Iraq’s high summer

About the author
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

It is summer in Baghdad, with searing temperatures that average 41 degrees Centigrade. There is sunshine too in Washington on the countenance of some of the leading commentators on the war in Iraq who believe that the trend of events is finally going the United States's way.

Three developments coincide to reinforce the picture of sustained progress that supporters of the war in particular seek to present. First, the Democrats' control of Congress has done nothing to heal their internal divisions over the war, which are reflected in what neo-conservative writers portray as the disarray of the wider anti-war lobby (see the leader in the Weekly Standard by its editor, William Kristol, "The Turn: Defeatists in retreat", 13 August 2007).

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Second, opinion-poll findings suggest a perceptible upswing in domestic backing for the war. A Gallup poll released by USA Today on 6 August, for example, reports that 31% of Americans believe that the "surge" in US troop numbers in Iraq is helping to improve the situation there, an increase of 9% (see "More Americans Say Iraq Troop Surge is Working", Angus-Reid, 9 August 2007).

Third, and perhaps most important, military developments on the ground in Iraq can be cited as evidence that the US's "surge" strategy is working. In this respect, an article by two influential scholars from the liberal Brookings Institution who visited US and Iraqi forces in Iraq over eight days in July 2007 has played a key role in consolidating the new mood (see Michael E O'Hanlon & Kenneth M Pollack, "A War We Just Might Win", New York Times, 30 July 2007).

O'Hanlon and Pollack identify promising signs of a decrease in violence in Iraq to argue that (the most important thing Americans need to understand:" is that "(the) United States is finally winning in Iraq, at least in military terms." In their view, the much-vaunted military "surge" strategy - whose progress the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is scheduled to report on in September - needs to continue "at least into 2008".

The views of these highly regarded military analysts have been widely circulated, and especially welcomed across the conservative media as evidence that even anti-war liberals are beginning to recognise the positive trend of events in Iraq. The description of their political position is somewhat misleading, since O'Hanlon and Pollack's serious criticism of the George W Bush administration's policies in the middle east has flowed from disappointment with the execution of the war rather than opposition to its whole concept.

That aside, they draw on several indices - regional variations in the nature of US military engagement with Iraqi communities, interviews, assessments of US troop morale, personal impressions - to make their argument. An important element that could be cited in support of this case is the downturn in US casualties; after a three-month period when the death-rate exceeded 100 a month (the worst pattern of the entire war), eighty service personnel were killed in July 2007, and a further twenty-four in the first eight days in August.

A more indirect source of optimism in this overall picture is the flurry of claims that Iran has stepped up its involvement in the war through the supply of large quantities of arms - most of them sourced to China - to Iraq's insurgents (see John J Tkacik, "The Arsenal of the Iraq Insurgency - It's Made in China", Weekly Standard, 13 August 2007). The weapons-smuggling charge can support the depiction of an insurgency that is substantially dependent on external aid and therefore inherently weak (for a different view, see Seumas Milne, "Eventually, the US will have to negotiate its way out", Guardian, 9 August 2007). The second in a series of meetings between Washington's Baghdad ambassador, Ryan Crocker, and his Tehran counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi - held on 6 August as part of continuing US efforts to curb what it sees as undue Iranian influence in Iraq - can underline the case that military gains inside the country are being accompanied by proactive diplomacy.

Iraq's kaleidoscope

How to assess these various claims and the argument for forward movement in the United States's war? In the first instance, the fact that there are so many conflicting messages and reports complicates any such linear view (and to be fair, O'Hanlon and Pollack are very far from cheerleaders; they write that "the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front.")

The range of evidence that needs to be included for a fuller assessment includes social, political and military aspects of the reality in Iraq.

First, on the same day as the Brookings' scholars article appeared, Oxfam published a report on the conditions of life endured by Iraqi civilians across much of the country that presents a radical challenge to any roseate view (see Oxfam, "Rising to the humanitarian challenge in Iraq", 30 July 2007). This complements other sources which say that the entire Iraqi electricity-supply system is nearing collapse, that power-generation throughout the country is meeting only half of the demand, and that there were four national blackouts in two days in early August plus no power at all in Karbala province for three days (see Ryan Lenz, "Iraq's National Power Grid Nearing Collapse", Associated Press, 5 August 2007).

Such power shortages have by far their greatest effect on poorer Iraqis. Their wealthier compatriots - as well as coalition military forces, and US diplomats and Iraqi government officials in Baghdad's protected "green zone" - all have independent sources of energy. The shielding of people in these groups from the hardships associated with an absence of or severe reduction in power supplies makes it harder to imagine the dire situation faced every day by millions of Iraqi citizens.

