The dark side of Iraq's good news.

Military analysis.
Nov. 2 2007 6:46 PM

Raw Data

The dark side of Iraq's good news.

Iraqi workers clear rubble after a car bomb
Click image to expand.
Iraqi workers clear rubble after a car bomb

When Mark Twain lumped statistics together with lies and damned lies, he could have had Mesopotamia in mind. A new set of data from Iraq shows Iraqi civilian deaths on the decline, from 2,800 in January 2007 to about 800 last month. Other reports reveal that tens of thousands of Iraqis have joined local auxiliary forces to secure their neighborhoods and that U.S. forces continue to kill or capture many of the insurgency's top leaders. Violence is down sharply in most areas. In Baghdad, troops report weeks without a roadside bomb in neighborhoods that used to be hit every day; and in Anbar, things are so good the Marines held a 5K race on the streets of Ramadi two weeks ago.

Still, the truth behind these numbers is elusive. It's near impossible to discern whether they reflect the success of our military operations or some larger, deeper trends in Iraqi society, such as the success of the Shiite campaign to rid Baghdad of its Sunni residents. The situation does present a paradox, however. If the surge is the reason, as the generals claim, we're in trouble, because the surge is about to end. If Iraqi reconciliation and ethnic cleansing get primary credit, and the surge is mostly acting as a catalyst, our inevitable drawdown over the next six months to pre-surge levels may not be catastrophic, because the positive trends result more from Iraqi societal shifts and less from American soldiers brokering the peace. As commanders plan for the 2008 reduction in troops, they must try to reconcile these competing explanations and find a way to sustain the success when there are fewer—or no—American soldiers on the streets.

In a press conference Thursday, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno expressed cautious optimism about the trends, calling them "positive" but not "irreversible." He also took credit, saying the statistics "represen[t] the longest continuous decline in attacks on record and illustrat[e] how our operations have improved security since the surge was emplaced." Clearly, U.S. security operations are having an effect in Baghdad and beyond. Sectarian violence and insurgent activity in Baghdad has been tamped down by the aggressive U.S. strategy of basing troops in Iraqi neighborhoods and patrolling them on foot. Where we have sufficient troops to control the ground, the violence is down. That's no surprise.

But where we don't have sufficient troops, as in volatile Diyala province north and east of Baghdad, violence remains high. The large northern city of Kirkuk, a powder keg of Kurdish and Iraqi Arab residents, continues to see significant insurgent activity. Over the past few months, Tal Afar and Mosul have also seen spasms of deadly violence. As a general rule, where Sunnis, Shiites, or Kurds live in close proximity and we have too few American troops on the ground, violence persists.

In fact, American forces don't control very much in Iraq. Rather, we influence events there by our presence and activities, and we exploit opportunities where they arise. Though our commanders may take credit for the reductions in violence over the past few months, this recognition is misplaced. Our paltry force of 169,000 contributed to an improved security situation, and likely catalyzed the Iraqi security forces to restore order in parts of Baghdad, but our security measures pale in comparison to the decisions by tribal leaders in Anbar and by Muqtada Sadr's militias to abstain from violence. Similarly, all the Maliki government's entreaties and statements make for good press releases, but they, too, have little to do with reality in Baghdad or in Iraq's provinces, because the corrupt and overly sectarian central government is still incapable of actually governing the nation.

Political reconciliation efforts have produced qualified successes in Anbar, Baghdad, and Diyala. Our security work complemented these political deals by rewarding the sheiks who worked with us, inducing many to stop actively or passively supporting the insurgency. These deals represent the increasing pragmatism of Sunni leaders who realize that the Shiite state is a fait accompli, and they must therefore do what they can to reconcile with each other and with the Americans (who they call the "al-Ameriki tribe") in order to survive. Our field commanders recognized an opening and exploited it, but we should be careful about claiming credit, and we should not consider these arrangements to be permanent. Our newfound Sunni allies have a keen sense of self-interest, and they will return to open violence or recalcitrance when it suits them.

Iraqi troops have also contributed to the statistical improvements in Iraq, complementing the still-too-small U.S. presence. Thanks to an intense American advisory effort, the Iraqi army has become one of the most stable institutions in the country, providing a reasonable degree of security where it is deployed in force. However, it still cannot sustain itself logistically, nor can it plan and execute complex operations. The Iraqi police force remains a mess, unable to protect itself from insurgents, let alone enforce the law or protect the Iraqi population. Worse, some members and units of the police force reportedly continue to moonlight as sectarian death squads. American commanders have backed the establishment of local citizen militias to hedge their bets on the police, and these groups seem to be doing a good job as an armed neighborhood watch. But the militias also represent a future risk, particularly if sectarian violence escalates again and these armed, organized bands decide to join the fray.

However, the most persuasive explanation for the good news is that the Shiites have won the battle for Baghdad. Shiite militias and partisans have killed or expelled tens of thousands of Sunnis, changing the ethnographic map of the ancient city. The few Sunnis who remain in Baghdad do so under the protection of U.S. military forces, secured by a labyrinth of concrete blast walls, checkpoints, and security bases. Violence is down because the Shiites have fewer Sunnis to kill, and the Sunni insurgents now find it harder to move around in order to strike with suicide bombers, rockets, and roadside bombs.

It would be unseemly for Lt. Gen. Odierno to claim credit for ethnic cleansing, or to find a silver lining in the deaths of thousands of Sunnis, but this is the unavoidable, if unspoken, truth about the decline of violence in Baghdad. But on Thursday, Odierno didn't just talk around or downplay the truth, he flatly denied it, saying, "I've not seen any significant shifts [in the ethnic composition of Baghdad] that have changed it from January, when we got here, to now." His own troops patrolling the streets of Sunni neighborhoods in Western Baghdad say otherwise, as do a number of reporters who have tracked the ethnographic composition of the city since the surge began. Baghdad has Balkanized into armed camps, protected for the moment by a mix of American troops and local militias.

The central problem facing Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is what will happen when American troops draw down. It is impossible to know whether Iraq's partisans have fought themselves to a natural equilibrium or if they will renew their civil war once our surge ends in the spring. It's still relatively likely that Iraq's sectarian militias, tribes, and local auxiliary forces will take up arms against each other when they see our troop reductions begin. Our lack of meaningful progress at the national level in reforming the Maliki government has crippled our efforts to sustain all the successes at the grass-roots level. The risk now is that we will claim success too early, reduce our forces, watch violence increase, and lack the ability to do anything about it. Now is the time for patience, both in Baghdad and Washington.  Victory in counterinsurgency, if such a thing exists, takes months, even years, to achieve. The only thing certain about this week's good news is that it will take a lot of work to produce more of it.

Phillip Carter, an Iraq veteran and attorney, is a Slate contributor.