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A verdict on the “surge”


Was the decline in American casualties since the second half of 2007 due to the Bush administration's 30,000-soldier “surge” in Iraq in January 2007? The answer is no. There are more important factors than 30,000 soldiers that brought about the reduction in casualties. The timing of events, however, made it convenient to credit the "surge" with the success.


What Might Explain the Reduction in American Casualties Since the Second Half of 2007?

The violence in Iraq against American forces did not diminish as a result of adding 30,000 soldiers to the battle field. The "surge" added a mere 5% to an already significant security force numbering 600,000 soldiers before the "surge": American and allied troops (180,000), Iraqi army and police (320,000), and security contractors (100,000).

Three factors may explain how the improvement was achieved.

The first factor is Tehran’s interest in calming matters in Iraq during the remaining few month of the Bush administration’s term in office. In October 2007, US military officials began noticing a decrease in the supply of Iranian weapons and assistance. Spokesman Col. Steven Boylan said General Petraeus observes that Iran is following through on promises it made to Iraqi and US officials last fall not to provide aid to extremists in Iraq, adding, “We are ready to confirm the excellence of the senior Iranian leadership in their pledge to stop the funding, training, equipment and resourcing of the militia special groups.” In a related development, on August 29, 2007, Muqtada Al-Sadr suddenly ordered his Mahdi Army militia to suspend all acts of violence for six months. On February 23, 2008, Sadr extended the cease-fire for six additional months. On August 8, 2008, Sadr announced that his militias would disarm if the US set and followed a timetable for withdrawing its troops from Iraq. 

The second factor was in November 2007. A report by the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the body that reflects the consensus view of all sixteen US intelligence agencies, stated with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it. Curiously, the conclusion reversed the findings of a similar NIE report in 2005.

The third factor is American success in arming and funding the Sunni tribes in the Anbar Province to fight al-Qaeda instead of shooting at US forces. Named Awakening Forces, these have grown quickly during 2007 to about 100,000 men. There is little doubt that the “Awakening” project was made possible through the cooperation of neighboring  Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iran. 


How to Read these Developments

On the short-term, Washington is happy; the number of US casualties has dropped significantly. Tehran is happy; the threat of a Bush administration attack against its nuclear facilities has receded. Tehran is also happy because a drop in the level of violence in Iraq would make it difficult for Washington to stay in Iraq under the pretext of keeping order in the street. Indeed, the prospects of an Obama administration arriving at the While House in January 2009, with the possibility of withdrawing American forces altogether within 2-3 years, must have tantalized Tehran's ayatollahs into doing whatever they could to facilitate the departure of American forces. Iraq’s Arab Sunnis are optimistic; hoping that in return for “Awakening,” Washington would force the Baghdad government to amend the federalist provisions in Iraq’s constitution. 


On the other hand, the al-Maliki government, however, is uneasy about the growth in “Awakening” strength. The US/Sunni accommodation means US pressure on Iraq’s Shiite government to give the Sunnis concessions. Iraq’s defense minister stated on December 22, 2007: “Iraq will not allow US-backed neighborhood patrols to become a ‘third force’ alongside police and the army.” Violent clashes between government forces and “Awakening” units in certain areas have occurred. On August 21, 2008, the New York Times reported that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members and that a leading Shiite member of Parliament, Jalaladeen Sagheer, said: "The state cannot accept the Awakening … Their days are numbered."

The long-term prospects for a durable reduction in violence, however, are dim. Tehran and Washington are in conflict over who will ultimately control GCC oil politics. Washington is 10,000 kilometers away. It relies on military bases to control the oil fields and protect the hapless corrupt Arab tribal sheikhs, emirs, kings, and sultans. Iran, being next door, will want to limit America’s influence in the region, starting with the removal of US forces from Iraq.


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