By Frederick W. Kagan
The new effort to establish security in Iraq has begun. At this early stage, the most important positive development is a rise in hostility to al-Qaeda in the Sunni community. Al-Qaeda has responded with its own “surge” in spectacular attacks, which so far has not revived support for the terrorists or reignited sectarian violence. The coalition has also made unexpectedly rapid progress in reducing the power of Moqtada al-Sadr, including killing or capturing more than 700 members of his Mahdi Army.
At the same time, the rhetoric of the Iraqi government has changed dramatically, and there are early indications of an increased willingness to attempt reconciliation among Iraq’s Arabs.
Meanwhile, some challenges are intensifying. Diyala Province in particular poses serious problems that do not admit of easy or rapid solutions. On balance, there is reason for wary optimism.
President Bush announced the new strategy on January 10, and shortly thereafter named General David Petraeus overall commander of coalition military forces in Iraq. His mission: establishing security for the Iraqi people and only secondarily transitioning to full Iraqi control and responsibility.
In January, five new army brigade combat teams started reaching Iraq at the rate of one a month. An additional division headquarters to assist with command and control and an additional combat aviation brigade are also headed to Iraq, along with logistics, military police, and other enablers.
The new plan pushes most US forces out into the population. Americans and Iraqis are establishing Joint Security Stations and Joint Combat Outposts throughout Baghdad. US and Iraqi soldiers eat, sleep, and plan together in these outposts and then conduct mounted and dismounted patrols continually, day and night, throughout their assigned neighbourhoods. In Joint Security Stations I visited in the Hurriya neighbourhood, in the Shi’ite Khadimiya district, American and Iraqi soldiers sleep in nearly adjoining rooms with unlocked and unguarded doors between them. They receive and evaluate tips and intelligence together, plan and conduct operations together, and evaluate their results jointly. Wherever they go, they hand out cards with the telephone numbers and email addresses of local “tip lines” that people can call when they see danger in the neighbourhood. Tips have gone up dramatically over the past two months, from both Sunnis and Shi’ites, asking for help and warning of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) and other attacks being prepared against American and Iraqi forces.
Most of the military operations of recent months have been laying the groundwork for clear-and-hold operations that will be the centrepiece of the new plan. Coalition and Iraqi forces have targeted al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent cells in Baghdad, in their bases around the capital, and in Anbar, Salah a-Din, and Diyala provinces. They have established positions throughout Baghdad and swept a number of neighbourhoods in a preliminary fashion. They have begun placing concrete barriers around problematic neighbourhoods to restrict access and change traffic flow to support future operations. Targeted raids have removed a number of key leaders from the Shi’ite militias as well, reducing the effectiveness of Sadr’s organisation, which was already harmed by his hasty departure for Iran early this year.
Major clear-and-hold operations are scheduled to begin in late May or June, and will take weeks to complete, area by area. After that, it may be many more weeks before their success at establishing security can be judged. General Petraeus has said he will offer an evaluation of progress in the northern fall. Even that evaluation, however, can only be preliminary. Changes in popular attitudes, insurgent capabilities, and the capacities of the Iraqi Government and its armed forces take months, not weeks, to develop and manifest themselves.
Enemies and Spoilers
The coalition and the Government of Iraq are at war with a cluster of enemies: Al-Qaeda in Iraq, affiliated Islamist groups, and determined Sunni insurgents who wish to overthrow the elected government. In addition, they face a number of “spoilers” who have played an extremely negative role so far and could derail progress if not properly managed: Shi’ite militias, criminal gangs, Iranian agents, and negative political forces within the Iraqi Government. The distinction between enemies and spoilers is important. Enemies must be defeated; in the case of al-Qaeda and other Islamists, that almost invariably means capturing or killing them. Spoilers must be managed. It is neither possible nor desirable to kill or capture all the members of the Mahdi Army or the Badr Corps. Dealing with those groups requires a combination of force and politics. Bad leaders and the facilitators of atrocities must be eliminated, but reducing popular support for these groups’ extremism, co-opting moderates within their ranks, and drawing some of their fighters off into more regular employment are political tasks.
Enemies and spoilers have responded to the Baghdad Security Plan in different ways. Al-Qaeda and the other Islamist groups have increased their large-scale attacks, not only in Baghdad but also in Tal Afar, Mosul, Anbar and Diyala. These groups rely on suicide bombings to attract international media attention and to create an exaggerated narrative of continuous violence throughout the country. They also hope to reignite the sectarian violence.
Sectarian killings began to drop dramatically in January, and remain well below their December levels (although they are now somewhat higher than at the start of the current operations). The continuing terror campaign in Iraq is both tragic and worrisome, but it has not yet restarted the widespread sectarian conflict that was raging as recently as the end of last year.
The reasons for the drop in sectarian killings are important. First and foremost, after President Bush’s announcement of the surge, both Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Brigade, called upon their followers not to kill other Iraqis.
