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.)