It is difficult to imagine that a plan concocted by the plump and studious Fred Kagan deep in the bowels of the American Enterprise Institute can be taken seriously, but life offers many surprises. The Bush administration and putative Republican presidential candidate John McCain are effusive in their praise of the grand illusion offered by the Kagan surge strategy that has apparently restored some measure of security to parts of Iraq.
Indeed, it is likely that McCain’s electoral prospects will ride on whether the simulacrum of success will continue until the election. It can reasonably be argued that the surge has always been more about American politics than about Iraq, headed as it is by an American general who harbors more than a little in the way of political ambitions working for a president whose crowning achievement is an unnecessary invasion that resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers at a cost of $3 trillion.
Observers who are less embedded in the political process are not so sure that the improved security, mostly visible in some neighborhoods in Baghdad, is significant. Some note that the death rate among Iraqis has again started to move upward. Intelligence sources are, in fact, extremely skeptical about the progress that is being reported, and they are particularly wary of proclaiming any measure of victory against the Iraqi insurgency. They note somewhat dyspeptically that the United States is now supporting all three major communities in Iraq with arms and money, a formula that will ultimately lead to disaster. One analyst refers to it as a "Grapes of Wrath" policy.
As has often been noted, Iraq is actually three communities. They consist of the majority Shia Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds. In certain areas the three groups mix, particularly in Baghdad, but in general the Sunnis are north and west of Baghdad, the Shia are to the south and east, and the Kurds are farther north beyond the area controlled by the Sunnis. That gives each group a core area that it controls. The sectarian make-up of the country is also reflected in the organization of the army, which has units that are almost exclusively drawn from one of the three groups. The Shia are also dominant at the Ministry of the Interior and have taken control of the police, integrating many former Shi’ite militiamen into the ranks. In the south, around Basra, Shi’ite militias have largely filled the vacuum created by the departure of the British.
The sectarian divisions in a country that is majority Shi’ite should have suggested two possible policies to the American proconsuls who ruled the country after the invasion in 2003. Divide and rule, the old British colonial policy, would have meant a continuation of the Ba’athist dominance by the minority Sunnis. The Sunnis would have had a vested interest in preserving the status quo and would have served as surrogates for the occupiers, but, as the United States had gone to war to oust Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath regime, such an option was considered to be unacceptable. The alternative was the establishment of a "democratic" regime in which the majority Shia would prevail. This was tried at first, but the Shia proved to be fractious and the effective disenfranchisement of the Sunni and the Kurds made the situation unstable. A constitution that guaranteed minority representation finally emerged as the preferred solution, but it too has delivered less than expected, leaving Iraq increasingly divided into three communities that have been ethnically cleansed.
The surge has attempted to exploit community differences to reduce the Sunni resentment that has fed the insurgency. Empowering the Sunnis has been accomplished through the creation of so-called "Awakening Councils" in the Sunni-dominated regions. The process, which was supposed to exclude former insurgents, has nevertheless basically taken Sunni fighters and turned them into a kind of national guard by giving them weapons, money, and recognition. Not surprisingly, they have accepted what has been offered, as it has permitted them to grow stronger, even protecting them against attacks by U.S. and Iraqi government forces, without changing their basic agenda to drive out the Americans. The loser in the arrangement has been al-Qaeda, which had sheltered among the Sunni insurgents but has now found itself increasingly isolated and no longer needed. The Sunnis turned on al-Qaeda, and it currently survives in only a handful of areas within the Sunni-dominated zone. That would appear to be good news for the United States military, which is now concentrating its efforts to finish off the group once and for all, but the impact of al-Qaeda between-the-two-rivers was always overstated. Its demise does little to defang the Sunni insurgents and the Shi’ite militias, both of which are hostile to the multinational force’s presence.
The winner in the convoluted process has been everyone who wants to see a civil war. The intelligence analysts who are warning that the United States is now arming and otherwise subsidizing all three major groups in Iraq believe that the house of cards is likely to fall down as soon as one group feels either strong or frisky enough to assert itself. The conflict could start over any number of issues but a confrontation over oil resources is viewed as the most likely scenario. No one in Iraq except possibly the American Ambassador Ryan Crocker actually believes that an arrangement to share oil and gas revenue will work. The Sunnis, who are not sitting on any oil fields, have had a presence in Kirkuk in spite of ethnic cleansing by the Kurds. If they find themselves being squeezed without any access to oil revenues, they will likely try to assert that claim. The Kurdish army and the powerful peshmerga militia would immediately get dragged into the fighting, and it is unlikely that the Shi’ites would stand by.
The United States would inevitably find itself in an untenable position, with U.S. forces being targeted by all parties and only able to defend themselves by inflicting massive civilian casualties. While the torching of the monstrous U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone would undoubtedly be a relief to many, it would also represent another billion dollars from American taxpayers wasted in support of a crazed imperial fantasy. And then there is the problem of how to get the American forces safely home. All in all, a tough nut for the next president, who hopefully will not be named McCain.