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Baghdad, February 2007. Hell.

Iraq had fallen into such a dark abyss throughout 2006 that few imagined it would ever recover. Thousands of Iraqi civilians were getting murdered by sectarian death squads or blown apart by suicide bombers in a ghoulish nightmare that played out mostly on the streets of the nation's capital. Tortured and mutilated bodies turned up every morning on roadsides, in warehouse locations telephoned to the police or relatives anonymously, and in trash dumps. Thousands were dying each month and the capital was quickly being split into sectarian ghettoes, its mixed neighbourhoods collapsing and residents fleeing to be with their own. Iraq's political process was paralyzed as its elite watched the chaos on the streets, helpless to intervene.

The source of the violence was a security vacuum in Baghdad that had existed since the U.S.-led invasion. America's military presence in Iraq has always been a stiletto, not a jackboot. Just 15,000 U.S. troops were assigned to bring security to the capital's over six million inhabitants. With American forces looking helpless and the Iraqi government's authority collapsing, the question of who was going to rule Iraq was being decided on the lawless streets. A panoply of groups - from over-sized self-defence militias to Islamist terrorists - sought to carve out fiefdoms in Baghdad, bases of support that they hoped to use to propel them to national power. Iraq's duly-elected government looked on, their security forces too corrupt and implicated in the violence to stop it. And because nothing succeeds like success, more and more moderate citizens were forced into the arms of the militias, the only ones capable of protecting them.

In Washington, the figures looked stark. Since the al-Askari mosque bombing in February 2006 had finally shattered what remained of the entente cordiale between Sunni and Shia, attacks against coalition forces had slightly increased. Dozens of U.S. troops were being killed and hundreds wounded every month. The number was much lower than might have been expected however, as the armed groups concentrated their ferocity on other Iraqis: no need, yet, to bait the Americans, who rarely ventured out of their bases. As the Iraqi dead piled up in the morgues, many in Washington decided the time had come to cut and run - the U.S. troop presence was believed to exacerbate the violence in some way, an all the more unforgivable act because there seemed little U.S. forces could contribute to controlling it. Following two failed U.S./Iraqi operations to rein in the death squads during 2006, the Iraq Study Group said enough was enough. Time for a negotiated retreat, and to leave the Iraqis to their fate.

The choice was stark. If the U.S. abandoned Iraq in early 2007, the result would have been a moral and strategic disaster. It would have left the country in a state of civil war, where every day new horror was perpetrated by armed groups who the U.S. had unleashed by destroying Saddam's regime. The country could have split into three, or become a satellite of Iran, with terrible consequences for the entire Middle East; the conflict between Sunni and Shia and moderate and extremist, which sits at the heart of Middle Eastern politics, would have escalated dramatically.

Millions of refugees would have poured across borders, governments could have fallen, and in dark corners of Anbar province and Baghdad, Sunni extremists would plot the next 9/11. The American military's deterrence capability would have been ruined, a mockery made of the world's remaining superpower. What moral catharsis might have been felt by the war's opponents would quickly evaporate as Iraq sunk lower into a morass, just another example of a U.S. government keen to topple its enemies from the air but incapable of building peace in the aftermath. More Iraqi blood on American hands.

* * *

This was not the course that the Bush administration took. The administration was faced with a stark choice in 2006, as stark a choice as any administration could face: either to cut its losses and withdraw, or radically recommit to the battle with a completely new strategy and new resources. Otherwise they were just digging deeper into the same hole. The chance of failure was high. Cognizant of all of the potential disasters that awaited the world if the U.S. withdrew, and no doubt unwilling to consign the United States to such a clear and rare defeat in a war that he himself had begun, Bush chose to try and win.

