Juan Cole: A Social History of the Surge





[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

I want to weigh in as a social historian of Iraq on the controversy over whether the"surge""worked." The NYT notes:

'Mr. McCain bristled in an interview with the “CBS Evening News” on Tuesday when asked about Mr. Obama’s contention that while the added troops had helped reduce violence in Iraq, other factors had helped, including the Sunni Awakening movement, in which thousands of Sunnis were enlisted to patrol neighborhoods and fight the insurgency, and the Iraqi government’s crackdown on Shiite militias.

“I don’t know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened,” Mr. McCain told Katie Couric, noting that the Awakening movement began in Anbar Province when a Sunni sheik teamed up with Sean MacFarland, a colonel who commanded an Army brigade there.

“Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others,” Mr. McCain said. “And it began the Anbar Awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history.”

The Obama campaign was quick to note that the Anbar Awakening began in the fall of 2006, several months before President Bush even announced the troop escalation strategy, which became known as the surge. (No less an authority than Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, testified before Congress this spring that the Awakening “started before the surge, but then was very much enabled by the surge.”)

And Democrats noted that the sheik who helped form the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, was assassinated in September 2007, after the troop escalation began.

The National Security Network, a liberal foreign policy group, called Mr. McCain’s explanation of the surge’s history “completely wrong.”

But several foreign policy analysts said that if Mr. McCain got the chronology wrong, his broader point — that the troop escalation was crucial for the Awakening movement to succeed and spread — was right. “I would say McCain is three-quarters right in this debate,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. '

The problem with this debate is that it has few Iraqis in it.

It is also open to charges of logical fallacy. The only evidence presented for the thesis that the"surge""worked" is that Iraqi deaths from political violence have declined in recent months from all-time highs in the second half of 2006 and the first half of 2007. (That apocalyptic violence was set off by the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February of 2006, which helped provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war.) What few political achievements are attributed to the troop escalation are too laughable to command real respect.

Proponents are awfully hard to pin down on what the"surge" consisted of or when it began. It seems to me to refer to the troop escalation that began in February, 2007. But now the technique of bribing Sunni Arab former insurgents to fight radical Sunni vigilantes is being rolled into the"surge" by politicians such as John McCain. But attempts to pay off the Sunnis to quiet down began months before the troop escalation and had a dramatic effect in al-Anbar Province long before any extra US troops were sent to al-Anbar (nor were very many extra troops ever sent there). I will disallow it. The"surge" is the troop escalation beginning winter of 2007. The bribing of insurgents to come into the cold could have been pursued without a significant troop escalation, and was.

Aside from defining what proponents mean by the"surge," all kinds of things are claimed for it that are not in evidence. The assertion depends on a possible logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc. If event X comes after event Y, it is natural to suspect that Y caused X. But it would often be a false assumption. Thus, actress Sharon Stone alleged that the recent earthquake in China was caused by China's crackdown on Tibetan protesters. That is just superstition, and callous superstition at that. It is a good illustration, however, of the very logical fallacy to which I am referring.

For the first six months of the troop escalation, high rates of violence continued unabated. That is suspicious. What exactly were US troops doing differently last September than they were doing in May, such that there was such a big change? The answer to that question is simply not clear. Note that the troop escalation only brought US force strength up to what it had been in late 2005. In a country of 27 million, 30,000 extra US troops are highly unlikely to have had a really major impact, when they had not before.

As best I can piece it together, what actually seems to have happened was that the escalation troops began by disarming the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. Once these Sunnis were left helpless, the Shiite militias came in at night and ethnically cleansed them. Shaab district near Adhamiya had been a mixed neighborhood. It ended up with almost no Sunnis. Baghdad in the course of 2007 went from 65% Shiite to at least 75% Shiite and maybe more. My thesis would be that the US inadvertently allowed the chasing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs out of Baghdad (and many of them had to go all the way to Syria for refuge). Rates of violence declined once the ethnic cleansing was far advanced, just because there were fewer mixed neighborhoods.

This MNF graph courtesy of Think Progress makes the point:


As Think Progress quoted CNN correspondent Michael Ware:

' The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad has been — albeit tragic — one of the key elements to the drop in sectarian violence in the capital. […] It’s a very simple concept: Baghdad has been divided; segregated into Sunni and Shia enclaves. The days of mixed neighborhoods are gone. […] If anyone is telling you that the cleansing of Baghdad has not contributed to the fall in violence, then they either simply do not understand Baghdad or they are lying to you.'

Of course, Gen. Petraeus took courageous and effective steps to try to stop bombings in markets and so forth. But I am skeptical that most of these techniques had macro effects. Big population movements because of militia ethnic cleansing are more likely to account for big changes in social statistics.

The way in which the escalation troops did help establish Awakening Councils is that when they got wise to the Shiite ethnic cleansing program, the US began supporting these Sunni militias, thus forestalling further expulsions.

The Shiitization of Baghdad was thus a significant cause of falling casualty rates. But it is another war waiting to happen, when the Sunnis come back to find Shiite militiamen in their living rooms.

