Surging Towards Success

Robert Kagan has a piece in The Washington Post on why the “surge” in Iraq is showing signs of working:

Some observers are reporting the shift. Iraqi bloggers Mohammed and Omar Fadhil, widely respected for their straight talk, say that “early signs are encouraging.” The first impact of the “surge,” they write, was psychological. Both friends and foes in Iraq had been convinced, in no small part by the American media, that the United States was preparing to pull out. When the opposite occurred, this alone shifted the dynamic.

As the Fadhils report, “Commanders and lieutenants of various militant groups abandoned their positions in Baghdad and in some cases fled the country.” The most prominent leader to go into hiding has been Moqtada al-Sadr. His Mahdi Army has been instructed to avoid clashes with American and Iraqi forces, even as coalition forces begin to establish themselves in the once off-limits Sadr City.

Before the arrival of Gen. David Petraeus, the Army’s leading counterinsurgency strategist, U.S. forces tended to raid insurgent and terrorist strongholds and then pull back and hand over the areas to Iraqi forces, who failed to hold them. The Fadhils report, “One difference between this and earlier — failed — attempts to secure Baghdad is the willingness of the Iraqi and U.S. governments to commit enough resources for enough time to make it work.” In the past, bursts of American activity were followed by withdrawal and a return of the insurgents. Now, the plan to secure Baghdad “is becoming stricter and gaining momentum by the day as more troops pour into the city, allowing for a better implementation of the ‘clear and hold’ strategy.” Baghdadis “always want the ‘hold’ part to materialize, and feel safe when they go out and find the Army and police maintaining their posts — the bad guys can’t intimidate as long as the troops are staying.”

The media did a poor job of trying to understand what the “surge” really is. It’s more than adding 21,000 new troops — it’s concentrating those troops in Baghdad, which has been previously undermanned, and it’s changing the rules of the game across the board. We’ve not been adapting quickly enough to the realities of counterinsurgency warfare, which requires us to not just go after the bad guys, but ensure that they can’t come back when we vacate an area. By making sure that we do a better job of securing neighborhoods for the long term, we’re not just temporarily denying the enemy access to those neighborhoods, we’re ensuring that the terrorists and the death squads can’t return.

The fact that Moqtada al-Sadr didn’t feel safe in Iraq is one very important sign of how things have changed. Another is our raids within the Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City. The Shi’ite death squads operating out of that region force the Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaeda for protection. Crucial to keeping al-Qaeda marginalized is ensuring that the Sunni population feels like they’re being protected.

Likewise, we have to ensure that the Shi’ites are safe from al-Qaeda. The bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra was a major blow to peace in Iraq, and the Shi’ites reacted exactly as al-Zarqawi had hoped they would. Keeping that balance of protecting both Sunni and Shi’ite interests isn’t easy, but so long as we’re making sure that both al-Qaeda militants and Shi’ite death squads will be stopped, progress is being made.

Politically, the situation is changing for the better as well. The Iraqi government is finally taking concrete steps to eliminate corruption — which is the single biggest problem in Iraq, even above the terrorism. The corruption in the Iraqi government feeds terrorism by providing it supplies and safety. Cleaning up the Interior Ministry is one of the first major steps towards securing Iraq, and that will be one that will require some significant pressure on al-Maliki.

Even though there still is violence in Baghdad, the reality is that the situation there is improving. Successful counterinsurgency tactics take time to work, and while there is a significant reduction in violence in Baghdad, that doesn’t mean that there will be no violence in Baghdad. It’s simply too easy for a determined terrorist to load a car full of explosives and detonate it into a crowd. In a country awash in weapons, stopping such attacks is going to be very difficult for a very long time.

Progress in Iraq will always be a matter of one and a half steps forward and one step back. Iraq has been at the brink of civil war for a while now, but the situation remains contained. All that would change if the US engages in a disastrous withdrawal from Iraq — then we would see a level of violence that would make the current situation look like nothing. As much as Washington politician hate to deal with it, our interests remain in having Iraq be free from terrorism, which requires us to commit to keeping Iraq from flying apart. If it does, the spillover effects in the region would lead to unimaginable consequences.

The “surge” in Iraq is showing signs of progress — but ultimately it’s our flagging political will that presents the biggest chance of failure. We cannot let temporal political pettiness distract us from the larger picture — and if we do, we will pay the price right along with the people of Iraq.

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