism around the world as a matter of course is disturbing. We need to start thinking about the whys that lurk behind our policy of interventionism.
Why are we still in Iraq at a cost of a trillion dollars and counting? Why does the drumbeat for war with Iran continue even after U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran’s nuclear weapons program was shut down four years ago? Why should the American people spend their blood and treasure if Iran does indeed come to possess a few nuclear bombs?
In the power centers of the United States, such questions are answered by appeals to “national security.” The nation is said to be at risk because a third- or fourth-rate power is misbehaving. The application of U.S. military force usually follows, resulting all too often in the weakening of America – militarily, economically, and spiritually. Vietnam and Iraq are the obvious examples.
Today, optimism about Iraq prevails in America’s power centers. Casualties and violence are down, but festering problems, such as the financial drain of the war and the chronic overstrain of U.S. ground forces, are largely ignored. The national security establishment and its media lapdogs have started to say, and believe, that it’s going to tum out all right, after all.
But we are almost certainly experiencing nothing more than a lull in Iraq. What has been achieved looks transitory. It still seems only a matter of time before George Bush’s war joins the long list of the follies of empire.
In attempting to analyze the results of the surge so far, I have been particularly impressed by two pieces of writ- ing. One is “The War as We Saw It,” an op-ed published in the New York Times on Aug. 19, 2007. Written by seven U.S. soldiers coming to the end of their IS-month deployment in Iraq, it stands as a vital first-person account, ground truth if such ever existed.21 The second is “Inside the Surge,” Jon Lee Anderson’s article in the Nov. 19,2007 issue of The New Yorker – a remarkable piece of reporting. I urge anyone seeking to obtain a clear picture of the surge to read both.