The Iraq "Surge"
[In an update for the forthcoming paperback edition of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar answered several further questions to bring their discussion and analysis up to date. Their responses were completed on March 24, 2008, shortly before the start of clashes between the Sadrists and U.S. and Iraqi government forces. This excerpt of one of Achcar's responses is reprinted with permission from Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, by Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), edited by Stephen R. Shalom. To order please go to www.paradigmpublishers.com or call (800) 887-1591.]
Q: The last few months have seen a downturn in U.S. military casualties in Iraq and -- it is claimed -- in Iraqi casualties as well. Does this mean that George Bush's "surge" is working, that the United States is finally winning?
Achcar: Well, the two questions are definitely not the same: The "surge" could be said to be working within certain limits and in ways that amount to playing with fire, as I shall explain; but it doesn't mean at all that the United States is winning the war, as George W. Bush boasted so imprudently, one more time, on the occasion of the invasion's fifth anniversary. This man is such a crank that he cannot learn any lesson from even the very near past: There he is, repeating "Mission Accomplished" with the same smile of satisfaction that adorns most of his speeches.
The "surge" was announced by George W. Bush in January 2007, as an attempt to get out of the dire straits into which his administration had steered the U.S. occupation of Iraq at that point. The year before had ended in catastrophe for the administration: The Republican party had lost both houses of Congress in the November 2006 elections, while the administration's Middle East policies were openly disavowed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, leading to the announcement of the resignation of the administration's most prominent hard-liner next to Vice-President Dick Cheney himself: former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The Iraq Study Group was formed in March 2006 and co-chaired by James Baker, a veteran of the Bush senior administration of 1989-1992, well-known for his close ties with the oil industry and with the Saudi ruling family, and Lee Hamilton, a man who calls for the United States to "better understand Saudi concerns," which he defines as follows: "The reality is that the Saudis see many things differently from the Bush administration. They don't want the Palestinians to descend into civil war, but they do see Hamas as a legitimate player in Palestinian politics. They don't want us to pull out of Iraq immediately, but they do want us to do more to protect Sunni Arabs from Shiite militias. They don't want a nuclear Iran next door, but they are open to engagement with Iran and groups like Hezbollah. The Saudis want to maintain close ties with the U.S. and certainly want our military presence to provide stability in the region, but they also appear to be looking for other ways to advance their interests." 
Baker and Hamilton's The Iraq Study Group Report, made public in December 2006, unmistakably addressed these Saudi concerns, much to the annoyance of the Bush administration. This is very clear even from the Executive Summary. "Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively. ... There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts. ... This commitment must include direct talks with, by, and between Israel, Lebanon, Palestinians (those who accept Israel's right to exist), and Syria."
As for Iraq proper, The Iraq Study Group Report made the following key recommendation: "It is clear that the Iraqi government will need assistance from the United States for some time to come, especially in carrying out security responsibilities. Yet the United States must make it clear to the Iraqi government that the United States could carry out its plans, including planned redeployments, even if the Iraqi government did not implement their planned changes. The United States must not make an open-ended commitment to keep large numbers of American troops deployed in Iraq. ... The United States should work closely with Iraq's leaders to support the achievement of specific objectives -- or milestones -- on national reconciliation, security, and governance. ... If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of [these milestones], the United States should reduce its political, military, or economic support for the Iraqi government." In other words, the report advocated that the U.S. government threaten to significantly reduce the number of its troops in Iraq in order to compel the Iraqi government to achieve steps on the path of national reconciliation -- an indirect vindication of the antiwar movement's long-standing claim that the best possible incentive for the Iraqis to reach a peaceful modus vivendi would be the short-term prospect of U.S. troop withdrawal. This was further acknowledged in Recommendation 34 of the report: "The question of the future U.S. force presence must be on the table for discussion as the national reconciliation dialogue takes place. Its inclusion will increase the likelihood of participation by insurgents and militia leaders, and thereby increase the possibilities for success."
