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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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.