Unmasking the Surge
A foreign policy expert warns that the troop surge in Iraq, while yielding short-term gains, may endanger Iraqis later on.
The source: “The Price of the Surge” by Steven Simon, in Foreign Affairs, May–June 2008.
Even the most partisan Democrats in Washington acknowledge that last summer’s “surge” of troops has reduced the killing in Iraq, and some Republicans say the strategy has finally cleared the way for victory. But the tactics that have made Iraqis safer in the short run may have the opposite effect over time, says Steven Simon, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The surge has lessened the violence only in tandem with homegrown developments, such as the “grim successes” of ethnic cleansing that have driven warring Sunni and Shiite Muslims from mixed neighborhoods and villages, Simon writes. The troop buildup also coincided with a breakdown in the alliance between Sunni tribes and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. In the months leading up to President George W. Bush’s announcement of the surge, Al Qaeda had infuriated its Iraqi partners by seizing resources, demanding obedience, and later killing recalcitrant Sunni leaders. Abetted by American offers of $360 a month, insurgents abandoned the Al Qaeda association in droves, becoming what is known as the “Sons of Iraq,” and swearing to support the United States.
The influx of 21,500 surge troops, combined with the cooperation of 90,000 Sons of Iraq, reduced the violence significantly. But the tactics that have been employed have contributed little toward building a stable, unified Iraqi nation, according to Simon. Instead, the surge has inadvertently strengthened the three modern horsemen of Middle Eastern apocalypse: tribalism, warlordism, and sectarianism.
General David Petraeus has employed a “bottom-up” strategy rather than a “top-down” effort that might have built support for a strong Iraqi government among tribal leaders, Simon observes. The importance of local sheikhs grew as they struck deals with the Americans, and the 20 percent cut they often skim from the U.S. payments to the former insurgents made them even more powerful. The focus on working with local tribesmen instead of through the Iraqi national government has bolstered warlords who have exploited the current security situation and all but taken over some cities, Simon writes.
The bottom-up strategy has allowed Iraq’s three major groups—the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds—to fantasize that the United States will help each of them achieve their goals. The Sunnis want a return to the power they held under Saddam Hussein. The Shia want compensation for their suffering under Saddam, and the Kurds want autonomy and territory. None feels much loyalty to a central government that would demand compromise on all fronts.
The failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to make much progress on reconciliation has left the United States with “no good options” in Iraq, Simon concludes. A new U.S. administration is going to need international cooperation to force Baghdad to take meaningful steps. To get this help from neighboring countries, European allies, and the United Nations, the Americans should announce a phased troop withdrawal, and yield a degree of their “dubious control” in return for shared responsibility in establishing stability, he says. The course is “risky and possibly futile,” Simon acknowledges, but is more promising than the current fashionable fix, which doesn’t address the need for a centralized, functioning government in the heart of the Middle East.