The Collapsing Myth of the Surge

Sunni militias demand more power, and Shi'a political divisions impede nationwide power-sharing deals, writes Brian Katulis.

The easily foreseen consequences of conservatives’ surge “strategy” in Iraq are now coming to pass. The disaffected Sunni groups that turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq are now demanding their due—political power for these “Awakening” groups commensurate with their newfound military clout and their belief that Sunnis should once again be the dominant power in Iraq as they were under Saddam Hussein.

But the fractured Shi’a-led government of prime minister Nouri al Maliki has strongly opposed these efforts, and resisted integrating these irregular forces into the Iraqi government. The looming threat is that the different sides in one of Iraq’s key internal conflicts –supported to varying degrees by the United States over the last year—may start turning their weapons on each other.

That’s the first simmering civil war that could well resume in full force in the coming months. The second is the Shi’a-on-Shi’a fight, which is also about to get more heated. The reason: Iraq saw a major political setback yesterday when a key benchmark of political progress—a provincial powers law that set a fall date for provincial elections—was vetoed by the presidency council.

The setback shows that Iraq’s leaders continue to fundamentally disagree about how to share power, relying on U.S. military forces to maintain a haphazard peace while they continue to squabble. When President Bush announced the surge of U.S. military forces, his stated goal was to give Iraq’s leaders some breathing room and space to advance their political transition by making Iraq more stable. The problem with this strategy was that it failed to address the fundamental divisions between different Iraqi factions.

Now, it is increasingly clear that the surge did little more than temporarily mask these divisions by offering support to different factions—support that today further undermines the Iraqi state.

The conservative strategy for Iraq has gotten the U.S. military caught in the middle of these new twists in the old ethnic and sectarian divides that define Iraqi society. The new Sunni militias demand that the U.S. force the Shi’a to grant them their due, and threaten to stop fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq and instead revive the Sunni insurgency. The Shi’a demand that the U.S. limit the growth of these Awakening militias. Both sides are increasingly shooting at American soldiers to get across their arguments.

As the fifth anniversary of the start of Iraq’s war rapidly approaches, the United States needs to put its national security priorities back in order. For far too long, the conservative approach to national security has entailed placing our most precious national security assets –our men and women in uniform—in the crosshairs of a struggle for power between Iraqis.

A better approach—the one that progressives on Capitol Hill are currently trying again in this week’s Iraq debate—is one that dedicates our country’s considerable powers to bringing to justice those who were responsible for killing thousands of Americans on September 11, 2001. This means listening to the top U.S. intelligence agencies, which said in testimony to Congress earlier this month that the top Al Qaeda leadership has reconstituted itself in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is using this safe haven to plot and train for attacks around the world, including possible attacks in the United States.

Just as in the summer of 2001, when President Bush and his conservative allies ignored repeated warnings that Al Qaeda was determined to attack the United States, they are willfully sticking their heads into the sand again—ignoring the real threats by sinking the United States deeper into Iraq’s civil wars. It is time for a change to a policy that resets our priorities by redeploying our forces from Iraq and shifting resources to tackling the growing challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To read more about the Center’s national security proposals for Iraq, Afghanistan and the region, please see:

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow