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                                       politics + culture

Saturday, May 26, 2007

International Institute for Strategic Studies: report on the Baghdad Surge

The British-run International Institute for Strategic Studies which calls itself the "world's leading authority on military conflict" has produced a significant document (May, 2007) on the Petraeus Plan for Iraq called: "the Baghdad Surge."

This report is perhaps the clearest, most succinct public account of current United States strategy in Iraq. It is a key document for understanding the emerging work of the Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team and the Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Iraq. For purposes of this article, I am going to discuss what I see as the three significant and newsworthy inferences that one can draw from the report itself.

First, US policy in Iraq is on a collision course with Moqtada al-Sadr. This conflict is a core, if not particularly publicly acknowledged, component of the Petraeus Surge policy:

To be successful, US forces will, over the summer, need to enter Moqtada al-Sadr’s east Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City. This slum, neglected for decades by the Ba’athist government, is thought to contain over two million of Baghdad’s 6m population. If the US military manages to gain control of it, to impose security and to begin rebuilding its crumbling infrastructure, it will have made a major dent in the geographic, military and political foundations of Sadr’s strength.

Second, US policy in Iraq is in direct conflict with, yet also dependent upon, the current government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the bad actors who make up his allies:

The first political target of the surge is the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki itself. The US administration has voiced profound doubts about the motives and capacity of the prime minister and his government. However, since America’s diplomatic and military effort lacks the time and leverage to replace him, Maliki is the most important vehicle for delivering the political goals of the Baghdad Security Plan. US success in Iraq is dependent upon Maliki’s willingness and ability to reform his government.

[...]The Maliki government is dominated by the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a large, unwieldy coalition built to maximise the Shia vote in the two elections of 2005. Once in power, elements within the UIA used their positions in government to pursue a sectarian agenda and exacerbate communal tensions. This involved denying resources and government services to Sunni areas. In addition, the police force and Ministry of Interior became highly politicised and were used in sectarian cleansing and murder.

Finally, the general thrust of the IISS report is that the Petraeus surge policy in Iraq is a late and last-minute attempt regain control of events in a nation on the precipice of, if not currently engaged in, a civil war. The flow of events in Iraq...the actions of various insurgents, sectarian groups, diverse political elements and the ever-present efforts of al Qaeda in Iraq...have driven United States military and political policy in Iraq into a pattern of reacting to events and forces that have been for the most part completely outside of US control. The Petraeus surge, then, is an attempt to create an "event" in Iraq whose "momentum" is powerful enough to stem that tide and that will, somewhat contradictorily, produce an Iraqi political solution to the impending civil war where one currently does not exist:

As General Petraeus recognises, the ultimate success of this final American attempt to create stability in Iraq will not be delivered in the military but in the political arena. The momentum delivered by the surge is meant to trigger and ultimately be sustained by the transformation of the Iraqi state.

There is a logical inconsistency however, in this "hope" for success in "this final American attempt to create stability in Iraq." And that is not simply in the twin barriers mentioned above: the inherent conflict between the interests of Moqtada al-Sadr, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and their allies on the one hand and the United States on the other in Iraq. The history of US involvement in Iraq has been a history of events that were beyond US control overtaking the capacities of a US policy and resources on the ground that would have been inadequate even in the most favorable environment. The dynamic in Iraq has always been that of the occupation of a nation half a world away by an occupying power that, until recently, seemed to little understand the diverse realities of the people and territory it occupied. In this environment, the United States has been very much at the mercy of events in Iraq. The IISS report documents that even some of the small progress made by the surge in markets West of Baghdad were offset when, once again, events and actors outside of US control reshaped the Iraqi landscape in unanticipated ways:

A marked increase in sectarian-motivated violence in April, the third month of the surge, indicated that the militias and insurgent groups had reorganised. Although a US-led military campaign in January had driven al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) out of its stronghold along Haifa Street in the Kark area on the western banks of the Tigris, this did not reduce its ability to deploy mass violence. Instead, AQI shifted its resources into terrorist ‘spectaculars’, launching suicide car bombs into predominantly Shia areas, to reignite the vicious sectarian cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity.

On the other side of the civil war, the Shia militias, especially Jaish al Mahdi, chose not to fight superior US forces but stood down, merging back into their host communities, retaining their weapons and capacity. Their leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, fearing for his life and unwilling to confront the US with an extended rebellion, fled Iraq to exile in Iran.

The New York Times reports today that Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq from Iran (if, indeed, he ever left) and has renewed his campaign of anti-American rhetoric. The impending conflict between General Petraeus's Surge policy and this Iraqi leader and his followers once again threatens to create events on the ground over which the United States has little say or control. It is this crucible in which the success or failure of the surge will be judged. Once again events on the ground have overtaken American planning in a significant way.

If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend reading the report of the International Institute for Strategic Studies with that reality and today's news in mind. (If you are at all interested in this subject matter, I recommend going to the IISS website directly and reading, if not downloading, the entire two page report.)



  • This situation brings to mind a paraphrase I heard on public radio from a commentator eulogizing David Halberstam: the mistakes the generals and politicians made in Viet Nam was to think that they could drive events. That was their hubris; they thought that they could drive forces that were outside of their control. Events drive history; generals and politicians are measured by how they respond to events, not by their ability to create them. No nation is more powerful than the force of history; the best and the brightest forget this at their own, and more often others, peril.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:27 PM  

  • Another significant component of this report is how it matter of factly comments on:

    the civil war

    as a point of fact. And refers to the surge as a:

    final American attempt to create stability in Iraq

    These are significant findings from the world's leading authority on military conflict. It's surprising not to these conclusions reflected in the American press.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 6:37 PM  

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