Iraq's surge signals

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
28 March 2007

The Democrat-controlled Senate in Washington passed a resolution on 27 March 2007 which sought to link expenditure on the war in Iraq with a timetable for withdrawal of United States troops by March 2008. President Bush responded with vigorous opposition and a promise to veto any subsequent legislation. He does so in the knowledge that influential neo-conservative voices on the Republican side continue to believe that the war can be won.

The influential journal the Weekly Standard has been particularly vocal in proclaiming progress on the ground in Iraq while condemning the Democratic stance (see William Kristol, "Idiocy in D.C - Progress in Baghdad", 26 March 2007, and William Kristol & Frederick W Kagan, "Wrong on Timetables", 2 April 2007). The argument is that the Democrats simply do not understand the reality of what is happening in Iraq, and that their opposition to the war - coming at a time when victory is at last in sight - is cynical and opportunistic. This attitude is part of a wider media (especially broadcasting) culture where reports of a decrease in murders and kidnappings in Baghdad are taken as evidence of substantive improvement.

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

The early signs

This optimistic reaffirmation follows the neocons' acerbic criticisms of the Iraq Study Group report of December 2006, and builds on their sense that the Bush administration's complete dismissal of the James A Baker-led argument for a change of strategy - including talks with Iraq's neighbours, Iran and Syria - was a political battle won. The course the administration opted instead was a reinforcement of the United States military in Iraq (as well as the Iraqi security forces) involving a sequenced "surge" of troops to secure control of Baghdad in particular.

Six weeks have passed since the new policy has been implemented: enough time for at least a cautious estimate of its impact on the insurgency. Before offering this, three words of caution are necessary.

The first is that the Shi'a militias that make up the so-called Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr have been largely withdrawn from action, senior officials in the movement have gone to ground, and Muqtada al-Sadr himself has kept out of public view. This does not mean that this powerful faction has accepted the notional new reality of US power; it is much more likely to be a temporary tactic that actually allows the US forces to concentrate its energies more on curbing the Sunni militias.

At the same time, Pentagon sources report rifts in the movement which they claim are inhibiting its ability to function effectively (see Ann Scott Tyson & Robin Wright, "Mahdi Army rifts extend Iraq calm", 29 March 2007).

The second is that a common feature of past equivalent operations by the US military is that Sunni militia groups have limited their contact in zones of major US operations. The third is that the increased presence of US and Iraqi security forces on the streets of Baghdad certainly is likely to reduce routine criminality in the short term, but also creates uncertainty about its longer-term effect.

With these factors in mind, what is the actual experience so far? It is worth noting that the surge is still in its relatively early stages. As far as the US military is concerned, the core of the plan is a progressive build-up of US forces in a sequenced, monthly deployment of five additional brigade combat teams (BCTs) from February-June 2007. In addition, the deployment of other US units is being extended.

Most of this concentration of forces will be in the greater Baghdad area. The overall scheme is termed Operation Enforcing the Law; the first BCT arrived in Iraq in early February, the second on 1 March (see Kimberly Kagan, "The Iraq Report II - The Baghdad Security Plan begins", Weekly Standard, 15 March 2007).

Any assessment of the effects of the operations has to be very tentative at this stage, but three conclusions can be drawn. First, there has indeed been a marked decline in sectarian violence and general criminality across the city. Second, there have also been numerous bombings and other attacks, both in Baghdad and elsewhere across central and northern Iraq. An extraordinary example was the mortar attack on the most heavily defended site in Iraq, the green zone, timed to coincide with the visit of the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

Third, Iraqi civilian casualties remain high, as do those among the US military. In the six weeks to mid-March, 150 US service personnel were killed, and in the first three weeks of the month there were over 400 injuries. Although not directly connected to the current operations, the reported number of casualties among civilian personnel employed by US contractors in Iraq since the war began is now estimated at more than 750 killed and hundreds more injured.

