The “surge” in Iraq has already shown some of its first full metrics, with Iraqi civilian casualties down by 36% while US military casualties are high. Those metrics are about what one would expect for the events going on in Iraq. Baghdad is under a security crackdown, while the US and Iraqi forces are engaging with militants. The “surge” is working, but the biggest question of whether the decrease in civilian casualties will continue and the increase in US military casualties will die down remains to be seen.
Ultimately, that requires the ability for US and Iraqi forces to keep the gains they’ve made — which has always been the tricky part in Iraq. It’s one thing to clear out a nest of insurgents, it’s another to see those insurgents swarm back in a few months later. The true test of the surge will be in determining whether it can create an inhospitable environment for terrorists in its wake. That won’t be easily determined for several months at the earliest as the “surge” draws down.
Still, for the military, any good news is welcome. The military needs to show some results to get the political traction they need, and this new metric gives them some ammunition to say that the “surge” has hardly failed. It’s simply too early to say one way or the other whether this new security plan will bear fruit — and even if it does, its purpose is to give the Iraqis breathing room to make the compromises necessary to stabilize Iraq. As with any counterinsurgency the key requirement is patience — the “surge” is only the beginning of a process that requires not only the US to assist the Iraqis in securing the country and training forces to keep it secure, but also requires the development of Iraqi civil society and establishment of workable political compromises.
None of these tasks are impossible. The idea that Sunni and Shi’ite cannot live together in peace is a fallacy — most Iraqi tribes are ethically mixed, and Iraq was a pluralistic society until outside forces such as Iran and al-Qaeda deliberately planned to inflame sectarian tensions. It is eliminating these foreign influences that is the key first step towards establishing the sort of political and economic compromises that will put Iraq on the road to recovery. However, that cannot happen on an arbitrary and politically-motivated timetable, which is why the real risk of failure comes not from internal events in Iraq, but from the external weakness of a political class that has lost the will to fight this war.