Pulling Off the Band-Aid in Baghdad

Iraqi Car bomb victims, Baghdad

Image by jamesdale10via Flickr

So, with the violence of late in Iraq, I wanted to share a line from an email that was passed along to me this week from an U.S. Army officer serving there. (As you can see, I’m a big fan of publishing emails.)  The bulk of the email is an analysis of how fragile the situation is in Mosul, the country’s third largest city. But the key sentence concerns the whole country: “…once we’re gone you’ll see Arab on Arab violence, and/or Arab on Kurd violence, and possibly sequentially, with B coming before A.”

Which is what we’ve started to see happen today, really continuing what we’ve seen over the past few weeks. (The Washington Post lays it all out here.)

What we’re probably soon going to be talking about is how successful “the surge” really was. I’ve always viewed General Petraeus’s surge as a band-aid; a flimsy, temporary yet effective solution that stuck just enough to stop the bleeding.  But what happens when you start ripping the band-aid off? If the wound hasn’t healed, the bleeding starts anew. 

Full disclosure, it’s been two years since my last visit to Iraq. I haven’t seen what the post-surge Iraq is like. However, I’ve kept in touch with Iraqi friends, U.S. soldiers, officials, and journalists who’ve been there, and they all attest that Iraq is better off than it was from 2005 to 2007.  That’s not saying much, but hey. There are a bunch of factors for this, that I don’t really want to get into right now, but it was confluence of events that we had some part in controlling, and other things that happened where we kind of lucked out. The critical thing to remember is what the surge did, and its costs: we spent over 800 American lives, thousands of Iraqi lives,  and billions of dollars, to help Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki consolidate his power for the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

In my view, the real success of the surge from the U.S. perspective was that it was a tremendous public relations coup. After eighteen or so months of brutal fighting, the violence fell to an acceptable level–ie, Iraq was no longer on the front page, or leading the evening news. There was still violence, but it was an okay amount–only 11 Americans a month dying, say, only a few hundred or so Iraqis getting whacked. It allowed war supporters and our foreign policy establishment goofballs to start saying again that Iraq was  “winnable”  after all, that we could in fact “still win,” and that, at the very least, we could “leave with honor.” (Have a read of David Ignatius’s loving missive to General Petraeus from last fall, where Ignatius calls the surge “Petraeus’s Miracle.”  Yes, miraculous, right up there with the miracle of Pickett’s Charge. The real miracle is that these foreign policy experts, who’ve been wrong almost every step of the way on America’s biggest foreign policy question of the last three decades, are still employed. What, exactly, are we winning again?)

I digress. Back to the surge as band-aid metaphor. We’re starting to draw down our forces and we’ve stopped paying off the bad guys. The Sunni insurgency is starting to perk up, and perhaps Sadr’s boys will start to respond a la 2006. We’re slowly peeling off the sticky Flintstone Kids strip. And, lo and behold, the wound hasn’t healed.  Fundamental issues are still unresolved. There’s a bunch of reasons for this, but I’m going to focus on just one. The mistrust between the Sunnis and the Shiite government cannot be overstated. It brings to mind something Maliki told a journalist friend of mine during an interview a month before the surge started. Maliki said, and I quote, that he was “allergic to Sunnis.” Band-aids don’t heal allergies.

(And yes, I’m getting dangerously close to overplaying my metaphor.)


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to Pulling Off the Band-Aid in Baghdad

  1. Michael Peck says:

    I never could figure out this “surge” stuff. I mean, Rule #1 in the Idiot’s Guide to Insurgency says that guerrillas should lay low until the surge dies down. I doubt we’ve destroyed any of the extremist groups. We’ve just suppressed them. They’re not leaving. We are.

  2. Michael Hastings says:

    Agreed, and it does look like those folks have been laying low. And now getting help from their comrades who we’d been keeping locked up the last couple years. The logic of surge has always been a tad dubious, which is why I sort of think that its primary importance is PR-related–those who need to tell themselves we won now believe they have stronger case to make.

  3. jamesohearn says:

    I work with a number of Iraqis out here in Dubai, and the situation in the north, despite news to the contrary, may be better than what many think. I’ve seen a number of those colleagues leave to go back to Iraq because the job prospects were better there.

    As the economy expands, there, and economic opportunities improve, I think there will be less to worry about as time goes on.

  4. Michael Hastings says:

    James, sure, no doubt it’s gotten better compared to the most violent stretch, ‘specially 2006-2007, when attacks like the one this week were regular occurences. (One of my Iraqi friends told me the same thing when I passed through Dubai a couple months back–he was just opening a new biz in Iraq, in fact.) And yes, the violence probably won’t ever reach to the 100 dead a day height that we saw for awhile. But, fighting seems very likely to continue for years to come, at varying levels of intensity. Which is the way these kinds of civil wars seem to go, violence spiking and falling over a long period of time. Think Lebanon, where the civil war lasted fifteen years, and fighting would rise and fall, and where leftover sectarian tensions from that war are still periodically felt. The real worry is that if things do look like they’re getting much worse, will Obama be able to stay committed to drawing down our troop numbers.

  5. jamesohearn says:

    Honestly, Michael, I think this administration is more than capable of pulling out of Iraq, regardless of the consequences, long term, because the fight they’re gearing up for in Pakistan is going to make Iraq look like the invasion of Grenada.

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