07 April 2008

Examining the Decrease in Violence in Iraq

Tomorrow, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker begin Congressional testimony on the situation in Iraq. Look for lots of self-congratulatory talk of dramatic reductions in violence levels, marred only by the minor hiccup of violence in the past few weeks. Further, look for lots of chest-thumping and bragging by Republicans claiming that victory now is within reach.

Despite the claims that will be made that the US military is responsible for the decrease in violence, I think the case can be made that the decrease can be ascribed almost entirely to four other factors. I will list each below, describe the flawed strategy that got us there, describe how the situation is not sustainable and then suggest what really should be done.

1. Four million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes, with two million of them no longer in the country. A major result of this displacement is that the country effectively has been ethnically cleansed. The previous level of integration in neighborhoods no longer exists and a full 16% of the pre-war population is displaced. That would be equivalent to 48 million US citizens displaced from their homes and with neighborhoods becoming exclusively Christian or Jewish.

This situation is a direct result of the original US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the government. The situation was made even worse by the subsequent disbanding of the Iraqi military and police organizations.

I would expect Petraeus and Crocker to ignore this situation completely and to perhaps put out a few platitudes if asked about the refugee problem by a Democrat during the hearings. What needs to be done is to provide massive amounts of humanitarian aid to the countries housing the refugees, primarily Jordan and Syria, and to engage them in developing plans for repatriation to occur in concert with withdrawal of US troops.

2. Moqtada al-Sadr declared a cease fire on August 29, 2007, and the stand-down of his Mahdi army has played a major role in the decrease in violence. This was confirmed recently, when Nouri al Maliki declared an offensive against the Mahdi army in Basra and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. The dismal failure of this offensive seemed only to demonstrate that violence levels can rise and fall at the command of al Sadr, not the Iraqi government or US forces.

The key failure in this instance is the US strategy of supporting an individual rather than an institution. By clinging to al Maliki, the US is ignoring the many other political factions within Iraq. Political reconciliation cannot occur when the US supports only one small faction. Instead, we should be supporting the entire Iraqi Parliament and working to ensure that all political parties are given a voice in determining the future of the country. The original justification for the surge was to provide “breathing space” for political reconciliation, yet the US , by supporting only al Maliki, has prevented any such reconciliation.

3. A key feature of the violence reduction in summer and fall of 2007 was the development and funding of the Sunni Awakening Councils, beginning in Anbar Province and spreading from there. With the enticement of weapons and funds, Sunni tribal leaders were convinced to switch their allegiance from supporting al Qaeda to fighting al Qaeda. In starting this program, General Petraeus ironically chose to ignore the lesson of history in which the US initially funded and armed Osama bin Laden for his fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That one worked out just fine, didn’t it?

As should have been expected, this situation is not sustainable and is leading to questions, as reported by BBC:


Meanwhile, the Shia-dominated government is distinctly wary of the Awakening movement.

It fears the Americans are arming and funding groups who represent a potential threat.

Tribesmen are famously independent-minded.

Having switched sides once, might they not do so again - especially when the Americans begin to draw down their forces later this year?


Again, this particular failure is another example of supporting individuals over institutions. As stated above, the US should be supporting the Iraqi Parliament and ensuring all political factions are afforded representation and a voice in moving the country forward.

4. Over 50,000 Iraqis have been detained since the beginning of the surge. The New York Times reported in February that Iraqi forces have detained 26,000 prisoners and US forces separately hold 24,000 prisoners in American military prisons. Given the abuses that Iraqi prisoners have been subjected to in the past, when there were fewer prisoners at Abu Graib putting this many new detainees under control of US troops is quite possibly the biggest strategic error of the entire occupation. Recent events, with the publication of the Yoo torture memo Bush’s veto of the Intelligence Authorization Act that would ban waterboarding by all US personnel, will only serve to fan the flames of US hatred by the immediate family and friends of those detained. It is very easy to imagine that each detained “insurgent” will lead to the creation of very many more vowing revenge for the mistreatment of those detained. and

Don’t expect Petraeus or Crocker to address this issue. In fact, it will be stunning even if Congressional Democrats ask about it, but this behavior by the US guarantees that hatred of the US will continue throughout the occupation. The only solution is to turn over all detainees to the Iraq government, cease combat operations by US troops and begin an orderly withdrawal.

In summary, a number of factors besides US combat operations have contributed significantly to the downturn in violence in Iraq since early 2007. Upon examination, it is unlikely that the violence decrease can be sustained in any meaningful fashion and that US strategic errors committed by General Petraeus will lead to continued instability in Iraq. Significant strategy changes will be needed to reduce violence sustainably and allow withdrawal of US forces. Don’t look for Petraeus or Crocker to suggest any moves that would achieve these results.

3 comments:

Karen M said...

Great post, Jim!

For a little more context, there's a link on Joe Sestak's website (he's my rep) about the problems inherent in having Petraeus be the only voice for the Pentagon.

I posted this link on the UT thread earlier, but I think it was swallowed up by another discussion.

Jim White said...

Thanks, Karen. Those are great comments from Sestak. I unfortunately have a Bush rubber stamper (Cliff Stearns) as my representative, but we have a new candidate for his office on the Democratic side. I just got a press release from Tim Cunha, who just filed papers for his candidacy. In the release , he shares a letter he sent to the House Committees that will hold hearings Wednesday. He states, in the letter:
"Due to America’s continued involvement in Iraq, entangled in the midst of its religious and
sectarian civil war:
• The administration has taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing Al
Qaeda to regenerate.
• Iran’s influence across the Middle East has expanded dramatically.
• Our ability to work with allies has been badly damaged.
• Our military has been stretched to its breaking point and our ability to meet other national
security challenges has been limited.
• Our National Guard is still diverted from its fundamental purpose of guarding our nation
and is not available here at home in the event of hurricanes and other disasters and in the
event of terrorist attacks to our homeland.
Therefore, I request that you ask the General and the Ambassador:
“Is the continued American involvement in the Iraq civil war making America
safer?”"
I think he looks like a good candidate.

Tony Smith said...

The final factor, left unspoken, is the fact that "the surge" was not ever a tactical or strategic effort, but merely PR, like the war itself.
The only sphere in which success was even contemplated was in American public opinion, and given that goal, it is only lately in danger of failing, and the same charlatans who promised us flowers and sweets will continue to mercilessly flog ephemeral and now "inoperative" gains as "proof" that, say, gravity has been repealed.
The parts that (sort of) worked are firing realist brass, and installing more wingnut flacks to tell the story, observably false though it is.
The change in conditions as you describe them are certainly accurate, but only understandable in consideration of the goal, which is anything but peace in Iraq.