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The Surge Behind the Spin

The Truth Tellers

by WILLIAM S. LIND

As good news continues to flow from the "surge" — some of it true, some of it false and all of it spun — it is easy to forget the bottom line. The bottom line is whether or not we are beginning to see the re-emergence of a state in Iraq. Three recent news stories throw some light on that question, and it is not a favorable light.

The first, by Steven Hurst of the AP, ran in the August 26 Cleveland Plain Dealer under the title, "Sectarian violence in Iraq nearly double ’06 level." Relying on the AP’s own figures, the story reported that:

o Iraq is suffering about double the number of war-related deaths throughout the country compared with last year — an average daily toll of 33 in 2006 and 62 so far this year.

o Nearly 1,000 more people have been killed in violence across Iraq in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2006

o Baghdad has gone from representing 76 percent of all civilian and police war-related deaths in Iraq in January to 52 percent in July, bringing it back to the same spot it was roughly a year ago.

Taken together, these figures illustrate an old saying about counter-insurgency, namely that it is like trying to pick up mercury. When counter-insurgency forces surge in one place, as we have in Baghdad, the insurgents roll someplace else. Meanwhile, the insurgency as a whole continues to grow.

The second story, "Militias Seizing Control of Electricity Grid" by James Glanz and Stephen Farrell, ran in the August 23 New York Times. It reports that

Armed groups increasingly control the antiquated switching stations that channel electricity around Iraq, the electricity minister said Wednesday.

That is dividing the national grid into fiefs that, he said, often refuse to share electricity generated locally with Baghdad and other power-starved areas in the center of Iraq

In some cases, Mr. Wahid and other Iraqi officials say, insurgents cut power to the capital as part of their effort to topple the government.

But the officials said it was clear that in other cases, local militias, gangs, and even some provincial military and civilian officials held on to the power simply to try to help their own areas.

The use of the term "fiefs" is a truth-teller of some importance. The rise of fiefdoms and the transfer of loyalty to local regions are signs of movement away from a state, not toward the re-emergence of an Iraqi state. That has already happened in Iraq with regard to security. The fact that it is now spreading even into distribution of electricity from what was once a national grid is not good news. Arguably, it tells us more about the general direction of Iraq than do claims of success from the "surge."

The third story, "Children Doing Battle in Iraq" from the August 27 Los Angeles Times, points to further long-term disorder in Iraq:

Child fighters, once a rare presence on Iraq’s battlefields, are playing a significant and growing role in kidnappings, killings and roadside bombings in the country, U.S. military officials say.

Boys, some as young as 11, now outnumber foreign fighters at U.S. detention camps in Iraq. Since March, their numbers have risen to 800 from 100

The rise of child fighters will eventually make the Iraq conflict more gruesome, said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution expert on child fighters.

He said militant leaders often treat children as a cheap commodity, and peace will be less attainable because "conflict entrepreneurs" now have an established and pliable fighting force in their communities.

As we have seen in Africa, when children become fighters at an early age, they provide a pool of men who for at least a generation cannot do anything but fight. It is difficult to "de-program" them into peaceful citizens. In turn, this leads to what we might call "supply-side war," war driven largely by the presence of men who want to fight. This kind of half-war, half-brigandage swarmed over Europe during the interval between the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of the state. After Westphalia, the state put an end to it by rounding up the brigands and hanging them. In Iraq, where the fictional state cannot even round up kilowatts, supply-side war suggests that disorder will be rampant, and a state non-existent, for quite some time.

When Congress comes back into session in September to hear General Petraeus’s report, we may hope that it will pursue these indicators and other truth-tellers like them and not confine itself to what the general tells it. Truth may be found more at the margins of what General Petraeus says, or in what he chooses not to address. For once, we need Members of Congress to think like statemen, not like lawyers.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.