In al-Anbar Province, among the more violent in Iraq in earlier years, the bribing of former Sunni guerrillas to join US-sponsored Awakening Councils had a big calming effect. This technique could have been used much earlier than 2006, indeed, could have been deployed from 2003, and might have forestalled large numbers of deaths. Condi Rice forbade US military officers from dealing in this way with the Sunnis for fear of alienating US Shiite allies such as Ahmad Chalabi. The technique was independent of the troop escalation. Indeed, it depended on there not being much of a troop escalation in that province. Had large numbers of US soldiers been committed to simply fight the Sunnis or engage in search and destroy missions, they would have stirred up and reinforced the guerrilla movement. There were typically only 10,000 US troops in al-Anbar before 2007 as I recollect (It has a population of a million and a half or so). If the number of US troops went up to 14,000, that cannot possibly have made the difference.

The Mahdi Army militia of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr concluded a cease-fire with US and Iraqi troops in September of 2007. Since the US had inadvertently enabled the transformation of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city, a prime aim of the Mahdi Army, they could afford to stand down. Moreover, they were being beaten militarily by the Badr Corps militia of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and by Iraqi security forces, in Karbala, Diwaniya and elsewhere. It was prudent for them to stand down. Their doing so much reduced civilian deaths.

Badr reassertion in Basra was also important, and ultimately received backing this spring from PM Nuri al-Maliki. There were few coalition troops in Basra, mainly British, and most were moved out to the airport, so the troop escalation was obviously irrelevant to improvements in Basra. Now PM Gordon Brown seems to be signalling that most British troops will come home in 2009.

The vast increase in Iraqi oil revenues in recent years, and the cancellation of much foreign debt, has made the central government more powerful vis-a-vis the society. Al-Maliki can afford to pay, train and equip many more police and soldiers. An Iraq with an unencumbered $75 billion in oil income begins to look more like Kuwait, and to be able to afford to buy off various constituencies. It is a different game than an Iraq with $33 bn. in revenues, much of it pre-committed to debt servicing.

Senator McCain was wrong to say that US or Iraqi casualty rates were unprecedentedly low in May.

Most American commentators are so focused on the relative fall in casualties that they do not stop to consider how high the rates of violence remain. Kudos to Steve Chapman for telling it like it is.

I'd suggest some comparisons. The Sri Lankan civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils has killed an average of 233 persons a month since 1983 and is considered one of the world's major ongoing trouble spots. That is half the average monthly casualties in Iraq recently. In 2007, the conflict in Afghanistan killed an average of 550 persons a month. That is about the rate recently according to official statistics for Iraq. The death rate in 2006-2007 in Somalia was probably about 300 a month, or about half this year's average monthsly rate in Iraq. Does anybody think Afghanistan or Somalia is calm? Thirty years of North Ireland troubles left about 3,000 dead, a toll still racked up in Iraq every five months on average.

All the talk of casualty rates, of course, is to some extent beside the point. The announced purpose of the troop escalation was to create secure conditions in which political compromises could be achieved.

In spring of 2007, Iraq had a national unity government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet had members in it from the Shiite Islamic Virtue Party, the Sadr Movement, the secular Iraqi National list of Iyad Allawi, the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, the Kurdistan Alliance, and the two Shiite core partners, the Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party and the Islami Supreme Council of Iraq.

Al-Maliki lost his national unity government in summer, 2007, just as casualties began to decline. The Islamic Virtue Party, the Sadrists, and the Iraqi National List are all still in the opposition. The Islamic Mission Party of al-Maliki has split, and he appears to remain in control of the smaller remnant. So although the Sunni IAF has agreed to rejoin the government, al-Maliki's ability to promote national reconciliation is actually much reduced now from 14 months ago.

There has been very little reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite. The new de-Baathification law which ostensibly aimed at improving the condition of Sunnis who had worked in the former regime was loudly denounced by the very ex-Baathists who would be affected by it. In any case, the measure has languished in oblivion and no effort has been made to implement it. Depending on how it is implemented it could easily lead to large numbers of Sunnis being fired from government ministries, and so might make things worse.

An important step was the holding of new provincial elections. Since the Sunni Arabs boycotted the last ones in Jan., 2005, their provinces have not had representative governments and in some, Shiite and Kurdish officials have wielded power over the majority Sunnis Arabs! Attempts to hold the provincial elections this fall have so far run aground on the shoals of ethnic conflict. Thus, the Shiite parties wanted to use ayatollahs' pictures in their campaigns, against the wishes of the other parties. It isn't clear what parliament will decide about that. More important is the question of whether provincial elections will be held in the disputed Kirkuk Province, which the Kurds want to annex. That dispute has caused (Kurdish) President Jalal Talabani to veto the enabling legislation for the provincial elections, which may set them back months or indefinitely.

There is also no oil law, essential to allow foreign investment in developing new fields.

So did the"surge""work"?

The troop escalation in and of itself was probably not that consequential. That the troops were used in new ways by Gen. Petraeus was more important. But their main effect was ironic. They calmed Baghdad down by accidentally turning it into a Shiite city, as Shiite as Isfahan or Tehran, and thus a terrain on which the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement could not hope to fight effectively.

It is Obama who has the better argument in this debate, not Senator McCain, who knows almost nothing about Iraq and Iraqis, and overestimates what can be expected of 30,000 US troops in an enormous, complex country.

But the problem for McCain is that it does not matter very much for policy who is right in this debate. Security in Iraq is demonstrably improved, for whatever reason, and the Iraqis want the US out. If things are better, what is the rationale for keeping US troops in Iraq?


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Randll Reese Besch - 7/28/2008

No matter what the State department or the White House or any section of the corrupt gov't we have will tell us the truth. Such is the disconnect in what they want and what they tell us.

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