By Ivan Eland
Some things never change. In a continuation of the Bush administration’s Orwellian doublespeak on the Iraq War, President Bush recently gave an upbeat speech in Dayton, Ohio, extolling the progress in Iraq and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s military offensive in the southern oil port of Basra against "criminal" elements. Strangely, as violence erupted in many cities across the country in response to Maliki’s offensive, the president claimed that "normalcy is returning back to Iraq." Yet the widespread violence belied the "security gains" of the U.S. troop surge.
Of course, the U.S. troop surge had little to do with the reduced violence—now seemingly temporary—in Iraq. U.S. forces were at comparable strength in 2005 to try to quell the violence during the Iraqi national elections. Instead, the violence increased during that year. According to William Polk—a former U.S. State Department official who has studied many examples of counterinsurgency warfare, some in the field—for the administration to adequately execute its “clear, hold, and build” strategy under existing counterinsurgency doctrine, it would have to increase American forces six-fold. That is something the already exhausted U.S. military could not possibly do. In addition, Polk points out that two of the foremost authorities on guerrilla warfare, China’s Mao Tse-tung and North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated the United States in Vietnam, pointed out that holding an expanding amount of territory overstretches and weakens counterinsurgency forces and thus strengthens the insurgents.
So something else besides the surge must have temporarily lessened the carnage. In all likelihood, the U.S. surge was a Bush administration-induced muscular mirage designed to mask the real change in American policy—a Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement and payoff of U.S. enemies. In fact, the United States began the rather unmacho arming, training, and paying of former Sunni insurgents to fight al Qaeda in Iraq. In addition, in many Shi’i areas, the United States worked quietly with Moktada al-Sadr’s militias to provide aid and reconstruction, thereby enabling a nationwide truce with his Mahdi Army. Although it looks bad, paying off your enemies instead of fighting them can be a smart strategy, at least in the short-term.
The problem is that when you stop paying your former enemies, the “former” label may be quickly rescinded. One of the signs of progress touted by the president in the Dayton speech was Iraq’s new law allowing mid-level Sunni Baathists back into the government and military. Yet many analysts think that this legislation might have the opposite effect and actually be a way for the Shi’a to remove Sunnis from those positions. The Sunnis are impatient with being shut out of the Iraqi government and may return to the “dark side” if their high expectations for the new law are not quickly met. With underlying suspicions between ethno-religious groups in Iraqi society—the Shi’a who control the Iraqi government are leery of letting the Sunnis back into positions of some power—those expectations are unlikely to be met. Thus, new laws on paper mean nothing if there is an insufficient social consensus to make them work.
Another problem with paying off U.S. enemies is that in the long-term, the United States is strengthening all sides for the almost inevitable full-blown civil wars. A preview of one of those civil wars was on display during the intra-Shi’i violence in Basra. Although President Bush, in his speech, supported Maliki’s offensive in the name of destroying “terrorists and extremists,” the prime minister’s offensive was apparently his own idea and not coordinated with American forces. Although another measure of progress cited by the president was recent legislation setting a date for Iraqi provincial elections later this year, Maliki’s offensive seemed designed to weaken the rival Shi’i Mahdi Army’s strong position prior to those elections. Many say that the Mahdi Army could win a majority of the seats. As the United States learned in 2005, in a fractious nation, elections can often exacerbate societal cleavages rather than heal them. Thus, instead of demonstrating progress on national reconciliation, the law for local elections already may have destabilized the country further.
In contradiction to its formal nationwide cease-fire, the Mahdi Army fought back in Basra and throughout Iraq. In Basra, the Iraqi security forces had trouble subduing Mahdi fighters, and in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City the security forces were apparently so poor that the Americans took the lead in fighting al-Sadr’s militias. In the long-term, Maliki’s ill-timed and freelance offensive may have backfired—by effectively torching the cease-fire with al-Sadr forces throughout Iraq and showing that the Iraqi government is too militarily weak to provide security. Some return to “normalcy.”
-Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute.