Too Soon to Judge the Surge


Aug 29, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on August 29, 2008.

Violence in Iraq is down. Casualty levels for U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians are at their lowest levels since the invasion began, and some semblance of normalcy is returning to Iraq’s battered population. Al Qai’da in Iraq is on the run, and the Iraqi government is reasserting its authority in Baghdad and beyond.

All these are ingredients which may ultimately prove the “surge” a success. Yet a full appraisal of the surge needs to factor in other issues, some of which are in still in play.

When the surge was announced in January 2007, two trends were already under way that have likely affected the reduction in violence just as much as the increased numbers of U.S. troops.

First, U.S. troops already in Iraq started pursuing a different strategy before most of the surge forces arrived. They focused on providing security for local populations, rather than just capturing or killing suspected terrorists. This strategy was much more consistent with traditional theories of counterinsurgency and brought immediate benefits.

Second, some of the most entrenched members of the insurgency decided to stop shooting at coalition troops. The Sunni Awakening (also known as the Sons of Iraq movement) started in the late summer of 2006, as tribal leaders decided that Al Qai’da in Iraq posed a greater threat to them than did the United States. U.S. forces serving in Anbar province did a great job of responding to this strategic opportunity, but they did not cause it. And violence will inevitably go down when as many as 100,000 former fighters decide to lay down their arms.

Then, during the summer of 2007, Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his Shia militia to observe a ceasefire. No one knows exactly why Sadr called for the ceasefire, but it is plausible that he used the surge to strengthen his control over his militia. Fighters loyal to him would abide by the ceasefire, while disloyal rogue elements would keep fighting and would presumably be eliminated by the stronger U.S. forces. This represents more of a tactical adjustment than a fundamental strategic change, but it did mean that even more U.S. adversaries decided to stop shooting, at least for some period of time. That saved lives.

None of this should detract from the job that U.S. troops have done over the past 18 months. They reinforced these positive developments, and the presence of more troops helped establish the drop in violence we see today.

What remains to be seen, and will be an important factor in judging the surge’s success, is whether the counterinsurgency strategy, the Sunni Awakening and the Shia ceasefires can be sustained over the coming months.

Most of the units involved in the surge have been withdrawn from Iraq, and troop levels are about what they were before the surge was announced. And if General Petraeus recommends, further troop cuts may be adopted this fall. The key question is whether levels of violence will remain low once those troops are gone.

All of these factors could change: At reduced levels, U.S. forces might not have enough troops to effectively protect the Iraqi population. Some members of the Sunni Awakening may grow disenchanted with the United States and the Iraqi government, especially if they are not integrated into the security forces as quickly as they have been promised. And the Shia ceasefires, which have always been shaky, could easily be withdrawn or ignored by rogue members.

Imagine that six months from now, insurgents are able to conduct another large-scale attack on a highly symbolic target, similar to the February 2006 attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra. Would the United States be able to protect ordinary Iraqis from the likely waves of violence? Would U.S. forces be able to help the Iraqi security forces identify and capture those responsible for the violence before it escalates out of control?

The answers are tough to predict, yet will be critical in ultimately adjudging the success of the surge.

Nora Bensahel is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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