Iraq: Has the troop surge worked?

Robert Fox v Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 05/08/08):

Robert Fox to Simon Tisdall

I am always sceptical about the success of specific ground operations, heralded from Washington and London in the terribly tangled mess of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. General David Petraeus launched his “surge” with some 35,000 extra troops in the spring of last year. Now, some of the extra troops are being brought home. Instead of victory, Washington talks about “success”. Violence against US forces is down, it is claimed – and this is undoubtedly true. The government in Baghdad under Nouri al-Maliki is stronger and the Iraq army has been growing in numbers and capability, and performing creditably in several areas, most notably in Basra.

But problems remain, and this has been underlined by the recent suicide bombings in Kirkuk and Baghdad that killed at least 55 and injured more than 250. The targeting and tactics of the attacks suggests the hand of al-Qaida – the bombs were aimed at Shias in a religious procession and a demonstration of Kurds in Kirkuk. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of “Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia”, preached against the “axis of heresy” linking Kurds, Shias and the American invader as the band of enemies against the true followers of Islam in Iraq. Zarqawi was betrayed and then killed by the Americans in 2006, but these recent bombs suggest his legacy lives on and al-Qaida is far from beaten by the Americans and the Sunni tribal militias.

So, I think we can only say that the Petraeus surge is still very much a work in progress, and cannot be judged a magic ingredient that has suddenly turned the tide for the Americans in Iraq.

Simon Tisdall to Robert Fox:

To help understand what the “the surge” has (or has not) achieved, it is useful to cast one’s mind back to the summer and autumn of 2006 when it appeared, to many if not most observers, that the US and its coalition partners were losing the battle to secure Iraq and that the country was sliding into a state of civil war. Coalition and civilian casualties were running at record highs, sectarian warfare following the bombing of the Shia shrines earlier that year was out of control, al-Qaida, led by the still extant Zarqawi, was striking with apparent impunity, and the isolated central government in Baghdad was powerless to act. Iraq appeared to be on the brink of anarchy encompassing all but Kurdish-controlled areas in the north and east.

To make matters worse, Iran’s al-Quds Revolutionary Guards operatives were busily stirring the pot, building up leverage especially in the south, and aiding those militants in Iraq, both Sunni and Shia, who were intent on forcing the Americans out. Under mounting pressure to admit defeat and throw in the towel, Bush acknowledged the gravity of the situation by ordering Pentagon and other policy reviews that autumn. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group was an independent, contemporaneous attempt to find a strategy that worked, or at least would cease to fail. In the end, what emerged was a decision to make one more big push to secure Iraq by sending in additional forces (“the surge”), rather than begin a phased withdrawal (which was what most people at the time expected would happen). I’m proud to say the Guardian exclusively revealed the surge decision on November 16 2006 subsequently confirmed by the White House.

It is incontrovertibly the case that the surge decision in November 2006 marked a critical turning point in the history of the US intervention in Iraq. Since that moment, the overall security situation, broadly defined, has slowly and unevenly improved, to the point where we can now realistically look forward to an Iraqi government taking primary responsibility for its citizens’ safety and Bush can start cutting troop levels, as he did last week (Thursday July 31). This is not a victory, but neither is it the defeat that not so very long ago looked both certain and inevitable.

Robert Fox to Simon Tisdall

Undoubtedly, there have been improvements in security on the ground and an increase in capacity by the Iraqi army and the tribal militias now supporting the Malaki government in the Sunni triangle. But I think we have to look much further before we make judgments about turning points in the American strategy in Iraq. Sure, it may be a turning point, but not quite in the political direction intended. Rather like Chou en Lai being asked his view on the success of the French Revolution, I tend to think it is too early to make a definitive judgment on the success of the surge. Obviously, it is in the interest of the US presidential candidates to be positive about developments in Iraq – for both, it allows some much-needed room for manoeuvre to rebalance forces there and bring large numbers home.

There is a very big “but” to all this, however. The surge is not entirely, nor even mainly, a military stratagem. It is political, and aimed at achieving America’s political goal in Iraq – to achieve a stable, pro-American, functioning, unitary state at the heart of the Gulf security region. On this the jury is still out. There is still a lack of capacity in Malaki’s government. The police force is weak and corrupt, and seems trapped in a cycle of underachievement. The Sunni tribal associations may be battling al-Qaida elements and paying lip service to the American line in order to get weapons, training and funds, but they are not pro-American, nor even pro a Shia-dominated government like al-Maliki’s coalition. In the long run, they will turn away from the American-British axis. This is the opposite of the strategic aim of the surge.

With operation Charge of the Knights, the Iraq army and government have achieved a real and significant success. By all accounts, life in Basra is much changed, and for the better. But with this important tactical success, it should not be assumed that the problem of the Shia militias is resolved. The Mahdi militias of Moqtada al-Sadr appear weakened but not finished, down but not out. The rejectionism of the Sadrists, therefore, still appears unresolved. Additionally, there appears to be a serious threat of the dissident groups, on both sides of the sectarian divide, fragmenting into a perennial criminality.

Simon Tisdall to Robert Fox:

It’s sensible to be cautious about long-terms gains occasioned by the “surge”. The value, effectiveness and longevity of what has been achieved are open to question, as I wrote in my previous reply. Nothing in life is for ever and that applies with knobs on in Iraq. It could all go pear-shaped. Moqtada and his militiamen could make a comeback, the Sunni Awakening groups could go back to sleep, or turn on their US allies of convenience. Maliki could fail … it’s all possible. A senior US military official, a big proponent of the surge, told me recently that “progress will not be linear” and the “enemy remains formidable”. Inserting caveats about future developments is necessary analytical practice in such a volatile situation.

