The US formally ended combat operations in Iraq on 31 August. The country remains without an elected government and many commentators in the media have questioned whether a return to civil war and the spectacular violence of 2006-2007 is possible.
The short answer is no. The matter was decided back in 2007 at the time of the US surge.
I have argued with the assistance of maps developed by Dr Michael Izady for Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) Gulf/2000 Project, which tracked the sectarian make-up of Baghdad in the post-invasion period, that the US surge in Iraq coincided with a shift in a sectarian balance of power and was not the primary driver of the decreasing violence.
Sunnis Arabs, Iraq’s demographic minority formerly in charge under Saddam Hussein, lost the civil war in 2006-2007. And Shia Arabs, prior to the invasion the oppressed majority, won. This manifested itself on the ground with the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis and other ethnic minority groups primarily by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and sectarian elements of the burgeoning Iraqi state in Baghdad, where 80 percent of the bloodshed in Iraq transpired.
The surge, especially in the American mainstream, has since taken on an aura of unadulterated success. The received wisdom, however, is misleading.
Dr David Kilcullen, a senior counterinsurgency advisor to General David Petraeus, then commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and a contributing architect to the surge strategy, provides one of the most comprehensive, authoritative and likely influential accounts of the surge available in his book, The Accidental Guerrilla.
I agree with Kilcullen that US military operations and the adoption of population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics during the first half of 2007 and particularly during the summer of 2007 helped temper some of the bloodletting. But in my view, Kilcullen, as well as the received wisdom, overstates the transformative effect of these efforts.
The ethno-sectarian violence, the most significant and alarming component of the Iraqi civil war casualty figures, peaked in December-January 2006-2007, well before the onset of either limited (March-April 2007; page 135) or full (June-July 2007; pages 143-148) military surge operations. By the time the cavalry showed up then, the segregation of Baghdad was complete, the remaining Sunnis having been driven into sectarian enclaves. Izady’s maps corroborate this chronology.
During 2006, US troops kept out of the fight, almost certainly cognizant of the fact that intervention, as they started doing in March-April 2007, would be costly.
Thus, the extra boots and improved COIN tactics consolidated the ethno-sectarian cleansing of Baghdad (by erecting blast walls for example) but did not reverse it. The surge did not, in Kilcullen’s words, “pull Iraqi society back from the brink of total collapse” or “turn around a war that many believed had already been lost.” The surge put a lid on the tail end of the fighting and secured the emergence of the new, Shia-dominated political order in Iraq.
The counterfactual, unknowable for sure of course, is instructive here. What would Baghdad and in turn Iraq look like if the US had not surged? Probably much as it does now, just with a handful fewer Sunnis.
Kilcullen suggests that the surge saved 12,000 to 16,000 Iraqi lives in the overall carnage of the 2006-2007 civil war.
The violence in effect transpired independently of US actions and was already on a downward trend by the time the surge started, petering out on its own because there was simply little left to kill, expel or fight over. For those individuals who benefited from the intervention, the move was likely worthwhile. But in the grand scheme of things, the intervention was largely too little too late.
This is particularly evident when one compares the suggested surge benefits Kilcullen furnishes to the overall carnage of the 2006-2007 civil war, which sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 to 2 million packing, many of whom now reside on the outskirts of Amman and Damascus (the human angle documented especially well by Deborah Amos) and likely killed northward of 50,000 Iraqis. Moreover, assuming that all motivations for hostilities had not yet been satisfied, the surge may only have delayed rather than prevented some of the added ethno-sectarian cleansing.
Kilcullen omits any mention of the refugee and repatriation crisis in his analysis - to date unresolved and the focus of exceedingly little attention in Baghdad or Washington. He also neglects to mention the August 2007 unilateral ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr and the admittedly incomplete compliance of his Mahdi Army.
Kilcullen overstates the impact of US military operations, and understates the process and culmination of the ethno-sectarian cleansing of Baghdad in bringing down the violence. The troop surge and change in tactics, then, can on balance be described as a lukewarm success - they saved some lives, albeit on the tardy side, but did not make a strategic difference.
Kilcullen also gives significant credit to the reduction in violence to the Sunni awakening movement - armed tribal outfits that turned against their guests, instigators-in-chief, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). The key question is: Why did they flip?
My disagreement here is not with Kilcullen, but with pundits who have focused almost exclusively on promulgating only half of his explanation, coincidentally, the rosier half.
Kilcullen argues that the Sunni sheiks and tribes outside Baghdad turned against AQI because of ideological rifts that they probably knew of in advance, specifically, the marrying of indigenous women. But inside Baghdad, as Kilcullen writes, the Sunnis’ volte-face, where the development would have had the greatest impact on the level of violence in the country, was driven by desperation, a realization that permanent subjugation at best and annihilation at worst had come to define their range of options for the future. Izady’s maps leave little room for doubt.
In Kilcullen’s words: "Clearly, in Baghdad the revolt was not exactly tribal, but was based on informal district power structures that evolved through the intense period of sectarian cleansing that so damaged the city and its population in 2006.”
"By the end of 2006, therefore, the Sunni community had been driven into a corner, had closed ranks against outsiders, and believed that only AQI and the other takfiri extremist groups stood between it and oblivion at the hands of the Shi'a-dominated government."
"[…] AQI's "pitch" to the Sunni community in 2004-2005 was based on the argument that only AQ stood between the Sunnis and a Shi'a-led genocide."
If Kilcullen’s last two quotes are accurate, and the Sunni tribes originally welcomed AQI on that basis, then logically it follows that once AQI failed to live up to their pitch - the Sunnis were losing the civil war badly and AQI only exacerbated the situation - the Sunni tribes started looking for alternatives. The US was the obvious candidate for savior of last resort.
Incidentally, recent reports from NPR and IWPR suggest that the Iraqi government has not been properly paying members of the Sunni awakening for some time now. The groups have not, however, mustered the courage to fight anew. Most of the violence since the March 2010 election has been attributed to remnants of AQI, and it is the Sunni community in Iraq that has voiced among the loudest concerns about a US troop withdrawal.
The Sunni awakening then adds up to a morbid, timely bit of luck that pundits, particularly in the US, have time and again mischaracterized in their descriptions to the general public.
Lastly, the strategic aim of the surge, to give Iraqis (as former president George W Bush put it) the “breathing room” to achieve national reconciliation, has failed outright. At the national level, the ongoing electoral imbroglio exemplifies this. Izady’s maps suggest that the grassroots level has equally seen little improvement.
Kilcullen is sober in his outlook. “Even with the success of the 2007 Surge and the associated political progress in Iraq, these are currently not in balance, due in part to the sectarian bias of certain players and institutions of the new Iraqi state, a bias that continues to promote Sunnis’ belief that they will be permanent victims in the new Iraq.”
In conclusion, the military component of the US surge facilitated but was not the primary driver of the decreasing violence in Iraq from early to mid-2007. Two dynamics on the ground - the process and culmination of the ethno-sectarian cleansing of Baghdad, and the associated U-turn of the former Sunni insurgency - played more prominent roles.
The Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq is largely settled and has been for several years now. As such, the country is more or less stable even without an elected government in place.
In fact, every day an elected government stays at bay is another day Nouri al-Maliki rules and another day he can make progress in building the central government’s new patronage network and security sector with the backing of the remaining 50,000 US troops in the country.
A return to the butchery of 2006-2007, however, can on the basis of the available empirical evidence, be excluded for now.
By. Claudio Guler