Tuesday, July 31, 2007

If The Surge Is Working, Why Are We Still Losing Iraq?

By many accounts, the surge of US troops in Iraq is beginning to pay dividends. Admiral Michael Mullen, the pick to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at his confirmation hearing that the security situation is "better, not great, but better." Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, two vocal critics of the handling of the Iraq occupation (although Pollack was a strong supporter of the invasion itself) wrote a piece in the New York Times arguing that the situation is improving: "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with." In a long interview with Hugh Hewitt, New York Times reporter John Burns argued much the same point:

I think there’s no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference. They’re definitely making a difference in Baghdad. Some of the crucial indicators of the war, metrics as the American command calls them, have moved in a positive direction from the American, and dare I say the Iraqi point of view, fewer car bombs, fewer bombs in general, lower levels of civilian casualties, quite remarkably lower levels of civilian casualties. And add in what they call the Baghdad belts, that’s to say the approaches to Baghdad, particularly in Diyala Province to the northeast, to in the area south of Baghdad in Babil Province, and to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, there’s no doubt that al Qaeda has taken something of a beating.

[Shia on Sunni violence since the surge] is reduced, and it’s reduced primarily, as far as we can see, because of the increment, and I’m talking here of a virtual doubling of American troop strength in Baghdad, to speak only the neighborhood in which the New York Times operates here, the Rusafa neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, we here now have American troops quartered about a half a mile away from us for the first time in three years. So when you put American boots on the ground, you definitely have an inhibiting effect on this, and we’ve seen that in falling levels of sectarian violence. Where you don’t have American boots on the ground inside Baghdad, you see higher levels of sectarian violence. So I would that on the whole, the situation is somewhat better than it was, which is exactly what you would have expected by introducing a significant increase of American combat troops.
Peter Beaumont of The Guardian, no fan of the invasion or Bush's policies, remains critical, but also notes progress:

And while in Iraq it has usually been the best policy to deal with officials with a strong dose of scepticism following the years of pronouncements of victory around the corner, for now at least there appears to be corroborating evidence that in the north, the war may be drawing, ever so slowly, towards some kind of close.

In Mosul, which once hosted 21,000 US soldiers in the city, now only a single battalion, in the mid-hundreds, remains inside the city, matched by an equivalent drop in attacks. And it is not only in Mosul that security is improving. The sense that things are getting better is reflected in Nineveh Province. In two years US troop levels around Tal Afar, once the heartland of al-Qaeda, have been reduced from 6,000 to 1,200.

The general trend for acts of violence - despite some spikes - also has been steadily decreasing. Indeed, until Jamil Salem Jamil detonated his human bomb there had not been a suicide vest attack in Tal Afar since 14 January.

And there are other striking indicators. The last time that I flew across this area, two years ago, what agriculture there was was sporadic. Now it has turned golden with a vast expanse of freshly cut wheat fields that have turned the flat plains that touch the Kurdish foothills into a vast prairie, using almost every patch of viable land.

At this point, we are still only few months into the surge, with most analysts agreeing that we won't know much for sure until September, at the earliest. But if early signs are trending positive, why is there still so much cynicism and pessimism?

The problem is that the military component is but one aspect of the overall solution, and is not even the most important solution. The only way to succeed in Iraq is for the political process to develop in such a way that the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds all believe that their interests will best be protected by the government and through participation in that process. The surge is intended not to pacify the country, but rather to provide sufficient security to create breathing room in which the government can pass needed laws and stabilize the political situation.

But while the surge may be working, the political process is not. All of the people cited above for their optimism on the military aspect of the surge also voiced their pessimism about the political side. Admiral Mullen stated that "there does not appear to be much political progress" in resolving the critical issues that might ease sectarian violence. O'Hanlon and Pollack note that Iraq "still faces huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines" and that "Iraqi high-level politics remains completely log-jammed, we saw zero evidence of progress there." According to Burns, the political situation is:
probably the most depressing or discouraging aspect of the entire situation. I think it’s probably fair to say that the Iraqi political leaders, Sunni, Shiia, Kurd in the main, are somewhat further apart now than they were six months ago. In other words, the Bush administration’s hope that the military surge would be accompanied by what they called a political surge, a movement towards some sort of national reconciliation, uniting around a kind of national compact, that has simply not occurred. Indeed, the gulf between the Shiite and Sunni leaders in the government is probably wider than it has ever been. There’s a great deal of recrimination. There’s hardly a day when the Sunnis do not, as they did again today, threaten to withdraw from the government altogether. There’s virtually no progress on the key benchmarks, as the Bush administration calls them, matters like a comprehensive oil law that will settle the issue of how oil revenues, which account for 90% of government revenues here, will in future be divided and spent between the various communities, and many other issues, eighteen of them, benchmarks identified by the Congress, there’s very little progress on those benchmarks. Where there is some progress is at the grass roots level, some progress, though we’re beginning to see tribal leaders, in particular, in some of the most heavily congested war areas, beginning to stand up and say they’ve had enough of it, and to volunteer to put forth their young men, either to join the Iraqi police or army, or to join in tribal auxiliaries, or levees if you will. That’s probably the most encouraging political sign. But at the Baghdad level, unfortunately, the United States still does not have an effective political partner.
Meanwhile, amidst these reports of political failures, the Iraqi parliament prepares to adjourn for the entire month of August, since it had not been presented any laws on which to vote.

The political stalemate is unquestionably undermining the military progress. But what can be done? The problem is that, as I blogged about more than a year ago, the US has been too quick to hand the reins of power over to the Iraqi government, which is not up to the task (nor should be expected to be). It is simply not realistic to expect a brand-new democracy to be capable of dealing with such difficult and contentious issues while setting aside years of ethnic hatred and desires for vengeance. It is time to recognize that the Iraqi government is failing in what must be done.

To that end, I strongly agree with Senator Barack Obama's proposal (found in his recent Foreign Affairs article outlining his presidential foreign policy) to institute a soft deadline for a US troop withdrawal. A soft deadline would contain a solid date (Obama proposes March 31, 2008; I would defer to military analyses of how long the surge needs to be truly effective) by which US troops would be pulled from Iraq; however, that deadline could be waived if the Iraqi government meets certain benchmarks on its political progress. The deadline would put serious pressure on the government to make progress; not even the Sunnis in the government want the process to collapse. But the waivers take away the possibility of the insurgents lying low until US troops leave. If progress occurs, the US military will remain as long as needed to ensure security and train Iraqi forces to handle matter on their own. If no progress occurs, then what's the point (other than preventing a massive civil war and genocide, which at that point would likely become unavoidable as US troops certainly won't remain in Iraq indefinitely in the absence of political progress) in keeping the troops there?

Something must be done. Strong steps must be taken to prevent the weaknesses of the Iraqi government from squandering the sacrifices of our soldiers.

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