But to quote loosely another Chinese luminary, Confucius, “he who walks in the middle of the road gets knocked down by traffic travelling both ways”. I’m in the right carriageway when I say I believe that a positive change for the better has been achieved that will have lasting benefits. Three reasons (but not the only ones) why I think this are:

1) Iran, after years of malignly stirring the pot since 2003, has backed off since last autumn, having apparently decided that it is in its interests to support the much-strengthened Maliki government and, particularly, its timetable for an American withdrawal. Certainly, Tehran will hope to manipulate Maliki, but may find this harder as times goes by;

2) Gulf Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, are moving towards normalisation of relations, debt forgiveness and reconstruction collaboration with Iraq – despite its Shia-led government. This trend contradicts the “polarisation and disintegration” scenarios for Iraq that were so popular 18 months ago;

3) US military reports say al-Qaida leaders are leaving Iraq and diverting new recruits away from the country. They’re doing this because the security environment has got so much tougher.

Unfortunately, they’re not laying down their arms. Instead, they’re heading for Aghanistan …

Robert Fox to Simon Tisdall:

I think the real test of the surge is coming in the next few months. If the Americans pull back too soon, it can all fall apart. I am slightly more wary about Iran than you, Simon. I think Iranian policy towards Iraq, and the powerful Shia factions and parties, seems quite opaque. One minute, they seem to back either Hakim/SCIRI (ISCI) and Badr, then pull back. Moqtada has some clerical backing in Quom, notably from Grand Ayatollah Haeriri. Tehran seems to think it can manage Maliki. After all, they told him to avoid signing up to a permanent US presence in Iraq under the new status of forces agreement that will follow the UN mandate when it runs out at the end of the year. The test of stability will come with the provincial elections due soon, which will see a real distribution of power and spoils, particularly in the south.

The Americans will have to say the surge has been a success because they cannot sustain present force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. The British will also try to claim a piece of the success with the “turn around” in Basra. They are desperate to be gone and I understand that Gordon Brown has arranged with Washington and Baghdad for the bulk of British forces to be away from Iraq by the beginning of next June, when an American division and headquarters will move into Basra. By that time, it will be clear if the surge has passed its main test – whether it has ensured that Iraq can hold together as a functioning state.

Simon Tisdall to Robert Fox:

The “surge” is already over in military terms. The additional combat brigades deployed by Bush last year have all gone home, and overall troop levels are down to pre-surge levels. Bush’s announcement last week on cutting the duration of operational tours, and his acceptance of “time horizons” for a withdrawal, follow on from the official US assessment that the surge has worked and indeed has been a success. The surge’s main military proponent on the ground, General David Petraeus, has been promoted to CentCom, as have several of his key counterinsurgency advisers. The current offensive in Diyala suggests there is still much work to be done. And Kirkuk could still blow up at any time. But you are right about Baghdad, Basra and the Sunni Triangle. They are much improved security-wise.

Politically speaking, I agree the longer-term success of the surge is still an open question. The provincial elections due this year may be postponed, mostly due to Kurdish objections about Kirkuk’s future. That could prevent, or discourage, large-scale Sunni Arab participation. After their boycotting of previous polls, it was hoped the Sunnis would get involved in the political process this time, thereby increasing its credibility. This, in turn, could delay general elections next year. Other unpredictable political factors include the Iranian presidential election campaign and whether Ahmadinejad wins again; and the US presidential poll, with both main candidates using Iraq for campaign purposes (witness McCain’s jibes about Obama’s supposed lack of interest in meeting fallen warriors).

Making Iraq a united, functioning country also requires a lasting settlement of the oil question – that is, who gets and controls which bit of the vast oil and gas reserves. Opening the industry to foreign ownership and exploitation, as recently proposed, could further complicate things politically.

The surge was never a panacea. It was, initially at least, a last desperate attempt to stop a haemorrhage with a large sticking plaster. It has worked better than most expected. Will the bleeding stop? Increasingly, the message coming from the US is: Iraqis must decide for themselves.

What a pity Bush did not take that view about Saddam Hussein pre-2003.

Robert Fox to Simon Tisdall

I agree that the surge is drawing to a close as the extra brigades sent in by David Petraeus are now being brought home. The question is what happens next, both for Iraq and America. The surge had to come to an end because the next president, whether McCain or Obama, cannot maintain such a high level of defence expenditure – over half a trillion dollars per annum, and now greater than the aggregated defence budgets of the rest of the world. Moreover, a lot of the equipment of the ground forces is used up and needs replacing urgently. The US government is currently devoting over $100bn on the “reset” programme to bring in replacement equipment.

In the UK, we are faced with the same phenomenon, though you wouldn’t know it. The equipment of the forces in Helmand and Basra, not least the helicopter force, is under colossal strain. It is unlikely to be replaced sufficiently with new kit at the rate required because the equipment budget is under such severe strain. Moreover, as we have both noted, both the UK and US are likely to have to reinforce in Afghanistan soon – particularly if the Canadians reduced their forces in southern Afghanistan and the Dutch pull out, as many in their parliaments and much of their press are now demanding