The level of attacks outside of Baghdad does appear to have increased since the start of the surge, very much confirming past experience (see Lauren Frayer "US: Iraqi Insurgent Attacks Intensify", Associated Press, 8 March 2007). Much of these have been focused in Diyala province to the northeast of Baghdad. The most remarkable development has been in the town of Tal Afar where eighty-five people (mainly Shi'a) were killed in car-bombs on 27 March; this was followed the next day by retaliatory killings - including by Iraqi police - of at least seventy people (mainly Sunni).

Tal Afar is significant because it was the location of one of the US military's biggest operations after the Fallujah assault on November 2004. In September 2005, a sustained operation used helicopter gunships, strike aircraft and large numbers of troops to clear the town of insurgents (see "Planning for failure in Iraq", 15 September 2005). The aim was to create the conditions where a substantial US military presence alongside Iraqi security forces could be maintained.

The military effort was initially hailed as a success, though within weeks there were indications that the effect was no more than temporary. The city has since been hit by a series of suicide-bombings. Between May and November 2006, fifty-eight people were killed and more than a hundred wounded in three large attacks (see Alissa J Rubin, "Iraq Shiites kill dozens in revenge attacks", International Herald Tribune, 29 March 2007). The latest incidents confirm the failure of the much vaunted Tal Afar approach.

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 new book is Into the Long War: Oxford Research Group, International Security Report 2006 (Pluto Press, November 2006)

An adaptive insurgency

Meanwhile, related violent upsurges in Ramadi and elsewhere show that the insurgents are already adjusting to the new US tactics. This flexibility is part of a more general phenomenon that has two components. The first is that the insurgents are learning new tactics and strategies faster than the US military can respond (see Paul Beaver & Peter Beaumont, "'Smart' Rebels Outstrip US", Observer, 11 March 2007). In doing so they are able to achieve a dual advantage: developing methods of destroying some of the most modern US equipment, even when it is itself being upgraded to respond to the evolving insurgency; and maintaining a flat and dispersed command structure, thus avoiding dependence on a single "brain" that can be isolated and eliminated.

The second component was mentioned in last week's column: namely that the al-Qaida movement in Iraq is far less dependent on foreign paramilitaries as it successfully grows on the basis of increasing support from Iraqis (see "Al-Qaida's standing", 22 March 2007). The Sunni elements of the insurgency may still be partially internationalised, but may now be gathering additional strength within Iraq itself.

A United States general and long-term observer of the Iraq war, Barry McCaffrey, points out that some 27,000 presumed insurgents are currently in captivity, and at least 20,000 have been killed, yet there is no let-up in their military activities. Indeed "their sophistication, numbers and lethality go up - not down - as they incur these staggering battle losses". He is deeply critical of the Nouri al-Maliki government. It is clear that his views are widely shared in Washington where Maliki and his administration may well become the principal "fall guys" for the Iraq debacle (see Thomas E Ricks, "McCaffrey Paints a Gloomy Picture of Iraq", Washington Post, 28 March 2007).

McCaffrey believes that the Iraqi government is simply not in control, a view that has long been widely shared by independent observers. As he puts it, one result is that "no Iraqi government official, coalition soldier, diplomat, reporter, foreign NGO, nor contractor can walk the streets of Baghdad, nor Mosul, nor Basra, nor Tikrit, nor Najaf, nor Ramadi, without heavily armed protection."

It is still just possible that the current methods being used by the US forces will have a significant impact; but - even at this early stage of the "surge" project - this looks unlikely.

The marked contrast between the views of figures such Barry McCaffrey and the current neocon outlook in Washington partly reflects the near-desperate refusal of convinced supporters of the US's Iraq policy to contemplate even the possibility of failure. The consequence is plain: the increasing need, when things do go wrong, to find other people to blame. The leading targets are equally obvious: Nouri al-Maliki and his government in Baghdad, and the unpatriotic Democrats on Capitol Hill. The rhetoric of bitter reproach and ugly accusation will increase in step with the 2008 presidential-election cycle. It is not an attractive prospect.

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