Poor Conditions

By Daniel Larison

The American Prospect has assembled a number of assessments of the reasons why violence in Iraq has declined relatively over the past year and a half.  Lost in the frequent back-and-forth over whether John McCain understands what the "surge" was or whether he knows when the Anbar Awakening happened (answers: apparently not and no) is the more basic point, made here by Matthew Duss, that the Anbar model has succeeded for the time being by pursuing the opposite of a sound counterinsurgency:

The "Anbar strategy" which is the center-piece of the surge violates a central tenet of counterinsurgency doctrine in that it does not redirect political authority toward the central government [bold mine-DL]. The deals that have been made are between Sunni tribal militias and U.S. forces, not the Iraqi government. There are still an estimated 90,000 Sunni militia members expecting government jobs, and little sign that the Shia-controlled Iraqi government intends to provide them. It's true that security is a prerequisite for state-building, but if that security only comes at the expense of the legitimacy of the state we're supposedly trying to build, then we have an entirely new problem on our hands.

This is one reason why the fabled "bottom-up" reconciliation--which was never a reconciliation at all, but a temporary alliance of convenience that avoided reconciling disaffected Sunnis to the Baghdad government--has never been a promising way to establish an enduring political settlement.  This is significant for a couple of reasons.  First, the "bottom-up" reconciliation became a standard line of war supporters when it became clear that reconciliation at the level of the national government was not forthcoming and was unlikely to be for a long time.  Focusing on this was, first and foremost, an attempt to change the subject and ignore that the political goals of the "surge" had always been unrealistic, which was what had informed the views of so many of the plan's opponents and which is the key reason why the "surge" on the administration's own terms has not succeeded.

Meanwhile, the horrific attacks in Baghdad and Kirkuk offer a reminder why so-called "conditions-based" withdrawals are forever subject to revision and why timetables that can be revised by such contingencies are meaningless.  Tying withdrawal to conditions in Iraq places U.S. policy at the mercy of the worst elements in Iraq, which gives these elements every incentive to persist in trying to sow discord and engage in spectacular acts of violence.  Besides being seized on by war supporters as evidence that Iraq is not yet stable enough to permit a U.S. withdrawal (after having cited these same sorts of attacks last year as proof that the "surge" was working and terrorist groups were becoming desperate), they expose the position of contingent withdrawal to one of the strongest criticisms against it, which is that it allows American policy to be dictated by whichever group wishes to foment chaos and disorder.  If the Iraq policy debate is "converging" towards a "conditions-based" withdrawal consensus, in the wake of these latest bombings this is the equivalent of saying that there is a consensus for remaining in Iraq more or less indefinitely.  Both candidates have committed the U.S. to ensure an elusive Iraqi stability that we have so far been able to advance only by undermining its long-term chances, which is to say that they have committed our forces to remain there for the foreseeable future.

Cross-posted at Eunomia