Seven Questions: Is the Surge Working in Iraq?

Toby Dodge, one of the world’s foremost experts on modern-day Iraq, has been visiting the country regularly since 2003. FP recently sat down with a deeply pessimistic Dodge to get his take on U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the surge, and the Biden-Gelb plan for partitioning Iraq.

Davids Army: Can former insurgents stabilize Iraq?

FOREIGN POLICY: What did you think of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crockers recent testimony before Congress? Is the so-called surge working?

Toby Dodge: General Petraeus had some undoubted successes to sell. There has been a ferocious debate about the metricscertainly August is an odd month because of the intensity of the heat, so conflict tends to drop off a bit. However, I think violence has undoubtedly dropped off compared to 2006. Iraq, especially Baghdad, was in the midst of a civil war in 2006. In 2007, the surge has stopped or put a pause on that civil war. In terms of violence, thats a success story, although the violence in 2007 is also higher than it was in 2004 and 2005.

The problem with Ambassador Crocker is that he didnt have much to give. Crocker was doing the best he could without having much to work with.

FP: Some Iraq observers argue that the surge is essentially a fortunate coincidence: that it has coincided with a dampening of violence simply because some neighborhoods have been cleared of different sects. Would you dismiss that view?

TD: I wouldnt dismiss it, but I wouldnt say it is the major explanation. Up through February when the surge started, there was a very powerful, coordinated attempt to cleanse Baghdad of its Sunnis. As that was happening, government services in the western neighborhoods [of Baghdad] stopped. For example, there is no bank between Yamuk and Fallujah.

What the surge has done is bring down suicide bombings and constrain the effects of the religious cleansing that was driving out the Sunnis. If you drove through western neighborhoods in Baghdad like Mansur at the beginning of the surge, youd find empty districts. If you move through them today, you find communities that have been rejuvenated. The markets are open, the shops are open, and people are there. The argument is, though, to what extent is that sustainable?

FP: Petraeus argues that keeping these communities apart is going to lead to broader political reconciliation on a national level. But do those ideas connectseparation followed by broader political agreement on an oil law and federalism?

TD: Its a very fair question. Petraeus has repeatedly said that there is no military solution. But by deploying the American military, he is disincentivizing violence. And to be frank, Moqtada al-Sadr has been offered a choice: Do you use your militia to kill Sunnis, in which case the full force of the American military will be deployed against you, or do you come into the political process on your platform of Iraqi nationalism and play politics?

FP: Unless it can actually get into neighborhoods and provide necessary services, is there a future for the Iraqi government?

TD: I dont think so. The fundamental cause of all these problems is the collapse of the Iraqi state. I was living in Baghdad in April 2003, and it was amazing to watch the institutions of the state disappear. You would see men running out [of buildings] with computers, then desks and chairs, then the plumbing and electrical wiring out of the walls. The state was dissembled, taken away, and put in peoples houses. And what the looters didnt do, [Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul] Bremers de-Baathification did. It broke the institutional memory of the state.

On that basis, we dont have a failing state or a collapsed statewe simply dont have a state. If you stand in the Green Zone and look over the blast walls, the state doesnt go much beyond that. The Iraqi states ability to deliver public goods to the population is crucial for drawing that population back into the state. If you look at the recent BBC/ABC poll, all the indicatorson jobs, water, and electricityare down from presurge levels. There is a militant pessimism. First and foremost, the state needs to be rebuilt. And that is an international problem and it needs an international solution.

FP: What about Anbar province? Is the strategy of empowering groups like the Anbar Salvation Council working?

TD: The first thing to keep in mind is that the Anbar Awakening was a purely indigenous event that happened before the surge started. A series of Anbaris collectively and diffusely revolted against the heavy hand of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was enforcing a very vicious, austere form of Islamism. And so they kicked back. The American Army, quite rightly, encouraged that, and pushed it forward.

But you run the danger of empowering social forces that could clearly be one-sided in a civil war. You lessen the danger of that by integrating these people into the police force and the Army. There has been an upsurge in applications of Anbaris to go to the police force and the Army. We need to take that manpower and integrate it into state institutions. The great problem there, which needs to be overseen, is whether the government allows these people to join and be paid by the central government.

FP: When people argue against an immediate U.S. withdrawal or troop drawdown, they cite the likelihood of an imminent genocide. Is that scenario realistic? Would a major troop withdrawal in 2008, as some in Washington are urging, lead to the continuation of civil war?

TD: Undoubtedly. Today, we have a very youthful surge, a collapsed state, and a traumatic civil war. If we pull troops out soon, Iraq will descend into a fully fledged civil war with heavy weapons, and the region will be dragged into containing that civil war within Iraqs boundaries by picking sides and financing them. That looks to me like a vicious civil war in the heart of one of the most sensitive geopolitical areas in the world.

FP: What do you feel is the most misleading or troubling aspect of the Iraq debate in Washington?

TD: Thats an easy one. For the last four years, Iraq has been a huge problem in Washington. People are struggling to explain failure, to apportion blame, and to try to develop a policy that gets them out of the country. The most damaging outcome would be along the lines of the proposals that recommend partition, like the Gelb-Biden plan. I think those fundamentally misunderstand Iraq.

If you look at the three communities that are allegedly going to be partitioned, go down to the supposed Shiistan in the south. What we have in the south is a low-level civil war between the two main Shiite parties led by members of the Badr Brigade and al-Sadr. So, are we going to partition the south into a Badristan and a Sadristan? When we come up to supposed Sunnistan, we have a fight between al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely indigenous organization with foreign leadership, and the so-called sheikhs of Anbar that is an intra-Sunni fight. Then we have Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a vicious civil war in the 1990s, where the KDP actually asked Saddam Husseins Republican Guard to come in and help them. The idea that we have three neat communities is sociologically and politically illiterate. It has deliberately ignored the sociological complexities of Iraq in order to get a neat policy prescription that allows America to get out of Iraq. That is dangerous and reckless, and it isnt the solution.

Toby Dodge is consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and author of Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

For other timely interviews with leading world figures and expert analysts, visit FP’s complete Seven Questions Archive.

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