A year after American voters ousted the Republicans from power in Congress because of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, debate about the war has gone silent. Despite a bitterly fought election for the presidential nominations, Iraq has virtually disappeared from the political lexicon. It’s an infrequent topic in the many candidate debates, and declining concern in the minds of voters. All this, despite the fact that more American soldiers have died in 2007 than in any previous year and the financial costs are mounting at the rate of $100 billion a year.
What accounts for this sudden turn-around in public debate? One reason, clearly, is that for all his weakness and unpopularity, President Bush has been able to block repeated Democratic attempts to change course in Iraq. So long as he can count on sufficient Republican support on Capitol Hill to sustain his vetoes and so long as Democrats refuse actually to cut off funding for the war, Bush will prevail on Iraq. Any real change in direction will therefore have to wait until January 20, 2009, when Bush leaves office.
The other reason for the virtual disappearance of debate about Iraq is that the situation on the ground appears to have been getting better — at least for now. Violence is down. Economic activity is up. More and more Iraqis are returning home. As even some of Bush’s bitterest critics now admit, the “surge” is working.
All of which raises this crucial question: After four years of floundering and failure, has Bush finally stumbled on a winning strategy? Is victory, in other words, now possible? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The troop build-up and new counterinsurgency strategy — better known as the surge — have been a tactical success, but are still a strategic failure. For all the good news of recent weeks, the decision to go to war against Iraq remains a strategic disaster of truly historical proportions. And the consequences of this disaster will remain with us — and the next American president — for a very long time.
There can be no doubt that the situation inside Iraq these days is improving. Whether you look at Iraqi data, American measures, or independently collected statistics, all point in essentially the same direction.
Most importantly, the overall level of violence is down markedly — to the level of 2005, before the explosion of sectarian violence that followed in the wake of the Samarra Mosque bombing in February 2006. The number of Iraqi civilians killed each month is down from 2,500-3,000 in 2006 to less than half those numbers in recent months. The number of attacks on U.S. troops, Iraqi forces, and Iraqi civilians, which reached nearly 5,000 a month in 2006 and early 2007 is down to 2004-5 levels of some 2,000 attacks a month throughout Iraq. Other measures — such as suicide attacks, road-side bombings, security forces killed — show similar declines.
The daily condition of average Iraqis is also improving. Oil production is up, and so is availability of gasoline at the pump. Electricity production now exceeds pre-war levels, though supply is still intermittent, especially in Baghdad where people have electricity for just 12 hours a day. Reporters venturing outside the protected Green Zone in the center of Baghdad increasingly report that neighborhoods are coming alive — with shops reopening, kids playing on playgrounds, and people milling about in a seeming return to normalcy.
Recent weeks has also seen an increasing number of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad and other cities — at least 25,000 since mid-September from Syria alone. UN officials note the returns still represent only “a flow, not a flood,” and many are returning because their visas have expired or they have run out of money rather than because they believe conditions in Iraq have improved. And millions are staying put.
Is the surge responsible for the improvements Iraqis have seen? Clearly, having more troops helps in providing security, and since the middle of the year there have been more American soldiers and marines in Iraq than at any previous point in time (including during the invasion in 2003). A new strategy has also helped. Rather than trying to destroy the enemy through overwhelming force, which often resulted in large civilian casualties that helped unite the population against the U.S., military commanders have finally adopted time-tested counterinsurgency tactics that emphasize protection of the population over killing the enemy. Troops now regularly patrol on foot, often alongside Iraqi forces, gaining the confidence of the locals. Terrorists and insurgents have found it much more difficult to hide within the local population, and many have gone to ground or been betrayed by ordinary Iraqis.
But the surge was not the only thing that changed. Two other factors proved decisive. One was the decision by many Sunni tribal leaders to shift course and turn against the terrorist networks that had infiltrated the insurgency and their bastions. Instead of fighting Americans, the Sunni leaders in Anbar province and Baghdad neighborhoods decided to join them in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq and other outside influences that were bent on stoking sectarian violence. Once the local population became inhospitable, the terrorists were quickly exposed.
The Sunni about face was therefore vital to recent successes. But it came before the surge had started and was decided independent of any change in U.S. strategy. The Sunnis were less interested in helping the U.S. succeed than they are in strengthening their own power and capabilities vis-à-vis other groups in Iraq. And they rightly concluded that this was far more likely to happen if they joined the Americans than if they continued to fight them. Indeed, U.S. forces have provided arms and support to many of the Sunni groups that until recently were in a bitter fight against the occupation.
