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    Middle East
     Jul 31, 2008
Iraq's 'surge' has its limits
By Brian M Downing

The "surge" of General David Petraeus, the commander of United States forces in Iraq, is widely credited with bringing down violence in Iraq to a level that allows for political development and the withdrawal of some US troops.

In an interview published on Tuesday, following a series of suicide attacks the day before, Petraeus said overall violence in Iraq was declining to almost "normal" levels. "If you could reduce these sensational attacks further, I think you are almost approaching a level of normal or latent violence," he told USA Today from Baghdad.

Daily attacks averaged 25 to 30 over the past two months, compared with 160 to 170 a little more than a year ago, Petraeus

 

said. About 145,000 US soldiers are stationed in Iraq.

The impact of the "surge" has recently entered into the US presidential campaign, but the matter should not be another partisan issue debated with slogans. It is central to understanding developments in Iraq and expectations in Afghanistan, where the principles of the "surge" are likely to be put into practice. US officials think they have written the pages of recent Iraqi history, but important passages have been written with Saudi and Persian pens.

The "surge" increased US troop levels in the Sunni center to begin a counterinsurgency program. Based on British and French experiences late in the colonial era, it sought to rid a small area of insurgents through military force, then win over local support by providing government services and stimulating economic development.

On consolidation in one locale, the cycle would be repeated in surrounding areas, spreading out gradually across the country in a manner that counterinsurgency advocates liken to an oil spot spreading across water.

Looking at the political and military dynamics reverberating through Iraq over the past two years or so, one can see other forces at work that reduced violence - forces unrelated to the "surge" and the counterinsurgency principles on which it rests.

A considerable portion of the violence in Iraq over the past several years did not stem from the insurgency or al-Qaeda, rather it stemmed from animosities between the Sunnis and Shi'ites. Those animosities developed into internecine sectarian fighting, triggered in part by spectacular al-Qaeda bombings of Shi'ite shrines and neighborhoods. Sectarian fighting led to Sunni emigrations into adjacent countries and to Sunnis and Shi'ites as abandoning mixed neighborhoods in favor of homogeneous ones guarded by local militias.

These population shifts made sectarian violence less likely, and provided a breathing space during which both sides could ponder where civil war was taking them. This internal Iraqi dynamic accounts for a considerable amount of the decline in violence, especially in Baghdad.

The Sunni Arab tribes of Anbar and Diyala provinces shifted away from being important parts of the insurgency to partnering with the US against al-Qaeda. It is difficult to link these events in Anbar and Diyala to the "surge". There was no cycle of security-services-expansion as in counterinsurgency programs; instead, whole regions quickly and unexpectedly turned on al-Qaeda.

More importantly, the Sunni tribes began their cooperation with the US several months before the "surge" began. Al-Qaeda's operations in those provinces and nearby Baghdad caused large numbers of Sunni casualties; and its personnel demonstrated little respect for the customs of local tribes. Tribal leaders approached US officers in the region and forged various local working relationships to expel al-Qaeda, first in Anbar and later in Diyala.

There was an external dynamic in turning the Sunnis against al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia warned the US long ago that ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would destabilize the region and open it up to Shi'ite and Iranian influence, if not domination. Wishing to stabilize a neighboring country and turn it into a new obstacle to Shi'itism and Iran, the Saudis used tribal diplomacy and monetary inducements (the two go hand-in-hand) with the elders of the Dulayim tribe, whose domain sprawls throughout Anbar and across the frontier into Saudi Arabia.

Subsequent US inducements and counterinsurgency programs have sustained the working relationships, but the change was well underway and well funded beforehand. Perhaps at some later date we will be able to discern which was more important in the turnabout: US troops, who alternately use heavy-handed and benign methods; or the Saudis, who have long practice in dealing with co-religionists and tribal leaders.

