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The Surge

On January 10, 2007, President Bush presented his new Iraq plan in a nationally broadcast address from the White House library. “The most urgent priority for success in Iraq,” he explained, “is security, especially in Baghdad.” He announced that he was sending more than 20,000 additional troops to Baghdad and Anbar Province. Baghdad would be divided into nine districts and US forces would be embedded with the Iraqi army and police in each of those districts. These forces would monitor the Iraqi units operating in Baghdad, support them with additional firepower, and provide training.

By reducing the violence, Bush hopes to open the door to political reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis. He said he would hold the Iraqi government to a program of national reconciliation that included disarming Shiite militias, a petroleum law guaranteeing the regions of Iraq a fair share of revenues, and a relaxation of penalties for service in the Baath Party. But unlike the Iraq Study Group report, Bush proposed no penalty if the Iraqi government failed to comply.

Bush aimed his toughest language at Iran and Syria, charging that they were allowing terrorists to move in and out of Iraq. The Iranians, he said, were providing material support for attacks on US troops, which he vowed to disrupt. To underscore his determination, he announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf, and a few days after the speech, US special forces staged a raid on the Iranian liaison office in Erbil and arrested six Iranian intelligence operatives.

Bush’s strategy is the polar opposite of that proposed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in their Iraq Study Group report. Where they recommended the withdrawal of combat troops, Bush announced an escalation. Where they urged a diplomatic opening to Iran and Syria, Bush issued threats.

Bush’s plan is laden with ironies. Four years ago, military and diplomatic professionals warned that the US was embarking on a war with insufficient troops and inadequate planning. President Bush never listened to this advice, choosing to rely on the neoconservative appointees who assured him that victory in Iraq would be easy.

In devising his new strategy, Bush again turned to the neoconservatives. The so-called surge strategy is the brainchild of Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute who has never been to Iraq. And once again, President Bush dismissed the views of his military advisers. General George Casey and General John Abizaid, the commanders in the field, doubted that additional troops would make any difference in Iraq. They were replaced by surge advocates, including Lieutenant General David Petraeus, now the top commander in Iraq.

Petraeus, on whom so much now rests, served two previous tours in Iraq. As the American commander in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, he earned adulatory press coverage—including a Newsweek cover story captioned “Can This Man Save Iraq?”—for taming the Sunni-majority city. Petraeus ignored warnings from America’s Kurdish allies that he was appointing the wrong people to key positions in Mosul’s local government and police. A few months after he left the city, the Petraeus-appointed local police commander defected to the insurgency while the Sunni Arab police handed their weapons and uniforms over en masse to the insurgents.1 Neither this episode nor the evident failure of the training programs for the Iraqi army and police which he ran in his next assignment seemed to have damaged the general’s reputation.

In view of the role of neoconservatives in producing the Iraq fiasco, Bush’s continued reliance on them was, even more than the proverbial second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience. In so doing, Bush apparently, and uncharacteristically, swallowed his pride. In a Vanity Fair article released just before the mid-term elections, the main neoconservative proponents of the war, including the AEI’s Richard Perle and David Frum, trashed Bush as an incompetent. Perle, a noted Washington defense hawk who was among the most vociferous advocates of the war, said that in retrospect, the invasion was a mistake. Frum, who wrote the most famous phrase of the Bush presidency, “the axis of evil,” provided a comment that neatly encapsulated the President’s governing style and the neo-conservatives’ belief that ideas trump the practical:

I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that, although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything.

In his speech and in interviews that followed, Bush said he would take responsibility for the mistakes made in the Iraq war. But when asked if he owed the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job of providing security after the invasion, he quickly deflected the responsibility to the Iraqis:

Well I don’t, that we didn’t do a better job or they didn’t do a better job?… I think I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That’s the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.

Bush’s obliviousness to his own failure contributed to the overwhelmingly negative public and congressional reaction to his plan. According to a Gallup poll taken immediately after the speech, 70 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and his overall approval ratings fell to the lowest of his presidency. Aside from Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, no Democrat supported the new Bush plan. At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the day after the speech, Republican senators—and in particular those up for reelection in 2008—were among the fiercest critics as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to defend the new strategy.

