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Basra Was the Test: The Surge Fails Politically and Militarily

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The architect of the Bush administration’s “surge” strategy in Iraq, U.S. Army General David Petraeus, is on Capitol Hill this week to explain to Congress “how does this end” in Iraq?

Unfortunately for the general and the American people, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki late last month provided the most telling glimpse of how this will not end when he decided to send his Iraqi Security Forces to the southern city of Basra. He challenged his Shi’a political rivals with guns instead of the political compromises the surge was supposed to inspire among Iraq’s fractious and well-armed ethnic and sectarian rivals for power in the country.

In fact, Maliki appears to be following in the footsteps of the Bush administration by pursuing short term tactical military gains at the expense of a strategy required for long-term political stability in Iraq. Those tactical gains in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, proved to be elusive militarily—and remain even more so politically as a result of the inept military campaign.

Maliki said the purpose of the operation in Basra was to “root out criminal elements,” yet the main motive for the operation was to weaken the power of radical Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s political movement by disarming his Mahdi army. Due to his popular support across the Shi’a-dominated parts of the country, Sadr is seen as a threat to Maliki and his governing bloc. Sadr now wields considerable influence—both before and especially after the Basra campaign—because of his seven-month long unilateral ceasefire, which both President Bush and Gen. Petraeus acknowledge is a major reason behind improved security.

In the meantime Sadr has consolidated power. His movement is today an even more viable political entity than it was a year ago. He has closed ranks by purging rogue elements from his organization, whose disobedience and penchant for violence and illicit activity threaten his legitimacy as a politician. But for all of Sadr’s apparent political skill, having an armed wing to his political movement is indispensable.

It is the Mahdi army that fought Maliki’s Iraqi Security Forces and allied Badr Brigade militia units linked to Sadr’s main Shi’a political and military rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and his Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, to a stalemate in Basra, allowing for the Sadrists to negotiate a beneficial though fragile ceasefire.

Indeed, the recent fighting in Basra illustrates the challenges to establishing long-term political stability throughout Iraq while U.S. military forces remain in the country. Achieving the goal of a stable Iraq that can effectively govern itself is contingent upon political progress and accommodations by the Iraqis, not military action—with U.S. forces supporting one or the other of the factions at the same or different times. A large U.S. military presence only serves to foster dependency on the part of the Iraqi government, facilitating the political inaction that continues to hinder reconciliation and reward exclusion.

Basra, in fact, is emblematic of the political as well as military problems with the U.S. military presence—even though U.S. forces are not present in large numbers in the southern part of the country. The Iraqi central government and even the provincial council have been largely shut out of running the city, which is mostly controlled by militias tied to powerful political parties in Baghdad.

Then there’s the still simmering Sunni problem for the Maliki government. In an effort to retain power, Sunni politicians in parliament along with Maliki’s parliamentary bloc have threatened to ban political parties with ties to militias from participating in provincial elections scheduled for this October. The ban would include both Sadr’s movement and the 90,000-member strong U.S.-backed Sunni-dominated Sons of Iraq, preventing their transformation of de facto authority in and around Baghdad into exercisable political power at the provincial and national levels.

Only the major Shi’a political parties—Hakim’s ISCI along with Maliki’s Dawa party—are exempt from this ban. The Sunni Sons of Iraq (also known as the Awakening Movement) will not take kindly to this push by the central government.

Gen. Petraeus needs to explain to Congress how all these short-term political and military maneuvers by Maliki have helped bring more long-term military and political stability to Iraq. Because the fact is they haven’t.

Instead, Maliki and his allies in the national parliament must work to include Sadr and the Sunni Awakening groups and others in political reconciliation, rather than marginalize political opponents through (poorly executed) brute force and clearly misguided legislation. Otherwise, more politically motivated uses of force will occur, with the United States expected once again to intervene.

U.S. military intervention in these political power plays undermines national political reconciliation by conveniently strengthening particular groups at the expense of promoting national reconciliation through inclusive democratic processes. Sadr is not going away, nor is his power waning. The same holds true for the Sunni Awakening groups empowered and paid for by the U.S. government.

The constant maneuver for power, which is at the heart of Iraq’s violence and instability, has only one solution, and it is political. The surge hasn’t worked, nor will more extended military efforts by the United States, which will only result in short-term, even fleeting gains in security. The long-term security situation will not improve until Iraq’s leaders begin to compromise and share power without resorting to force or political craftiness to marginalize opponents.

Both Iraqi politicians and U.S. policymakers must realize that long-term political stability requires political solutions. The sooner the United States signals a real intent to begin to substantially redeploy troops, the sooner Iraqis will begin to make the political accommodations necessary for a sustained peaceful and democratic Iraq.

Ian Moss is a National Security researcher at the Center for American Progress working with Senior Fellow Brian Katulis and formerly a cryptologic linguist in the U.S. Marines.

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