Troop surge revisited

I wrote about the Iraq troop surge just as its proponents were starting to allege its “success.” My analysis remains, I think, intact: The surge “success” is either (a) overblown, especially when net gains for the country as a whole are considered; and where violence has decreased locally, the gains are (b) unsustainable or (c) have nothing to do with anything the U.S. military has done. I could add to this that the surge (d) has not met its own purported goals and (e) is probably counterproductive to them, and to the security situation overall, in the longer term.

In view of Bush’s triumphal State of the Union address, it pays to revisit the issue. This, as the “success” view has come to dominate mainstream discussion of the war (even if implicitly, in the absolute decline of media focus on Iraq).

Conceptual Issues

So what makes the campaign “success[ful]”? Going by sheer numbers—or at least, by official accounts of sheer numbers, which have up to now been consistent underestimates—it does little to simply say that violence is down from previous levels. For the initial baseline was very, very high to begin with. Indeed, any amount of violence is low relative to some conceivable baseline. Citing relative progress is only to say “things could be worse”; and indeed, things could always be worse, even when they are horrible. So we have to talk about how Iraq is, not just how it is not. And it is at least as violent as it was in 2005, when nobody anywhere was talking about “success” there. Baghdad remains, by the numbers, the most violent city in the world. Nor are the numbers “getting better”—violence is actually increasing with the new year. (If a downturn in the violence means success, ergo, the upturn must mean failure.)

Factual Issues

In qualitative terms, the surge fares no better. Certainly, its express goal—to permit a parliamentary reconciliation among the sects—remains starkly unmet, the political situation being probably worse than before. (Surge proponents don’t deny this, they just don’t talk about the initial surge goals, much as proponents of the original invasion have long given up talking about its premises.)

Context remains all-important in assessing such numbers as we have: Any decrease in violence in the capital represents a completion, more or less, of the process of ethnic cleansing begun before the surge. 100,000 refugees have fled Baghdad during each surge month (that’s one in four residents), turning a mostly Sunni city with mixed neighborhoods into a mostly Shiite one with small Sunni enclaves carved off from the rest with concrete blast walls topped with razor wire and patrolled by militias. Ethnic violence in these neighborhoods has decreased to the extent that that there is simply nobody left in them to kill. Also, predictably, much of the “decreased” violence has simply been displaced to the provinces.

80,000 Iraqi militiamen who formerly fought the Americans are now “allies” against al-Quaeda—meaning they do everything they did before the surge except, ostensibly, kill U.S. troops—precisely because the Americans pay them to be. Their leaders promise “allegiance” as long as the money keeps coming, or as long as they feel like it. Since these militias now represent every ethnic sect and include both violently pro- and anti-government groups, rendering them more efficient only complicates the security and political situations. Also, the largest and most serious American enemy in Iraq—the armed wing of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army—has been under a military stand-down since last August while the leadership roots out infiltrators. Of course their removal from the equation has ensured a relative peace. (The Pentagon has called them “the most dangerous accelerant” of sectarian violence in Iraq, worse than al-Quaeda.) The stand-down is set to expire in February, which could, at the least, change everything.

To the extent, then, that this “success” depends on continued U.S. military presence and funding, it is either unsustainable or could hardly be, as claimed, any step toward American withdrawal. (By the same calculus, extending the alleged gains of the increased American presence to the rest of Iraq would require a surge 25 times size of the present one.) But in the final analysis, Iraq is a country in shambles, insofar as it can be said to remain a country at all, and its major problems are not afforded solutions of a military type.

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