President Bush’s plan has no chance of actually working. At this late stage, 21,500 additional troops cannot make a difference. US troops are ill prepared to do the policing that is needed to secure Baghdad. They lack police training, knowledge of the city, and requisite Arabic skills. The Iraqi troops meant to assist the effort are primarily Kurdish peshmerga from two brigades nominally part of the Iraqi army. These troops will have the same problems as the Americans, including an inability to communicate in Arabic.

Bush’s strategy assumes that Iraq’s Shiite-led government can become a force for national unity and that Iraqi security forces can, once trained, be neutral guarantors of public safety. There is no convincing basis for either proposition. The Bush administration’s inability to grasp the realities of Iraq is, in no small measure, owing to its unwillingness to acknowledge that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war.

As everyone except Bush seems to understand, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has no intention of transforming itself into an inclusive government of national unity. The parties that lead Iraq define themselves—and the state they now control—by their Shiite identity. For them, Saddam’s overthrow and their electoral victory is a triumph for Islam’s minority sect that has been 1,300 years in the making and a matter of historic justice. They are not going to abandon this achievement for the sake of a particular Iraqi identity urged by an American president.

Sunni Arabs are implacably opposed to an Iraq ruled by Shiites who want to define their country by the religion of the majority. Most see the current Iraqi government as alien and disloyal to the Iraq the Sunni Arabs built. (On the gallows, Saddam spoke for many Sunni Arabs when he warned against the Americans and “the Persians,” by which he clearly meant Iraq’s Shiite rulers.) The Sunni Arabs will not be reconciled with what they see as small measures, such as a guaranteed share of petroleum, a relaxation of de-Baathification laws, or constitutional amendments. They object to the very things that are quintessential to the claims of the Shiites, namely Shiite rule and the Shiite character of the new Iraq.

Bush’s strategy depends on the Iraqi police and army eventually taking over from US forces. Somehow the President imagines that Iraq’s army and police are exempt from the country’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. In reality, both the army and police are as polarized as the country itself. US training will not make these forces neutral guarantors of public security but will make them more effective killers in Iraq’s civil war. It is hard to see how this is in the US interest. The execution of Saddam—in which, as Iraqi officials subsequently admitted, members of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army participated—illustrated just how pervasive is the militia penetration of Iraq’s security services. Since the advocates of the President’s surge strategy have had no idea about how to make Iraq’s police and army committed to an inclusive Iraq, they simply pretend the problem does not exist.

At best, Bush’s new strategy will be a costly postponement of the day of reckoning with failure. But it is also a reckless escalation of the military mission in Iraq that could leave US forces fighting a powerful new enemy with only marginally more troops than are now engaged in fighting the Sunni insurgency. The strategy also risks extending Iraq’s civil war to the hitherto peaceful Kurdish regions, with no corresponding gain for security in the Arab parts of the country.

Until now, US forces in Iraq have been fighting, almost exclusively, the Sunni Arab insurgency. Bush’s new plan calls for the US military to initiate operations against the Mahdi Army (and related militias) as well, a measure that could mean US forces will become embroiled in all-out urban warfare throughout Baghdad, a city of more than five million. In addition, the Mahdi Army has members throughout southern Iraq, in the Diyala Governorate northeast of Baghdad, and in Kirkuk. While many Shiites do not support al-Sadr (the Mahdi Army has had armed clashes with the Badr Organization belonging to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, or SCIRI, one of the two main Shiite parties), the Mahdi Army is a formidable force comprising as many as 60,000 armed men.2 With Bush ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran, the Iranian government may see a broad-based Shiite uprising against the coalition as its best insurance against a US military strike. It has every incentive to encourage—and assist—the Mahdi Army in organizing such an uprising. Iran has sufficient influence with Iraqi Shiite groups—including SCIRI—to ensure at least their neutrality in a clash with the Mahdi Army.3

