A Surge of Pessimism

Is U.S. planning considering Iraqi priorities?


Much ink has been spilled and outrage revved up in arguing that the Bush administration has shamefully ignored the Iraq Study Group report released last December. But in a speech on Wednesday evening announcing a new strategy for Iraq, President George W. Bush took a major ISG recommendation to heart: the United States intends to set benchmarks for the Iraq leadership to implement, otherwise…

Otherwise what? Like the ISG authors, Bush didn't make the sharper side of that equation clear. He did warn that the Iraqi government "would lose the support of the American people", but on those grounds you would have to assume the United States entered Iraq as a favor to the Iraqis. Even the most idealistic war supporter would not make that argument. So, what leverage does the U.S. have over the Iraqis when the Iraqis are so essential to the success of the administration's plans, and its broader regional calculations? You do wonder.

The absence of an answer points to a recurring flaw of U.S. policy in Iraq: American plans are chiefly designed to influence the mood on the home front, with relatively little allusion to Iraqi priorities–even if it has become a habit to underline that it's up to the Iraqis to "want victory." As far as Americans are concerned, Bush's main hurdle in Iraq is assuaging Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats, but very few people have a sense of what the aims of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are or how they might end up undermining the president's "surge option."

In fact, this shortcoming was already obvious before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Then, the public debate in America was notable for the virtual absence of Iraqis. As intellectuals described their angst in justifying or opposing war, as pundits and journalists decorticated the bureaucratic machinations of the White House, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon, very few people in Washington seemed to be examining Iraqi society and asking how it might react to the arrival of well over 100,000 foreign soldiers. Even administration critics tended to discuss the war in parochial terms. Iraq was, and still is, largely about America.

Applaud the Washington Post for having placed prominently on its website Monday an article focusing on Iraqi deaths in 2006. (Over 22,000 Iraqis were killed last year, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry, although the real figure is surely higher.) It was a grimly appropriate counterpoint to the crossing last week of the 3,000 threshold in terms of American soldiers' lives lost in the Iraqi conflict. It was also a sign of how much Iraq's future will be decided by Iraqis themselves, whatever the politicking back home in the U.S. The reason is that far too many of those deaths were caused by individuals or groups wholly unconcerned by what goes on inside the Beltway, even if the Bush administration's moves are vital to what occurs next in Iraq.

The essence of the surge plan is for the U.S. to remove armed militias from Baghdad quarters, after which Iraqi forces would take control of the areas. Among the problems with the plan, two in particular will be defined by specifically Iraqi factors. First, Maliki will have to sign off on any decision to crush the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, the American's main quarry, which has been among the worst perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, as Sunnis are removed from their neighborhoods to allow for continuity between Shiite ones. The problem is that the prime minister, who is also the number-two man in the Daawa Party, came to power thanks to Sadr. Will he agree to alienate his main backer in favor of the wobbly Americans? Nothing is less certain.

Maliki is known to favor a U.S. deployment on the edges of Baghdad, where the troops would principally fight Sunni insurgents, allowing his own forces greater leeway in the capital's center. But since the prime minister's men are mainly Shiites, this means the Americans could find themselves objective allies in advancing an agenda of "Shiitization" in Baghdad, when the primary obstacle to Iraqi normalization is sectarian violence. Maliki's preference suggests he may not be as ardently on the Americans' wavelength as Bush has indicated in recent days.

A second potential problem is the apparently significant reliance on Kurdish troops to help make the surge work. According to Iraqi sources cited by the Washington Post, two Kurdish army brigades will be brought into Baghdad, as will a Shiite brigade from the south, to support U.S. efforts. An Iraqi brigade totals some 1,200 soldiers. Depending on the Kurds is not new. From the early days of rebuilding the Iraqi Army, the U.S. has counted on Kurdish units in the armed forces, because they were well-trained as Peshmerga. However, there is little enthusiasm among Kurds to waste their forces in Baghdad when the main Kurdish political objective is to break free from the rest of Iraq. Nor are the Kurds likely to relish controlling Shiite or Sunni districts after they have been reconquered by the Americans. What is an effort to reduce Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension could end up partly turning against the Kurds.

There are other factors as well that might spoil the administration's strategy, whether the likely military ineffectiveness of over 20,000 new American soldiers or the absence of a political project to accompany U.S. endeavors. The fact that Bush has revamped the American political and military hierarchy in Iraq may be more a sign of weakness than strength. It does imply that new ideas will be floated, but it also means that those who have spent months or years in the field didn't get very far. Only when U.S. officials and commanders can put their experience to use by better integrating Iraqi contradictions into their stabilization plans, will success be more likely.

Whenever Vietnam is brought up (and it's being brought up with alarming alacrity these days), someone is heard to sigh, "The war was lost at home." Many wars are lost at home. But while it is fair to argue that the U.S. will find it much more difficult to withdraw from Iraq than Americans imagine, it is self-defeating to ignore or underplay the details of a society in which American forces are fighting. Both Bush and his harshest critics need to make Americans better aware of Iraqi dynamics and the regional and international implications of any American decision. Iraq is not just about America, nor is it even mostly so. It's time that straightforward truth becomes more widespread.