Iraq: Assessing The Surge POLICY BRIEF | Joost Hiltermann, Peter Harling, Robert Malley | September 20th 2007

In Washington, September will be almost entirely devoted to Iraq. A flurry of reports will be issued, most prominently by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and several Congressional hearings will be held. These are supposed to set the tone for the final chapter of the Bush administration’s efforts in Iraq. Much depends on how the public and Congress assess the U.S. surge – which, in turn, depends on the standard against which it is measured.

Conceived as a last-ditch effort to right what was wrong, the U.S. security plan, known as the surge, so far has consisted primarily of a military effort to suppress some of Iraq’s most violent non-state actors, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army (JAM). The idea behind the military effort was to create the political space necessary for the government to forge deals with its Sunni opponents.

The surge has met at best half of its goals. Militarily, there has been progress, particularly against AQI, although it has been mixed, controversial and potentially fleeting. The militias have not been defeated – they melted away or are waiting out the surge.

On the political side, the picture is far clearer, and almost entirely negative, with little to no progress on any of the Bush administration’s own benchmarks. Once the surge comes to an end, little of the underlying structure will have changed.

The Surge

The surge has worked in one quite circumscribed way: where there are more troops, there is less violence. The military campaign has succeeded in calming some areas that in the past proved particularly violent and inaccessible, such as Anbar and a number of Baghdad neighborhoods.

The most remarkable change appears to be the fact that local Sunni leaders (tribal elements and/or former insurgent commanders) have been turning against AQI. This phenomenon needs to be assessed more fully over time, but relative quiet in Anbar does suggest there has been a significant change there. This is largely due to increased friction over AQI’s brutal tactics, proclamation of an Islamic State and escalating assaults on Iraqis labeled traitors or apostates (including policemen, civilians and mere cigarette smokers). Occasionally, quarrels have turned into enduring vendettas, especially when spurred by the assassination of notable tribal or insurgent figures, such as Sattar Abu Risha’s father and brother, or the head of the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

That said, several considerations must temper the claims of success:

  • Violence is above all a consequence of Iraq turning into a failed state, the reconstruction of which would require a sustained and protracted effort, inconsistent with the surge’s short timeframe.
  • With the notable exception of a tribal “awakening,” the conflict’s overall dynamics remain unchanged: self-sustaining and multi-layered violence, governmental partiality and paralysis, intra-communal fragmentation, further state fracturing (with the electricity grid now being carved up) and steady decrease in the provision of basic services, unrelenting displacements and brain-drain, and insurgent groups implementing a strategy of “recoil, redeploy and spoil,” which represents the perfect counter to the surge.
  • Violence remains extremely high as measured in total incidents or Iraqi and U.S. casualties. This has been well documented by others, in particular Anthony Cordesman in “Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Trip Report, August 6, 2007.
  • Rather than defeating AQI and JAM, the U.S. military effort essentially displaced these actors. Both organizations remain extremely strong and effective, and AQI demonstrated with its devastating attack on two Yazidi villages in Sinjar that it can act at will in many places in a country where U.S. forces are sparsely distributed. JAM’s partial redeployment out of Baghdad has fueled increased tensions in Southern Iraq and has greatly enhanced the Sadrists’ capabilities in Basra.
  • The Sunni turn against AQI is not the end of the story. While it is true that some tribal chiefs, left in the cold after Saddam’s fall, have found in the coalition a new patron eager to provide resources, this hardly equates with a genuine, durable trend toward Sunni Arab acceptance of and participation in the political process. Instead, it is a tactical alliance – forged to confront an immediate enemy (AQI) or the central one (Iran). It certainly is not a step toward consolidation of the central government or institutions, and it could very easily amount to little more than U.S. arming of one side in an increasingly fragmented civil war. Moreover, even those Sunni insurgent groups that are alienated from AQI will work with it to defeat others – the Shiite militias in particular, including ISCI, a key U.S. ally.
  • Some Sunni insurgent groups see their rapprochement with the U.S. as providing them the “strategic depth” needed in the face of their Iranian enemy, thus further drawing the coalition into what increasingly looks like a regional confrontation.
  • Any military success risks being reversed once U.S. forces withdraw, as the greater enemy then – Iran – will require a common Sunni front. In Baghdad, the situation remains precarious, with sectarian reprisal killings conceivably down but with very few internally displaced returning to their original homes. From a mosaic of people, the city has become a mosaic of sectarian enclaves, their myriad boundaries patrolled by U.S. forces accompanied by government forces. The latter are likely to crumble the moment U.S. forces depart.
  • In the meanwhile, coalition forces are helping tilt the balance in the capital in favor of Shiite domination by “softening-up” Sunni strongholds such as Dora, which Shiite militia have openly promised to “level” once the surge comes to an end.

Political Reconciliation

So far, there has been virtually no progress on this front. In announcing the security plan in January 2007, President Bush requested the Maliki government to reach a series of political deals with its allies and adversaries that would recalibrate power relations, providing the Sunnis with a sense their future is secure without giving them a realistic hope of returning to power. True to its sectarian nature, the Maliki government has proven reluctant to move forward on these benchmarks and is unlikely to meet any of them. If some progress has been made on aspects of the hydrocarbons legislative package (notably on revenue sharing), it is because the envisioned deal is between the ruling Shiite Islamist parties and the Kurdish parties, not between the coalition of these two and the minority Sunnis. Other deals, all between the ruling Shiite/Kurdish coalition and the Sunnis, concerning de-de-Baathification, constitutional review and provincial elections, appear even further from being realized.

The more fundamental problem has been the failure to build institutions at either the national or local levels that are viewed as legitimate instruments to fairly allocate goods and services. This has been a government that does not deserve any part of its name: it is not unified, does not present the nation, and has failed to govern. This is because the U.S. destroyed what was left of the Iraqi state and because the government is a sectarian side in the civil war.

The recent defections from the government further underline that it represents no one but (some of the) the Green Zone politicians. Attempts to rebuild it have led to a new “moderate” coalition that is even narrower than the previous one: the only Sunni Arab who remains is Tareq al-Hashemi, the vice-president, not even his own party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, let alone the coalition of which the IIP is a part, the Iraqi Consensus Front. The only two things these parties have in common is that they all existed in exile before 2003 (the IIP had members inside Iraq as well but were inactive), and that, whatever their moderation, they are either secessionist (the Kurds, and arguably the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)) or politically almost irrelevant (Da’wa and the IIP).

As a result, no progress toward building state institutions has been made. The GAO report showed the police force to be a total disaster and said it should be rebuilt from scratch. The judiciary remains a shambles. The link between Baghdad and the governorates is almost non-existent (something that the Kurds applaud and encourage). Many provincial councils do not represent their constituencies due to the flaws and circumstances of the January 2005 elections. There is no reason to believe that in the current environment of intersecting violent conflicts, a successful effort can be made to rebuild broken institutions. At best what can be accomplished is the empowerment of institutions, including the armed forces, that risk breaking apart the moment U.S. forces withdraw and that will join whatever side they represent in the various conflicts.

In the absence of a viable political strategy and, subsequently, real advances on the political front, the surge is likely to amount to little more than a temporary reprieve. It is most likely to leave behind not a stable Iraq – not a centralized, decentralized or even neatly partitioned one — but rather an assortment of fiefdoms in the hands of militias, gangs, and other groups vying for power and resources in an increasing number of civil wars.

Joost Hiltermann is Deputy Director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group.

Peter Harling is the Senior Iraq Analyst at the International Crisis Group and is currently based in Damascus.

Robert Malley is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the U.S./Middle East Project and directs the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group.

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