The Magazine

Friends, Enemies
and Spoilers

Two months in, the consequences of the surge.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The new effort to establish security in Iraq has begun. At this early stage, the most important positive development is a rise in hostility to al Qaeda in the Sunni community. Al Qaeda has responded with its own "surge" in spectacular attacks, which so far has not revived support for the terrorists or reignited sectarian violence. The Coalition has also made unexpectedly rapid progress in reducing the power of Moktada al-Sadr, including killing or capturing more than 700 members of his Mahdi Army. At the same time, the rhetoric of the Iraqi government has changed dramatically, and there are early indications of an increased willingness to attempt reconciliation among Iraq's Arabs. Meanwhile, some challenges are intensifying. Diyala province in particular poses serious problems that do not admit of easy or rapid solutions. On balance, there is reason for wary optimism.

President Bush announced the new strategy on January 10, and shortly thereafter named General David Petraeus overall commander of Coalition military forces in Iraq. His mission: establishing security for the Iraqi people and only secondarily transitioning to full Iraqi control and responsibility. In January, five new Army brigade combat teams started reaching Iraq at the rate of one a month. An additional division headquarters to assist with command and control and an additional combat aviation brigade are also headed to Iraq, along with logistics, military police, and other enablers. No timeline for the increased American presence has been announced, although public comments suggest it will last at least through the fall and probably into early 2008. Activation warnings to National Guard brigades and the extension of the tours of Army brigades already in Iraq from 12 to 15 months, issued in April, would make such an extension possible.

The new strategy resulted from a combination of Iraqi proposals and discussions within the Bush administration and among American commanders. The collaborative nature of the plan led to the creation of dual chains of command: American forces report to Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I), and from him to Petraeus. Iraqi forces, both army and police, report through their own commanders to one of two division commanders (one on either side of the Tigris River, which divides Baghdad). Those commanders report to Lieutenant General Abboud Gambar, commander of Operation Fardh al-Qanoon (Enforcing the Law), the Iraqi name for what we call the Baghdad Security Plan. Gambar reports to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. This bifurcation of command poses significant challenges of coordination, but Generals Petraeus, Odierno, and Gambar have developed tactics that mitigate them.

The new plan pushes most U.S. forces out into the population. Americans and Iraqis are establishing Joint Security Stations and Joint Combat Outposts throughout Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers eat, sleep, and plan together in these outposts and then conduct mounted and dismounted patrols continually, day and night, throughout their assigned neighborhoods. In Joint Security Stations I visited in the Hurriya neighborhood, in the Shiite Khadimiya district, American and Iraqi soldiers sleep in nearly adjoining rooms with unlocked and unguarded doors between them. They receive and evaluate tips and intelligence together, plan and conduct operations together, and evaluate their results jointly. Wherever they go, they hand out cards with the telephone numbers and email addresses of local "tip lines" that people can call when they see danger in the neighborhood. Tips have gone up dramatically over the past two months, from both Sunnis and Shiites, asking for help and warning of IEDs and other attacks being prepared against American and Iraqi forces. People have also called the tip lines to say thanks when a dangerous individual was removed from the streets.

Most of the military operations of recent months have been laying the groundwork for clear-and-hold operations that will be the centerpiece of the new plan. Coalition and Iraqi forces have targeted al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent cells in Baghdad, in their bases around the capital, and in Anbar, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces. They have established positions throughout Baghdad and swept a number of neighborhoods in a preliminary fashion. They have begun placing concrete barriers around problematic neighborhoods to restrict access and change traffic flow to support future operations. Targeted raids have removed a number of key leaders from the Shiite militias as well, reducing the effectiveness of Sadr's organization, which was already harmed by his hasty departure for Iran early this year.

Over the past weeks as the enemy has responded, preparatory operations have shifted their focus. Generals Odierno and Petraeus sent reinforcements to the towns south of Baghdad to intensify efforts against al Qaeda bases there, and they sent more troops into Diyala province as the magnitude of the challenges there became clear. These adaptations are a normal part of military operations. They reflect a determination by the U.S. command not to allow the enemy to establish new safe havens when it has been driven out of old ones.

Major clear-and-hold operations are scheduled to begin in late May or June, and will take weeks to complete, area by area. After that, it may be many more weeks before their success at establishing security can be judged. General Petraeus has said he will offer an evaluation of progress in the fall. Even that evaluation, however, can only be preliminary. Changes in popular attitudes, insurgent capabilities, and the capacities of the Iraqi government and its armed forces take months, not weeks, to develop and manifest themselves. Premature judgments influenced by a week's headlines, whether positive or negative, are unwise.

