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“The Price of the Surge”

17 April 2008

One of the best “status reports” on the Iraq War:  “The Price of the Surge“, Steven Simon, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008

Free access is available for the next few weeks. The author is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1994 to 1999, he served on the National Security Council in positions including Senior Director for Transnational Threats.

Here are some excerpts from this article, which I strongly recommend reading. It sets forth a view of the surge much like I and others have advocated over the past year, but with greater clarity and detail.  At the end are my comments on the aticle.  Note these are just brief excerpts, and do not do justice to the full scope of Simon’s reasoning.

In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new approach to the war in Iraq. … Bush knew he needed to change course, but he refused to, as he put it, “give up the goal of winning.” So rather than acquiesce to calls for withdrawal, he decided to ramp up U.S. efforts. With a “surge” in troops, a new emphasis on counterinsurgency strategy, and new commanders overseeing that strategy, Bush declared, the deteriorating situation could be turned around.

… Unfortunately, such claims misconstrue the causes of the recent fall in violence and, more important, ignore a fatal flaw in the strategy. The surge has changed the situation not by itself but only in conjunction with several other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq. The problem is that this strategy to reduce violence is not linked to any sustainable plan for building a viable Iraqi state. If anything, it has made such an outcome less likely, by stoking the revanchist fantasies of Sunni Arab tribes and pitting them against the central government and against one another. In other words, the recent short-term gains have come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.

… Despite the current lull in violence, Washington needs to shift from a unilateral bottom-up surge strategy to a policy that promotes, rather than undermines, Iraq’s cohesion. That means establishing an effective multilateral process to spur top-down political reconciliation among the major Iraqi factions. And that, in turn, means stating firmly and clearly that most U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Iraq within two or three years. Otherwise, a strategy adopted for near-term advantage by a frustrated administration will only increase the likelihood of long-term debacle.

… This strategy {the “Anbar awakening”} has combined with other developments — especially the fact that so much ethnic cleansing has already occurred and that violence in civil wars tends to ebb and flow, as the contending sides work to consolidate gains and replenish losses — to bring about the current drop in violence. The Sunni sheiks, meanwhile, are getting rich from the surge. The United States has budgeted $150 million to pay Sunni tribal groups this year, and the sheiks take as much as 20 percent of every payment to a former insurgent — which means that commanding 200 fighters can be worth well over a hundred thousand dollars a year for a tribal chief. Although Washington hopes that Baghdad will eventually integrate most former insurgents into the Iraqi state security services, there are reasons to worry that the Sunni chiefs will not willingly give up what has become an extremely lucrative arrangement.

…The surge may have brought transitory successes — although if the spate of attacks in February is any indication, the decrease in violence may already be over — but it has done so by stoking the three forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism. States that have failed to control these forces have ultimately become ungovernable, and this is the fate for which the surge is preparing Iraq. A strategy intended to reduce casualties in the short term will ineluctably weaken the prospects for Iraq’s cohesion over the long run.

… The growth of warlordism is another consequence of the surge. By empowering the tribes and other networks without regulating their relationship to the state, the United States has enabled them to compete with one another for local control and what is mostly criminal revenue. It is worth noting that warlordism is not just a creeping Sunni phenomenon. Kurdish and Shiite criminals have been equally adept at exploiting the current security situation to their advantage. Indeed, warlordism appears even to be altering the sectarian divide. In Najaf, where gang warfare has erupted on more than one occasion, supporters of Sadr’s Mahdi Army are engaged in street battles with members of the Badr Organization, even though both are Shiite groups.

… The United States’ bottom-up strategy is also worsening sectarianism.

.. At this stage, the United States has no good option in Iraq. But the drawbacks and dangers of the current bottom-up approach demand a change of course. The only alternative is a return to a top-down strategy. To be more effective this time around, Washington must return to the kind of diplomacy that the Bush administration has largely neglected. Even with 160,000 troops in Iraq, Washington lacks the leverage on its own to push the Maliki government to take meaningful steps to accommodate Sunni concerns and thereby empower Sunni moderates. (The legislative package and the de-Baathification reform law passed earlier this year were seriously flawed and did more to spur the Sunnis’ anxieties than redress their grievances.) What the United States could not do unilaterally, it must try to do with others, including neighboring countries, European allies, and the United Nations (UN). In order to attain that kind of cooperation, Washington must make a public commitment to a phased withdrawal.

Plain speaking

Perhaps this is so long because Simon seeks to spare our sensibilities by not directly challenging the victory narrative in Iraq. First, the “surge” should be called the “redeployment.” There has been no meaningful increase in the number of Coalition troops in Iraq, which has been more-or-less stable since the end of 2004. This graph shows that Coalition strength is only slightly above the average for the past 4+ years, since troop levels stabilized in Spring 2004. The increased number of US troops has been offset by departure of allied forces.

Second, Simon hints but does not explicitly say that our alliance with Sunni Arab militia in Al Anbar province is a tactical retreat. Our activities gain short-term advantages at the cost of moving away from our primary strategic goal (in this case, building a strong Iraq State).  For more on this crucial point see the following posts:

  1. Surrender in Al Anbar province (14 February 2008)
  2. Good news about Iraq (18 February 2008)

Simon’s recommendations

We part company in the recommendations. Simon does not, in my opinion, recognize that Iraq has changed after five years of war. To use the language of Benedict Anderson, the imagined community of Iraq remains, at least for the Arabs of this region (probably not for the Kurds). The polls clearly show this hope. But political realities often trump the aspirations of the quiet majority, and the wishes of those with guns — or those commanding such — very often trump popular dreams.

Much blood has been shed, peoples self-identities have shifted, and new regional governing machinery is being built. It gains strength from our support, and our casual neglect and contempt for the central government. Asking the national government to enlist tens of thousands of Sunni Arab militia is absurd, as their loyalty to the government is by most accounts low to zero.  While political reconciliation is vital, and the involvement of Iraq’s neighbors probably necessary, perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a loose federation called “Iraq.”

See the following posts for more on this:

  1. Part V – The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace (13 March 2007)
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq (21 September 2007)

Update:  Marc Lynch has an article also worth reading

And very similar to Simon’s analysis, and my posts over the past year.  Well worth reading.

The problems with ‘strategic patience’“, March Lynch (17 April 2008)

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please) or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Recommendation: You might find this post from last week worthwhile reading: We are withdrawing again from Iraq, forever.

Other resources about the Iraq War

  1. The Iraq War – articles by Fabius Maximus
  2. The Iraq War — other valuable articles and reports
  3. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 April 2008 11:22 pm

    Update posted:

    Marc Lynch has an analysis very similar to Simon’s analysis, and to my posts over the past year. Well worth reading.

    The problems with ‘strategic patience’“, March Lynch (17 April 2008)

  2. plato's cave permalink
    18 April 2008 1:52 am

    your comments and Simon’s article make a thoughtful template for thinking about Iraq. I wonder, though, whether this state can ever be “stabilized”. You suggest as much when you question whether the Sunni sheiks have any interest in stability, not to mention one in which they have relinquished most of their former power. Along with the internal rivals, there is Iran to be satisfied. Whatever stability is possible in Iraq, it will have to be amenable to Iran.

    Diplomatically, financially, morally or intellectually, I dont see the US as being up to the challenge.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus: True, but this relevant? I worry about the gang problem in LA, or the housing crisis in America. Is Iran up to the challenge? Does Al Sadr have the wisdom to determine the right policy?

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