Friday, July 20, 2007

What to Make of the Surge

I have not written about the Iraq War in a long time, not since the "surge" began, and for a simple reason -- I do not know enough to know what to make of it. The usual suspects, of course, are claiming that everything is going well. Some seek to enhance their credibility by acknowledging that the war up till now has been a failure. Needless to say, these reports would carry more credibility if war supporters had not been constantly saying we were on the right track and proclaiming victory for the past four years. Clearly some things are going our way. Anbar Province, once an open war zone and hotbed of insurgency, has settled down. Sectarians killings are down in Badgad. But has the killing actually diminished or merely migrated? And are we seeing a long-term improvement in Bagdad, or merely a cyclical downturn during the heat of summer?

Another development that has been noted: Suddenly everyone we are fighting is referred to, not just as "the insurgency" or even "terrorists," but Al-Qaeda. Given that Al-Qaeda has never been more than a small portion of the insurgency (albeit an exceptionally nasty one), what does that mean? Is it simply a cynical propaganda ploy to rally support for the war, or an actual change in strategy? Or are the Iraqis the real propaganda target? Once again, relying only on news reports, I don't know the answer. What makes this especially frustrating is that, if we really are changing strategy, I might be persuaded to support the effort.

At least in Anbar Province, we do, indeed, appear to have changed our approach. We have made an alliance with some of the Sunni insurgents against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Whether that means we are fighting only AQI, or whether AQI is shorthand for a number of hardline religious factions is not clear. Nor is it clear how much of the insurgency we have a truce with and how many non-AQI factions we are still fighting. There are also accounts of at least sporadically fighting the Madhi Army. The advantage of narrowing our goal from recreating Iraq in our own image to defeating the worst faction(s) in their civil war is that it much more achievable. But we must be realistic about what we can achieve.

Beware of two illusions. First, defeating AQI (and whatever factions of the insurgency we are lumping with it) will not bring peace to Iraq. The Sunni-Shiite feud will remain. General Petraeus has made clear that military victories can only go so far; peace ultimately depends on the Iraqis themselves reaching a political reconciliation. Congress has set artificial "benchmarks" for reconciliation as we define it. Not too surprisingly, Iraqis show no interest in meeting our agenda. Give it up. You can make people who hate each other kiss at gunpoint, but you cannot force them to truly make up. If the Iraqis do reconcile, it will be on their own terms, not on ours. We can pressure them to negotiate and remove the irreconcilables, but we should not be dictating their terms.

The other illusion is about our new-found allies. Their alliance with us is based on the assumption that we will either leave soon or switch to their side in the civil war. If we do neither, we will soon be dealing with the same insurgency once again, this time less bloodthirsty (an improvement), but also less likely to alienate potential supporters (not to our advantage). If we switch sides, we will find ourselves at war with 60% of the population instead of 20%, obviously a bad trade.

So I suppose my willingness to give General Petraeus and his surge a chance will depend on his willingness to play it straight with the public. If he clearly articulates a change in strategy from defeating the insurgency to defeating a sub-portion of it; if he gives a plausible account of the relative size of that sub-portion; if he acknowledges that our alliance with the rest of the insurgency is tenuous; if he is clear that defeating AQI will not end the civil war; and if he explains to Congress that the Iraqis will end the civil war on their terms, not ours, then I would be willing to give him a chance. If he spouts empty platitudes, then I am sick and tired of being lied to and will not stand for any more of it.

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