Bush and his band of backers won’t admit that — but their strategy is already defined by the specter of American defeat.
By Peter Galbraith
July 18, 2007 | On May 30, the Coalition held a ceremony in the Kurdistan town of Erbil to mark its handover of security in Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces from the Coalition to the Iraqi government. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the U.S. commander for northern Iraq, praised the Iraqi government for overseeing all aspects of the handover. And he drew attention to the “benchmark” now achieved: With the handover, he said, Iraqis now controlled security in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
In fact, nothing was handed over. The only Coalition force in Kurdistan is the peshmerga, a disciplined army that fought alongside the Americans in the 2003 campaign to oust Saddam Hussein; it is loyal to the Kurdistan government in Erbil. The peshmerga provided security in the three Kurdish provinces before the handover and after. The Iraqi army has not been on Kurdistan’s territory since 1996 and is effectively prohibited from being there. Nor did the Iraqi flag fly at the ceremony. It is banned in Kurdistan.
Although the Erbil handover was a sham that Prince Potemkin might have admired, it was not easily arranged. The Bush administration had wanted the handover to take place before the U.S. congressional elections in November. But it also wanted an Iraqi flag flown at the ceremony and some acknowledgment that Iraq, not Kurdistan, was in charge. The Kurds were prepared to include a reference to Iraq in the ceremony, but they were adamant that there be no Iraqi flags. It took months to work out a compromise ceremony with no flags at all. Thus the ceremony was followed by a military parade without a single flag — an event so unusual that one observer thought it might merit mention in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security advisor, attended the ceremony alongside Kurdistan’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, but the Iraqi government had no part in supervising the nonexistent handover. While Mixon, a highly regarded strategist with excellent ties to the Kurds, had no choice but to make the remarks he did, al-Rubaie acknowledged Kurdistan’s distinct nature and the right of the Kurds — approximately 6 million people, or some 20 percent of Iraq’s population — to chart their own course.
On July 12, the White House released a congressionally mandated report on progress in Iraq. As with the sham handover, the report reflected the administration’s desperate search for indicators of progress since it began its “surge” by sending five additional combat brigades to the country in February 2007. In recent months the Bush administration and its advocates have been promoting the success of the surge in reducing sectarian killing in Baghdad and achieving a turnaround in Anbar province, where former Sunni insurgents are signing up with local militias to fight al-Qaida.
Although reliable statistics about Iraq are notoriously hard to come by, it does appear that the overall civilian death toll in Baghdad has declined from its pre-surge peak, although it is still at the extremely high levels of the summer of 2006. Moreover, the number of unidentified bodies — usually the victims of Shiite death squads — has risen in May and June to pre-surge levels. How much of the modest decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad is attributable to the surge is not knowable, nor is there any way to know if it will last.
The developments in Anbar are more significant. Tribesmen who had been attacking U.S. troops in support of the insurgency are now taking U.S. weapons to fight al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. Unfortunately, the Sunni fundamentalists are not the only enemy of these new U.S.-sponsored militias. The Sunni tribes also regard Iraq’s Shiite-led government as an enemy, and the United States appears now to be in the business of arming both the Sunni and Shiite factions in what has long since become a civil war.
Against the backdrop of modest progress, much has not changed, or has gotten worse. The Baghdad Green Zone is subject to increasingly accurate mortar attacks and is deemed at greater risk of penetration by suicide bombers. Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army was a major target of Bush’s surge strategy, remains one of Iraq’s most powerful political figures. The military activity against his forces seems only to have enhanced his standing with the public.
Even if the surge has had some modest military success, it has failed to accomplish its political objectives. The idea behind Bush’s new strategy was to increase temporarily the number of U.S. troops in Baghdad and Anbar. The aim was to provide breathing space so that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government might enact a program of national reconciliation that would accommodate enough Sunnis to isolate the insurgents. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces, improved by their close relations with U.S. troops and additional training, would take over security.
The core of the national reconciliation program is a series of legislative and political steps that the government should take to address the concerns of Iraq’s Sunnis, who feel left out of the country they dominated until 2003. These steps include enacting an oil-revenue-sharing law (to ensure that the oil-poor Sunni regions get their share of revenue); holding provincial elections (the Sunnis boycotted the January 2005 provincial and parliamentary elections, leaving them underrepresented even in Sunni-majority provinces); revising Iraq’s constitution (the Sunnis want a more centralized state); revising the ban on public-sector employment of former Baathists (Sunnis dominated the upper ranks of the Baath Party and of the Saddam-era public service); and providing for a fair distribution of reconstruction funds. Both the administration and Congress have placed great emphasis on the obligation of the Iraqi government to achieve these so-called benchmarks. Congress has, by law, linked U.S. strategy on Iraq and financial support of the Iraqi government to progress on these benchmarks and other steps.
Iraq’s government has not met one of the benchmarks, and, with the exception of the revenue-sharing law, most are unlikely to happen. But even if they were all enacted, it would not help. Provincial elections will make Iraq less governable, while the process of constitutional revision could break the country apart.