Simon Barrow

Getting Iraq’s war surge to trickle towards peace

By Simon Barrow
September 10, 2007

As many were predicting, General David Petraeus’ long-awaited report on the military situation in Iraq, through as series of carefully qualified assessments, is making the headline case that the military objectives of the US troop surge in Iraq "are largely being met".

The top US military commander in the country, along with Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, began testifying before Congress on 10 September 2007. The two men are delivering statements and documentation to the joint House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees. President Bush will pronounce the blessing soon.

However, the Iraqi prime minister admits that life is still grim for most people across the country, and 17 ministers in his government immediately dissociated themselves from his additional extraordinary claim that the surge had averted civil war. Informed reports on the ground suggest that insurgent activity and sectarian attacks have in many cases shifted from one area to another. When they are losing, the militants simply move on.

The ‘surge’ has achieved some successes by sheer weight, of course. But it depends upon a continuing external military presence, which everyone knows is not sustainable. It has also produced dissent on all sides – even scepticism among US soldiers, some of whom have commented as such in TV interviews.

The US policy of arming Sunni groups appears to have reduced conflict in some situations (if a balance of death is a reduction), but it has also led to an increase in recruitment by Shia militants. The long-term impact is uncertain, to say the least. Critics believe it risks exacerbating the very problem is it meant to be addressing. The messes in Afghanistan and Iraq are littered with misguided Western attempts to use arms as a counterweight to the ‘present enemy’, only to discover that the alternative turns out to be as bad if not worse. Think mujahideen.

Moreover, anti-Americanism is increasing not just in many parts of Iraq but across the region as a whole. Former top CIA Middle east analyst Paul Pillar now says he believes that more terrorists were being recruited by the attempt to impose a military solution on Iraq than are being eliminated as a result of these activities.

The congressional hearings also coincide with a fresh opinion poll by the BBC, ABC News and NHK of more than 2,000 people across Iraq. This suggests that nearly 70% of Iraqis believe security has deteriorated in the area covered by the surge. 60% also see attacks on US-led troops as justified.

A record 168,000 US troops are now in Iraq. Some 30,000 arrived between February and June 2007. Force of arms can suppress problems, unevenly. But in the absence of a wider political framework it can offer no ‘solution’.

That this is the case will no doubt become clear from the fine print of the Petraeus report and from the exhaustive process of examination and debate that will follow in its wake. The bloody stalemate in the theatre of war is being reflected in the argument it engenders.

The question of ‘objectives being met’ lies at the heart of this argument. Some opponents of war and occupation will be quick to say that the surge has failed. But the failure or success of this element of the overall strategy is not material to understanding its underlying mistakenness.

As Johan Maurer has remarked: "[B]arring the use of wholesale slaughter and massive increases in imprisonment, the surge can, in the long run, only succeed in pushing opposition forces into a waiting mode. Even a new Iraqi military and police force will be no stronger or more stable than the political forces controlling them, and there is no guarantee that those forces will embrace values congenial to today's White House."

Indeed to be over-preoccupied with the surge assessment, aside from recognising that most claimed gains are matched by observable losses, is to misunderstand the game that is being played out here – which is political more than military.

The metrics of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in Iraq, long since plunged into violence and chaos, can be manipulated back and forth with no little chance of consensus. And that is the point. Before the US wanted to end its entanglement in Vietnam, it read the evidence as suggesting that a pre-emptive pullout would be disastrous.

When conditions in America and the world made maintaining troops there damaging and unsustainable, it suggested on the basis of much the same data that ‘key objectives’ had been met. Historical judgement has reached rather different conclusions, of course. But it was what was politically expedient at the time.

Much the same is happening now. Petraeus is the beginning of the end game, at least in this phase of the Iraq conflict (for its is unlikely to find a viable political path quickly). What the Bush administration needs is a rationale for beginning to withdraw its troops from Iraq without the appearance of either disorder, concession or defeat. And that is precisely what their top general is offering them.

By claiming some success, the Republicans and their allies can maintain the fiction that their policy has worked (to an extent), that too quick a withdrawal would be calamitous (a hasty retreat is not desired), but that a gradual pullback in the course of the next year or so is justifiable (readjustment not withdrawal).

So it is that that General Petraeus’ report says that troops numbers could be reduced to a pre-surge level by next summer without jeopardising the security situation in Iraq. Indeed this can begin straight away, in a limited form. The Brits must stay longer in the south, however.

Petraeus said the number of what he coyly described as “security incidents” had declined “significantly” since the surge began, adding that the number of civilian deaths had also gone down. But he acknowledged that improvements in stability had been "uneven". Which is putting it politely. One analyst said that it was like grasping at a fat balloon – when you squeeze it in one place, it pops out in another.

"While noting that the situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult and sometimes downright frustrating, I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, although doing so will be neither quick, nor easy," Petraeus declared.

This is code for “continue on the current trajectory, since we cannot conceive any political alternative within our current geopolitical assumptions. But scale back when possible.” Many believe that the surge metrics are a fig leaf. When the withdrawal begins the momentum will continue.

The most important subtext here is Iran, the only real winner from a disastrous piece of military adventurism. The US is terrified about a vacuum that will be filled by Tehran and believes that only belligerence can thwart what it sees as its most dangerous foe in the region. Thus the recent extraordinary (and counterproductive) refusal of visas to a group of religious leaders seeking to build bridges – matching the largely unnoticed positive work of Christian and Muslim leaders to change the terms of engagement between the two nations.

All of this leaves open the vital question of Iraq’s future. While the focus is on military matters, the issue of how to break down sectarian divides and forge new political possibilities is ignored or downgraded. The top-level political process inside the country is pretty much deadlocked because civil society has collapsed and rebuilding it is incredibly difficult in a situation of disorder, fear and killing.

Nevertheless, that is precisely what a lot of brave people are trying to do, in a myriad small and vulnerable ways – community groups, religious groups, politicians, humanitarian workers and others. And most of these hopeful gestures are (perhaps helpfully) not really making any headlines.

However, the role played by veterans of South Africa's post-apartheid reconciliation process in getting warring Iraqi factions tentatively to agree to a roadmap for peace at secret talks in Finland emerged recently. The four-day talks early in September 2007reportedly made "huge strides" towards fresh political possibilities.

Former National Party and ANC operatives co-chaired the talks with Martin McGuiness, chief negotiator of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party and deputy leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those on the other side of the Irish divide have also been involved in conversations with Iraqi groups.

The connections may seem surprising, but they are not. In the build up to the Northern Ireland peace process, which has seen insurgents disarmed and former mortal enemies sharing power, South African conflict transformation experts also met with protagonists to explore new ways forward. This played a vital, if low-key, role in what transpired.

Of course, the social, cultural, religious and political situation in Iraq is remarkably different again. But though the cynics may sneer and reach for better-armed rhetoric, investing in non-violent alternatives is vital if the long nightmare is to have any chance of conceding some light.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog can be found at

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