A Chance for Success in Baghdad?
In two recent posts on this Blog (1 and 2), this writer has argued that the president’s “surge” strategy has little chance of success in pacifying Baghdad. The primary reason for this conclusion was fear that our “surge” troops would be marching into a meat grinder, in which they could count on neither the effectiveness nor the loyalty of the Iraqi troops with whom they are to be embedded.
Recent developments, however, provide greater cause for optimism. A few press reports suggest that Shiite extremists, including the Mahdi Army, have decided on a strategy of “fade away and wait.” That is, they appear to have decided not to fight the American surge, but to reduce or cease death-squad activity, fade into the population, and wait to see what happens. There are reports that Mahdi Army units are leaving Baghdad or, in some cases, sequestering their weapons and readying themselves to hide in the population peacefully as ordinary civilians. Apparently there are also plans to offer up some of the more unruly Shiite death squad leaders for punishment, or at least to acquiesce in their arrest.
If true, these reports change the picture significantly and offer some hope that the president’s “surge” proposal may succeed, possibly even with an acceptable level of American casualties.
If the Shiite extremists in Baghdad “stand down” in expectation of the surge, then one of two things will happen. If the Sunni extremists do not stand down, then our “surge” troops will have to concentrate on fighting them. Although doing so may exacerbate political tensions with Sunni leaders, it will not produce the feared “meat grinder” effect because the largely Shiite Iraqi army’s loyalties will support the mission. If the fight against Sunni extremists in Baghdad is successful, and the Shiite extremists have stood down, violence in Baghdad may subside enough to make some progress on the political front. If the Sunni extremists themselves also stand down in Baghdad in anticipation of the surge, then the same outcome may occur—reduced violence—with fewer casualties on all sides.
It is unlikely that Sunni extremists will ever stand down in Anbar Province, which is a different problem altogether. But there the surge makes sense, because Coalition surge troops are unlikely to be shot in the back, while fighting Sunni extremists and al-Qaeda, by their Shiite and Kurdish comrades in the Iraqi Army.
Of course there is a risk that extremists on either or both sides will simply wait until the “surge” troops are withdrawn to resume their killing. Yet the longer any relatively peaceful interval lasts, the more Baghdadis may decide (or may be persuaded) that peace is not a bad thing. During any interval of reduced violence, Coalition troops and Iraqi authorities will have the opportunity to make a full-court press for intelligence and law enforcement. They can try to round up, incarcerate, kill or incapacitate the worst extremists on both sides while the relative peace lasts.
This optimistic scenario involves a lot of big “ifs.” First, it must be true that the Shiite extremists, or most of them, intend to stand down. Second, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shiite-dominated government must indeed be prepared to offer up the worst of the worst for arrest and not put them back on the street later. Third, there must be some way to prevent Sunni extremists in Anbar Province from continually infiltrating Baghdad and making the situation worse. Finally, there must be some realistic hope of defeating the Sunni extremists in Baghdad if they, unlike their Shiite counterparts, do not stand down.
If all these conditions are met, there is a chance that the surge could work. Instead of being an invitation for our troops to engage in a house-to-house struggle with potentially disloyal “comrades” at their backs, the “surge” might be the occasion for a weird sort of undeclared “truce” between the warring factions, motivated or enforced by fear of superior American firepower or an unwillingness to tolerate the urban destruction that use of that firepower would risk.
Even while writing this, I have the sinking feeling that this scenario may be hopelessly optimistic and naïve. Yet if serious intelligence suggests that the Shiite death squads do indeed intend to stand down during the surge, the surge may make sense as a combined military-political strategy for a “cooling down” period, which might allow the process of political reconciliation to proceed. Because that scenario appears to provide the last chance for a more peaceful and hopeful Iraq, the risk may be worth taking. It is not worth taking if the Shiite death squads do not stand down, and our surge troops have to fight them with Shiite-dominated Iraqi troops at their backs.