The fact that sectarian killings responded to the orders of Shi’ite leaders speaks volumes about the nature of those killings. Despite the oft-repeated myth that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites have been killing each other for centuries, the drop in sectarian murders since January shows that last year’s killing was motivated by politics rather than primordial hatred. It was organised and rational rather than emotional, and it is therefore susceptible to persuasion through force, politics, and reason.
Second, sectarian killings have dropped because of dramatically increased partnership between the Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, and American forces. The Iraqi Police were heavily implicated in the killings; the Iraqi Army less so. US forces do not tolerate such behaviour. The partnership has helped American units identify individuals within the Iraqi Police and Army who have participated in atrocities.
In some cases, entire police units have been pulled off line, vetted, and “re-blued” – that is, retrained after the removal of known felons and militia infiltrators. In this way, the security plan is improving the quality of the Iraqi Security Forces, which is essential to giving these forces legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people.
Political Progress and Benchmarks
A final end to violence rests, of course, on bringing insurgents into the political fold in a way that the Shi’ites, including some Shi’ite radicals, can tolerate. It is too early to evaluate progress in this realm. Political compromise cannot take place in an atmosphere of high violence, and both sides need time to recover from the trauma of sectarian conflict before reconciliation will be possible.
There have been some developments worth mentioning, however. Prime Minister Maliki visited the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi in mid-March, reaching out to the Sunni community. The Iraqi Government followed up by sending the Defence and Interior Ministers and the National Security Adviser to Ramadi recently to meet with the local Provincial Council to discuss reconstruction in Anbar. The next question is: Can the Iraqi government get funds to Anbar and actually begin projects there? It has had serious problems in such endeavours in the past, both because powerful Shi’ite elements resist spending money in Sunni areas and because the government is so inexperienced and under-developed that it is unable to spend most of the money it has. Even here, though, there are positive signs. After more than a year of delays, the Iraqi Government has finally gotten money to Tal Afar, and reconstruction is starting there. Fiscal follow-through in Anbar will be a significant test of the government’s willingness and ability to rebuild Iraq in an impartial and nonsectarian way.
The withdrawal of Sadrist ministers from the Government in mid-April offers another opportunity. Some of those ministers were obstacles to non-sectarian reconstruction and effective government. Their departure gives Maliki the opportunity to appoint people who are more competent and who can be more even-handed. The resignations do reduce Sadr’s stake in the Government, however, and thereby increase his ability to court conflict with the Sunnis, with Maliki, or with the United States. Some argue that his departure to Iran was part of an effort to drum up increased Iranian support for his movement. If so, the withdrawal of his ministers might signal the start of a broader Sadrist counter-offensive. On the other hand, he has not withdrawn his members from the Council of Representatives or attempted to bring down the Government by a vote of no confidence.
We would be wise to prepare for the worst and assume that Sadr will attempt to restore his crumbling position in Iraq.
One of the things that struck me most on my visit to Iraq from April 3 to April 8 was the growing Iraqi desire to exercise sovereignty. The insistence on evidence rather than intelligence as the basis for arresting suspects reflects a larger desire to see the rule of law functioning in Iraq. So does the establishment of a chain of command under the control of the Iraqi prime minister. So does Maliki’s appointment of subordinates in whom he has confidence, even when we would prefer others. This burgeoning sense of Iraq-ness can be seen even beyond the central government. Pictures of the Sadrist demonstration in Najaf in early April showed many people carrying Iraqi flags and few people carrying pictures of Sadr. At a minimum, the leaders of that movement clearly felt they needed to show they are Iraqis rather than followers of a particular leader.
The irony is that the more the Iraqi Government feels its own strength – a very positive development from the standpoint of establishing a state that can survive on its own – the less it will be inclined to listen to our dictates about how to manage its internal affairs. Legislative or other benchmarks imposed as conditions of US aid are likely to be seen increasingly as inappropriate interference and therefore not constructive.
Challenges and Dangers
Can America and its partners succeed in Iraq? Definitely. Will we? It’s too soon to say. The most that can be said now is that we seem to be turning a corner. In December 2006, we were losing, and most of the trends were bad. Today, many trends are positive, despite the daily toll of al-Qaeda-sponsored death. That reversal resulted from our own actions, from enemy mistakes, and from positive decisions by potential spoilers. Our actions are proceeding in the right direction, as our forces work skilfully to establish order and support and assist reconstruction. The enemy is maintaining the same strategy that led to its difficulties in Anbar: ruthlessly attacking both Sunnis and Shi’ites in an effort to terrorise populations into tolerating its presence. And the key potential spoilers are holding to their vital decision to call for sectarian calm rather than sectarian war.
Today, victory is up for grabs, and the stakes for America and its allies are rising as the conflict between us and al-Qaeda shifts to the fore. It is no hyperbole to recognise that a precipitous withdrawal would undermine the current positive trends and increase the likelihood of mass killing and state collapse. Painful and uncertain as it is, the wisest course now is to support our commanders and our soldiers and civilians, as they struggle to foster security in Iraq and to defeat the enemies who have sworn to destroy us.
Dr. Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter). © Weekly Standard, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.