Surge and Counter-surge
The car-bomb attack on a US patrol base in Diyala which killed 9 soldiers is the first of two adapatations the Sunni insurgency to the Surge. As Max Boot wrote in the Weekly Standard before the attack, the insurgents have responded to the crackdown in Baghdad by moving elsewhere, not only to preserve their forces but to exploit places where the American presence has thinned out in order to provide forces for Baghdad.
Although initially cowed by Coalition efforts, they have begun fighting back with a vengeance. Al Qaeda terrorists are suspected of responsibility for the April 12 bombings that killed at least one Iraqi member of parliament and destroyed one of Baghdad's bridges, as well as the April 18 blast in the Sadriya market that killed more than 100. Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is suspected of responsibility for a series of rocket strikes on the U.S. embassy compound in the Green Zone. (I happened to be inside the embassy during one such attack--talking with a general, ironically enough, about improvements in security. We were interrupted by a loud thump outside and an ominous voice on the public address system telling us to "duck and cover--get away from the windows." "You were saying . . . " I said.)
But the bulk of terrorist activity has been moving outside the capital. That is not a bad thing: Controlling Baghdad, home to a fourth of the country's population and to its most important business, media, and cultural entities, is more critical than controlling the hinterland. But instability in the "Baghdad Belt" stretching from Salman Pak and Iskandariyah in the south to Falluja in the west and Baqubah and Taji in the north exacts a heavy toll. The mass-casualty attacks that are happening with greater frequency in these places obscure some of the progress being made in the capital.
The attack on the American patrol base is the second adaptation. One of the principal innovations of General Petraeus has been to move US forces out of heavily defended mega-bases into smaller outposts they share with Iraqi Army and Police units. This redeployment into the field has three advantages. First, it overcomes the problems inherent in a dual chain of command caused by an American force operating in a legally sovereign country. Second, it shortens the decision cycle. Third, it reduces the dangers inherent in route marches from the mega-bases to the area of operations. Unfortunately, outposting American troops to smaller patrol bases probably means that each outpost is individually weaker than the mega base. The dual chain of command and the deployment into Iraqi communities is described by Fred Kagan, also writing in the Weekly Standard.
The new strategy resulted from a combination of Iraqi proposals and discussions within the Bush administration and among American commanders. The collaborative nature of the plan led to the creation of dual chains of command: American forces report to Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), and from him to Petraeus. Iraqi forces, both army and police, report through their own commanders to one of two division commanders (one on either side of the Tigris River, which divides Baghdad). Those commanders report to Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar, commander of Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Enforcing the Law), the Iraqi name for what we call the Baghdad Security Plan. Gambar reports to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. This bifurcation of command poses significant challenges of coordination, but Generals Petraeus, Odierno, and Gambar have developed tactics that mitigate them.
The new plan pushes most U.S. forces out into the population. Americans and Iraqis are establishing Joint Security Stations and Joint Combat Outposts throughout Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers eat, sleep, and plan together in these outposts and then conduct mounted and dismounted patrols continually, day and night, throughout their assigned neighborhoods. In Joint Security Stations I visited in the Hurriya neighborhood, in the Shiite Khadimiya district, American and Iraqi soldiers sleep in nearly adjoining rooms with unlocked and unguarded doors between them. They receive and evaluate tips and intelligence together, plan and conduct operations together, and evaluate their results jointly. Wherever they go, they hand out cards with the telephone numbers and email addresses of local "tip lines" that people can call when they see danger in the neighborhood. Tips have gone up dramatically over the past two months, from both Sunnis and Shiites, asking for help and warning of IEDs and other attacks being prepared against American and Iraqi forces. People have also called the tip lines to say thanks when a dangerous individual was removed from the streets.
Essentially the enemy is counter-maneuvering to oppose General Petraeus by ceding its strongholds in Baghdad and shifting forces elsewhere and by focusing their attacks on the individual smaller joint security stations. By massing their resources against a single security station, the insurgents hope to subject an otherwise unassailable American force to defeat in detail. Each side is dishing it out. Max Boot's article describes the horrible losses inflicted on enemy personnel and cached materiel day and night. These range from clearing operations which kill hundreds of insurgents to nonstop raids. He writes:
An important aspect of this campaign has been waged largely out of the limelight by Coalition and Iraqi Special Forces. Every night, these "operators" stage precision raids based on accurate intelligence that capture or kill Shiite and Sunni extremists at scant cost to themselves. The most valuable targets are "serviced" by a Joint Special Operations Command task force known as OCF-I, commanded by Lieutenant General Stan McChrystal. OCF-I stands for Other Coalition Forces-Iraq, a counterpoint to the common military euphemism for the CIA: OGA, or Other Government Agency.
What remains to be seen is what political countermoves are in the offing. Boot, Kagan and Gerecht all argue that with the arrival of General Petraeus, US policy has moved away from an attempt to straddle the middle between the Sunni and Shi'ites to a conscious decision to throw in with Iraqi government, even though that effectively means siding with the Shi'ites for so long as the Shi'ites behave in an acceptable and democratic way. In an article called On Democracy in Iraq, Gerecht argues that this is the only way forward.
And politically, Iraq is coming alive again. A Shiite-led Iraqi democracy is taking root--an astonishing achievement given the concerted efforts of the Iraqi Sunnis, and the surrounding Sunni Arab states, to attack and delegitimize the new Iraq. The country's obstreperous, stubborn, highly nationalist, Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, appears increasingly to be a man of mettle and courage. Slowly but surely, he is distancing himself from the clerical scion, Moktada al-Sadr, the overlord of the Sunni-shooting Mahdi Army. Maliki is so far holding his ground after the resignation of Sadr's men in his government.
