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Security Gains From ‘Surge’ Backsliding

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

It was the crescendo of an otherwise flat State of the Union address. "Ladies and Gentlemen," President George W. Bush declared Monday night, "some may deny the surge is working, but among terrorists there is no doubt." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), The Hill reported, rose in applause.

Bush’s speech was one of the more restrained descriptions of the surge — last year’s decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq. In recent weeks, politicians and commentators have moved beyond saying the surge is working to the blunter declaration that the surge "worked," full-stop. Bill Kristol, declaring Gen. David Petraeus his Man of the Year, wrote in a Weekly Standard editorial, "We are now winning the war. " In his New York Times column, Kristol challenged the Democratic candidates to "say the surge worked." On Jan. 10, the first anniversary of the surge, the GOP presidential front-runner, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed headlined, flatly, "The Surge Worked."

It used to be that surge enthusiasts would at least hint at the unachieved strategic objective of the surge. As Bush himself put it, the surge was meant to provide the Iraqi government "the breathing space it needs to make progress" on sectarian reconciliation. But reconciliation hasn’t happened, and, in important respects, sectarianism has deepened over the past year. So surgeniks are now simply declaring victory by the sheer fact of reduced violence itself, unmoored to any strategic goal.

But even accepting that lowered standard, there are growing signs of backsliding in Iraq — even before the surge brigades depart in July.

The Sunni insurgency, all but decimated in the imagination of the surge advocates, has demonstrated something of a surge of its own in recent weeks. Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces, the hotbeds of the insurgency, have seen a return of high-profile suicide bombing. Prominent collaborators with the U.S., like the so-called "Concerned Local Citizens" militias, have been targeted for death by insurgents and terrorists. "Of late, though, as you’ve been seeing, is certainly an increase in the number of suicide events that occur with individuals, mostly with a suicide vest wrapped around their waist," Adm. Greg Smith, a spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said in a blogger conference call last week.

Iraq security statistics over the past 13 weeks, obtained exclusively by The Washington Independent, tell the tale. In Baghdad, improvised-explosive device (IED) detonations explosions in Baghdad have ticked up slightly to 131 in January from 129 in December — and the last week of January is not included in these latest figures. Countrywide, there was an increase in IED explosions to 2,291 in December from 1,394 in November, followed by a dip to 1,270 in the first three weeks of January. But the week ending on January 25 saw seven suicide explosions Iraq-wide, the most since the week ending Dec. 21, 2007.

It is too early to conclude that the security gains of the surge are unwinding. But they’re being put under stress in a manner not seen since the so-called "Surge of Operations" began in mid-June. Some speculate that the insurgency, knocked on its heels by the changing tactics of U.S. forces in mid-2007, is beginning to adjust, a few months before the surge draws to a close. "I think there’s some credibility to that argument," said Brian Katulis, a national-security expert at the liberal Center for American Progress. "It all begs the question of what’s the grand endgame."

Colin Kahl, a counterinsurgency expert at the more hawkish Center for a New American Security, said something similar. "The violence came down for four reasons," Kahl said, "what we’re doing, the decision the Sunni combatants made to turn against al-Qaeda, Moqtada Sadr’s ceasefire and the prior ethnic cleansing of 2006 and early 2007. All those things could unwind. We’re unsurging. The talk is that for the next couple of months, if the Maliki government doesn’t do enough to appease the Sunni groups [that have turned against al-Qaeda] and incorporate them into the Iraqi security forces, they could go game-on again," meaning they could resume attacks on U.S. troops. Kahl continued, "This kind of — pick your metaphor — ticking clock, or closing window, gives a reason to believe that if there isn’t a series of political compromises by when the surge brigades leave we’ll be in real trouble."

In that case, bet on "real trouble." Political reconciliation — again, the entire rationale for the surge — has rarely looked like a more distant goal. De-Baathification, which became a vehicle for ousting Sunnis from government jobs, was supposed to be scaled back this year. Instead, the parliament passed a law that doesn’t allow for Sunnis to reclaim their old positions. One Sunni legislator called it "a sword on the neck of the people."

In addition, a new violent front threatens to open by June 1. By that date, the citizens of Kirkuk and other northern Iraqi cities will vote in a referendum on whether they are to be governed by Baghdad or by the Kurdish regional authority. The Kurds have spent four years preparing to win that vote. At a bare minimum, the loss of a city accounting for approximately half of Iraq’s total oil exports will strain reconciliation efforts. "Look at the rising violence there now" nearby Mosul, said Katulis. "Now there’s more Iraqi Army troops going up there, but it doesn’t sound like we’re sending more of our troops."

That provides a prospective template for how the U.S. military will combat rising violence after the surge ends. Mosul is the capital of Ninewa province, which is, according to the latest Pentagon quarterly Iraq report, "one of the few provinces that continues to see attacks above 2006 levels." In response to a massive suicide bombing in the city that killed nearly 40 people last week, the Iraqi Army — and not U.S. forces — deployed to pacify Mosul.

This pattern will largely be in place as the surge forces depart. U.S. forces will entrench themselves in and around Baghdad, Kahl predicts. "I think we’ll take units from beyond Baghdad and draw in," he said. "Baghdad is the center of political life in Iraq, and if Baghdad is incredibly violent, then prospect of Green Zone politicians moving on political compromises is very low. So you want to keep Baghdad quiet, even if the hinterland is violent."

But even if the violence surges, it’s unlikely to make a dent in public opinion. The American public is exhausted by the war. In the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, 63 percent said the U.S. should withdraw within a year. A major Democratic-aligned polling outfit, which did not want to be identified, recently conducted a series of focus groups on Iraq — the results of which will be released in the coming weeks — and found that over the past year, anger has given way to disgust and demoralization. These focus groups, according to an employee of the firm who requested anonymity, found that respondents acknowledged the gains of the surge, but feel the goals of the war are simply unachievable.

Perhaps that’s why, when Hillary Clinton applauded Bush’s talk of the surge’s success, her rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), remained in his chair.

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