Whenever I talk about victory for the United States in Iraq, people are surprised. From at least 2006 the very idea of "victory" seemed strange and alien to many people; wasn't the war already lost? What were its goals anyway? Opponents of the war who had seen it as some sort of ill-defined neo-imperial resource grab saw in the daily drum of violence the confirmation of their predictions: the Iraqi people rejected their foreign occupier, who would now be forced to retreat with his tail between his legs, his nefarious lust for oil stayed by a well-thrown Iraqi shoe to the groin. Victory to them seemed impossible, because Third World nationalists would always reject foreign occupiers. The inevitability of defeat ought to be obvious, they thought, even to the Bush administration. And in the terms they thought in, defeat was indeed inevitable.

Luckily for the United States, victory has never been defined in the way these particular opponents imagined. American goals in Iraq after the liquidation of Saddam's regime have always involved the steady reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq and their importance to the Iraqi government. The definition of victory is to have the Iraqi government take over what is known as "provincial Iraqi control" in all eighteen of Iraq's provinces, with security forces able to enforce security and enable political and economic development. Eventually, the U.S. wants to be able to draw down its troops - whose presence, as critics correctly assess, will always antagonize segments of the Iraqi population - to a minimal level. The Iraqi government is like a generator which needs a constant input of American electricity; eventually, it should be a perpetual motion machine. That is victory.

In 2006, prospects for such a victory seemed to be in tatters. Working on the assumption that the use of U.S. force in Iraq only fueled the insurgency and the civil war, as well as reflecting the reality of the incredibly small number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Americans had restricted themselves largely to training Iraqi security forces and putting the onus of security on them. But the strategy was breaking down, as the security forces could not be trained fast enough to put a lid on the violence. Furthermore, the security situation was so poor that Iraqi security forces themselves were penetrated by the sectarian militias and contributing to the violence. It was clear no progress would be made unless some external force could obliterate the militias, driving citizens, police and soldiers to be loyal to the state. The state had to prove it could protect Iraqis before Iraqis would trust it. The alternative was anarchy.

The solution, cooked up in Washington think tanks and federal departments, was the surge.

* * *

The surge was not just an increase in troop numbers, although that was important. The total number of new forces deployed to Iraq was only 20,000, and 4,000 who had their tours extended. It was also a profound shift in strategy. This had to be the case, because the number of new forces was so small. One of the selling points of the surge was that it could be accomplished with so few additional forces.

In a report published in January 2007, two leading defence strategists summarized the importance of this point: "There is no reason to imagine, moreover, that it matters to the insurgency whether there are 100,000, 140,000, or 200,000 Americans in Iraq. Insurgent rhetoric does not count our soldiers; rather, it denounces the presence of any American troops on Iraqi soil." A small increase in the military footprint was unlikely to have a negative impact on the coalition's popularity in Iraq. But what these forces would be able to accomplish could make all the difference: if they could stop the sectarian civil war that was terrorizing Iraqis, they could address the coalition's main public relations problem, which was "not so much that coalition forces are perceived as occupiers, but rather that coalition forces are occupiers who have not made good on their primary responsibility — securing the population."

In other words, if the Iraqi state could, with the help of coalition support, stop the civil war and provide security to Iraqis, it would gain the eternal gratitude of the population. It could buy time for the U.S. military to train Iraqi forces adequately, and then leave. And it could undo the horrible feeling among Iraqis that there was no future in siding with the weak government, no future in planning for political or economic development, because all that mattered was the daily, numbing violence. The violence had to be stopped.

President Bush announced the new strategy in January 2007. By February 2007, the first forces were there. And on February 14, 2007, Iraq and the coalition launched Operation Enforcing the Law, often known in the West as the "Baghdad Security Plan".

The goal of Operation Enforcing the Law was to radically extend the legitimacy of the Iraqi state and smash the illegal criminal, terrorist and rejectionist groups which reigned supreme in Baghdad. Because violence there paralyzed the entire political process, it became the centrepiece of the government's efforts. General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commanding officer in Iraq, said the country was "doomed" if the operation failed. Its goal was deceptively simple - aggressively dismantling the militias, shutting down their supply routes and seizing their weapons caches, and permanently installing coalition and Iraqi forces all over the city. The message was simple: the government now runs the show, not the illegal armed elements.