Over 60% of Iraqis are Shi'ite, most of whom live in the south - a region that has not had a significant US presence. The south was left to the British, whose practices, after many arduous years in Northern Ireland, drew from counterinsurgency programs and placed emphasis on respecting the local population and avoiding insensitive uses of firepower - principles not always foremost in the minds of American troops until recently.

Furthermore, the Shi'ite regions are greatly influenced by Iran, which follows the same branch of Islam. Key Shi'ite political groups and their associated militias were formed in Iran during the long war between the two states in the 1980s; others were formed later under similar tutelage. Most if not all continue to obtain money from Iran. Since Saddam's ouster in 2003, trade has thrived between the two former enemies. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has long been conducting its own systematic policies to expand Iranian influence in southern Iraq. IRGC officers train and advise Shi'ite militias; political cadres work with locals on development projects. In many ways, the US counterinsurgency effort parallels the IRGC program, which had been in effect for several years before the US program began in early 2007.

Iranian influence has kept disparate Shi'ite factions, whose inclination is to settle matters through violence, reasonably in line - considering the chaos brought on in 2003. This has helped Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's frail government navigate several political tempests. The IRGC has brokered ends to fighting between warring Shi'ite militias and also between the Sadrists and the mainly Shi'ite army, nominally under Maliki. Though no US official will ever admit it in public, it is clear that Iran has played a vital and unappreciated role in reducing violence and setting the stage for political development.

This represents a shift in Tehran's approach to bringing about a US departure from Iraq. No longer does Iran seek to oust the US by supplying weapons to militias and encouraging them to engage in a war of attrition with American forces until the US public forced withdrawal. That approach was obviated by tepid opposition to the war in the US, the astonishing cohesion of US combat units, the decline of the Sunni insurgency, and the threat of devastating US air strikes. Iran now seeks to bring about as much stability in Iraq as possible and then to encourage the Shi'ite parties to press for the US's departure.

Attention on the "surge" over the past 18 months has entailed several costs. Various arrangements between US troops and tribal groups in the Sunni center have largely circumvented Sunni political parties, which were never as coherent as their Shi'ite counterparts. It might be quickly added, however, that the Shi'ite parties are understandably wary of a strong Sunni region, and that they might find a fractured though reasonably stable Sunni region to be less threatening than a more or less unitary one after elections are held in the autumn.

Concentrating on the Sunni region has come at the expense of allowing Iran to expand its influence with Shi'ite parties and militias. Perhaps most importantly, fixation on the "surge" has rendered events in Afghanistan, at least until recently, into secondary if not tertiary issues. Meanwhile, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have consolidated sanctuaries along the Pakistani frontier that are more formidable than anything the North Vietnamese had in Cambodia and Laos. From those sanctuaries, they have expanded their control of the Pashtun countryside in the south and enclaves in the north.

Events in Iraq are bewilderingly complex. When this is combined with personal vanity and bureaucratic parochialism, which typically overstate the influence of prized projects, administrative officials and key commanders might fail to grasp just what has happened in Iraq over the past two years.

The fog of war and official mindsets are not conducive to understanding complex events, and the impact of the "surge" on reducing violence is greatly inflated in Washington and the Green Zone in Baghdad alike. Similarly, much of the American public subscribes to this attractive story line, resonant as it is with popular views of the resourcefulness and determination of their military. To paraphrase the venerable caution on simple causality: Post Petraeum, ergo propter Petraeum [1].

A likely though possibly harmful consequence of this is that Petraeus, on becoming commander of the US Central Command this autumn, will confidently use the "surge" play book in Afghanistan, where the important if not decisive attendant dynamics might not be present.

Note
1. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "after this, therefore because (on account) of this", is a logical fallacy (of the questionable cause variety) which states, "Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one." It is often shortened to simply post hoc and is also sometimes referred to as false cause, coincidental correlation or correlation not causation. Post hoc is a particularly tempting error because temporal sequence appears to be integral to causality. The fallacy lies in coming to a conclusion based solely on the order of events, rather than taking into account other factors that might rule out the connection. - Wikipedia

Brian M Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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