Interim Report on the Surge in Iraq

Viewing trends through April, it is possible to be a bit more specific now about what is and what is not working with the surge-based strategy so far. That said, it must be underscored that with only three of the five additional planned U.S. brigades in place, and only about half of all “joint security stations” established throughout Iraq’s neighborhoods, results must be viewed as provisional.

On the positive side, extrajudicial killings are down substantially in Iraq, with official U.S. data showing a two-thirds reduction relative to January levels. This reflects a broader reality—much of the civil warfare that characterized Iraq in 2006 has been suppressed, at least temporarily. This is largely due to the willingness of the major Shia militias, including the Mahdi Army of Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr, to lie low for the time being. However any such restraint may prove just temporary.

There are some additional good signs. Most notably, the willingness of Sunni tribal leaders in Al Anbar Province to collaborate with each other as well as U.S. and Iraqi authorities in opposing al Qaeda in that region has been very heartening. Correspondingly, violence is down in the region, with reported daily attack rates in and around Ramadi declining from 25 to just four over recent weeks.

That said, on balance it is hard to view the surge as a success to date. Two major problems stand out. As a result of these two unfavorable trends, many derivative problems and challenges remain largely intractable thus far.

The first major enduring problem is the continued resilience of al Qaeda and related terrorist elements. Their use of vehicle bombs and vest bombs has been extensive enough that overall fatality rates in Iraq have not declined since the surge began, at least according to the best available data. A corollary is that the Shia in Iraq are suffering a disproportionately high share of the casualties. (Not all bombings are aimed at them, but many are, and with the Shia militias showing restraint in their extrajudicial killings, the dominant form of violence is in fact most affecting Shia.)

Second, Iraqi political compromise remains very limited. All American officials including Gen. David Petraeus underscore the degree to which the surge cannot succeed based on a narrow military logic. At best, it can create political space for compromise that has often proved elusive during Iraq’s periods of most intensive violence. Unfortunately, there is little sign of progress along such lines to date. While the hydrocarbon law that would ensure fair sharing of oil revenues among all Iraqis has made some progress in its journey through parliament, little has happened over the last month, and the bill is still far from becoming law. Other areas where reconciliation and compromise are needed, such as reforming the de-Ba’athification process to allow lower-level Ba’athists to rejoin public life and compete again for jobs, are not showing much progress.

As the Pentagon’s special investigator has just confirmed in his latest quarterly report, Iraq’s economy remains mediocre at best. The combination of oil revenue and foreign aid, together with last year’s wise reforms of overly generous consumer subsidies, mean that federal coffers are in good shape. But even if there is money to spend, it is not being spent, and certainly not being spent well. A combination of violence, corruption, and federal interference in the efficient flow of some funds straight to provincial governments is impeding progress.

Utility performance remains stuck around Saddam Hussein levels at best, for most things (besides telephone and internet access, which are way up). Schools are not functioning well and health infrastructure is in even worse shape. Unemployment remains mired in the 30-plus percent range. None of this is surprising in light of the security picture, but it is disheartening nonetheless.

On balance, the picture in Iraq has some signs of hope, but continues to present more grounds for worry than for confidence. Unless things improve steadily and substantially in the coming months, it will be hard to believe the new surge-based strategy can succeed.

Afterword: National Security Adviser Steven Hadley has recently come under criticism for wanting—and being unable to quickly find—a prominent “czar” to help him with Iraq policy at the National Security Council. I think his idea is a good one and expect he will be able to find the right person soon, but it will not be a czar. That term implies a person to rethink the fundamentals of the policy.

Should such rethinking happen again, as may be necessary in coming months if the surge fails, I am confident Mr. Hadley will indeed coordinate that effort, as his job requires. Meanwhile, the administration needs someone to crack heads within the bureaucracy and deliver to Gen. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker the resources and people they request as quickly and completely as possible. It is appropriate that Mr. Hadley ask for help with such tasks, which involve the mechanics of government more than high policy, and therefore are appropriate for him to delegate.