Three months into the new U.S. military strategy that has sent tens of thousands of additional troops into Iraq, overall levels of violence in the country have not decreased, as attacks have shifted away from Baghdad and Anbar, where American forces are concentrated, only to rise in most other provinces, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday.
I don’t believe many informed opponents of the “surge” honestly thought that the influx of troops into Baghdad wouldn’t make any difference at all. Even in a city of millions, thirty-thousand heavily armed troops is still thirty-thousand heavily armed troops. The criticism has always been that though those troops might bring levels of violence down in Baghdad to some extent, the insurgents would merely shift their operations to other more vulnerable regions. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “oil spot” strategy, wherein the focus is on securing one area first and then gradually spreading out beyond that area, like an oil spot. The insurgents have their own strategy, which I’ll refer to as the “puddle of mercury” strategy because, like a puddle of mercury, stepping on the insurgency in one part of Iraq just causes it to flow to another. And so we’ve witnessed the relatively quick unfolding of this phenomenon, as the insurgents have shifted their attacks north of Baghdad. This was not unanticipated by our troops in Iraq, or even our more sober civilian leaders. I believe now that the surge was never intended to produce peace military (except in the most wildly optimistic reckonings, such as a speech by President Bush on the matter) but rather, was intended to give the Maliki government some space to “breathe” as they say, some relief from the overwhelming violence that would allow them to forge a political compromise between the disparate parties in Baghdad (a dubious proposition in the first place.) Unfortunately, as the article make clear, even that more limited goal seems out of reach now. The Iraqi government is weaker and more divided then ever, and while violence did decrease in the wake of the surge, it’s back on the rise.
At first Sadr and his militia seemed content to lay low and wait out the surge. While this gave the appearance that Sadr recognized his much weaker position against the Americans, it seems now that this was merely clever strategy on his part. American troops are now not only doing the brunt of the fighting against Sunni insurgents, but they have also been eliminating the “rogue” elements of Sadr’s Mahdi Army for him. And now Sadr’s back in the news, and the Mahdi Army is back in the streets.
In what might qualify as “good” news though, Sunni insurgents are turning in ever greater numbers against Al Qaeda:
The American soldiers in Amiriyah have allied themselves with dozens of Sunni militiamen who call themselves the Baghdad Patriots -- a group that American soldiers believe includes insurgents who have attacked them in the past -- in an attempt to drive out al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Americans have granted these gunmen the power of arrest, allowed the Iraqi army to supply them with ammunition, and fought alongside them in chaotic street battles.
One officer in the article characterized it as a “deal with the devil”, which is true in one sense and not as true in another. The Sunnis are not our natural enemies in Iraq. They’re our enemies because they were in power under Saddam, and now they largely are not. They also fight because they-rightfully-fear Shiite domination and revenge for decades of Sunni rule and oppression. However, the Shiites are largely sympathetic to (or allied with) Iran, another “enemy” of ours, and every increase in their strength favors that enemy. Of course, Shiites are also enemies of the Sunni terrorists Al Qaeda, but I won’t even get into that. The lesson you should take from this is that we have no “natural” enemies or allies in Iraq. It’s all about balancing contending blocs of power, and if we need Sunni insurgents to scale back Al Qaeda, then so be it. But here’s a quote from another soldier in the article:
"Pretty soon they run out of al-Qaeda, and then they're going to turn on us," he said. "I don't want to get used to them and then I have an AK behind my back. I'm not going to trust them at all."
And that’s the point. He shouldn’t. In Iraq we should have only allies of convenience, who should remain our allies only as long as they benefit us in reaching our goal of stability in Iraq. Instead we have conflated Iraq with the entire “war on terror”, branded the Sunnis our enemies because they are sympathetic to our true enemies Al Qaeda, and we’ve looked naïve, ignorant and arrogant in the process. Oh, and it hasn’t worked either.
So what now? Adam has done an excellent job following the Congressional maneuvering over Iraq. If the Democrats can force withdrawal (a goal that they looked closer to achieving one month ago than they do now) what should that withdrawal look like? As you may know, I’ve argued that our withdrawal should be more of a radical scaling down of the mission in Iraq, as Fred Kaplan calls for in an article I discuss here. Kevin Drum-quoting Spencer Ackerman-has different ideas though:
Leaving the Iraqi security forces aside, another huge sectarian provocation is guaranteed. In 2009, US commanders of a post-occupation force will find themselves powerless to deal with it. At that point, US troops will be little more than a constabulary force to keep the Iraqi politicians who failed to avert the crisis — and probably contributed to it — alive.
Exactly right. The Sunni insurgents want us out, and a drawdown to 40,000 troops won't mollify them. At the same time, it's nowhere near enough to deal with any kind of serious violence. It's the worst kind of limbo.
On a related note, something Spencer doesn't mention is the geo-psychological aspect of all this. If there's a U.S. residual force stationed in Iraq, we'll eventually find ourselves under irresistible pressure to engage in large-scale fighting of one sort or another. Something — some crisis of some kind — will erupt and we'll feel like we have to respond. We're right there, after all. At that point, our choice will be to give in and fight, but with too few troops to do the job right, or to stay hunkered down on our bases, which implicitly makes us responsible for the carnage.
Those are all fair criticisms. Were we to leave only forty to fifty-thousand troops in Iraq, we must acknowledge in advance that their only role is to secure our very narrowly defined interests; keeping Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc., out of Iraq, fighting al-Qaeda, maybe securing the oil supplies for the government (and thus for us.) It’s true that the Sunnis will not be mollified by such a shift in strategy. But they’ll have bigger problems on their hands, like fending off the Shiites. Remember, if we are to adopt this strategy, it will represent the end of our intervention in the Iraqi civil war. There will be no more restraining out of control Ministry of Interior special forces acting as death squads, no more battling the Mahdi Army in the streets. And I can promise you that the Sunnis will put aside whatever grievances they have with the supremely arrogant and fanatical members of al-Qaeda and accept their help in fighting for their survival. Al Qaeda will not survive a Shiite victory, but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn't help their demise along.
And while I’ll leave Adam to speak to the nuances of the politics of Iraq, I can tell you that many Americans who desire to get out of Iraq are also uncomfortable with pulling all of our troops up so we can watch the place go up in flames from across the borders in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. That’s partly why a drawdown, as opposed to full-scale withdrawal, is becoming “conventional knowledge” among our Republican and Democratic politicians. Nobody is eager to completely abandon the Iraqis, and this plan provides cover for those who want to bring troops home but can’t bring themselves to call for full-scale withdrawal. I may be excessively pragmatic, but I’m willing to live with that. Whatever gets the bulk of our soldiers home and puts the rest of our soldiers in a place where they’re not getting killed a dozen or so at a time, is fine with me. And let’s not fall for the illusion that the American people will accept tens of thousands of troops sitting in Iraq for the next several decades, a la South Korea (does anybody up in the White House understand history at all?) in the middle of a festering civil war. I can also promise you that, if things don’t get better eventually, they’ll be calling for those troops to come home too…and in a matter of a few years, not decades. The end result of a full-on Iraq civil war with no end date in sight is complete withdrawal for us, one way or the other.