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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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).