Home/Daniel Larison/The Military Succeeded, But The Policy Failed

The Military Succeeded, But The Policy Failed

Yes, the sectarian government in Baghdad is the main obstacle to political progress in Iraq and a major impediment to the success of the “surge,” as someof us foresaw when this entire charade began.  The “surge” of brigades did what it could and made some gains in improving security.  It was of necessity a temporary fix to “buy time” for the alleged reconciliation and security training that would make the Iraqi state reasonably viable and self-sustaining.  The time has been bought at great price, and it is being frittered away.  That is why the overall plan  As Ricks reports:

A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but “it’s unclear how long that window is going to be open.”

And again:

Indeed, some U.S. Army officers now talk more sympathetically about former insurgents than they do about their ostensible allies in the Shiite-led central government. 

And again:

The latest news of declining violence comes as the U.S. troop contingent in Iraq has reached an all-time high. This week, the U.S. troop number will hit 175,000 — the largest presence so far in the 4 1/2 -year war [bold mine-DL] — as units that are rotating in and out overlap briefly. But those numbers are scheduled to come down rapidly over the next several months, which will place an increasing burden on Iraqi security forces and an Iraqi government that has yet to demonstrate it is up to the challenge, senior military officials said.

Now this presents an occasion to make realistic assessment of what the U.S. can actually accomplish in the absence of coordinated Iraqi political efforts.  It seems to me that the U.S. can achieve very little.  If that’s right, this offers an opportunity for many war supporters to say, “We did what we could, we tried to do the right thing by these folks, but we can’t fix their country for them and we can’t achieve anything if their government isn’t entirely on board.”  This offers them a way out of the cage of the “Pottery Barn” thinking that has trapped them.  The question is: do they want to take that way out?

Also, here’s something to keep all of the recent “surge” boosterism in perspective:

Indeed, after years of seizing on every positive development and complaining that the good news wasn’t being adequately conveyed, American military officials now warn against excessive optimism. “It’s never as bad as it was, and it’s not as good as it’s being reported now,” said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, chief of strategic operations for U.S. forces in Iraq.

One should always be wary of optimism, whether excessive or not.  More often than not, it sets you up for a nasty fall.

Update:  As for that “bottom-up reconciliation” you’ve doubtless heard so much about, Ricks’ report has some reasons to be skeptical about its long-term value:

Also, some outside experts contend that U.S. officials still don’t grasp how their empowerment of militias under the bottom-up model of reconciliation is helping tear apart Iraq. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University expert on the Middle East, argued recently on his blog, Abu Aardvark, that partly because of U.S. political tactics in Iraq, the country is drifting “towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.”

Then there is the refugee crisis to bear in mind:

Officials identified other potential problems flowing from reductions in violence. Military planners already worry that if security continues to improve, many of the 2 million Iraqis who fled the country will return. Those who left are overwhelmingly Sunni, and many of their old houses are occupied by Shiites. How would the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police handle the likely friction? “Displaced people is a major flashpoint” to worry about in 2008, said Fetter.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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