I’ve been waiting a bit before posting any thinking on the Surge and the drop in violence in Iraq, but I think it’s time now for a few observations.
First off, it is important to recognize that there has been a drop in violence. Our measures are inadequate and susceptible to bias and manipulation, but pretty much every quantitative and qualitative assessment of the situation indicates that attacks and deaths are down substantially. Moreover, this drop is beginning to have some positive economic effects, with oil and energy production climbing a bit. Of course, this drop is only relative to the situation in 2006 and early 2007 (we appear to be roughly at 2005 levels, which were unacceptable then and are unacceptable now), but it is a drop nonetheless. The causes for this drop appear to be several, including successful ethnic cleansing, the policy of allying with tribal elites, the decision of the Mahdi Army to lay low, and both the quantitative increase in US forces and qualitative changes in US doctrine. There has also been a substantial drop in the number of IED attacks, which explains much of the reduction in US casualties. It would be wrong to attribute all of the reduction in violence to the Surge, or even to the combination of the Surge with the tribal alliance strategy, but I suspect it would also be wrong to so attribute none of the reduction.
When we’re evaluating the Surge as policy, we have to remember that it should be evaluated as a whole, not solely on its October effects. The Surge began in February, and its execution resulted in an enormous increase in violence that lasted until about June. The Surge has thus resulted in the bloodiest year for the Coalition in Iraq thus far, despite the fact that a month and a half are still left in the year. Even if we allow that the Surge has had a positive impact on violence in the second half of 2007, you cannot separate out the two phenomenon; the increase in violence was a necessary consequence of the strategy employed, and the surge must be evaluated on that basis. If violence in Iraq remains at its current low level, the Surge may eventually pay off in terms of US casualties, but it has failed to do so thus far.
To the extent the Surge and the associated strategy of tribal alliances has succeeded militarily, it has undercut the political justification for the war and undermined the exit strategy. We are now farther away from having a capable, centralized Iraqi state than we have ever been. Even in 2003 and 2004, there was potential that a state might have been constructed that could govern Iraq. Now, in a process that US military authorities have more or less acknowledged, the central national government has become essentially irrelevant. The tribal strategy has cut violence, but it has also, by privileging substate actors, substantially eliminated the prospect of a democratic, unified Iraq. The Iraq we see today is utterly prostrate, completely incapable of defending itself from any outside actor with anything other than a guerilla strategy. It has no air force, no significant armored formations, no navy to speak of, and no unified military command capable of developing long range defense plans. The central government does not control its own territory, in the sense that it utterly lacks a monopoly on legitimate (not to mention illegitimate) violence. It’s also worth mentioning that the actors we’re currently enabling represent the most reactionary, anti-democratic elements in Iraqi life. Indeed, it’s unclear which of the Sunni militias or the Shia government has less of an interest in Western conceptions of democracy.
We should acknowledge that what the US has accomplished in the last year may have been the best we could hope for. It’s possible that the centralized Iraqi state was doomed from the start (or at least by the start of 2007), and that no alternative strategy could have saved it. I’m not convinced by that; a credible threat of withdrawal prior to the gutting of the centralized state might have produced some national reconciliation. It also might not have, but we’ll never know.
Although I hate to use variations on the theme “military victory, political defeat”, the concept can be useful in some situations. Since military force is used to achieve political purposes, the idea that military success can be combined with political failure is usually self-refuting; if it’s a political failure then it’s a military failure by definition. But there are some situations in which it’s illuminating to distinguish between specifically military and specifically political phenomena. In the case of the French experience in Algeria, for example, it’s accurate to say that the exercise of French military power saw considerable success; the FLN and its allies were substantially destroyed before independence, and the military situation of the French forces considerably improved between 1956 and 1960. It’s probably even true that the Algerians could not have thrown the French out if the French themselves had not been willing to leave, and that the military costs that the French had already paid were higher than the costs they would likely incur in the future. The point of this comparison is the fact that it’s hardly irrational that opposition to the war continues to increase even as the violence drops. Even with the drop in violence, there remain no good political options in Iraq. A fair amount has been written about Colin Kahl’s contribution to this debate, but I’m not sure why; it seems almost desperate in its effort to elide the basic problem of Iraqi state capacity. I suppose that the believing that something needs to be done almost invariably drives someone to think that something can be done, but there are times when we face only very bad options, and this is one of them. I don’t see the current US position in Iraq as any more tractable than the French position in Algeria in 1961 or the American position in South Vietnam in 1973. We have created a situation of utter Iraqi military dependence on the United States for both internal and external security, and we lack any plausible options for changing that situation.
I would love to agree with the “let’s declare victory and leave” position, but part of the problem with declaring victory is that it’s not something you can do unilaterally; the other side has to believe it’s been beaten, and third party observers have to believe you’ve won. This, to say the least, is implausible. That said, to the extent that claiming victory can work as a domestic strategy for provoking withdrawal, I’m all for it. Withdraw, give an external security guarantee to the rump Iraqi state, and hope that things sort themselves out without too much bloodshed. Seems to me that the only alternative is stay more or less forever; I think the whole 60-80000 dedicated to training is kind of absurd, given that you need a state to have an army, and that such a rump force will either be withdrawn or doubled at the first sign of trouble.
Cross-posted to TAPPED.