360° Analysis

Iraqi Terrorism and the Surge’s Failures


July 03, 2012 18:25 EDT
The Iraq troop surge in 2007 should not be considered a success, argues Bilal Ahmed. Although it led to a superficial decrease in violence, it did not resolve the main grievances that continue to cause terrorism in Iraq.

George Bush announced the Iraq troop surge in January 2007. The strategy itself was highly controversial and involved the deployment of 20,000 American soldiers into Baghdad and the Anbar province. Bush was faced with significant political pressure and sought to quell violence in Iraq to make future withdrawal possible. Initial skepticism faded by 2007 when violence dropped dramatically in Iraq, leading to the conflict quickly fading from American consciousness. Although President Barack Obama delivered on an electoral pledge to withdraw all American forces from the country, Iraq was not discussed in the 2008 presidential elections. This is mainly a result of the surge, which has been widely recognized in American media and academic circles as a success. However, the reality is more sinister, and terrorism in Iraq is far from over.

The trouble is that the word "terrorist" is itself a misnomer. Terrorism as a body of warfare implies that those who perpetuate it are external actors operating within a geographic space that is alien to them. Therefore, if the violent agitators are suspended from the given population, expelling them is simply a matter of applying enough force. However, there are deep flaws in the American-constructed Iraqi state and its relationships with the wider region that continue to fuel bloody terrorist attacks in the country.

Nation Building

During the march on Baghdad, American media outlets reported widely on the glowing reception that the coalition (essentially the US, UK and several minor states including Romania) found in southern Iraq. The violence that ensued later was jarring as a result, with many experts clamoring for an explanation. The Bush Administration's official explanation shifted dramatically over the years. It varied from Donald Rumsfeld denying that looting was widespread days after the fall of Baghdad, to the current argument, furthered by Bush in his memoir Decision Points, that blame rests mainly on failures in civil administration after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The past several years have been filled with attempts by Bush Administration officials to blame each other for what occurred in Iraq, with structural problems in the Iraqi state being ignored. Shi’a political parties, notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, quickly dominated the initial election and constitution. This caused dramatic increases in sectarian violence almost immediately, as many Sunni-identified groups felt completely marginalized by the new Iraqi state that to them seemed decidedly Shi'a. It was especially alienating for richer Sunni Iraqis who were predominantly involved in Saddam's Ba'ath Party, and thus became accustomed to political overrepresentation rather than underrepresentation. The sudden destruction of this privilege, mixed with existing bitterness against the US, led to the formation of violent resistance groups. Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer made this situation considerably worse when he began his policy of de-Ba'athification. This drove even more Sunni Iraqi's into a state of desperation, especially since many only joined the Ba'ath Party in order to facilitate career advancement or to avoid harassment from Saddam's security apparatus.

These groups began existing in a mix with other militarized groups. The looting that ensued after the fall of Baghdad, and the damage it caused for the reputation of coalition forces, quickly led to organized criminal groups. Poverty-stricken areas, including Shi'a-majority districts that were themselves excluded from nation-building efforts, began finding security and stability in local militant leaders. The most obvious example is Muqtada al-Sadr's "Sadr City," which at its height occupied a public housing project neglected by both Saddam and the American-backed al-Maliki government, and was comprised of three million impoverished Shi'a Iraqis. The wider Sadrist Movement bases much of its success on the bitterness of Iraq's Shi'a poor, many of whom were negatively affected by the United Nations sanctions campaign on Iraq in the 1990s.

Iraq's Sunni poor were also economically ravaged partially as a result of the sanctions, and by the neoconservative economic outlook of the new Iraqi state that did not immediately benefit them with such things as a social welfare state. This branch of violence is therefore more explained by economic marginalization than sectarian divides, especially after Bremer made the colossal mistake of issuing Order Number 2 on May 23, 2003. This disbanded the Iraqi military and put 400,000 former soldiers out of work. Economic distress does not itself lead to violence, but it pressed many Iraqis into direct action against an increasingly distant democratic state, especially since political activism in the region was revitalized by the Second Intifada. The successes of violent groups led to these strategies being embraced.

