As Good as Post on Iraq as You’ll Read

From Dr. I-Rack at Abu Muqawama. He details good news, lingering bad news, and potential deal breakers.

On the positive side violence against US forces is down to 2004 levels however:

1. The right metric for violence? Attack levels are now down to March 2004 levels, but overall Iraqi civilian casualty numbers over the past few months (perhaps a better gauge of stability) are still at late 2005/early 2006 levels. That is a big improvement over late 2006/early 2007, but Iraq remains a very dangerous place.

Maliki has won some short term tactical victories against Sadr (it would appear) and according to the good Dr. may have a moment’s opening with the Sunnis. But Maliki is not interested in dealing with the Sunnis, integrating the Awakening Sons of Iraq into the army or any such thing. Maliki sees his role as the protection of the Shia particularly the traditional Shia order. Down the road the question is how long can the ISCI (which wants federal Shia regionalization in the South) and Maliki (who wants to become a strongman dictator) link up last? Seems to me some potential tension points there.

As with other operations, some networks of the Mahdi Army clearly have been hit, but also some have not. Plenty have escaped, the balloon was squeezed and people went elsewhere. Sadr is moving towards revolution from below via the poor outreach social organization of the movement.

And more importantly the tactical wins to the degree they happened were dependent (as Dr. points out) due to US airstrikes and logistics.

To invoke Biden for a second, this still does not get at the heart of the lack of a political deal. Just seems like different militias (some the government, some not) moving pieces on a chessboard and some short term reduction in violence (though again far too high for civilians).

To wit:

3. Electing to fight. There is a real danger of violent intra-sectarian competition in the lead-up to, or immediate aftermath of, the provincial elections. For obvious reasons, considerable attention has been paid to intra-Shia fights in recent months between Dawa/ISCI and OMS/JAM, and this could generate more strife as the ascendant but still unpopular Dawa/ISCI compete with OMS/JAM’s residual “street” power. Less noted in the media is the risk for intra-Sunni clashes between tribal and Awakening forces and “Green Zone” Sunni groups (Tawafoq/IIP) in the lead up to elections or in their aftermath if either side feels like they were cheated out of their rightful share of power.

So to bring this back to US political discourse, when Andrew Sullivan (and a reader who sends in the comment he responds to) says that McCain was as right in 2007 as Obama was in 2002, this doesn’t quite work.

Because this is still conflating correctness relative to military tactics (McCain) with overall strategic correctness (Obama). I could even quibble with the McCain was right tactically given the real reductions had to do with the flipping of the Sunni tribes (which started before the surge and is not tied to the surge), the separation of the populations/ethnic cleansing of Baghdad (again prior the surge), etc, but I’ll just give him that for the purposes of the argument.

The reader’s comment states:

The fact remains: he [McCain] was right about the surge. Not necessarily about what to do next, or what our long-term goals in Iraq should be, but about the need to reduce violence and reach a minimum level of stability before we could expect any political progress.

Everything following the but seems on the surface to make logical sense. But I think what Iraq has shown overall is that the US has no influence over the politics and the assumption that the US working to create some local deals, reduce violence, security does not translate (at least hasn’t yet) into political progress. I actually think it won’t and is structurally set up not to. In a weird way (and disturbing because obviously I don’t want this) I actually think there won’t be political “progress” or rather end-game status/new equilibrium until there is more violence. Horrifically much more violence.

The only other option being that Maliki does in fact become a dictator in which case we’ve changed a Sunni dictator for perhaps a slightly less villainous Shia one. Though by most accounts Maliki would give Hussein a good run for his money on levels of paranoia. [Though in the Iraqi context, what I would label paranoia might from that vantage point be better termed intelligence].

I should put my cards out on the table and state that I think the country known as Iraq is gone and is not coming back. All Petraeus’ horses and all his men are not putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

In that sense, McCain and his support of the surge may not have been right nor wrong but merely sideways to the central issue: there’s no endgame. The reader admits nearly as much but I don’t think takes that insight to its conclusion. Namely if there is no sense of where to go next and any ability to influence such a plan, how then does reduction in violence lead to a place no one really has any idea about? Made worse insofar as McCain publicly upholds the idea of a unified pan-ethnic state that is an ally in the war on terror.

[And this is not to downplay the reduction in violence, though if the gains in violence reduction are more to with the US army, then obviously withdrawing troops a la Baker-Hamilton would have reduced probably more violence against US soldiers as there would be a lot less of them].

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