Commentary Magazine


Facts Are Always Helpful

Stephen Biddle, Michael O’Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack provide a cogent analysis, devoid of partisan rancor and filled with facts, of the current situation in Iraq and the way forward.

First, they dispel the myth that the Sunni awakening just “happened” and that the surge proponents in essence got “lucky.” This “by magic” theory is popular, of course, among those who would rather not credit the surge for the phenomenal turnaround in Iraq. The authors explain:

The surge, and especially its new emphasis on the provision of direct population security by U.S. forces, enabled the Sunnis to survive this realignment in the face of AQI’s[Al Qaeda in Iraq] inevitable counterattacks. In Anbar, U.S. firepower, combined with a persistent troop presence and Sunni knowledge of whom and where to strike, essentially expelled AQI from the province. News of this “Anbar model” spread rapidly among disaffected Sunnis elsewhere. In just a few months, the result was a large-scale stand-down of the Sunni insurgency and the decimation of AQI throughout western and central Iraq. Cease-fires with Sunnis in turn facilitated cease-fires with key Shiite militias. Sadr’s JAM[ Jaish al-Mahdi ] militia thugs (many of whom seemed mostly concerned with extorting personal profit) grew, Shiite support for JAM plummeted — especially since the U.S. military buildup in Baghdad and the cease-fires with the Sunnis gave the United States enough troop strength to offer the Shiites security without gangsterism. Sadr, his popularity declining and his control over his own fighters increasingly tenuous, chose to stand down rather than confront the strengthened U.S. force.

The authors make clear, however, that the progress of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is not complete and remains dependent on the presence of U.S. troops:

The Basra campaign would have ended in disaster if not for support from coalition firepower and the arrival of ISF units with U.S. military- and police-training teams. In short, the ISF have improved to the point where they have become a powerful partner to U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, but they will require outside support for at least some time to come.

As for political progress, the authors note that “thanks to reduced violence, diminished sectarian warfare, weakened militias, and the prospect of upcoming elections for which Sunnis and others who boycotted the last round are expected to turn out in force, the old patterns of Iraqi political life are giving way to new ones.” They acknowledge political progress is slow but warn against trying to threaten the parties into speeding up the process of reconciliation:

Some argue that to do this, the United States must withdraw, or threaten to withdraw, its troops. They believe this would force Iraqi leaders to put their differences aside and reach a grand compromise on reconciliation, because Iraqis would need to solve their own problems either without a U.S. military crutch or in order to preserve a U.S. presence as a reward for reconciliation. There is some merit to this logic. It is true that the presence of U.S. forces reduces the stakes for Iraqi politicians, since it limits violence. And if Iraq faced chaos otherwise, a threat of withdrawal would certainly be worth trying. But withdrawal is a risky gambit. And progress is now being made without it: violence is down dramatically, and political change, although slow, is under way. Threatening withdrawal might speed this progress, but today it seems more likely to derail it instead.

Their bottom line: we are on the right course but significant reductions in U.S. forces are still a two or three years away:

Drawdowns on this scale in Iraq cannot be rushed without serious risk. For now, a substantial U.S. presence is essential to stabilize a system of local cease-fires and maintain an environment in which gradual compromise can proceed without gambling on a single grand bargain among wary rivals in Baghdad. This is not to say that today’s troop count can or should be maintained until 2010 — modest near-term withdrawals to below the pre-surge levels will be necessary to establish a sustainable posture. The 130,000 troops and 15 brigades of the pre-2007 force may be too large to maintain into 2009 without unacceptable damage to the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. But if the United States can maintain a substantial force in Iraq through the critical period of the next two to three years, there is now a credible basis for believing that major drawdowns after that can be enabled by success rather than mandated by failure.

Of course, much could still go wrong. And if an electoral crisis or some other event returns Iraq to civil war, it would be very hard to justify another troop surge to try to stabilize Iraq. Containment — withdrawing all U.S. troops while working to prevent the chaos in Iraq from spilling over to the rest of the region — would then become the United States’ only realistic option.

What is plain from the entirety of their analysis is that none of the progress we see now would have been possible without the surge. Contending otherwise is the last refuge of politicians who hand anticipated, if not banked on, defeat. And the authors’ assessment of the future suggests that if we fail to appreciate the circumstances which brought about the improved state of affairs, we will not have the patience or wisdom to guide us in the future. Finally, one can’t read their report without being sobered by the prospect that gains are not permanent and that the next President will, in large part, determine whether a remarkable success can, after all the political fury dies down, be secured in Iraq. In that regard, it probably helps to have someone who thinks there is value in success.

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