The major strategic development which underpinned the surge was the creation of "joint security stations (JSS) and "combat outposts (CO) all over Baghdad. Before, when coalition and Iraqi forces tried to clear neighbourhoods of armed groups, they usually melted away before the government forces arrived; any local citizens who co-operated with the government would be summarily tortured and executed once the official forces withdrew and the armed gangs returned. But now, the situation was different: Iraqi and coalition forces fanned out over Baghdad, and they stayed there. Each JSS or CO housed dozens or hundreds of forces, whose goal was to permanently displace armed groups from their district and protect the local population. This in turn encouraged citizens to turn against the militias and began to generate quantum leaps in intelligence on insurgent activity.

The change in mission soon began to bear fruit. By the end of Operation Enforcing the Law, almost every security indicator in Baghdad showed marked improvement. In the second week of the operation, security patrols in Baghdad leapt from 10,000 to 32,000, half of which were conducted by Iraqi government forces on their own. By the end of the operation in November, the number of JSS/COs had increased from 10 to 82. Attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces were down to a third of their number before the start of the plan, and Iraqi civilian deaths were down from about 3,500 a month to about 500 a month. The number of U.S. troop deaths a month were also roughly a third of what it had been before the operation. There had been 45 multiple-fatality bombings in Iraq in February 2007, and there were just 15 in December 2007.

* * *

Baghdad breathed a sigh of relief. The armed groups fled the capital, where the government and coalition followed them - from summer 2007, major operations were launched in the environs of the capital to stop the militias and terrorists reconstituting their organizations elsewhere. They could not be eradicated completely, and atrocities continued to afflict Baghdad. Normal life in the capital became, if not always within reach, suddenly imaginable, and hundreds of thousands of refugees returned. The government could soon turn its attention to the country's volatile south, pursuing Shia militias that the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had long been suspected by Sunnis of tolerating purposefully. The mission of enforcing the law began to stretch its tendrils all over Iraq.

The political breathing room that the surge had hoped to deliver materialized, allowing the negotiation of the Iraqi-U.S. status of forces agreement in cold blood throughout 2008. As the tide turned against the most extremist of the armed groups - including the Shia ones - and as it became clear the government and the coalition were winning, hundreds of thousands of Sunnis signed up to help the Iraqi government and the coalition keep hostile armed groups out of their neighbourhoods. This movement, which started with what the coalition dubbed the Anbar Awakening, continues to this day. The result was a fragile but tangible rapprochement between the government and its erstwhile enemies, a form of amnesty that decoupled the moderates from the extremists and promised positive political development in Iraq.

But the surge and the reduction in violence was only the first step towards victory in Iraq, a necessary precondition but hardly sufficient. That elusive quest to put a self-perpetuating, stable polity in Baghdad was finally allowed to begin, with national reconciliation after the civil war at the top of the agenda. The next and crucial step in the process is the Iraqi legislative elections to be held early this year. Many Sunnis boycotted the last elections, rejecting the very idea of a democratic political process because they knew they would be marginalized by the Shia's greater numbers; their propensity to reject the central state was only increased by years of civil war, in which the Iraqi government did little to protect them from rampaging Shia militias. Everyone hopes that this time the result will be different, and that the Anbar Awakening can be transformed into a genuinely more representative government in Baghdad.

The key to a U.S. exit, if policymakers are to continue to choose victory, depends on it.

All statistics in this write-up come from the November edition of The Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq, published by the Brookings Institution and available here. The report by "defence strategists" Frederick W. Kagan and Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.) is Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, available here. All other facts are my own recollection, with dates and chronologies checked.

Also on the war in Iraq:

Our tomorrow starts today: one minute to midnight in Iraq
Al-Askari mosque
Iraqi-U.S. status of forces agreement
Halabja
counterterrorism
Sons of Iraq

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