By "national reconciliation" the report meant primarily U.S. and Iraqi governmental overtures to Iraq's Arab Sunnis in order to better fight the "insurgency" as well as to please the Saudis and other Arab allies of Washington. Acknowledging the fact that Washington's original Sunni allies were isolated -- "Sunni politicians within the government have a limited level of support and influence among their own population, and questionable influence over the insurgency" -- the report actually advocated collaboration with Arab Sunni tribes: "The Iraqi government and Sunni Arab tribes must aggressively pursue al Qaeda." It noted with satisfaction that "Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Anbar province recently took the positive step of agreeing to pursue al Qaeda and foreign fighters in their midst, and have started to take action on those commitments."
The key nonsecurity "milestone" was, of course, related to oil. Recommendation 62 insisted on the necessity of adopting "as soon as possible" an "oil law" in order to create "a fiscal and legal framework for investment. Legal clarity is essential to attract investment." The goal is naturally, according to Recommendation 63, to "encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies" and to "reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise." With regard to the security of oil transport too, venal tribes were regarded as a possible adjuvant to the existing combination of forces: "The U.S. military should work with the Iraqi military and with private security forces to protect oil infrastructure and contractors. Protective measures could include a program to improve pipeline security by paying local tribes solely on the basis of throughput (rather than fixed amounts)."
When it came to the actual military steps to be undertaken by the United States, the report's real inspiration was quite the opposite of withdrawal. Its authors considered the possibility of a "substantial increase" (100,000 or more) of U.S. troops in Iraq, but rejected it only because the "needed levels" are not available and because "adding more American troops could conceivably worsen those aspects of the security problem that are fed by the view that the U.S. presence is intended to be a long-term 'occupation.'" This latter observation is a further vindication of one of the antiwar movement's key claims: that the occupation itself is the main reason for the "insurgency." The report went on: "We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up the training and equipping mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective."
Thus not only the idea of the "surge," but the term itself, was present indeed in The Iraq Study Group Report -- a fact that has been completely overlooked among the plethora of comments describing the announcement by G. W. Bush of a "surge" of 30,000 troops in Iraq in January 2007 as signaling a blatant rejection of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. This oversight was actually, in most cases, the result of a wishful misreading of the report, as if it had been written by moderate peaceniks. The Bush administration did in fact adopt the main recommendations of The Iraq Study Group Report with regard to Iraq -- and had no serious other choice, since it was confronted with a bipartisan consensus against the backdrop of deteriorating conditions in Iraq and an electoral debacle domestically. It adopted the report up to the term "surge" itself and to the official title of Bush's new Iraqi strategy announced on January 10, 2007, "The New Way Forward" -- a direct echo of the title under which the recommendations were detailed in the report: "The Way Forward -- A New Approach."
The regional recommendations with regard to Iran and Syria were adopted most reluctantly as they were the most irreconcilable with the policy prevailing since the start of the "war on terror." The administration engaged nevertheless in negotiations with both Tehran and Damascus, although quite half-heartedly and unconvincingly, offering no real incentives to either regime for a change in its stance. Washington's attitude toward the two states remained on the whole a very thuggish one, based on threat and provocation. However, with regard to Iraq proper, the adoption of the report's key recommendations was much more resolute, and did translate into concrete steps on the ground.
The focus on "stabilizing Baghdad," where the bulk of "surge" troops was deployed, achieved noticeable results after a few months, with a significant ebb in the number of clashes and attacks in the capital. This outcome was greatly facilitated by the fact that the Sadrists decided to opt for a low profile: Muqtada al-Sadr, obviously demoralized by his inability to control his own troops and by the deterioration of his image as a bridge between Arab Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq -- a consequence of the outburst of sectarian violence in the wake of the February 2006 attacks in Samarra, as I explained in the epilogue to our first edition -- announced a long-term freeze of his "Mahdi Army." He more or less "vanished" from the public scene since then, and went a step further by announcing recently -- quite bitterly -- his official retirement into religious studies for a while.