Enemies and Spoilers

The United States and the government of Iraq are at war with a cluster of enemies: Al Qaeda in Iraq, affiliated Islamist groups, and determined Sunni insurgents who wish to overthrow the elected government. In addition, they face a number of "spoilers" who have played an extremely negative role so far and could derail progress if not properly managed: Shiite militias, criminal gangs, Iranian agents, and negative political forces within the Iraqi government. The distinction between enemies and spoilers is important. Enemies must be defeated; in the case of al Qaeda and other Islamists, that almost invariably means capturing or killing them. Spoilers must be managed. It is neither possible nor desirable to kill or capture all the members of the Mahdi Army or the Badr Corps. Dealing with those groups requires a combination of force and politics. Bad leaders and the facilitators of atrocities must be eliminated, but reducing popular support for these groups' extremism, coopting moderates within their ranks, and drawing some of their fighters off into more regular employment are political tasks. American and Iraqi leaders have been using both force and politics to manage these challenges.

Enemies and spoilers have responded to the Baghdad Security Plan in different ways. Al Qaeda and the other Islamist groups have increased their large-scale attacks, not only in Baghdad but also in Tal Afar, Mosul, Anbar, and Diyala. These groups rely on suicide bombings to attract international media attention and to create an exaggerated narrative of continuous violence throughout the country. They also hope to reignite the sectarian violence that raged through much of 2006. In this hope they have so far been disappointed. Within days of the bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque in February 2006, 33 mosques were attacked in retaliation, hundreds of civilians were murdered, and Baghdad suffered seven vehicle bombings; within a week, there were more than 21 peaceful protests of over 1,000 people each across the country. Reprisals for the recent spate of spectacular attacks have been much more modest.

Sectarian killings began to drop dramatically in January, and remain well below their December levels (although they are now somewhat higher than at the start of the current operations). The continuing terror campaign in Iraq is both tragic and worrisome, but it has not yet restarted the widespread sectarian conflict that was raging as recently as the end of last year.

The reasons for the drop in sectarian killings are important. First and foremost, after President Bush's announcement of the surge, both Moktada al Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Brigade, called upon their followers not to kill other Iraqis. Sadr has remained true to this appeal despite his recent renewal of his longstanding demand for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. The fact that sectarian killings responded to the orders of Shiite leaders speaks volumes about the nature of those killings. Despite the oft-repeated myth that Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites have been killing each other for centuries, the drop in sectarian murders since January shows that last year's killing was motivated by politics rather than primordial hatred. It was organized and rational rather than emotional, and it is therefore susceptible to persuasion through force, politics, and reason. The idea that Iraq is trapped in a civil war that we can only allow to be fought out to its conclusion is so far unproven and is not a justification for withdrawal.

Second, sectarian killings have dropped because of dramatically increased partnership between the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army, and American forces. The Iraqi police were heavily implicated in the killings; the Iraqi army less so. U.S. forces do not tolerate such behavior. The partnership has helped American units identify individuals within the Iraqi police and army who have participated in atrocities. As these individuals are identified, U.S. and Iraqi leaders work to prepare evidence packets to support their arrest, detention, and conviction. As a result, the Baghdad Security Plan is supporting efforts to weed out the worst elements from the Iraqi Security Forces. In some cases, entire police units have been pulled off line, vetted, and "re-blued"--that is, retrained after the removal of known felons and militia infiltrators. In this way, the security plan is improving the quality of the Iraqi Security Forces, which is essential to giving these forces legitimacy in the eyes of the Iraqi people. This can only occur through the close cooperation of American and Iraqi forces at all levels.

Some have complained that the Iraqi government's insistence on evidence packets rather than intelligence packets is excessively constraining, given the nature of the conflict. Evidence often requires confessions and/or formal witness statements, whereas intelligence may come from accusers whose identity is not revealed and who therefore remain safer from retaliation. In addition, information that could compromise sources or techniques cannot be presented to an Iraqi judge. But American forces have adapted to this requirement, and are working to acquire the evidence necessary under Iraqi law not merely to arrest and detain suspected individuals, but to ensure that they are convicted and duly sentenced. No doubt more suspects remain at large this way than would if forces could operate solely on the basis of intelligence. On the other hand, the Iraqi government has shown a remarkable willingness to arrest and prosecute or dismiss from their positions even senior Shiite leaders when presented with appropriate evidence of their crimes.

