The Iraqi surge revisited
The surge remains America’s most famous and misleading myth in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
Nearly 10 years after the US-led war on Iraq, debate has been renewed about the so-called “surge”, the tactical US military build-up designed to tackle the country’s anti-occupation insurgency and cut US losses from a fight that its troops were losing.
What was advocated by the Bush administration as one of the invasion’s strategic master strokes is increasingly being shown as nothing but another strategic blunder in the disastrous war the United States waged on Iraq in 2003.
The current partisan row in the US Congress over the endorsement of President Barack Obama’s choice for Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, who opposed the surge while serving as a US senator, has also resonated in Iraq, which is embroiled in one of its worst political crises since the US withdrawal in December 2011.
On Monday, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt among a group of Sahwas north of Baghdad, killing at least 22 of the tribal militiamen and wounding dozens amid mounting sectarian tensions and pressures from Al-Qaeda on Iraq’s Sunnis to resume their insurgency against the country’s Shia led-government.
It was the latest attack in recent weeks against the Sahwas, also known as the “Sons of Iraq”, who were set up as part of the surge forged by US General David Petraeus, the US top commander in Iraq at the time, as part of a counter-insurgency strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Desperate to reverse American failures to end the Sunni insurgency in the country, former US president George Bush decided in 2007 to tackle the Iraqi insurgents by ordering a surge of US troops in the country.
The plans were met by opposition by many in Congress who were pressing the administration to begin to pull US troops out of Iraq.
The policy had two declared main goals. First, to bring the level of violence down by increasing US force levels in areas designated as hot spots and forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups while shifting to a counter-insurgency strategy to fight Al-Qaeda and other insurgency groups.
The second goal was to promote reconciliation among the competing sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq.
Shortly after taking command of the US troops in Iraq in February 2007, Petraeus declared that the switch to a counter-insurgency strategy was working, and by autumn 2007 US army commanders and administration officials were boasting that sectarian violence in Iraq had plummeted to levels not seen since the 2003 war, with falling military and civilian casualties.
Their evaluation was that the plans were giving Iraq a chance to climb out of civil war and were creating the time to allow Iraqis to work toward a national political accommodation.
That highly positive assessment gave the Bush administration a chance to redeem itself for the defeat it had suffered in Iraq and clear the way for a US exit from the country.
However, sceptics blasted the assessment as nothing more than an article of faith and another “mission accomplished” declaration, noting that neither goal had been achieved.
Many warned that the consequences of the failure would be catastrophic and would hinder rebuilding Iraq as a viable state, making such an outcome unlikely.
Part of the argument in the current discussions about the Iraqi surge in Washington’s political and media arena is that history has not yet said its final word about the achievements of the strategy.
Indeed, history has long judged the surge, like the war on Iraq itself, as not only the biggest misstep in American military history, but also as a political and strategic fiasco.
Since the beginning, this writer has argued in this paper that the policy was failing. In June 2007, only a few months after the plan was operational, I argued that Washington’s surge strategy seemed to be crumbling based on a careful assessment of all its aspects.
In December, as much of the US media were hailing Petraeus as a hero and as the “man of the year” for bringing victory in Iraq, I again wrote that Iraq was far from being the tranquil democracy that the United States had promised on launching its war, and that it was still wracked by sectarian killing, a stagnant government and deadlocked national reconciliation.
Barely a year after the last US soldier pulled out of Iraq, the nation today continues to see regular outbreaks of sectarian violence and almost daily terrorist attacks, including a wave of bombings this week that killed dozens of people, including Sahwas members.
Violence last year rose to levels not seen for more than two years, with the toll in the deaths of civilians due to the political violence reaching 4,471, according to Iraq Body Count, a monitoring group, or slightly more than the year before.
Iraqi Sunni insurgents are back at work, and they are targeting Iraqi Shias and people connected to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. Al-Qaeda has stepped up its campaign against the Shias, and last week it urged all Sunnis to take up arms, leading to fears of civil war.
The Sahwas, controlling tens of thousands of fighters when they were part of the surge, crumbled after the government stopped paying their salaries and integrating them into the security forces.
Hundreds of the militiamen, many of them former insurgents, have been killed by Al-Qaeda, which considers them to be collaborators with the Americans and the Shia-led government.
A recent wave of rallies across the mainly Sunni areas to the north and west of Baghdad, including strikes and sit-ins, has sharpened the sectarian tensions. The Sunni protests were triggered by the arrest of the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei Al-Eissawi on 21 December on charges of terrorism and targeting Shias.
The protests raised speculation about the future of the violence-torn nation amid the worst political deadlock and sectarian divisions seen since the US troops departed.
The seven-week demonstrations seem to be a sign of regained Sunni confidence in the face of Shia domination since the US-led invasion that toppled the Sunni regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraq has remained gripped in its worst political crisis as the leaders of its divided sectarian and ethnic communities have failed to reach agreement on how to share power and government revenues.
The country’s Sunni and Kurdish leaders have accused Al-Maliki of violating the terms of a power-sharing deal he signed with rival political parties following inconclusive parliamentary elections in 2010.
As the political crisis in Iraq deepens, Baghdad has been embroiled in a long-running dispute over political participation, oil and land and revenue-sharing with the Kurds in the north.
Tensions between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region intensified following reports of a military stand-off between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and the Iraqi army.
As the Sunni protests continue and the violence escalates a year after the last US troops pulled out from Iraq, the beleaguered country has slipped into a state of ongoing and escalating political turmoil.
Corruption in Iraq is not only widespread and endemic, but also systematic and institutionalised. Most of Iraq’s political leaders are believed to be involved in one type or another of corruption, kickbacks or embezzlement.
Some face corruption charges, including theft or mishandling of state property, nepotism and extortion.
If the objective of the surge was to build a stable and democratic Iraq before the US troop withdrawal, then all these and other mishaps are living testimonies of the stark US defeat in Iraq.
It is sad, disappointing and shameful that some US congressmen, as the handling of Hagel’s confirmation hearing has shown, have been engaged in political game-playing while ignoring Iraq’s ongoing tragedy that was caused by the US occupation.