Sadr's bitterness surely stems in great part from a series of disappointments: Given his frustration over the exacerbation of sectarian hatred in Iraq and his disillusionment regarding the attitude of those Arab Sunni forces he considered allies, he has been considerably annoyed by the fact that the Iraqi government has turned into an increasingly docile collaborator of the U.S.-British occupiers. In this sense, the shift from Jaafari -- whom Sadr supported and Washington vetoed -- to Maliki as a compromise candidate at the head of the cabinet resulted in the Sadrists losing clout on governmental affairs. Clearly more compliant toward Washington than his predecessor ever was, Maliki tilted the intra-Shiite balance of forces in favor of the Sadrists's bitter rivals, the SCIRI (who dropped "Revolution" from their name and became the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq), prompting a pro-Jaafari split from Dawa after Maliki replaced him as the head of the party in May 2007.
This led to further radicalization of the Sadrists, increasingly imitating Lebanon's Hezbollah and, like them, getting closer to the "radical" Ahmadinejad wing of the Iranian regime, whereas the Supreme Council and Dawa clearly have more affinities with the so-called pragmatic wing represented by Rafsandjani -- Ahmadinejad's chief opponent in Iran's 2005 presidential election. The widening political gap between the Sadrists -- in this case, not only Muqtada al-Sadr's followers but also the rival "Sadrist" faction, the Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila) -- and the two other main Shiite parties is a source of increasing tension and clashes, which might be seriously aggravated by the "governorate" (provincial) elections due to be held in late 2008. A likely result will be a fierce fight among former members of the same United Iraqi Alliance.
The Bush administration's greater reason for pride is, however, the success of its Sunni tribal policy. Resorting to the old colonial recipe used by the British empire in its involvement in the Middle East, and most directly so in Iraq itself, the U.S. occupation authorities cut deals with the most archaic social formations in Iraq -- formations that resisted "modernization" so well because most so-called modernizers in the history of independent Iraq, especially Saddam Hussein himself, made extensive use of tribalism to assert their power. The "blueprint" for a democratic Iraq that would be a model for the whole "Greater Middle East" thus sank in the quicksand of tribalism.
Dealing with Arab Sunni tribal chiefs, most of whom had been staunch supporters and allies of the Baathist regime, U.S. occupation authorities offered them money, military means, and a carte blanche in their regions -- much to the annoyance of the Shiites. This new collaboration, which led to the creation of the so-called Awakening ("Sahwa" in Arabic) Councils, was facilitated by the Sunni tribes' increasing irritation with al-Qaeda's organization in Iraq, in particular with its disrespect for traditional tribal authority, which it wanted to subordinate to its totalitarian project. This "first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden" was the main argument in G. W. Bush's boastful speech on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the invasion -- omitting to say that it was the invasion itself that had allowed the establishment of al-Qaeda's first large-scale territorial base in the heart of Arab lands! The way Bush described the achievement is arresting: "In Anbar, Sunni tribal leaders had grown tired of al-Qaeda's brutality and started a popular uprising, called the 'Anbar Awakening.' To take advantage of this opportunity, we sent 4,000 additional Marines to help these brave Iraqis drive al Qaeda from the province. As this effort succeeded, it inspired other Iraqis to take up the fight. Soon similar uprisings began to spread across the country. Today there are more than 90,000 concerned local citizens who are protecting their communities from the terrorists and insurgents and the extremists."
