What has not followed the drop in violence is a political settlement: for the past year analysts have worried that the failure to disarm or integrate the Sunni Awakening groups into the state risked sowing the seeds of a new insurgency. But the tepid response to the arrest of Mashhadani and other Awakening men suggests that a political reconciliation may not have been necessary. The burgeoning Iraqi state, embodied by Maliki himself, can simply continue to expand its power and crush any rivals. One US Army Iraq expert, who worked closely with General David Petraeus to plan and implement the surge, told me in 2008 that the civil war would end when the Shiites realised they had won and the Sunnis realised they had lost. Based on the conversations I had during a trip through Iraq last month, both sides seem to accept that this is the case.This is by Nir Rosen, who speaks Arabic and has massive antiwar cred to his name, so I really trust him when he says it's over.
There is nothing the Awakening groups can do. As guerrillas and insurgents they were only effective when they operated covertly, underground, blending in among a Sunni population that has now mostly been dispersed. Now the former resistance fighters-turned-paid guards are publicly known, and their names, addresses and biometric data are in the hands of American and Iraqi forces. They cannot return to an underground that has been cleared, and they still face the wrath of radical Sunnis who view them as traitors. They have failed to unite and as their stories demonstrate, they are on the run.So here's how it worked:
The cleansing of Sunnis from much of Baghdad deprived Sunni insurgents of sanctuary among the population as they were losing battles with al Qa'eda, the Americans and Shiite militias. The Shiite bloc had numerical superiority, backed by the force of the Iraqi state and its security forces. And so, one by one, groups of Sunni resistance fighters struck ceasefire agreements with the Americans and joined the fight against al Qa'eda and other radical elements.So the story this is telling is that we hastened the end of the civil war by getting people to stop fighting each other temporarily, allowing them time to realize that they were beaten. I understand the part where we got half of the Sunnis fighting al Qaeda instead of the Shiites. I don't understand the part where the non-government Shiite militias stopped competing with the government Shiites. Did they spend their time fighting Sunnis, while the government had Americans fighting the Sunnis for it and could spend time fighting the militias?
The "surge" of American forces allowed Maliki to strengthen the authority of the state and its security forces, while the establishment of the Awakening groups neutralised anti-government Sunni militias (in some cases simply by paying them salaries not to fight the state). The decline in sectarian violence gave Maliki space to weaken competing Shiite militias, who had been integral to cleansing Sunnis from mixed areas and establishing Shiite dominance but whose presence prevented his fully consolidating control.
The part I can't quite remember is, who were the Americans fighting exactly before and during the surge? Both the Sunnis and al Qaeda, but no Shiites? Or were we fighting Shiites too? I can't remember because during the ethnic cleansing I felt like we were just turtling up and not accomplishing anything.
It looks like the civil war was the essential element to ending the violence. Without the Shiites letting loose and destroying the Baghdad Sunnis with horrific violence, the insurgency could have continued much longer. Then the Anbar Awakening got enough Sunnis to call a truce, without feeling like they were surrendering -- but it turned out that's basically what they'd done.
What a complicated situation, do you think David Petraeus could have sat down and thought, "OK, we have group A1 and A2 fighting group B, group C fighting group B and D, and group D fighting groups A through C, we need to get B and C fighting D so that A1 can fight A2, leaving us with A2 and D defeated and A1 dominant over B, so that group C can go home?" (A1 being Maliki, A2 being al-Sadr, B being Sunnis, C being the Americans, and D being al Qaeda.)
Did actual military victory, with kills and arrests, have anything to do with this? Or would the Sunnis still have beat al Qaeda and Maliki beat al Sadr without the surge? If they would have, then the co-opting of the Sunnis would have been the only thing that really mattered. Of course, if you knew this was the situation you wouldn't take that chance. You'd throw the extra troops in there to make sure the Sunnis knew they'd win if they took your side.
And once you'd planned this all out, you'd never be able to sell it in public, because you couldn't say "Our plan is to get the Sunnis to help us beat al Qaeda and then sell them down the river." All you could do is say "We're gonna, um, kill some terrorists and hope the Iraqis reconcile together." You have a plan now, but you have to keep saying the same thing you said when you didn't have one and hope the public trusts you.
So what does this mean for the question, "Was I wrong to oppose the surge?" Before, I would have said "No, they weren't proposing any new strategy that we could expect to work, and the old one was a proven failure." But now, I'd say "Yes, I was wrong not to see that the civil war made for a very different balance of forces in Iraq and therefore the prospects for any strategy succeeding were different than before."
And finally I don't want to fall into the trap of talking about how the surge worked out in the end and letting people think that means the Iraq War was OK. Out of the three questions "Given what we knew at the time, was it right to support 1) the invasion 2) the occupation and 3) the surge?" my answer to 1) and 2) is still decisively "No." Out of the three questions "Were the consequences of 1) the invasion 2) the occupation and 3) the surge better than doing nothing?" my answer to 1) is "No" and the answer to 2) is "Hell no." But I am glad that we broke our streak and things finally started getting better from 2007 to 2009.
I don't especially want to argue about that last paragraph in comments. I'm more interested in discussion about the surge and how it worked.