BAGHDAD – For the past two weeks I’ve been embedded with the United States Army in Baghdad, and I find myself unable to figure out what to make of this place. Baghdad, despite the remarkable success of the surge, is as mind-bogglingly run-down and dysfunctional as ever, even compared with other Arabic countries. Iraq is a dark place. At times it feels like a doomed country that has only been temporarily spared the reckoning that is coming. Other times it is possible to look past the grimness and see progress beyond the mere slackening off of violence and war. Is Iraq truly on the mend, or has a total breakdown been merely postponed? Opinions here among Americans and Iraqis are mixed, but nearly everyone seems to agree about one thing at least: terrorists and insurgents will respond with a surge of their own in the wake of the upcoming withdrawal of American forces.
Sergeant Nick Franklin took me to meet an Iraqi woman named Malath who works with the local Sons of Iraq security organization in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad. When I asked her if she thought her area was ready to stand on its own without American help, she bluntly answered “Of course not.” She doesn’t think Iraq needs another year or two or even three. She thinks it will need decades. “We won’t be ready until young people replace the older generation in the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. They need to replace the old Baath Party members who are still inside.”
Her view is the darkest. But Iraqis who think the job should only require a few more years are still pessimistic about what they think is likely to happen when the negotiated Status of Forces Agreement goes into effect and American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities in 2009. “We’ve seen hell,” an Iraqi intelligence source said when I met him in his house. “And that hell, if the American forces evacuate, will repeat. If Obama forces an evacuation from Iraq soon, everything will turn against him in this land.”
Many American soldiers agree. “Everyone says things will implode after we leave,” Lieutenant Eric Kuylman told me. “They’ll blame it on politics and religion, but it’s not going to be any of that. It’s going to be about straight power. It’s going to be guys trying to one-up each other. It’s going to be key people in cities just like this who will want to seize the power gaps. It’s going to break down along tribal lines and these militias that we’ve put in place. When we pull out, there will be power vacuums. There will be pockets of people that we’ve put in power. I mean, everybody already has shaky alliances as it is. So what you’re going to see is the straight seizing of power. People are going to try to put their own tags on it, but it’s just about the seizure of power. It’s not going to be Sunni or Shia, nothing like it. It’s just going to be men who want control.”
Not everyone holds such a bleak view, however. And pessimists have been losing the argument in Iraq ever since General David Petraeus radically transformed the American counterinsurgency strategy. But once American soldiers withdraw from urban areas, the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police will be on their own whether they’re ready or not.
I spoke to Captain AJ Boyes at Combat Outpost Ford on the outskirts of Sadr City. His company did more of the fighting in Sadr City back in the spring than any other, but he stresses that the Iraqi Army took and holds 75 percent of Sadr City all by itself. He isn’t nearly as gloomy about the future in this country as some of the others I spoke to. Though he considers himself a realist, he sounded to me like an optimist.
“If we take a snapshot of Iraqi politics, security, and governance right now in 2008,” he said, “and come back two generations from now and compare them side-by-side, I think we’ll see a huge difference. And will it be for better or for worse? I think it will be almost entirely better.”
I suspect he is probably right. Fifty years is a long time. By then the insurgency period of Iraq’s history will be as distant as King Faisal’s era is now. But what about the short and medium term? Everyone who makes policy decisions in Iraq should be far more concerned with what the country might look like in one year than in fifty.
“Will it get worse in one year?” I said to Captain Boyes. “That’s the big question.”
“Well, yes,” he said. “It will. Any time something new happens in a counterinsurgency, when there are new security forces, there is an immediate spike in violence because the insurgents are testing the ability of the new element. When we leave and transition all of what we do now to the Iraqi security forces, will there be a spike in activity? Absolutely. One hundred percent.”
And that’s the optimist view.
He thinks Iraq will be okay, even so. The Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police are still shaky institutions at best, but they are much more competent than they were a few years ago. The Iraqi Army proved itself earlier this year, against nearly all expectations, when it took back areas under the control of Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Basra and Sadr City with only a limited amount of help from Americans.
It’s possible, of course, that everybody is wrong. Iraq has made fools of almost everyone who has tried to predict its future. There are too many unstable and unpredictable variables. But we should still brace ourselves for disconcerting news in 2009.
“There will be a spike in violence,” Captain Boyes said. “The insurgents are going to want to test the new Iraqi security forces. How will the Iraqis operate completely independently? It should be up to the media to portray that as an expected thing.”