Note the formula used -- "concerned local citizens" -- as if Iraqi tribes were applying the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in some kind of Jeffersonian citizen-based democracy. The real value of this great "achievement" is well illustrated by the following report published in the Arabic daily Al-Hayat three days after Bush's speech: "Sahwa Councils in Baghdad's periphery have threatened to stop fulfilling their security tasks as a result of the U.S. army's delay in remunerating their members. Colonel Saad Aziz Salman, the leader of the 'Sahwa' of al-Taji region to the north of Baghdad, said that his men are considering the possibility of announcing their collective withdrawal from the Sunni neighborhoods that they control, if the issue of their funding is not settled. He told Al-Hayat yesterday that 'Sahwa Councils' deployed in the southern Baghdad area did not receive their salaries (300 to 700 dollars) for two months. ... He emphasized that if the issue of funding were not settled, Sahwa Councils would go on collective strike in Baghdad. The efforts to impose security in Baghdad depend to a great extent on the combatants who constituted the 'Sahwa Councils' in order to expel al-Qaeda from their regions. But a dispute has arisen between the Iraqi government and U.S. forces over whether these Councils should be funded [by the U.S. forces] or integrated in the [Iraqi] security forces."
The report says it all: These "councils" of "concerned local citizens" are actually acting as mercenaries of the U.S. government. They are as unreliable as soldiers of fortune usually are -- indeed, if not quite more so than usual, due to the lack of sympathy for the United States by Arab Iraqis in general, and Sunnis among them in particular. Moreover, by striking a deal with Arab Sunni tribes -- who until recently were Saddam Hussein's privileged constituency and therefore resent the empowerment of the Shiites as well as that of the Kurds -- and letting them deploy militarily, nay relying on them to impose (their) order in Arab Sunni areas, the U.S. occupation is giving them powerful leverage over the United States itself -- a bargaining power, that is -- and sowing more seeds of sectarian and ethnic confrontation for the near future in Iraq. Arab-Kurdish tensions are on the rise, with the issue of Kirkuk -- the oil-rich northern area claimed by the Kurds -- dangerously stalled against a backdrop of Turkish incursions into Iraq's Kurdistan, whose real purpose is to intimidate the Iraqi Kurds on top of their official purpose of fighting the PKK, the guerilla movement of Turkey's Kurdistan. Washington is perilously playing with fire, one more time, and will sooner or later get its fingers burned.
The tribal policy -- designed originally to isolate al-Qaeda as well as to circumvent the Shiite governmental parties deemed too close to Iran -- has already a serious downside for Washington. It has led to a significant weakening of the government, a weakening aggravated by the withdrawal of the Sadrists and their increasingly oppositional stance. As a result of this, none of the "milestones" defined in the Baker-Hamilton report has been truly achieved, and -- most important among them -- the government did not manage to get the parliament to approve the "oil law" that it drafted jointly with U.S. institutions. The one clear thing at the onset of this sixth year of the occupation of Iraq is that the United States is far from achieving its designs in that country -- it is very far from "winning the war." Yesterday's "Mission Accomplished" is actually a "Mission: Impossible."
1. On James Baker, see Naomi Klein, "James Baker's Double Life," The Nation, November 1, 2004.
2. Lee Hamilton, "Let's Get to Know the Saudis," Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SURIS), April 16, 2007.
3. James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton et al., The Iraq Study Group Report (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).
4. Ibid., p. xv.
5. Ibid., pp. xvi-xvii.
6. Ibid., p. 67 (emphasis in original).
7. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
8. Ibid., p. 20.
10. Ibid., p. 84 (emphasis in original).
11. Ibid., p. 85 (emphasis in original).
12. Ibid., p. 84 (emphasis in original).
13. Ibid., p. 73.
14. Ibid. (emphasis added).
15. "President Bush Discusses Global War on Terror," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, Washington, DC (March 19, 2008).
16. The Second Amendment, which was ratified on December 15, 1791, reads as follows: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
17. "'Sahwa Councils' Threaten to Go on General Strike Due to a Two-Month Delay in the Salaries of Their Members," Al-Hayat, March 22, 2008.
Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon. He is currently Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His books include The 33-Day War (2007), The Clash of Barbarisms (2nd edn., 2006), The Israeli Dilemma (2006), and Eastern Cauldron (2004).