In sum, key potential spoilers have chosen to support the current plan rather than to undermine it. The Iraqi government is fully committed rhetorically, and has been supporting the plan practically both by sending all of the requested military and police units and by agreeing to raids on Sunni and Shiite targets, as well as to the arrest and detention of both Sunni and Shiite leaders. Sadr and Hakim continue to oppose violence, and the militias have dramatically reduced their killings in response to the orders of their leaders and to Coalition pressure. At the moment, the struggle against al Qaeda is far more central to the war in Iraq than sectarian violence--something that has not been true for many months.

Political Progress and Benchmarks

A final end to violence rests, of course, on bringing insurgents into the political fold in a way that the Shiites, including some Shiite radicals, can tolerate. It is too early to evaluate progress in this realm. Political compromise cannot take place in an atmosphere of high violence, and both sides need time to recover from the trauma of sectarian conflict before reconciliation will be possible.

There have been some developments worth mentioning, however. Prime Minister Maliki visited the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi in mid-March, reaching out to the Sunni community. The Iraqi government followed up by sending the defense and interior ministers and the national security adviser to Ramadi recently to meet with the local Provincial Council to discuss reconstruction in Anbar. This was a very important gesture. The next question is: Can the Iraqi government get funds to Anbar and actually begin projects there? It has had serious problems in such endeavors in the past, both because powerful Shiite elements resist spending money in Sunni areas and because the government is so inexperienced and under developed that it is unable to spend most of the money it has. Even here, though, there are positive signs. After more than a year of delays, the Iraqi government has finally gotten money to Tal Afar, and reconstruction is starting there. Fiscal follow-through in Anbar will be a significant test of the government's willingness and ability to rebuild Iraq in an impartial and nonsectarian way.

The withdrawal of Sadrist ministers from the government in mid-April offers another opportunity. Some of those ministers were obstacles to nonsectarian reconstruction and effective government. Their departure gives Maliki the opportunity to appoint people who are more competent and who can be more evenhanded. The resignations do reduce Sadr's stake in the government, however, and thereby increase his ability to court conflict with the Sunnis, with Maliki, or with the United States. Some argue that his departure to Iran was part of an effort to drum up increased Iranian support for his movement. If so, the withdrawal of his ministers might signal the start of a broader Sadrist counteroffensive. On the other hand, he has not withdrawn his members from the Council of Representatives or attempted to bring down the government by a vote of no confidence.

We would be wise to prepare for the worst and assume that Sadr will attempt to restore his crumbling position in Iraq. There is no question that Coalition and Iraqi forces can withstand such a counteroffensive if we and the Maliki government retain the will to weather the storm.

The threat of a Sadrist counteroffensive aside, the withdrawal of his ministers should make the task of reconciliation somewhat easier. But reconciliation in Iraq is likely to follow its own road. The U.S. political debate is increasingly fixated on political benchmarks, including narrowly defined legislation that "must" be passed by the Iraqi parliament to move Iraq along a path to reconciliation prescribed by us. We must resist the temptation to micromanage the political and emotional resolution of Iraq's internal conflicts. Sunni Arabs in Anbar, Salahaddin, and Diyala have all reached out to American forces and Iraqi leaders. The Maliki government has started to reach back. What matters is that the two sides clasp hands, not that they pass any given collection of laws, certainly not that they meet externally dictated timelines.

One of the things that struck me most on my visit to Iraq from April 3 to April 8 was the growing Iraqi desire to exercise sovereignty. The insistence on evidence rather than intelligence as the basis for arresting suspects reflects a larger desire to see the rule of law functioning in Iraq. So does the establishment of a chain of command under the control of the Iraqi prime minister. So does Maliki's appointment of subordinates in whom he has confidence, even when we would prefer others. This burgeoning sense of Iraq-ness can be seen even beyond the central government. Pictures of the Sadrist demonstration in Najaf in early April showed many people carrying Iraqi flags and few people carrying pictures of Sadr. At a minimum, the leaders of that movement clearly felt they needed to show they are Iraqis rather than followers of a particular leader.

The irony is that the more the Iraqi government feels its own strength--a very positive development from the standpoint of establishing a state that can survive on its own--the less it will be inclined to listen to our dictates about how to manage its internal affairs. Legislative or other benchmarks imposed as conditions of U.S. aid are likely to be seen increasingly as inappropriate interference and therefore not constructive. We have wanted Iraq to be independent from the outset, and we have worked hard to make Iraqi independence possible. We must accept the consequences, including the impossibility of dictating specific political solutions to Iraq's leaders.

