Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 January 2007

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.

Site Meter


  • At Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 10:05:00 AM EST, Blogger Dr. Puck said…

    "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."

    There are many in Baghdad who think peace is a good thing. The problem isn't that there aren't enough of them. The problem is that Iraq is in a civil war.

    Expect Sadr to wait and let the US fight Sadr's enemies.

    Keep in mind that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis wish the US to leave, resent the occupation and the patronizing advice constantly being given in stronger terms than that of mere counsel.

  • At Monday, January 29, 2007 at 2:22:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Response to Dr. Puck:

    I agree with two of your premises, but I disagree with your third premise and your (implicit) conclusion.

    Your first premise is that most Baghdadis want peace. I agree. It is unlikely that anything more than one percent of them are taking part in the ethnic killing sprees now wracking the city.

    Your second premise is that al-Sadr’s forces will “reappear” once Coalition forces and Iraqi troops have beaten back the Sunni death squads. Although that result is not certain, I agree it is likely.

    But the relevant questions are where they would appear and what they would do. Would they return to Baghdad and re-start the ethnic mayhem? I think not. Once the Sunni death squads had been beaten back, what incentive would Sadr’s forces have to re-start an urban civil war?

    Sadr is a rational actor. He lost his father, two brothers, and an uncle to Saddam’s assassins. He watched Saddam slaughter the Shiite “Marsh Arabs” after we abandoned them in Gulf I. His forming his own personal militia is a rational response to those very real events.

    His use or toleration of his militia as death squads is an undisciplined and uncontrolled, but not irrational, response to Sunni death squads. Once the Sunni death squads are under control, I think Sadr will rein his own in, or allow the Coalition to take the worst killers out. Put yourself in his place: would you tolerate wild men you can’t control, who could harm you both politically and militarily?

    As for “civil war,” the term is a substitute for analysis. What’s going on in Iraq is nothing like our own Civil War, with general mobilization on both sides and discrete battles fought by armies in uniform. It’s more like a mutual insurgency, with strong overtones of revenge. A “cease fire” is always possible, and the apparent “stand-down” of the Shiite militia, couple with our own "surge," might encourage one.

    The key to understanding the conflict is your first premise, that most Baghdadis want peace. Except for those who live or work in the Green Zone, nearly all educated and middle-class Iraqis have already left Baghdad. What’s left is people too poor, too ignorant or too bound by family ties to get out. If you took a vote, probably most of them would prefer having Saddam back to what they are enduring now.

    Under those circumstances, I don’t think Baghdadis will rise up en masse against Coalition-imposed order in the streets. So I think your apparent conclusion, that Baghdadis in general will fight American troops even as they try to restore order, is incorrect.

    I’m on record as supporting partitioning Iraq as the most viable long-term solution to the fiasco we have caused. But I’m not so dogmatic as to think it’s the only solution, or the even the best short-term solution as Iraqis continue to die in the hundreds every month.

    If the Shiite death squads stand down, Coalition troops can probably beat the Sunni death squads back enough to restore a semblance of order in Baghdad. If that happens, political reconciliation becomes possible, if not likely.

    All this may prove to be a pipe dream, but it’s probably our last chance for anything like “success” in a unified Iraq. If nothing else, we owe it to the poor souls now stuck in Baghdad to try. If our “surge” fails, for whatever reason, partitioning is probably the next step. If partitioning comes, it won’t hurt to have a few extra troops, if only to protect our own forces as we try to separate the warring parties.



Post a Comment

<< Home