Yet by the summer of 2007, it was hard to deny that something was happening. Civilian casualties were way down. The Shiite militias had retreated. More and more Sunni militias were cooperating with the same American troops that they’d been trying to kill just a few weeks earlier. And the Iraqi military was gaining in strength and competence.
Much of this stemmed from developments that had little to do with American policies or actions. Many Sunni leaders—beginning in Anbar province, which had been one of Iraq’s most violent sectors—suddenly realized that the foreign jihadists, with whom they’d struck an alliance, formed a bigger threat than the American occupiers, and so they turned to the U.S. troops for help. Around the same time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki realized that Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shia militia, with which he’d struck an alliance, was more a threat to his regime than a bulwark, and so he grew gradually less resistant to letting U.S. troops move in and crush them—which spurred Sadr to declare a cease-fire.
Still, it took the presence of Petraeus and his strategy to exploit the “Anbar Awakening” and to coax Sunni leaders throughout Iraq to follow its example. And it took the surge of additional troops to help the co-opted Sunnis secure and hold the territories that they’d wrested back from the jihadists. What resulted was not the whack-a-mole of securing one province, then leaving to secure another, but rather the more enduring measure of holding several provinces all at once.
Petraeus said many times that the point of the surge (by which he meant the surge of troops and ideas) was to give Iraq’s political factions a zone of security—some “breathing space”—so they could focus in peace on hammering out their differences and creating a cohesive, legitimate government.
The American troops fulfilled their part in this bargain, more so than anyone had envisioned. The problem today is the Iraqis. They didn’t take advantage of the breathing space. The main issues that divided the parties (which is to say, the sectarian factions) five years ago continue to divide them today.
There is still no firm agreement on sharing oil wealth. The Kurds and Sunni Arabs still squabble over property rights in Kirkuk. Maliki himself has obstructed efforts to incorporate the Sunni Awakening’s soldiers into the national Iraqi army.
The good news—and this is due, in no small measure, to Bush’s decisions at the end of 2006, as well as the way the Obama administration has managed the transition since 2009—is that there is a functioning Iraqi government. The means and institutions do exist for resolving these problems mainly through politics.
However, the troubling fact is that these differences among the factions are no small matters. They reflect central issues of power, wealth and identity. Failure to resolve the disputes in the halls of politics may spur the most militant constituents—of whom there are many—to revive their armed struggles in the streets.
Whether we “won” the war in Iraq remains an unsettled question. It hinges, at this point, on which way the Iraqis turn.