The Bush Administration's inability to engage the Middle East more broadly during nation-building efforts, created a dynamic where Iraq became a staging ground for regional interests. Iraq could not exist as a sustainable democratic entity without some relational support from its neighbors. American allies such as Jordan were even skeptical of the neoconservative mission there. As a result, the new Iraq became vulnerable to external involvement from the region as well. These matters were made especially worse by Iraq's Kurdish minority being empowered by its autonomy within Iraq, which has led Turkey to take action as a result of its own tensions with Kurdish nationalist groups.

However, these realities have been ignored. Rather, American narratives that support the surge heavily imply that the occupation could have worked seamlessly in Iraq, had minor military changes been implemented such as deploying more troops initially. Ultimately, this contemporary American form of thinking is linked to fantasies from the Vietnam era and "terrorists" in South Vietnam.

A Better War

There has been a great deal of national confusion regarding the American memory of Vietnam since its reunification in 1975. Among the most significant books on the matter is Lewis Sorley's 1999 book, A Better War, which was immediately influential and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Sorley describes the Vietnam War as a loss because of American reluctance to engage with enough violence in the country.

A Better Waris crucial for understanding the logic that was behind the 2007 Iraq troop surge. The Wall Street Journal reported it as being read at the highest levels of the American government and military while the plan was being formulated. The argument it posits is certainly comforting for men and women who devote their lives to American military institutions; the US military is in the right for attempting to use overwhelming force to stabilize foreign locales. The chaos of Vietnam could have been tamed into order had Americans not lost the strength of will. Therefore, Iraqi chaos could be subdued by violence to bring order.

This line of thinking directly led to the Iraq troop surge and the 2009 Afghan troop surge after it. Sorley's narrative, however, ignored crucial realities about the Vietnam War and the nature of the Vietnamese guerrilla resistance. Instead, it structured the war as a classical military matter to be fought on the battlefield exclusively, and the surge was fought through this ideology.

Violence may have declined after the surge, but this has not pointed to long-term Iraqi stability. The core grievances between individual Iraqis, foreign actors, and al-Maliki's increasingly dictatorial state were not addressed. It did not allow for Iraqi security beyond the December 31, 2011 withdrawal date. Events in Iraq since then are extremely ominous as a result.

Order Reigns in Baghdad

The decrease in violence after the surge allowed for the Obama Administration to withdraw troops from Iraq, officially ending in December, when remaining advisers were re-assigned to the new US embassy in Baghdad. The relative order in Iraq after the surge, allowed for the occupation to end promptly.

However, the troop surge's success was based on a flawed perspective of the country. Rather than crushing the terrorist presence and strengthening the central government, the troop surge came at a time when Shi'a ethnic cleansing of mixed Shi'a-Sunni areas was almost complete. The result was that the groups could no longer attack each other through the American buffer. Sectarianism was never resolved through a substantial peace process, and problems of political and economic marginalization were never resolved during the surge. Terrorism has therefore resurfaced from the preserved frustration, which has led to an increase in violence since January.

The 2007 Iraq troop surge also increased the reliance of al-Maliki's government on foreign military support. The current Iraqi government mainly has legitimacy in Kurdish territories and influential Shi'a areas, and has proven unable to rally half-trained Iraqi security forces against the remaining violent factions. During the surge, American soldiers were called upon extensively, which has meant that their absence has left Iraqi security forces overwhelmed and unable to disrupt reforming terrorist networks in the country. It is likely that terrorism will increase in Iraq over the coming months, particularly as al-Maliki becomes increasingly autocratic.

The inevitable result of this instability will be some sort of authoritarianism. Although Iraqis still favor democratic rule, many have become exhausted with the violence that continues to plague the country. They will therefore begrudgingly swear allegiance to a ruler who is best able to crush the violence and expel foreign actors from the country. Trends in Iraqi history point to this being a strongman, who will likely begin to face his own problems from groups who launch terrorist attacks after the end of democratic rule in Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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