The second reason for the recent improvements was that the sectarian violence had to a large extent succeeded in forcing Sunnis from Shiite areas and Shiites from Sunni areas. One look at an ethnic map of Baghdad tells the story — what were previously mixed neighborhoods are now mostly Shiite or Sunni. The violence caused a large-scale movement of people — one in six Iraqis has either left the country entirely or has been internally displaced. A lot of this movement has made sections of the country ethnically more homogeneous, thus stemming a major source of violence.
The larger point is this: the surge may have been a tactical success, but it is still a strategic failure. Remember that the original purpose of the surge was not merely to improve security, especially, in Baghdad, but to use the breathing space thus provided to encourage the Iraqi government to foster political reconciliation. “Reducing the violence in Baghdad,” President Bush claimed in announcing the new strategy, “will help make reconciliation possible.” Yet, despite improvement in the security environment, none of the major political benchmarks necessary for such reconciliation that the Iraqi and U.S. government agreed upon has been met. There is no mechanism to share oil revenues. No law reversing de-Bathification has been enacted. Neither a new election law has been agreed nor have provincial elections been scheduled. Far from dismantling militias, American arming of Sunni “Concerned Local Citizen” groups has created more armed factions. No plan of national reconciliation has been offered, nor has the constitution been amended to address Sunni concerns. Yet, each of these agreed steps were to have been completed by early 2007. None have, and the Bush administration no longer even pretends that they will any time soon.
War, as Carl von Clausewitz reminded us, is the continuation of politics by other means. The theory behind the surge was that improvements in local security would translate into national reconciliation. That hasn’t happened. While less violent, Iraq is still a country at war. It remains deeply divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, and every faction and group is heavily armed. None of their differences over power, position, or privilege has been resolved. Violence can be reignited at any moment. Even without open warfare, plenty of problems remain. Most Iraqis with means — doctors, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals — have. For those who remain, jobs are scarce. Unemployment stands at 40 percent, and even the most menial jobs require bribes of outside proportions. Corruption and lawlessness runs rampant. Indeed, Iraq now ranks behind only Somalia and Burma as the most corrupt country in the world. In today’s Iraq, violence takes many brutal forms.
Whatever its benefits, the surge will soon come to an end. American troop levels will have to decline because current levels cannot be sustained without breaking the U.S. Army. It is already stretched to the danger point. The Army has had to lower its standards to ensure new enlistments, and it has to pay up to $45,000 in bonus money for new recruits. It is losing its mid-level officer corps — the captains and majors — who have borne the brunt of deployment at an alarming rate. Any hope of stemming the tide will require longer breaks between deployments than is currently possible.
Commanders in Iraq hope that Iraqi security forces will be able to keep violence down once U.S. troops leave. But there is a fatal flaw in this thinking — so long as there is no viable, strong national government it is folly to think there can be a strong, viable national army or police force. The divisions within society are mirrored within the armed forces, and once the glue of the American presence begins to become undone, there is a great likelihood that these forces too will divide and disintegrate. In short, the surge may be more of a lull than a lasting solution.
What, if anything, can be done? Washington must start by recognizing Iraq for what it is: a failed state that is being kept together only by an extraordinary investment of American money and manpower. It will have to find a substitute for this investment, because the current commitment is unsustainable. Indeed, it is long past time for the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. The end of the surge this spring should be seen as the beginning of a gradual redeployment of American forces, to be completed within 18 months.
In the interim, the focus of American activity should be political, much more than military. National reconciliation is a chimera — those who currently have power won’t share it; those who currently want power won’t get it. And so long as there is no national reconciliation it makes little sense to train and equip a national army or police force. Instead of focusing on the national level, attention should shift to the local level, where real power now resides. Part of this shift has already occurred, with U.S. support for Sunni and Kurdish groups and the growing independence of Shiite power in the South. Washington now talks of a “bottom-up reconciliation” process — which is the right focus, provided decentralization does not turn into fragmentation.
The third step is to launch a diplomatic surge with the twin aim of preventing Iraq’s neighbors from exploiting Iraq’s internal divisions and negotiating a viable division of power and resources inside Iraq. An international conference, convened under UN auspices, should try to achieve both these goals. The neighbors should commit to respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, a commitment that might be guaranteed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The Iraqi participants in turn should agree to resolve the most pressing issues among them — control over oil, equitable sharing of revenues, and a devolution of most political power from the central government to local political entities.
The diminution of violence in recent months has given Iraq a breathing space to try and tackle some of the most divisive issues it confronts. Time is running short; it may already have run out. But given the alternative, it is incumbent to try.