This distancing was inevitable once the Americans reversed the disastrous tactics of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and General John Abizaid, which had allowed Sadr and his allies to become the only defenders of Baghdad's Shiites against the Sunni insurgents and holy warriors. Maliki and Sadr are not natural allies intellectually or temperamentally; Maliki's diverse and fractious Dawa party is of a different social milieu from the uneducated young men who give Sadr power. Although Sadr will surely continue to have a significant political following (his family name alone ensures that), his base of support even within Baghdad's Shiite slum, Sadr City, is not guaranteed, provided the central government can bring security and minimal economic opportunity. There are many reasons Sadr has not rallied his men against the American surge, which has already penetrated deeply into Sadr City with minimal resistance. One of those reasons is that Sadr would not be popular with many of the area's denizens if he did.
Readers may want to argue whether Gerecht's assessment is in fact correct, but it is safe to say that Kagan, Boot and Gerecht writing in the Weekly Standard all identify the Sunni insurgency as the primary enemy. Kagan puts the proposition baldly:
The United States and the government of Iraq are at war with a cluster of enemies: Al Qaeda in Iraq, affiliated Islamist groups, and determined Sunni insurgents who wish to overthrow the elected government. In addition, they face a number of "spoilers" who have played an extremely negative role so far and could derail progress if not properly managed: Shiite militias, criminal gangs, Iranian agents, and negative political forces within the Iraqi government. The distinction between enemies and spoilers is important. Enemies must be defeated; in the case of al Qaeda and other Islamists, that almost invariably means capturing or killing them. Spoilers must be managed. It is neither possible nor desirable to kill or capture all the members of the Mahdi Army or the Badr Corps. Dealing with those groups requires a combination of force and politics. Bad leaders and the facilitators of atrocities must be eliminated, but reducing popular support for these groups' extremism, coopting moderates within their ranks, and drawing some of their fighters off into more regular employment are political tasks. American and Iraqi leaders have been using both force and politics to manage these challenges.
That is Kagan's assessment and he is entitled to it. As one of the publicly identifiable conceptual fathers of the Surge it is possible that Kagan's view is also the official view. But the shallowness with which the public debate over the war in Iraq has been conducted by both parties has meant that even at this late stage, it is largely unclear to the public whether "Al Qaeda in Iraq, affiliated Islamist groups, and determined Sunni insurgents" are indeed the primary enemy. But if we assume the truth of this for a moment, then it is reasonable to assume that the enemy will also counter-maneuver against the political component as it has against the military. Kagan comes closest to identifying the vital point that al-Qaeda in Iraq must hit in order to successfully foil the political component of the Surge.
The reasons for the drop in sectarian killings are important. First and foremost, after President Bush's announcement of the surge, both Moktada al Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Brigade, called upon their followers not to kill other Iraqis. Sadr has remained true to this appeal despite his recent renewal of his longstanding demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. The fact that sectarian killings responded to the orders of Shiite leaders speaks volumes about the nature of those killings. Despite the oft-repeated myth that Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other for centuries, the drop in sectarian murders since January shows that last year's killing was motivated by politics rather than primordial hatred. It was organized and rational rather than emotional, and it is therefore susceptible to persuasion through force, politics, and reason. The idea that Iraq is trapped in a civil war that we can only allow to be fought out to its conclusion is so far unproven and is not a justification for withdrawal.
American political hopes rest on the Shi'ites keeping their cool and resisting any large scale attempts to lash out uncontrollably. There have been simultaneous American efforts to divide the Sunni insurgency by working with the Anbar tribes, taking advantage of the alienation caused by al-Qaeda in Iraq's vicious brutality and unyielding fundamentalism. (This process is vividly described by Outside the Wire.) If the Sunnis insurgents could arrange for Iran to turn Sadr or some other Shi'ite leader into loose cannons, the both could cooperate in politically undermining the US, in the hopes of removing it from the board leaving the field clear for the two Muslim parties to settle differences between themselves later. We have already seen the tactical response of the Sunni insurgents to the surge. But their political response has not yet been been unveiled. Can the Sunni insurgents forge an alliance of convenience with their sectarian enemies to evict a common foe by concluding a 21st century Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Time alone will tell.
The US operation in Iraq has consciously or accidentally, but nevertheless definitely had the effect of transforming it into the central battlefield of the current world crisis. The al-Qaeda type forces have converged there because there they can attack the hated American in the heart of the Arab world. But that circumstance also allows US combat power to be focused on individuals who would otherwise be scattered throughout the world. But the contest in Iraq is not purely military; it is also political and psychological. What is underappreciated is that the war in Iraq has also forced Sunni Islamic fundamentalism to indirectly take the Shi'ite world and explicitly show the world its political face. A victory in Iraq for either side will not simply be one of arms, but of legitimacy.
Whatever the future holds it is well to remember that we are only in the opening rounds of the "Surge" itself. Kagan writes: "Major clear-and-hold operations are scheduled to begin in late May or June, and will take weeks to complete, area by area. After that, it may be many more weeks before their success at establishing security can be judged. General Petraeus has said he will offer an evaluation of progress in the fall." At the rate things are developing, May is an eternity away.