Second, the political process in Iraq has been reduced almost to a standstill. The decision of the national assembly (also based in the green zone) to break for a lengthy summer recess, greeted with dismay in Washington, effectively paralyses any discussion of the multiple problems affecting the country's governance. At government level, no less than eleven ministers have announced their withdrawal from Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet in the last week, leaving the leading Sunni political factions without any cabinet-level representation (see Sudarsan Raghavan, "Iraqi Crisis Deepens as 5 More Ministers Quit Cabinet Meetings", Washington Post, 7 August 2007).

Third, there are indicators on the military side that complexify the image of incremental achievement. Alongside reports of an Iran/China arms-supply axis, the United States government accountability office (GAO) - the oversight agency of the US Congress - revealed on 6 August that large quantities of arms supplied by the US to Iraqi security forces were unaccounted for. It is suspected that many of the missing items - which include 110,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 80,000 pistols - have ended up in the hands of insurgents (see Glenn Kessler, "Weapons Given to Iraq Are Missing", Washington Post, 6 August 2007). China-originated arms may well be reaching Iraq via Iran, but it seems that the United States itself is inadvertently supplying the insurgents as well.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

An even more significant military challenge to the US is the strength of the sectarian militias, which pose a greater threat to American forces than the insurgency the US strategy is mainly directed against. The Bush administration has emphasised repeatedly that the enemy in Iraq is al-Qaida, as part of its effort to make the war appear a response to the 9/11 attacks; but (even leaving aside the degree of al-Qaida's influence in Iraq), other US military sources say that their long-term problem is becoming the heavily armed Shi'a militias (see Mark Seibel & Leila Fadel, "US Officials: Militias Main Threat to Iraq", McClatchy newspapers, 31 July 2007).

The view from the south

An interesting perspective on conditions in Iraq is provided by the situation in Basra, where the British forces who have wielded nominal control are progressively withdrawing from the city in face of incessant attacks from Shi'a paramilitaries. A diminishing contingent (now numbering 5,500, a reduction from an initial force of 40,000) has re-established itself in an airport base outside the city, only to find itself under incessant attack while Basra itself falls under rule by militias. The official line - that Britain is successfully transferring responsibility to Iraqi security forces - is necessary political spin for domestic consumption rather than any expression of the reality on the ground (see Karen De Young & Thomas E Ricks, "As British Leave, Basra Deteriorates", Washington Post, 7 August 2007).

A report by the International Crisis Group describes a city that is experiencing "the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors" (see International Crisis Group, "Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra", 25 June 2007). The government led by Gordon Brown, whose public statements during his visit to Washington on 30 July were marked by notable care in keeping options over force-deployment in Iraq open, is almost certainly preparing to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Such a move would privately be welcomed in the upper echelons of the British army, where there is enduring bitterness at the impossible job the institution was set by Brown's predecessor as prime minister, Tony Blair.

By contrast, the American military views the impending British drawdown with considerable unease (see Ewen MacAskill et al., "US uneasy as Britain plans for early Iraq withdrawal" , Guardian, 8 August 2007). The loss of an ally will be hard enough, but it will also leave the US with the problem of deploying its own troops in the southeast of the country - both to try ensure a degree of stability there, and to maintain the security of the key land routes from Kuwait up towards Baghdad.

What do these various factors - social, political and military - reveal about the argument for progress in Iraq being made in the United States? They suggest two considerations. The first is that the heavy focus of political and media attention on US military strategy, operations and casualties tends persistently to overlook the far greater problems being experienced by ordinary Iraqis; these include hundreds of deaths a week as a result of violence and health problems, increases in child malnutrition, the failure of electricity supplies and sewage disposal systems, the absence of safe drinking water, and massive population flows (4 million Iraqis, a seventh of the population, have become internally displaced or refugees).

The second consideration relates to American military policy. The point is often made in the more thoughtful military circles that successful counterinsurgency operations are 20% military and 80% political - and that, therefore, a too-great concentration on the military aspect is fundamentally misguided. A core problem in Iraq is precisely that this balance is almost exactly reversed, and that even the small political dimension is in deep trouble.

Neo-conservative commentators in Washington may talk of success and of the retreat of the anti-war movement. The evolution of the war will be the test of their claims. What is clear at present is that such short-term political perspectives tend to miss wide swathes of evidence which must be included to gauge the true security prospects for millions of Iraqi citizens.