WASHINGTON - While the vast majority of
analysts in the capital agree that sectarian
violence in Iraq has declined sharply from
pre-"surge" levels one year ago, a major debate
has broken out as to whether the achievement of
the strategic objective of the "surge" - national
reconciliation - is closer or more distant than
On one side, advocates of the
"surge" - the deployment beginning in February of
about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to help
and al-Anbar province - claim that the
counter-insurgency strategy overseen by General
David Petraeus has succeeded beyond their wildest
On the other side, "surge"
skeptics argue that the strategy's "ground-up"
approach to pacification - buying off local
insurgent and tribal groups with money and other
support - may have set the stage for a much bigger
and more violent civil war or partition,
particularly as US forces begin drawing down from
their current high of about 175,000 beginning as
early as next month.
analyst, George Washington University Professor
Marc Lynch, believes that Petraeus' strategy of
reducing violence by making deals with dominant
local powers is leading to the creation in Iraq of
a "warlord state" with "power devolved to local
militias, gangs, tribes and power-brokers, with a
purely nominal central state".
proponents of the "surge" admit that the outcome
remains unclear. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings
Institute, a Bill Clinton administration official
who angered many of his former colleagues by
supporting the "surge" when President George W
Bush first announced it in January and loudly
praising its results on the eve of a major
Congressional debate in September, told the New
York Times this week that "in military terms ...
the trends [in reducing violence] are stunning".
At the same time, he added, "Nobody knows
if the trends are durable in the absence of
national reconciliation and in the face of major
US troop drawdowns in 2008."
Bush has said
he hopes to reduce US troop strength in Iraq by
next July to its pre-"surge" level of 130,000,
while Pentagon chief Robert Gates has indicated
his preference for a reduction to 100,000 by the
end of next year.
That violence has
declined sharply in recent months is no longer a
source of much debate in Washington.
According to the latest figures released
by the US command in Baghdad on Sunday, the number
of reported attacks defined as car bombs, roadside
bombs, mines, mortar, rocket and small-arms fire -
directed against US and Iraqi security forces and
civilians fell to fewer than 600 a week during the
last month. That was less than half the weekly
number of attacks recorded in June and the lowest
level overall in nearly two years.
addition to helping reduce the violence, Petraeus'
forces have also dealt major setbacks to al-Qaeda
in Iraq, particularly in Anbar and Baghdad,
although most analysts believe that US success on
that front is due at least as much to Sunni
insurgent groups that broke with al-Qaeda several
months before the "surge" got underway and
subsequently allied themselves with US forces to
defeat their common enemy.
with US forces against al-Qaeda has not translated
into a new relationship with the Shi'ite-dominated
central government of Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki in Baghdad, which has long been nervous
about Petraeus' courtship of the Sunni insurgents
and tribal militias - renamed "Concerned Local
Citizen" (CLC) groups - that have helped in the
anti-al-Qaeda fight. "The Maliki government
tends to see the CLC movement as a potential
threat to [it]," according to Stephen Biddle, a
defense expert at the New York-based Council on
Foreign Relations who just returned from his
second trip this year to Iraq where he met with
top US commanders.
"As a result, they've
been dragging their feet," added Biddle during a
teleconference with reporters on Tuesday, both at
absorbing the 72,000 CLC members, who are
currently each being paid US$300 a month by the US
military, into the Iraqi security force and in
pushing key legislation through Parliament that,
in Washington's view, would greatly enhance
prospects for national reconciliation, most
importantly between the Sunni and Shi'ite
Indeed, the government's
reluctance to act on the legislation - which
covers such issues as equitable sharing of oil
revenue, reversing de-Ba'athification, and holding
regional elections - has become a source of
growing frustration to US officials in Washington
and in Baghdad.
In remarks to the
Washington Post last week, Petraeus'
second-in-command, Lieutenant General Raymond
Odierno, stressed that the current reduction in
violence offered a window of opportunity for the
government to reach out to the Sunnis, but that it
was "unclear how long that window is going to be
Odierno, who has also urged the
central government to step up delivery of long
neglected essential services to Sunni communities
to help build confidence, added that if the regime
failed to follow through by next summer, when US
forces return to pre-"surge" strength, "we're
going to have to review our strategy".
That is also the view of retired Colonel
Pat Lang, the former top Middle East analyst for
the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) who has
praised Petraeus' tactics but has also been
skeptical of the outcome.
"There is a
chance now of restoring national unity on the
basis of bargaining and power sharing across
ethno-sectarian and regional lines," he wrote
recently on his weblog. "If the Baghdad government
seizes that chance then a new Iraq can emerge. If
... not, then the stage is set for a long drama of
internal and external conflict."
believes that the "surge" was doomed from the
start and may actually have made things worse in
the long run. "My sense has always been that the
military strategy that's been carried out has been
successful, but the fatal flaw is that [it's] not
linked up to a general national reconciliation
strategy," he said.
"There is absolutely
no evidence of any reconciliation between Shi'ite
and Sunni," he added, noting a recent escalation
of statements by some Sunni CLC leaders currently
allied with the US that, once al-Qaeda is defeated
and US troops begin withdrawing, they will turn
their guns against the government.
threatening in his view is the likelihood that
local CLC chiefs, whom Biddle himself described as
"brutal, cruel leaders", could well turn on each
other. Lynch pointed to recent assassinations as
indicative of growing rivalries for territory,
resources and status of the kind that has already
made oil-rich, predominantly Shi'ite Basra a
battleground for various mafia-like factions.
"I see more fragmentation than
consolidation," he added hence, his concern about
the possible emergence of a "warlord state".
Biddle is more optimistic, although he
admits that what gains have been made could easily
be reversed, particularly if the US troop drawdown
is too fast or too deep. "The central strategic
issue [is] if someone's not there to enforce these
[local] deals, there's a very serious risk that
spoiler violence could play a catalytic role and
cause all this to come tumbling down again."
For now, US forces should focus on
achieving a "national ceasefire" that will
transform their role from "war-fighting" to
"peace-keeping", according to Biddle, who stressed
that Washington should try to keep as many troops
in Iraq "as we can sustain ... without breaking
the US military".