Before my conservative friends get their panties in a twist about my skepticism and before my liberal friends start piling on because I’m just not being gloomy enough about the prospects for success in Iraq, l think we should all take a deep breath, step back, and look at what is happening there not through our partisan political glasses – rose tinted or otherwise – but with the critical eyes of observers who have been watching closely what has been going on for more than 4 years in that tragic, bloody country.
We are all aware of the the progress that has been made these last few months; the welcome drop in civilian deaths, the Sunni “Awakening,” the extraordinary progress made in rooting out al-Qaeda terrorists, and the curious but gratifying pullback in the south by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. All of this has combined to create the most important benefit of all in Iraq – the return of hope among the people.
This has been manifested by a return to old neighborhoods by hundreds of thousands of people who abandoned their homes during the worst of the sectarian violence as well as a cautiously optimistic re-opening of business districts previously shuttered due to the violence. It is apparent in many of the interviews with ordinary Iraqis who have voted on the success or failure of our change in strategy with their feet by venturing out and about to sample the nightlife of Baghdad once again.
All but the most unreconstructed liberal (or partisan Democrat) have cheered these events. The reasons for this success vary depending on which side of the political divide you are on. “No one left to kill” say liberals. “It’s the performance of our military,” say conservatives.
Both are right. Both are wrong. And both left out a few details as well.
There are parts of Baghdad that will never see a Sunni Iraqi again just as there are parts that will never see a Shia again. In many neighborhoods, after homeowners were given 20 minutes to pack and told to leave or forfeit their lives (many being executed anyway), Shias and Sunnis moved in to those houses and occupy them to this day. Prime Minister Maliki has a program that pays the squatters to leave if the neighborhood votes to have the original home owner return. But whole neighborhoods were emptied of Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad and there is no doubt that part of the reason for the drop in sectarian violence has been the simple fact that the sects are no longer in close proximity to each other in most of Baghdad.
Our professional military has done more than its fair share as well in helping tamp down the violence. Showing the Iraqis that we have no intention of leaving a neighborhood after it is swept and cleared has given the people confidence to inform against al-Qaeda and the insurgents. This intel has led to information from interrogations that precipitates more raids, more intel, ultimately making the neighborhood much safer.
Our war against al-Qaeda will someday, according to one officer at the Army War College, become a textbook example of rooting out terrorists and insurgents hiding inside a civilian population. The success of this phase of our counterinsurgency plan has shocked even its planners. If the world were fair and the press unbiased, this would easily be the story of the year – the near destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Is it too early to be touting General Petreaus as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year?”
Then there’s the Sunni “Awakening.” The reason I put that in quotes is because no one is sure – least of all our commanders on the ground who have made this point abundantly clear – just how this “Awakening” will play out.
It pains me to see a note of triumphalism creeping in to some pro-war blogs and columns. I share their enthusiasm for the good news but not their apparent blindness to the dangers of making allies of former enemies – especially enemies whose goals have not changed; America out of Iraq. Some of these Sheiks have truly changed sides and are working with us eagerly on security issues while being open to reconciliation with the Shias – as long as they are treated fairly.
But there are many more tribal leaders who view this marriage of convenience with our military as a lull in their blood feud with the Shias. This is extraordinarily bad news if we can’t differentiate between who our true friends might be and who are future enemies are certain to be. To these Sheiks, no political reconciliation is possible with the government as long as it is made up of Shias like Maliki and his sectarian gang. What they might do if the Iraqi government would be more to their liking is anyone’s guess. But as StrategyPage.com has pointed out many times, many of these former Baathists are nationalists who will never voluntarily give up power to the Shias and despise the Americans for propping up the Maliki government (who they see as little more than a sectarian thug who has murdered thousands of Iraqi Sunnis).
From all that I’ve read both in media here and overseas, it appears to me that an unknown number of these Sheiks and militia leaders – perhaps less than a majority but that would be a guess – will eventually return to their insurgent ways. In short, we will eventually have to deal with a reconstituted insurgency. Hopefully, we aren’t giving them too many arms that would assist them in being any more formidable than they already are.
I hasten to add that this is not my analysis but has been talked about openly among our commanders as well as other observers around the Middle East. To them, it is not a question of if the Sunnis turn but when.
