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January 16, 2007

The Iraq ‘Surge’


New year, new Iraq policy. And President Bush’s announcement of a 20,000-troop surge into Baghdad and Anbar province is clearly not the initiative the defeatist ‘pull out of Iraq regardless of the consequences’ lobby has been hoping for. Pinning their hopes on the more miserable parts of last year’s Iraq Study Group report – which stated that the Western presence in Iraq must be wound down, Iraq’s authoritarian and murderous neighbours should be invited to stabilise the country, and most eccentrically of all, that there is some link between the Israel-Palestine situation and Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq – the withdrawalists have been venting their rage on the president’s decision to turn his back on this ‘wisdom’ by ‘escalating the conflict’.

Leaving aside that the Iraq Study Group, the very body they venerate, recommended a goal-oriented military and economic aid package to the Iraqi government and a troop surge, which Bush has entered into – albeit short-term rather than the more open-ended commitment the president has declared – the withdrawalists are once again missing the basic point.

Committing to a defined timetable for withdrawal from Iraq at this point in time would be catastrophic, both for Iraq itself and for the international community. When the Iraqi government is struggling to impose authority on a vicious insurgency and on a worsening sectarian situation, intensified by hostile foreign fighters and influences, it would be tantamount to wilful abandonment of a nascent democracy created in partnership with the Iraqi people – and endorsed by their political participation – to the forces of terrorism, sectarian hatred and chaos. And it would also enable those of Iraq’s neighbours who have always feared the success of its democratic experiment, primarily Iran and Syria, to cast aside the cloak of neutrality, and turn the covert support for disorder that they currently provide into an open form that would force a response from Saudi Arabia and perhaps Turkey.

Nature abhors a vacuum: a precipitate Western withdrawal from an unstable Iraq would be followed by bloodshed, orchestrated both internally and externally by enemies of the West’s values and beliefs. The people of Iraq would certainly be the victims of such an outcome, but so would we all, for the Islamists who would take the credit for having forced this change in policy would have secured a tremendous propaganda victory. And as their ardour for conflict with Western values long pre-dates the Iraq war and is incidental to it, this success would merely see a redoubling of their efforts to bring conflict closer to our shores, rather than an abatement of it as the withdrawalists feebly hope.

No one now argues that serious mistakes have not been made in Iraq policy to date, and President Bush is to be commended for accepting his portion of blame for these. But that does not mean that he should also accept the insidious theory spun by the withdrawalists that the failure of Iraq policy to deliver stability and order to date means that it is inevitable that such success will forever remain beyond our and the Iraqi government’s grasp.

On the contrary, the experience of the ebbs and flows of past insurgencies – with Malaya being a prime example – shows that a country’s internal situation three and a half years into a campaign to pacify the forces of disorder can often bear little relation to its eventual outcome several years thereafter. It is a change of tactics to reflect circumstances on the ground, as the United States is now employing, which is usually the catalyst for such a transformation.

Of course there will need to be political and economic progress in Iraq for a stable situation to emerge. Iraq’s Shia-dominated government must be required to make strenuous attempts to accommodate Sunni and to a lesser extent Kurdish anxieties and demands, particularly over the sharing of oil revenues. And there will need to be a firm commitment to de-politicising institutions of the state, in particular the police and the army, so that they represent and can be deployed to further a national rather than a sectarian viewpoint. The distasteful backdrop to Saddam Hussein’s execution shows that much progress needs to be achieved in this regard.

However, to think that this can occur without some form of military stabilisation in tandem is nonsensical. The Iraqi government must be given some breathing space within which to conduct its transformation, and that means reducing the level of day-to-day violence through pacification measures – measures which will also mean eventually tackling those Shia militias and death squads allegedly loyal to the government but which are in reality playing their own game, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.

It is when insurgent and terrorist forces are being driven back that they are most likely to compromise, not when they are flush with success, as they are currently. For a recent example, witness Hezbollah’s behaviour when provoking Israel during last summer’s Lebanon crisis. Having ridden out Israel’s aerial campaign, the terrorist organisation hurried to a ceasefire once the Israelis began a ground invasion to the Litani river that would have seen their weapons caches uncovered and their strike-force rendered impotent.

And the surge is significant in this regard, for it marks the first time that Mr. Bush has taken the advice of those favouring a more human-intensive approach to the stabilisation of Iraq. The unlamented Donald Rumsfeld and Generals George Casey and John Abizaid – the men hitherto in charge of Iraqi military operations – consistently favoured a ‘small footprint’ approach where the primary function of American troops was to support and train Iraqi forces rather than lead the line against the various insurgent forces.

Intended to pave the way for a gradual American withdrawal once Iraqi forces were sufficiently established in their stead, this strategy has repeatedly failed, primarily because the ‘clear, hold and build’ approach that it was based on could not be carried through to fruition with such limited numbers. Areas might have been cleared and temporarily held, but with constant pressure to move onto other zones to combat the violence there, building could not occur, leading to a return of insurgent forces once the troops had departed. All three men have now been replaced by those willing to contemplate alternative options to make ‘hold, clear and build’ a success.

The real question that needs to be asked therefore is whether 20,000 troops will prove sufficient for the pacification operation to be viable. And on this point, it is notable that the lead advocates of the surge – notably Frederik Kagan and retired American General Jack Keane, whose recent American Enterprise Institute report Choosing Victory is said to have swung the president behind the scheme, but also Bill Kristol and the senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman – have often quoted troop requirements in excess of this figure. Kagan-Keane for example stressed a minimum increase of 30,000, while Mr. McCain favoured a minimum total of 25,000 just two weeks ago, and figures as large as 50,000 have previously been quoted.

Therefore, 20,000 extra troops is a step in the right direction. But having made the bold move of increasing the American commitment, it seems strange that President Bush has not adopted this policy as wholeheartedly as its advocates would have wished. Perhaps he has erred on the side of caution by limiting numbers in the expectation that a further increase can always be requested by General Petraeus, the new head of Multinational Force Iraq, once he begins his operations. If so, he should take heed that the situation in Iraq is too serious for a ‘drip-drip’ strategy to work: tangible progress needs to be made sooner rather than later. If it is not, President Bush will come to rue a surge that will have resembled a wave gently subsiding onto a beach rather than a tidal flow subsuming all before it.