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Iraq beyond the Troop Surge: Fragile Security Gains, Tenuous Political Stability

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 24, 2008

    The military commander most associated with executing President George Bush’s ‘troop surge’ in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, handed over command of US forces to Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno on September 16, after completing nearly 18 months of duty at the helm. He had taken over from the then commander Gen. George Casey in early February 2007, at a time when rising American and Iraqi civilian casualties threatened to engulf the whole region with its attendant negative consequences. While American casualties crossed 3,000 in January 2007, nearly 14,000 Iraqi civilians and armed forces personnel lost their lives in the spiral of sectarian violence that gripped Iraq during 2006. George Bush announced an increase of troop levels to deal with the rising violence and to stabilise the situation in and around Baghdad, which accounted for over 80 per cent of the violent incidents. By June 2007, Bush’s ‘troop surge’ had added 30,000 troops to the 140,000 already present.

    Gen. Petraeus, along with US Ambassador in Baghdad Ryan C. Crocker, used the additional troops in a ‘clear’, ‘hold’, and ‘build’ strategy. The strategy envisioned flushing out the militants from their strongholds (clear) and preventing them from reclaiming their lost ground (hold). Coalition forces along with Iraqi authorities would then try to win the support of the local population (build) by improving the provision of basic services. Petraeus was a strong proponent of the ‘build’ component of the strategy. He was earlier intimately involved with the formulation of the US Army counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine of December 2006 as Commander of the US Army Combined Arms Centre. The manual notes that “a counterinsurgency campaign is …. a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. … Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors. … [and] must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law.”

    The initial phase of the surge saw greater numbers of casualties – American and civilian. The rising casualties were attributed to the fact that American forces were going out of their barracks in greater numbers than was the case previously and therefore more of them were being killed in security operations. The number of suicide attacks also went up considerably (58 in April 2007) from 26 in January of that year. The surge gradually began to take effect in Baghdad with a decline of nearly 40 per cent of civilian casualties by June 2007; July 2007 witnessed the lowest number of American deaths (80) since November 2006. Violence in areas surrounding Baghdad however increased with insurgents fleeing to these areas in order to escape the ‘heat’ in the capital.

    Despite the positive turn of events, the Bush administration faced rising domestic pressure to withdraw troops from Iraq. This was driven by the rise in American casualties in the initial aftermath of the surge, as well as by the lack of progress made by Iraq’s political class. President Bush, while announcing the surge, had cautioned that American commitment to Iraq was not “open-ended.” The Iraqis however found it difficult to go ahead with measures designed to heal their political differences, including on passing of laws relating to sharing of oil revenues, allowing former Ba’ath party members into their previous positions in the government, and reducing the levels of sectarian violence. The political problems impinged on the performance of the Iraqi security forces, with the Gen. (retd.) James Jones commission created by US Congress in its report released in September 2007 even charging the Shiite-dominated national police force of spreading sectarianism.

    Gen. Petraeus, in his testimony to Congress on September 11, 2007, cautioned that continued troop presence in Iraq would be unjustifiable without political progress. He also outlined the broad contours of a strategy which he termed “Security while Transitioning.” It envisioned taking appropriate measures to protect the population while quickly transferring security duties to the Iraqi forces, “without rushing to failure.” Following Petraeus’s testimony, President Bush announced the drawdown of over 5,000 troops by the end of 2007 (and of over 20,000 by July 2008), citing the ‘improved’ security situation.

    Speculation about the future US military presence in Iraq rose after Secretary of Defence Robert Gates told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 26, 2007 that he foresaw a “long-term presence” of about five combat brigades (20,000 troops). Iraqi Defence Minister Abdul Qadir also admitted in January 2008 that Iraqi forces might not be able to take over internal security duties till 2012 and also not be able to protect Iraq’s borders without help till at least 2018.

    The Bush administration signed the ‘Declaration of Principles’ with the Maliki government on November 26, 2007 to negotiate the contours of a future American military presence in Iraq. The US made a commitment in the declaration to defend Iraq’s “democratic system against internal and external threats,” among other provisions. Both sides have however found it difficult to come to a common understanding over the final text of the status of forces (SOFA) agreement, with the Iraqis expressing reservations about the kind of freedom that could be granted to US soldiers who would be stationed in the country, a well as the extent of their stay.

    Gen. Petraeus, who has now taken over as the commander-in-chief of the Florida-based US Centcom (Central Command), his successor Gen. Odierno as well as Defence Secretary Gates have stated that gains made due to the troop surge were still “fragile and reversible.” President Bush announced a further withdrawal of 8,000 troops in September 2008, effectively the last such decision of the administration on Iraq troop strength, thus passing on to the next administration the difficult task of sealing a deal with the Iraqi government over the issue. While the Republican nominee Sen. John McCain foresees a longer term presence of US troops, contingent on the security situation on the ground, Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama has vowed to bring back the troops within 16 months of taking over as President. Obama’s proposal has been widely welcomed by the Iraqis also, with Prime Minister al-Maliki calling it a “right time frame” and cautioned that “artificially extending the stay of the US troops would create problems.”

    Reports meanwhile have noted an overall improvement in the functioning of the Iraqi security forces. With the transfer of Anbar province in early September, Iraq has now security control over 11 of its 18 provinces. The troop surge has definitely resulted in a reduction of casualties and violent incidents, with the number of such incidents reducing to about 25 from as high as 180 in the pre-surge period. The improvement of the Iraqi security situation has also been made possible due to the ceasefires declared by al-Sadr as well as other militias, the positive influence of the Sunni Awakening Councils (the Sons of Iraq movement), and the crackdown on Shiite militias launched by the Maliki government in Basra and Sadr City. Further strengthening of these arrangements, including the gradual absorption of members of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ movement (nearly 100,000 of whom were on the payroll of the US authorities) into Iraqi security structures, as well as dealing with the issue of oil revenues, judicious resettlement of refugees, consensus over the status of Kirkuk, better policing of borders to stifle the flow of arms and ammunition, among other factors would determine if Iraq would not slide back into the spasm of violence and death that had gripped it in the past. A stabilised Iraq able to take care of its own security needs would also enable Washington to maintain a lighter footprint in the heart of the Middle East. A drastic military disengagement would however seem to be fraught with dangers, especially given the nascent nature of security and political changes in Iraq.