The pause button

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty
July 2007: A former insurgent watches a row of coalition military vehicles in the Amariyah neighborhood of Baghdad (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty)

As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.

Is the war in Iraq really over? Certainly no senior military officer or politician has had the nerve to declare victory — memories of President Bush’s “mission accomplished” moment in 2003 are still too fresh. But it is true that casualty rates among both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians did decline significantly in 2007 and 2008, reaching levels not seen since 2005. This has led experts like those at the Brookings Institution to declare that Iraq is now enduring “a kind of violent semi-peace”, in which American soldiers are dying at an average rate of (merely?) one every day or two and there are no significant battles to capture the headlines. Car bombings continue, but these, however lethal, can be written off as the actions of “small and decentralized” Al Qaeda cells, as Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, asserted recently. The broader “insurgency”, as such, seems to be in abeyance.

Gauging the prospects for this violent semi-peace — whether it will endure and provide the basis for a real peace, or whether it will prove merely an intermezzo between phases of a even longer war — requires an understanding of its causes.

The best known of these was, of course, the surge. Yet though it is reasonable to believe that more troops were indeed helpful in attempting to secure the Iraqi population from bombings and death squads, it does not seem reasonable to me to conclude that the surge alone moved the country from a state of raging insurgency and near civil war to the more subdued level of conflict we see today. While still Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki famously estimated that a successful occupation of Iraq would require at least 400,000 troops. He was ignored at the time, but subsequent events demonstrated that he was probably right. So had the surge involved doubling or tripling America’s 140,000 deployed troops, there would perhaps be good reason to credit it for the significant decline in violence. But adding 40,000 to 140,000 is not even a 30% increase: the proportional change is simply too small to make it a possible driver of success.

A stronger case can be made for the building of fortifications. The U.S. military has by now erected miles of concrete walls, not only around the Green Zone and re-conquered Fallujah — the encirclement of both calling up images from a much earlier age of warfare — but also alongside highways and between and within neighborhoods, carving them into enclaves of Shi’a or Sunni civilians and allowing U.S. and Iraqi forces to exert a much finer level of control over the movement of people. Baghdad has become, as the title of a remarkable new documentary has it, “a city of walls”. “People are living in what are effectively ethnically-cleansed neighborhoods”, observes filmmaker Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, and while it is true that movement control and ethnic separation can impose a kind of peace, it is also true that the price to be paid for this is the creation of mutually suspicious enclaves, and thus, quite possibly, the effective end of the nation itself. As demonstrated in now peaceful Northern Ireland, walls once raised are surprisingly loath to come down again.

Yet it is a remarkable change in the definition of the war itself that has done the most to reduce the fire of conflict, as nearly 100,000 Sunni fighters shifted their allegiance away from the anti-U.S. insurgency and entered the pay of the U.S. military, electing to join forces with one enemy to fight off an even more menacing enemy, common to both: Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Policymakers in Washington refer to this shift as “the Sunni Awakening”, and like to characterize it as a kind of enlightenment that descended suddenly upon the heads of benighted tribesmen — like so many Sauls on the road to Damascus — enabling them to see the United States in its true colours as a benevolent power that means them no harm and that only wishes to fight terrorism wherever it may lurk.

As appealing as that storyline may be, the phenomenon may in fact be better referred to as “the American Awakening”, for it represented a significant shift in the U.S. understanding of who its enemies actually are. At first viewing the Sunni-led insurgency as the work of no more than a few “dead-enders” who would be quickly crushed in postwar mop-up operations, military officers grudgingly realized that the insurgents were here to stay, and began calling them “terrorists” and (with more political subtlety) “anti-Iraqi forces”. This kept the insurgents at arms length psychologically — implicitly in league with Al Qaeda — and legitimized the main-force tactics used by the U.S. military in cities like Fallujah.

But in June of 2006 the Pentagon commissioned what would become a highly influential paper. “Iraq Tribal Study: Al-Anbar Governorate” was a 390-page tome on the history, culture, customs, and politics of three important tribes in Anbar province. By comparison with the propagandistic and ideological bluster that emanated from official Washington, the study provided a much-needed dose of common sense and realism. The following quotes should suffice to convey its tone and spirit:

  • “The history of the Ottoman and British periods suggests that shaikhs are acutely attuned to opportunities to further their self-interest, and that their positions rest on their ability to meet the needs of their constituencies.”
  • “In Iraq, high unemployment, lack of basic services, and widespread poverty are driving the insurgency.”
  • “Generally, all of the three target tribes are involved in the insurgency for similar motives. All of the three tribes are primarily nationalistic in their ideologies; feeling betrayed by the Coalition after the fall of the former regime.”