At the core of the Iraq fiasco has been Bush’s unwillingness to send forces adequate to accomplish the mission. Now the President proposes a military strategy to confront twice as many foes with just 15 percent more troops. The Mahdi Army may choose to wait out the Americans by taking a low profile for the duration of the surge. If so, this will be helpful to US troops, but, of course, it will have done nothing to break the power of the Shiite militias. President Bush’s public statements indicate no awareness of the risks of escalating America’s mission in Iraq. Democrats have concentrated almost exclusively on the escalation in troop numbers, giving the President a free ride on the far more dangerous escalation of the mission itself.

So far, the Kurds have largely sat out Iraq’s civil war. Although their constituents want as little connection with the Iraqi nation as possible, Iraq’s Kurdish president and Kurdish ministers often appear to be the only senior figures in Baghdad serious about national unity and national reconciliation. President Jalal Talabani has worked tirelessly to reach out to Sunni Arabs, including the insurgents. Barham Salih, once again Iraq’s deputy prime minister, promoted an Iraq-wide development strategy and has gotten the Kurdistan government to agree to share revenues from (but not control of) new oil fields, even though the constitution assigns such revenues to the producing region.

Latif Rashid, the Kurd who has been minister of water resources since his appointment by L. Paul Bremer in 2003, has put most of his efforts into restoring the marshes in southern Iraq, in an attempt to reverse Saddam Hussein’s draining of them, which resulted in an ecological catastrophe. The rebirth of some marshes is, perhaps, the biggest achievement of the “new Iraq,” but one largely unnoticed by the press and, oddly, little mentioned by the Bush administration. Hoshyer Zebari, the Kurd who has been Iraq’s foreign minister since 2003, has proved a powerful voice for the entire country, both internationally and at pan-Arab conclaves. The Kurdish leaders have been able to pursue a national agenda precisely because their actions do not affect Kurdistan’s separate status.

But Bush’s plan could change that. As of this writing it is not clear how the Kurdish troops will be used in Baghdad, but any deployment runs a serious risk of enlarging Iraq’s civil war. If the Kurdish troops are used against Sunni Arabs, insurgents may respond by escalating attacks on Kurds living in close proximity to Sunni areas. The most endangered population consists of the Kurds living in mostly Kurdish east Mosul. The Kurdish political parties will respond militarily to an escalation of the attacks on Mosul’s Kurds and this could transform Mosul from a place of low-level ethnic conflict to full-scale civil war.

Even more risky, the US military may use Kurdish troops to fight the Mahdi Army. Iraq’s Shiite-led government obstructed past US moves against the Mahdi Army and Shiite troops have been mostly unwilling to fight their coreligionists. This leaves Kurdish troops as the only indigenous force that the US could plausibly deploy against the Mahdi Army.

Iraq’s government is a partnership between a coalition of Shiite religious parties and the two main Kurdish nationalist parties. The Shiite coalition is itself evenly split between a faction led by SCIRI and a faction heavily influenced by supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr. The Kurdish parties have a close relationship with SCIRI that goes back decades in the struggle against Saddam and is built around a shared commitment to a highly decentralized Iraqi state. By contrast, Moqtada al-Sadr, with his political support coming heavily from Shiite east Baghdad, opposes federalism and Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. Like the Sunni Arabs, he objects to the constitutional mandate for a referendum to determine Kirkuk’s status and has sent the Mahdi Army there to fight the peshmerga on behalf of Kirkuk’s Shiite Arabs. (Kirkuk’s indigenous Arab population is Sunni and Kirkuk is adjacent to Iraq’s Sunni Arab govenorates. As part of his plan to make Kirkuk more Arab and less Kurdish and Turcoman, Saddam settled Shiites from the south in the homes of Kurds and Turcomans who were killed or expelled. Many of these Shiite settlers want to return south but those who wish to stay are a fertile pool for Mahdi Army recruits.)

