Why The Surge Is Sustainable

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting response to yesterday’s piece on the surge in Iraq that asks some critical questions about whether our success is sustainable:

Surely this gets well ahead of what we actually know. The causes of the current lull are, by most accounts, tactical success against “AQI” or some of the worst Islamist and Sunni terrorists, some Iranian restraint, Sadr’s cease-fire, increased ethnic separation, Sunni abhorrence of al Qaeda, and exhaustion from chaos. But all of this is undergirded by a more solid US “surge” presence, which will depart next spring. After that? We just don’t know. We do know that national political reconciliation hasn’t happened, and may be further away than ever. We do know that this was the actual point of the surge. . . .

I’m obviously much more optimistic than Sullivan is: I see the arrival of the various “Awakening” movements in places like al-Anbar and Diyala and now in the Shi’ite provinces as a sign of a major new development in this conflict. The reason why the previous security gains were so ephemeral is that there wasn’t a strong Iraqi security effort to sustain them. Once we left, some Iraqis fought bravely and lost, some fled, and some joined the terrorists. In the end, the terrorists had what they needed: enough popular support to blend in and take over.

They’ve lost that advantage now. Because of that, they don’t have any place to hide. The only way that this sort of “insurgency” can be successful as if it’s a popular movement that has enough support to allow the insurgents places to hide weapons and fighters. If they lose that, they’re exposed and vulnerable. What has happened in Iraq is that AQI is now left out in the cold. The Shi’ites hate them, so they get no purchase there. The Sunnis have no convincingly rejected them, so they have no hiding places in al-Anbar or the region surrounding Baghdad to the north and west. They’ve been systematically isolated, and once we know who the bad guys are, it’s a straightforward matter of capturing or killing them.

In fact, that’s exactly what Ayman al-Zawahiri was fearing might happen in Iraq two years ago:

(2) In the absence of this popular support, the Islamic mujahed movement would be crushed in the shadows, far from the masses who are distracted or fearful, and the struggle between the Jihadist elite and the arrogant authorities would be confined to prison dungeons far from the public and the light of day. This is precisely what the secular, apostate forces that are controlling our countries are striving for. These forces don’t desire to wipe out the mujahed Islamic movement, rather they are stealthily striving to separate it from the misguided or frightened Muslim masses. Therefore, our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle, and to bring the mujahed movement to the masses and not conduct the struggle far from them.

What is happening in Iraq is exactly that loss of popular support, and exactly the nightmare scenario that al-Zawahiri worried about in 2005.

I also disagree that the purpose of the surge was to create political progress. That’s not an obtainable goal of a military mission. The purpose of the surge was to create the environment where political progress could be achieved. We can’t force Iraq’s disparate groups to come to the negotiating table at gunpoint, but we can ensure that terrorists don’t keep them away at gunpoint. We’ve managed to achieve that much, it’s now up to the Iraqis to decide the future of their own country.

Ultimately, it’s because of that internal Iraqi commitment to fighting terrorism that the current gains aren’t like those previously made in Iraq. The Iraqis are finally stepping up, and it’s becoming more likely that we can step down. If that happens, the line between the Democrats and Bush becomes an academic one. The Democrats want to see withdrawals, and Bush will end up withdrawing the troops. That may deeply annoy the “netroots” who want to see an immediate withdrawal, but for most of the country the immediacy of the Iraq issue would be greatly reduced.

Iraq wasn’t the key issue in 2006, and I don’t see it being the key issue in 2008, especially if Hillary Clinton continues her path towards the nomination. Yes, there’s always the chance that Iraq could explode into violence once again, but as AQI is rapidly diminishing in capability, that seems less likely. Could Moqtada al-Sadr re-mobilize the Mahdi Army? Yes, but to what end? He narrowly escaped with his life in 2004 and 2006, and he’s already faced a minor civil war in his ranks between those who observed his cease-fire and those who didn’t. Could Iran cause more trouble? They could, but the fact that they’re backing off is suggestive. Whether Tehran has realized that they’re better off with a somewhat friendly government in Baghdad rather than chaos on their border or whether they’re worried that President Bush is just waiting for the provocation he needs to justify an attack, they have chosen to ratchet down their involvement in Iraq. So long as that calculus doesn’t change, their actions are unlikely to change.

Iraq is still unsettled, but there’s reason for cautious optimism that things are markedly different than before. The political calculus here at home is interesting, but the real significance is that the Iraqi people are standing up against terrorism in a way that has not happened on this wide a scale before. That has to be worrying al-Qaeda to no end—and may signal a real turning point in this long and difficult war.

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