The study pointed out that a movement had emerged among the Sunnis against the growing power of AQI, and that this created an opening for the United States to make common cause with the tribes. The Sunnis, it had turned out, were not evil terrorist-supporting Baathists, but people who had been thrown out of power and then left unemployed and impoverished. In short, said the U.S. military to itself: we don’t have to fight these guys. With the accession of the less-than-conventionally-minded General David Petraeus to command of the coalition effort in Iraq in January 2007, the stage was set for a major re-alignment of forces — which then happened with the aid of dollops of U.S. money and weapons to fight AQI.

The United States managed to pull off a grand version of the old film noir tactic against hired thugs: “Tell me what they’re paying ya and I’ll double it.” The “Awakening Councils” now field over 100,000 armed militiamen, deployed both against AQI and to protect (and dominate) Sunni enclaves in Baghdad and other cities. This re-directing of capable insurgents against other targets has played a major role in the building of today’s “violent semi-peace”.

Yet the risks of this strategy are everywhere apparent. Most straightforwardly, there’s the question of pay for allegiance. The U.S. has been attempting to transition payroll responsibilities from itself to the Iraqi government, but Iraq’s national budget has taken a significant hit with the sharp drops seen in the price of oil over the past year — this commodity remains the predominant source of funds for the federal budget — and the government has recently been unable or unwilling to pay the Sunni militias what they are owed. At the same time, the government has arrested certain Sunni leaders, prompting clashes between the Iraqi army and Sunni militiamen, and has additionally failed to carry out its stated policy of integrating the militias into the Iraqi national army. Not surprisingly, Sunni tribal heads have warned that numbers of their troops have already melted away and rejoined the insurgency, with more likely to follow. In some militias, up to half the members have quit.

Even were the Iraqi government able to reverse these trends — paying the militiamen regularly, putting them in army uniforms — the fact remains that the United States has not won the war in Iraq; it has simply hit the pause button by negotiating a truce with its chief foe, arming it, legitimizing it, and granting it local power. Since a return to such a status was likely to have been part of the Sunni insurgency’s list of victory conditions in the first place, this turn of events is a rather large win for the men the U.S. used to describe as dead-enders and terrorists. Should this be enough for the Sunnis — and critically, for the Shi’a — then perhaps an end to the main conflict (though certainly not to all conflicts in the country) is indeed achievable with the right resources, political will, and luck. But until such a result is actually achieved, a resumption of the war at even higher levels of violence than before is possible at any time, irrespective of whether the American military has departed the country on schedule. Should the Shi’a-dominated government ignore its promises or attempt to constrain Sunni power, should the Kurds attempt a coup de main over disputed lands and resources, should the U.S. significantly overstay its welcome — any one of these events could prove to be the push that tips the country from violent semi-peace straight back into violent civil war.

4 thoughts on “The pause button

  1. Similar to the Sans Everything post about the potential for Afghanistan conflict to expand (sorry, forget author), this is one for the Sucks, But What Can You Do? file.
    And isn’t calm better than violence?
    We can also compare the arming of these militias with the use of the Taliban against the Soviets- on the one hand, you say, Did they learn nothing? The term “blowback” was so popular just two years ago! On the other hand, Sucks, But What Can You Do?

  2. Author of Afghanistan piece also = me. Is “Sucks, But What Can You Do?” now a personal category of mine?

    Yes, calm is better than violence, and I’m the last person to want to see the Americans fighting the Sunnis. The purpose of the essay was not to condemn the American strategy but to weigh its pros and cons as frankly as possible. I also wanted to make the point that the decline in violence there has not been due to any victory of American arms, but to a belated American realism and willingness to compromise and negotiate with its opponents. The fact that the “surge” has been getting the credit indicates that the “one more push” philosophy of WWI generals remains in our collective bloodstream. More firepower was not the answer in Iraq, and it probably won’t be the answer in Afghanistan.

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