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General Petraeus’s surge is widely credited with bringing down violence in Iraq to a level that allows for political development and the withdrawal of some US troops. The impact of the surge has recently entered into the presidential campaign, but the matter should not be another partisan issue debated with slogans. It is central to understanding developments in Iraq and expectations in Afghanistan, where the principles of the surge are likely to be put into practice. US officials think that they have written the pages of recent Iraqi history, but important passages have been written with Saudi and Persian pens.
The surge increased US troop levels in the Sunni center in order to begin a counterinsurgency program. Based on British and French experiences late in the colonial era, it sought to rid a small area of insurgents through military force then win over local support by providing government services and stimulating economic development. Upon consolidation in one locale, the cycle would be repeated in surrounding areas, spreading out gradually across the country in a manner that counterinsurgency advocates liken to an oil spot spreading across water. Looking at the political and military dynamics reverberating through Iraq over the last two years or so, one can see other forces at work that reduced violence – forces unrelated to the surge and the counterinsurgency principles upon which it rests.
A considerable portion of the violence in Iraq over the last several years did not stem from the insurgency or al Qaeda, rather it stemmed from animosities between the Sunnis and Shi’as. Those animosities developed into internecine sectarian fighting, triggered in part by spectacular al Qaeda bombings of Shi’a shrines and neighborhoods. Sectarian fighting led to Sunni emigrations into adjacent countries and to Sunnis and Shi’as abandoning mixed neighborhoods in favor of homogeneous ones guarded by local militias. These population shifts made sectarian violence less likely, and provided a breathing space during which both sides could ponder where civil war was taking them. This internal Iraqi dynamic accounts for a considerable amount of the decline in violence, especially in Baghdad.
The Sunni Arab tribes of Anbar and Diyala provinces shifted away from being important parts of the insurgency to partnering with the US against al Qaeda. It is difficult to link these events in Anbar and Diyala to the surge. There was no cycle of security-services-expansion as in counterinsurgency programs; instead, whole regions quickly and unexpectedly turned on al Qaeda. More importantly, the Sunni tribes began their cooperation with the US several months before the surge began. Al Qaeda’s operations in those provinces and nearby Baghdad caused large numbers of Sunni casualties; and its personnel demonstrated little respect for the customs of local tribes. Tribal leaders approached US officers in the region and forged various local working relationships to expel al Qaeda, first in Anbar and later in Diyala.
There was an external dynamic in turning the Sunnis against al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia warned the US long ago that ousting Saddam Hussein would destabilize the region and open it up to Shi’a and Iranian influence if not domination. Wishing to stabilize a neighboring country and turn it into a new obstacle to Shi’ism and Iran, the Saudis used tribal diplomacy and monetary inducements (the two go hand in hand) with the elders of the Dulayim tribe, whose domain sprawls throughout Anbar and across the frontier into Saudi Arabia. Subsequent US inducements and counterinsurgency programs have sustained the working relationships, but the change was well underway and nicely funded beforehand. Perhaps at some later date we will be able to discern which was more important in the turnabout: US troops, who alternately use heavy-handed and benign methods; or the Saudis, who have long practice in dealing with coreligionists and tribal leaders.
Over sixty percent of Iraqis are Shi’a, most of whom live in the south – a region that has not had a significant US presence. The south was left to the British whose practices, after many arduous years in Northern Ireland, drew from counterinsurgency programs and placed emphasis on respecting the local population and avoiding insensitive uses of firepower – principles not always foremost in the minds of American troops until recently.
Furthermore, the Shi’a regions are greatly influenced by Iran, which of course follows the same branch of Islam. Key Shi’a political groups and their associated militias were formed in Iran during the long war between the two states; others were formed later under similar tutelage. Most if not all continue to obtain money from Iran. Since Saddam’s ouster in 2003, trade has thrived between the two former enemies. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has long been conducting its own systematic policies to expand Iranian influence in southern Iraq. IRGC officers train and advise Shi’a militias; political cadres work with locals on development projects. In many ways, the US counterinsurgency effort parallels the IRGC program, which of course had been in effect for several years before the US program began in early 2007.
Iranian influence has kept disparate Shi’a factions, whose inclination is to settle matters through violence, reasonably in line – considering the chaos brought on in 2003. This has helped Prime Minister Maliki’s frail government navigate through several political tempests. The IRGC has brokered ends to fighting between warring Shi’a militias and also between the Sadrists and the mainly Shi’a army, nominally under Maliki. Though no US official will ever admit it in public, it is clear that Iran has played a vital and unappreciated role in reducing violence and setting the stage for political development.
This represents a shift in Tehran’s approach to bringing about a US departure from Iraq. No longer does Iran seek to oust the US by supplying weapons to militias and encouraging them to attrit American forces until the US public forced withdrawal. That approach was obviated by tepid opposition to the war in the US, the astonishing cohesion of US combat units, the decline of the Sunni insurgency, and the threat of devastating US air strikes. Iran now seeks to bring about as much stability in Iraq as possible and then to encourage the Shi’a parties to press for the US’s departure.
Attention on the surge over the last eighteen months has entailed several costs. Various arrangements between US troops and tribal groups in the Sunni center have largely circumvented Sunni political parties, which were never as coherent as Shi’a counterparts. It might be quickly added, however, that the Shi’a parties are understandably wary of a strong Sunni region, and that they might find a fractured though reasonably stable Sunni region to be less threatening than a more or less unitary one after elections are held in the fall.
Concentrating on the Sunni region has come at the expense of allowing Iran to expand its influence with Shi’a parties and militias. Perhaps most importantly, fixation on the surge has rendered events in Afghanistan, at least until recently, into secondary if not tertiary issues. Meanwhile, the Taliban and al Qaeda have consolidated sanctuaries along the Pakistani frontier that are more formidable than anything the North Vietnamese had in Cambodia and Laos. From those sanctuaries, they have expanded their control of the Pashtun countryside in the south and enclaves in the north.
Events in Iraq are bewildering complex. When this is combined with personal vanity and bureaucratic parochialism, which typically overstate the influence of prized projects, administrative officials and key commanders might fail to grasp just what has happened in Iraq over the last two years. The fog of war and official mindsets are not conducive to understanding complex events, and the surge’s impact on reducing violence is greatly inflated in Washington and the Green Zone alike. Similarly, much of the American public subscribes to this attractive storyline, resonant as it is with popular views of the resourcefulness and determination of their military. To paraphrase the venerable caution on simple causality: Post Petraeum, ergo propter Petraeum.
A likely though possibly harmful consequence of this is that General Petraeus, on becoming CENTCOM commander this fall, will confidently use the surge play book in Afghanistan, where the important if not decisive attendant dynamics might not be present.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org