The Times Online reports that large numbers of refugees are returning from Syria to Iraq. "The numbers are certainly large enough, as we report today, for a mass convoy to be planned next week as Iraqis who had opted for exile in Syria return to their homeland." Can Iraq be getting better?
Tom Friedman at the NYT admits things are seemingly better in Iraq but brings up the current objection, which goes like this: 'Yes, the violence may be down but political reconciliation has not been effected'. He writes:
But then I talk to people in Baghdad and look at what is really evolving there and I say to myself: “Maybe you’re missing something that Secretary Rice knows — that there isn’t going to be any formal political reconciliation moment in Iraq, grand bargain or White House signing ceremony. The surge has made Iraq safe, not for formal political reconciliation yet, but safe for an ‘A.T.M. peace.’ ”
That is, each of the Iraqi factions basically agrees to live and let live with the new lines drawn by the last two years of civil war and the Baghdad government serves as an A.T.M. cash machine — supporting the army and local security groups and dispensing oil revenues to the provincial governors and tribal chiefs from each community. ...
I have more questions right now than strong opinions.
So I went to a source I knew I could trust — my colleague James Glanz, The Times’s Baghdad bureau chief who has lived through so much craziness there: “There is a sense of quiet on the streets that we have not seen for a long time in Baghdad,” he told me, “but there is also a big question mark in the shadows of every alley. We don’t know what is lurking back there, but we suspect, and evidence suggests, that it is the same set of problems that were always there.”
Fair enough. However it might be pertinent to observe that many of the colonial creations of the Middle East -- Saddam's Iraq in particular -- were already truces without reconciliation. And they were not even "ATM truces" based on oil revenues so much as an outward calm founded on fear. In Saddam-era Iraq this took the form of the military domination by one group or tribe over the other. Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit, for example, was the source of many high-ranking personages in the ruling Ba'ath Party. Some divided societies worked better than others, as for example did Lebanon, whose government explicitly recognized rival ethnic interests. While the lack of a European-style political reconciliation may be a concern, by regional standards the ethnic discord in Iraq may not be unique. The thousands of Iraqi returnees have glanced at Damascus and preferred Baghdad.
It is important to point out what has been achieved by simply getting to this point, this ATM truce. The current calm in Iraq represents not only a 'partial peace' but a huge victory. For the first time since Algeria at least, a Western army has defeated the combined efforts of a terrorist insurgency, a global radical Islamist attack and the intervention of two neighboring countries in less than five years. Al-Qaeda in Iraq made an explicit effort to precipitate a civil war in Iraq and failed. Syria backed the Sunni insurgency in its effort to restore dominance in Iraq and failed. Iran backed the Shi'ite militias, including the Special Groups and may be failing too. MNF-Iraq took on all comers in what amounted to a military randori and tossed them all out of the ring. You can call that an ATM truce or you can call it something else.
It was recently fashionable to schedule screenings of the movie Battle of Algiers to impress upon Americans how hard and hopeless their task was. This movie should continue to be shown, but it may be ruined by flashing this card as the credits roll: "this is what happened to the French, and seemingly to every Western Army since the 1960s, even to the Israelis in Lebanon in the 1980s. But it didn't happen to the US in Iraq." That would certainly provoke outrage, perhaps because people accustomed to being handed a flagellant whip don't know what to do with a glass of champagne.
It's a startling realization and shouldn't be borne in mind to gloat, but rather to provoke further thought, as Friedman hoped to do with his "ATM" observation. The question that will torment historians, if Iraq becomes viable, is 'what went right?'. It's a hard question not in the least because it so easy to get the wrong answer. Was it more troops? The number of additional forces deployed in the Surge was really quite small, and the Surge began happening even before the full complement was in place. Was it a new strategy or set of tactics? If so, which? Did information warfare play a part? The questions come thick and fast. It is at least as important to figure out what went right as to ask the standard question of what went wrong.
And figuring out what went right is important because Friedman is undoubtedly correct in thinking that complete victory is far from won. Victory is far from completely achieved in Iraq, but most especially with respect to radical Islamism throughout the region and across the globe. We need to know what went right to figure out where to go from here.
But that understanding must begin with the realization, which the returnees from Baghdad may understand better than the pundits in Washington, that something very wonderful may have been achieved in Middle East. It can never come by perversely mis-characterizing it, as some commentators at the Daily Kos have done, as a "gift" truce from Moqtada al-Sadr. A more balanced approach would be to recognize the elements of success for what they are and to apply them to the challenges that are yet to come.