The former director of the CIA, Dr David Petraeus writes about the problems facing Iraq.
He opens “The resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq — which was on the ropes at the end of the surge in 2008 — has led to a substantial increase in ethno-sectarian terrorism in the Land of the Two Rivers. The civil war next door in Syria has complicated matters greatly, aiding the jihadists on both sides of the border and bringing greater Iranian involvement in Mesopotamia. And various actions by the Iraqi government have undermined the reconciliation initiatives of the surge that enabled the sense of Sunni Arab inclusion and contributed to the success of the venture. Moreover, those Iraqi government actions have also prompted prominent Sunnis to withdraw from the government and led the Sunni population to take to the streets in protest. As a result of all this, Iraqi politics are now mired in mistrust and dysfunction”.
He writes “by the end of the surge in 2008, a different future was possible. That still seemed to be the case in December 2011, when the final U.S. forces (other than a sizable security assistance element) departed; however, the different future was possible only if Iraqi political leaders capitalized on the opportunities that were present. Sadly, it appears that a number of those opportunities were squandered, as political infighting and ethno-sectarian actions reawakened the fears of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population and, until recently, also injected enormous difficulty into the relationship between the government in Baghdad and the leaders of the Kurdish Regional Government”.
He goes on to describe the 2007 surge in great detail, “The surge had many components. The most prominent, of course, was the deployment of the additional U.S. forces committed by President Bush — nearly 30,000 of them in the end. Without those forces, we never could have achieved progress as quickly as we did. And, given the necessity to make progress by the hearings anticipated in September 2007, improvements before then were critical. As important as the surge of forces was, however, the most important surge was what I termed “the surge of ideas” — the changes in our overall strategy and operational plans. The most significant of these was the shift from trying to hand off security tasks to Iraqi forces to focusing on the security of the Iraqi people. The biggest of the big ideas that guided the strategy during the surge was explicit recognition that the most important terrain in the campaign in Iraq was the human terrain — the people — and our most important mission was to improve their security”.
He adds crucailly that “The essence of the surge, in fact, was the pursuit of a comprehensive approach, a civil-military campaign that featured a number of important elements, the effects of each of which were expected to complement the effects of the others. The idea was that progress in one component of the strategy would make possible gains in other components. Each incremental step forward reinforced and gradually solidified overall progress in a particular geographic location or governmental sector”.
He goes on to mention that “Beyond securing the people by living with them, foremost among the elements of the new strategy was promoting reconciliation between disaffected Sunni Arabs and our forces — and then with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. I often noted at the time that we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that confronted us in Iraq”.
He goes on to describe how the Iraqi security forces was important and “The comprehensive strategy employed during the surge also had significant civilian components. Indeed, Ambassador Crocker and I worked hard to develop unity of effort in all that our respective organizations and coalition and Iraqi partners did. The campaign plan we developed in the spring of 2007, in fact, was a joint effort of my command, Multi-National Force-Iraq, and the U.S. embassy, with considerable input from coalition partners such as Britain”.
He ends the piece on how the “fix” the violence in Iraq now, “In many respects, Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006, complete with increasing numbers of horrific, indiscriminate attacks by Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate and its network of extremists. Add to that the ongoing sectarian civil war in Syria — which is, in many aspects, a regional conflict being fought there — and the situation in Iraq looks even more complicated than it was in 2006 and thus even more worrisome — especially given the absence American combat forces.
As Iraqi leaders consider the way forward, they would do well to remember what had to be done the last time the levels of violence escalated so terribly. If Iraqi leaders think back to that time, they will recall that the surge was not just more forces, though the additional forces were very important. What mattered most was the surge of ideas — concepts that embraced security of the people by “living with them,” initiatives to promote reconciliation with elements of the population that felt they had no incentive to support the new Iraq, ramping up of precise operations that targeted the key “irreconcilables,” the embrace of an enhanced comprehensive civil-military approach, increased attention to various aspects of the rule of law, improvements to infrastructure and basic services, and support for various political actions that helped bridge ethno-sectarian divides. The ideas that enabled progress during the surge are, in many respects, the very ideas that could help Iraq’s leaders reverse the tragic downward spiral that we have seen in recent months”.