A battle for Baghdad between the Mahdi Army and Kurdish troops could spill over to Kirkuk. If the Shiite coalition stays together, it could fracture the Kurdish–Shiite alliance. Or the Shiite coalition could itself fracture, making Iraq’s civil war a three-way affair among Sunni Arab insurgents, the Mahdi Army and its allies, and a SCIRI–Kurdish alliance. Neither outcome will make resolving Iraq’s problems any simpler. The Kurds, of course, are aware of the risks. Their decision to send troops at America’s behest reflects their deep commitment to their American ally in spite of a history that would suggest they are more likely to be double-crossed than to have their support reciprocated.

There is near-unanimous opposition in Kurdistan to sending troops to Baghdad. Although the Kurdish troops are nominally part of the Iraqi army, Kurdish leaders understand that Arab Iraqis will see the Kurdish troops as peshmerga; and, indeed, their loyalty is to Kurdistan and not Iraq. They only began moving to Baghdad after getting approval from the Kurdish political leaders. Even so, many Kurdish troops deserted rather than go to Baghdad. The actual number of Kurds deployed is more likely to be two thousand than the anticipated four thousand. Kurdish leaders have told their troops to stay out of Sunni–Shiite sectarian fighting.

Scholars who study civil wars observe that they generally last a long time—a decade is the mean since 1945—and they end, in 85 percent of the cases, with one side winning a military victory. If Iraq’s civil war is fought to the end, there can be little doubt that the Shiites will prevail. They are three times as numerous as the Sunnis, are in control of the armed apparatus of the Iraqi state, and have a powerful ally in neighboring Iran. While Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, talk about supporting the Sunni Arabs, those that border Iraq are relatively small, militarily weak, and separated from Iraq’s population centers by vast tracts of desert.

The three-state solution I have outlined in my book would protect the Sunni Arabs from military annihilation—and its attendant humanitarian consequences—by giving them their own self-governing region with defined borders.4 The alternative to promoting this kind of power-sharing arrangement is to let the civil war take its course. In late 2006, Vice President Cheney floated a trial balloon dubbed the “80 percent solution.” In starkest terms, the 80 percent solution would write off reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs on the grounds that they are intractable and focus on supporting the 80 percent of Iraqis who are Shiite or Kurdish. In essence, the United States would take the Shiite side in the Sunni–Shiite civil war.

This is a plausible, if cruel, strategy. But it would not result in a democratic, unified, or stable Iraq. The common ground between Shiites and Kurds is their shared commitment to the partition plan embodied in the Iraqi constitution. An 80 percent solution is, in effect, a two-state solution with Kurdistan and a Shiite-dominated Arab Iraq. It becomes all the more difficult to achieve if Bush administration efforts to involve the Kurds in the civil war shatter the Shiite coalition or break up the Kurdish–Shiite alliance.

George W. Bush has said he will leave the problem of Iraq to the president elected in 2008. Rather than acknowledge failure in Iraq—and by extension a failed presidency—Bush has chosen to postpone the day of reckoning. It is a decision that will cost many American and Iraqi lives, will leave the United States weaker, and will prolong the decline in American prestige abroad caused by the mismanaged Iraq war. And it will not change the truth that the President so desperately wishes to escape: George W. Bush launched and lost America’s Iraq war.

—February 15, 2007

  1. 1

    In a coordinated assault in November 2004, Sunni insurgents overran all of Mosul’s Sunni-led police stations, while every Kurdish police station successfully defended itself.

  2. 2

    When the Mahdi Army last fought the coalition on a large scale in April and May 2004, it severely disrupted US supply lines from Kuwait and took over several US installations. It is a more potent force in 2007 than it was then.

  3. 3

    In 2004, SCIRI was neutral in the battle between the coalition and the Mahdi Army, in spite of attacks by the latter on SCIRI’s militiamen.

  4. 4

    See “How to Get Out of Iraq,” The New York Review, May 13, 2004, and my book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End (Simon and Schuster, 2006), to be reissued in June with an afterword from which this article is drawn.

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