Robert F. Seibert

Publicuss:  the surge in serge


Can’t get the fuzz off your blue serge suit?  The answer:  buy a lint suit that attracts blue serge.  With apologies to the suit-wearing community, this old chestnut sounds a lot like the claims for the surge in Iraq – the one that is so successful that we dare not reduce our troops or consider leaving.


We have a word for victory like this:  Pyrrhic, self-defeating.  In other words, to save the village we had to destroy it.


Claims that the surge was successful and that victory is at hand are ubiquitous and largely unchallenged. But a closer examination raises serious questions about both the very success of the surge and the long-term prospects for our interests in Iraq.  Here following are a few facts about the surge that should be considered in our public discourse.


The purpose of the surge was at least two-fold, possibly more-fold.  First, to reduce the level of violence in Baghdad, which had become nearly endemic; and two, to provide the opportunity for the new Iraqi government to achieve a level of reconciliation with its own opposition.  The result would be an Iraqi government capable of standing on its own two feet and dismissing our intervention.


We must concede that violence has receded in Iraq, particularly in the Baghdad and Basra regions.  At least as measured by the number of U.S. casualties.  The more relevant question is why?  And at least part of the reason is the decision taken by Shi’a militia leaders before the surge to rein in their forces and avoid direct conflict with the government and U.S. troops.  The Iraqi government in turn has incorporated many of the leaders and soldiers of those militias into the Iraqi army, turning that institution into a rudimentary Shi’a army serving a primarily Shi’a government under P.M. Maliki. 


This government and its army certainly seek better relations with their larger neighbor, Iran.  Intergovernmental visits and conferences were and are commonplace over this past year or two.  And the Iraqi government has clearly and public ally called for the departure of American troops from Iraq, embracing implicitly the kind of timetable proposed by Barack Obama and other leaders – the very troops that President Bush and his generals are so loathe to withdraw after the “magnificent” successes of the surge.  Is the emergence of Iran as an ally and sponsor of Iraq evidence of a successful surge strategy?  Is the indefinite continuation of a U.S. military presence in Iraq indicative of success? You be the judge.


Another dimension of the both the surge and the success of internal Iraqi reconciliation is the role of the Sunni militias in this process.  This story is the contrary of the Shi’a militia story, with Sunni fighters willingly joining the U.S. in its police missions in Baghdad.  At this point in time it is clear that these groups of fighters are finding it difficult to establish themselves in the Iraqi military.  Their status is uncertain and their long-term loyalty unclear.  If in fact the Iraqi government and military become largely Shi’a in composition, the Sunni will find it uncomfortable, to say the least.  Will the Sunni Awakening result in pressures for separation rather than integration?  Will they willingly accept a third-class status in Iraq after the heady experience of “victory?”  Nobody knows the answers to this, which is one of the reasons the U.S. administration is reluctant to reduce our forces there.


Finally, there are decidedly non-military reasons for the decline in violence in Iraq.  First, the process of ethnic cleansing is largely over, the separation of Sunni and Shi’a communities nearly complete, the homogenization of Kurdistan largely accomplished.  A related effect is the stream of refugees out of Iraq, numbering in the millions, and including many of the professional and educated Iraqis.  Many of the doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats and scholars that made Iraq the most developed country in the Arab world, now ply their trades in Amman, Damascus, and Dubai.  Their absence constitutes a net loss overall for Iraqi society and the country’s ability to recover from the devastating physical and social effects of this war.


And then, of course there is Afghanistan.  Afghanistan, where violence is on the rise, U.S. and coalition deaths are rising, “collateral damage” is surging, and where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are resurgent.  The situation on the ground is deteriorating faster than the situation in Iraq is improving.  The result:  the U.S. has insufficient forces available to do both jobs at once: hold on to gains in Iraq and defend against our enemies in Afghanistan and (potentially) in Pakistan.  The situation in Pakistan is particularly distressing, due to the fact that Pakistan is armed with nuclear weapons and confronted with enmity on two fronts, east and west.


So…is the surge the unmitigated success that its supporters claim?  Or is it more of that “fog of war” that always seems to envelop our efforts in the region?


Our emperor now wears a suit of lies and failures, a diplomatic and foreign policy garment gathering international lint and shame.  Surely we can do better.