In the south, there is no other way to describe what is going on but a lull in the violence. The coming war between the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Badr Organization for ultimate control of most of the population centers has been put on hold by Mookie, probably at the behest of his Iranian sponsors.
In fact, one could say we have achieved a kind of victory over the Iranians as we have forced them into what David Ignatius calls a “tactical retreat:”
[T]he recent security gains reflect the fact that Iran is standing down, for the moment. The Iranian-backed Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has sharply curtailed its operations. The shelling of the Green Zone from Iranian-backed militias in Sadr City has stopped. The flow from Iran of deadly roadside bombs appears to have slowed or stopped. And to make it official, the Iranians announced Tuesday that they will resume security discussions in Baghdad with US Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
I suspect the Iranians’ new policy of accommodation is a tactical shift. They still want to exert leverage over a future Iraq, but they have concluded that the best way to do so is to work with US forces – and speed our eventual exit – rather than continue a policy of confrontation. A genuine US-Iranian understanding about stabilizing Iraq would be a very important development. But we should see it for what it is: The Iranians will contain their proxy forces in Iraq because it’s in their interest to do so.
Of course, there is still infiltration by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They seem to have stopped inciting violence among their cadres as Ignatius points out but there is absolutely no evidence they have left the country.
It seems unlikely that the uneasy peace in the south will remain that way for long. Al-Sadr has been reorganizing his militia while at the same time, reaching out to some unlikely allies in the Sunni and Kurdish communities. He would like to broaden his base, removing the sectarian taint from his militia. So far, he has not had much success but its clear he is seeking allies for when he takes on the Badr Organization.
The Badr Organization is smaller but better trained, and is much more powerful politically, being the military arm of the largest party in Iraq, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly the SCIRI). Both militias received various levels of training and assistance from Iran and still receive support from the mullahs there although the Badr Organization has been sidling away from Tehran since the establishment of the government. Their emphasis has been on infiltrating the Iraqi police and army.
Iran is seeking a Shia enclave in southern Iraq and will, according to some observers of Iran, use the Mahdi Army to achieve that goal once the American drawdown is well underway. The leader of SIIC, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, hates the upstart al-Sadr and will oppose any expansion of his power. Hence, the set up for conflict in the south once al-Sadr gets his act together.
Even what appears to be a permanent reduction in violence by al-Qaeda might be illusory. There is no sign that Syria or Saudi Arabia have much interest in seriously trying to keep their borders secure from terrorist infestation of Iraq. The feeling is apparently because they don’t want them in their countries either. Better they blow themselves up in Baghdad than Riyadh or Damascus.
All this would normally point to exactly the attitude that the Administration has taken relating to the spate of good news coming out of Iraq – cautious optimism.
Not so some commentators and bloggers on the right who have trumpeted the news that we are “winning” in Iraq with all the fervor of a newly baptized convert. The gloating is unseemly by some and is liable to come back and bite them in the butt. We even have Charles Krauthammer comparing what is going on in Iraq with the Inchon Landing during the Korean war and the 1864 turnaround of Union fortunes during the civil war.
That kind of hyperbole is nonsense. We don’t know what the situation is going to be like 6 months from now in Iraq – perhaps not even 6 weeks. There will almost certainly be more spikes in the violence despite the best efforts of the tribes and the US military. Those increases in the body count will not doubt bring equally stupid cries from the left about stupid righties who were “taken in” by the government or some equally nonsensical claptrap.
The situation as it is now in Iraq is just that – the situation now. No more, no less. It would really, really help if the Iraqi government got off its behind and took this extraordinary opportunity that our men and women have bought and paid for with their blood and sweat to get busy with trying to reconcile with those Sunnis willing to join the government. And there are Sunnis out there who wish to reconcile, including the large, diverse National Public Democratic Movement made up of dozens of tribes centered around Ramadi as well as The Iraq Awakening out of Anbar province that enjoys widespread local support among the Sheiks.
What is happening in Iraq now has been referred to by some in the Administration as a “window.” I think they are correct. What must be done is to cement as many of the Sunnis as possible to the fortunes of the government while continuing the fight against al-Qaeda and trying to find a way to neutralize al-Sadr.
How much we accomplish relating to those goals in the next few months will tell the tale about whether the gains we’ve made using our new counterinsurgency strategy, so hard fought and exhilarating though they might be, are to be permanent or not.