Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is the Surge Working?

Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York TimesIn the media, that question is being asked a lot these days, and for those of you planning to break bread with extended family this week, it will likely be among the topics of conversation.

So how can I resist but to throw in my two cents. Consider this post a Ground Truth Guide to one of the most political questions of our day.

First, let's recognize the question for what it is: a partisan test of loyalties. Answer "no" and you must be marching with those antiwar Democrats. Answer "yes" and you're a "pro-war Bush supporter."

Second, the question invites the answerer to snub either (1) the courageous efforts of 175,000 U.S. servicemen and women who are risking their lives in Iraq right now, while we're all enjoying our Tofurkies, OR (2) the legitimate concerns of millions of Americans, Iraqis, and people around the globe -- civilian and military -- who recognize the limits of what a foreign military can achieve in Iraq.

Third, it's the wrong question asked by the wrong people at the wrong time. For starters, it frames Iraq as an all-American domestic political problem with only one possible solution. The Problem: What to do about this thing called I-rak? Solution: send more of our G.I.s! Problem: Darfur? Solution: Send in our boys. Problem: global warming? Solution: da boyz!

Are you seeing the problem? Ending conflict and suffering in Iraq presents a military, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, and -- most importantly -- peacebuilding challenge. Is the surge working? That question is not about addressing the world's largest population movement and humanitarian crisis today. The UNHCR estimates 4.5 million people have been displaced. Nor is it about the country's 30-50% unemployment rate, which most experts point to as a major contributing factor of Iraq's instability. Reducing all of America's policy options to an either-or question that suggests only military solutions (surge vs. withdrawal) is just plain silly talk. Most Americans are already wising up to that, but it seems our politicians are a little slower.

Now that we have liberated ourselves from that ridiculous question and the obsession of small-minded media outlets to put all of us into neat little ticky tack boxes, it's time to consider what's really happening on-the-ground in Iraq.

Without question, there has been a remarkable improvement in security. Here's an excerpt from today's report by New York Times Baghdad correspondents Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin:
The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army. [more]
And on NPR's Morning Edition, Jamie Tarabay reports: "Nine months after the start of the U.S. troop surge in Baghdad, signs of life are slowly returning to some neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. In the Sunni enclave of Amriya on the west side of the city, shops are reopening, and the economy is picking up."

Iraqi bloggers, military bloggers, and a U.S. Army surgeon in West Baghdad who I've been talking with by phone confirm these recently reported trends.

But don't blame it all on the surge. There are other important factors contributing to these recent improvements. For example, there's the popular backlash against the terror campaign of al-Qaeda (ALQ) and other extremists and the formation of anti-ALQ coalitions among tribal leaders. Those trends began in 2006 and gathered momentum in early 2007. Here's what I wrote about the trend last May:
The tribal leaders formed the Anbar Salvation Council in fall 2006 to fight al-Qa'ida. Also called the Anbar Awakening, the coalition began with dozens of tribes and now boasts more than 40 tribes or sub-tribes from Anbar. The Sunni Arab leader of the movement, Sheik Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi, lost his father and three brothers to al-Qaida assassins. AP quotes al-Rishawi as saying insurgents were "killing innocent people, anyone suspected of opposing them. They brought us nothing but destruction and we finally said, enough is enough."

Early this year, as the council gained new tribal members and strength, cooperation with U.S. forces began to improve especially in and around Ramadi, Anbar's provincial council. Last month I talked with a Marine fellow in Senator Reed's office who served in Ramadi two years ago. He stays in touch with fellow Marines, including men serving there right now who confirm a remarkable turnaround in Ramadi.
Other related trends include: the organizing of neighborhood militias, the spread of local cease-fires, the growing capabilities of some of Iraq's security forces and commanders, and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting and securing the local population. In addition, Gen. Petreaus and other commanders have focused on building alliances at the local level with anyone who can help restore order.

The real question is less about whether or not we're seeing improvements in security. We are, and that's good news. But can these recent improvements be sustained? And will the downward trend in violence continue? After all, Iraq's rate of conflict-related deaths remains among the highest in the world.

Our friend Abu Aardvark and other experts are not so sure. They caution that, despite recent improvements in security, current military tactics carry the risk of moving Iraq "towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state."

Abu Aardvark's caution, if not pessimism, got strong military back-up in last Thursday's Washington Post. In his front page article "Iraqis Wasting an Opportunity, U.S. Officers Say", Tom Ricks writes:
Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

...all the U.S. military officials interviewed said their most pressing concern is that Sunnis will sour if the Iraqi government doesn't begin to reciprocate their peace overtures. "The Sunnis have shown great patience," said Campbell. "You don't want the Sunnis that are working with you . . . to go back to the dark side."

The Army officer who requested anonymity said that if the Iraqi government doesn't reach out, then for former Sunni insurgents "it's game on -- they're back to attacking again."

The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: "As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists." Talk like that is sharply discouraged, Brady noted as he walked across the dusty ground of Camp Liberty, on the western fringes of Baghdad. [more]
In short, despite improvements in security, the challenge of building an enduring peace remains.

So that's the Ground Truth Guide to the BIG political question of this year's Thanksgiving. I'll leave it to our readers and future blogs to generate some more intelligent questions that the media ought to be asking and elected officials and candidates ought to be answering.

Photo caption: Women walk through Baghdad's Zawra Park. Joao Silva for The New York Times.

Blogger alert: Abu Aardvark recently hosted an interesting mano y mano debate between Georgetown scholar Colin Kahl and Center for American Progress policy analyst Brian Katulis.


Emily said...

Thanks for this intelligent and informative post. I think it's also important to note Petraeus' new strategy in organizing the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). He has adopted the model of successful NGO efforts and improved local reconstruction efforts significantly. Whether he could have done this without the surge is debatable, but it isn't getting enough attention from the media.

It's not just about the NUMBER of troops. It's about better organization, strategies and understanding of local populations. We need to do more work to identify and replicate successful efforts in order to build a stable, peaceful Iraq no longer in need of U.S. assistance.

Anonymous said...

great post. enjoyed it.

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