Challenges and Dangers

Success in Iraq is not assured, and we face major challenges in some areas. Diyala province is a microcosm of almost all of Iraq's problems. Al Qaeda fighters driven out of Anbar and elsewhere have flowed into the province in the past few months and are now receiving Iranian aid. Sunnis driven out of Baghdad in 2006 moved to Diyala and drove many Shiites out of their homes. Shiites have retaliated with sectarian killings, sometimes with the support of provincial leaders. Kurdish forces have been pushing into the northern part of the province in support of historic claims to a greater Kurdish region within Iraq. All this unrest fuels, and has been fueled by, tribal conflict. And American forces are spread thin in the province (although Generals Odierno and Petraeus have sent reinforcements).

American and Iraqi forces are attacking some of these problems aggressively. They are setting up Joint Security Stations in Baqubah and elsewhere in imitation of those in Ramadi and Baghdad. The Iraqi leadership in Diyala is enthusiastically opposing al Qaeda, and Iraqi soldiers are engaged in that fight. In spite of the widespread violence, reconstruction efforts are underway throughout the province, even in Baqubah. The talented American commander in the area, Colonel David Sutherland, is working hard to calibrate kinetic and nonkinetic operations, to integrate American operations with Iraqis, and to get the violence under control. The challenges of Kurdish incursions, of increased Iranian involvement, and of the embattled Shiite minority in Diyala remain potent and will require prolonged and careful management. Diyala is likely to remain violent for many months to come.

In Baghdad, we have seen only the preliminary unfolding of a large and complex plan. Much of the city is still dangerous, violent, or out of control, and it remains to be seen how much the planned operations can reduce the violence and how long it will take. The enemy, of course, has a vote. If Sadr orders his soldiers to fight, the situation may deteriorate rapidly. No one knows how long al Qaeda can sustain the current level of violence, or whether it can increase it, or how patient the Shiites will be in the face of continued terrorist attacks. The probabilities are that Sadr will not seek a full-scale confrontation, that al Qaeda will not be able to sustain the current level of violence indefinitely, and that the Shiite leadership, sensing the chance for meaningful self-government, will restrain its people. But very little is certain in this war, or any war.

Early overtures toward reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites are not tantamount to success in that pursuit. The Sunni tribal leadership is just beginning to reconstitute itself after the decapitation of the Sunni Arab community in 2003. Current tribal leaders do not speak for all Sunni Arabs, and nationalist Sunni insurgents continue to fight American and Iraqi soldiers. Nor is it certain that this government, elected on the basis of national lists that favored extremists rather than moderates, can accommodate Sunni demands appropriately. Again, the trends and probabilities appear to be positive in both areas, but trends are not accomplishments, and there is a long and uncertain road ahead.

Can America succeed in Iraq? Definitely. Will we? It's too soon to say. The most that can be said now is that we seem to be turning a corner. In December 2006, we were losing, and most of the trends were bad. Today, many trends are positive, despite the daily toll of al Qaeda-sponsored death. That reversal resulted from our own actions, from enemy mistakes, and from positive decisions by potential spoilers. Our actions are proceeding in the right direction, as our forces work skillfully to establish order and support and assist reconstruction. The enemy is maintaining the same strategy that led to its difficulties in Anbar: ruthlessly attacking both Sunnis and Shiites in an effort to terrorize populations into tolerating its presence. And the key potential spoilers are holding to their vital decision to call for sectarian calm rather than sectarian war.

Americans have been subjected to too much hyperbole about this war from the outset. Excessively rosy scenarios have destroyed the credibility of the administration. The exaggerated certainty of leading war opponents that the conflict is already lost is every bit as misplaced. Too much optimism and too much pessimism have prevented Americans from accurately evaluating a complex and fluid situation. It is past time to abandon both and seek a clearheaded appraisal of reality in Iraq.

Today, victory is up for grabs, and the stakes for America are rising as the conflict between us and al Qaeda shifts to the fore. It is no hyperbole to recognize that a precipitous American withdrawal would undermine the current positive trends and increase the likelihood of mass killing and state collapse. Painful and uncertain as it is, the wisest course now is to support our commander and our soldiers and civilians, as they struggle to foster security in Iraq and to defeat the enemies who have sworn to destroy us.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).