Surge Working, Still Losing
AP’s Robert Burns left his “base” in Washington for a two week tour of Iraq and pronounces the Surge a great success. The all-important political reconciliation, on the other hand ….
The new U.S. military strategy in Iraq, unveiled six months ago to little acclaim, is working.
In two weeks of observing the U.S. military on the ground and interviewing commanders, strategists and intelligence officers, it’s apparent that the war has entered a new phase in its fifth year. It is a phase with fresh promise yet the same old worry: Iraq may be too fractured to make whole.
No matter how well or how long the U.S. military carries out its counterinsurgency mission, it cannot guarantee victory. Only the Iraqis can. And to do so they probably need many more months of heavy U.S. military involvement. Even then, it is far from certain that they are capable of putting this shattered country together again. It’s been an uphill struggle from the start to build Iraqi security forces that are able to fight and—more importantly at this juncture—able to divorce themselves from deep-rooted sectarian loyalties. It is the latter requirement—evenhandedness and reliability—that is furthest from being fulfilled.
There is no magic formula for success. And magic is what it may take to turn military gains into the strategy’s ultimate goal: a political process that moves Iraq’s rival Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds from the brink of civil war to the threshold of peace—and to get there on a timetable that takes account of growing war fatigue in the United States.
Efforts at Iraqi reconciliation saw another blow Monday: Five Cabinet ministers loyal to Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein leader decided to boycott government meetings, further deepening a crisis that threatens Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The boycott would leave the Shiite-led government with no Sunni participants, at least temporarily.
Despite political setbacks, American commanders are clinging to a hope that stability might be built from the bottom up—with local groups joining or aiding U.S. efforts to root out extremists—rather than from the top down, where national leaders have failed to act. Commanders are encouraged by signs that more Iraqis are growing fed up with violence. They are also counting on improvements in the Iraqi army and police, which are burdened by religious rivalries and are not ready to take over national defense duties from U.S. troops this year.
U.S. military leaders want Congress and President Bush to give them more time to keep trying—to reach a point, perhaps in 2009, when the Iraqis will be closer to reconciliation and ready to provide much of their own security. The idea, after all, is not to kill or capture every terrorist and insurgent. That can’t be done. The idea is to create a security environment more favorable to political action by the government, to provide breathing space for leaders of rival factions to work out a peaceful way to share power.
That’s the hope we all share. It’s increasingly hard to believe there’s much reason for it, given the incompetence of the Maliki government and the lack of better alternatives.
The “bottom up” concept is interesting but incredibly unlikely to happen any time soon. Certainly, “perhaps in 2009″ is not a slogan one wants to present to a public overwhelmingly against the war in 2007. Further, it’s doubtful that the Army and Marine Corps can sustain another two years of the present OPSTEMPO, let alone with a big “perhaps” modifier hanging over it.
Which gets to two matters that underlie much of the conviction in Congress that it is time to get out of Iraq.
First: Do the potential benefits of sticking with the war strategy outweigh the cost, in American blood and treasure? Total U.S. war deaths now exceed 3,665 and are climbing by more than two per day, on average.
And second: Would Iraqi political leaders be more likely to settle their sectarian differences if they knew that America’s patience was ending and that its troops were leaving—at least the combat forces?
The potential benefits would indeed be worth the cost. The problem is that a proper expected utility calculation incorporates likelihood of success into the calculation.
The second question is pure conjecture, although it depends on what one means by “settle.” My strong guess is that post-intervention Iraq would quickly explode into full-on civil war, eventually resulting in multiple mini-states. And the process may well be accompanied by direct or proxy wars involving Iraq’s neighbors.
Edward Luttwak argued in a controversial 1999 Foreign Affairs piece “Give War a Chance,”
An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.
So, yes, the sectarian differences are more likely to be settled. We’re just quite unlikely to be happy with the results. The real question is whether the time we’re buying at the cost of American blood and treasure is merely delaying the inevitable.
H.R. McMaster, one of the Surge’s architects, fully admits that there are no easy answers.
McMaster holds no illusions that the democratic Iraq that was the euphoric vision of many in Washington after Saddam was toppled will emerge in time for presidential elections in 2008, or any time soon. The picture is dark, even when painted by a believer. “It depends on how you define success,” he says. “This internal war will not end short of a generation.”
In the near future the best that can be hoped for is what he calls “sustainable stability” — a low level of violence that would allow US troops to withdraw and Iraqis to live relatively normal lives while hoping that their government and armed forces eventually get control.
That’s not much to hang your hat on. It does, however, have to be balanced against the alternatives.