The Iraq troop withdrawals President Bush announced on Tuesday at the National Defence University were much ado about nothing. The slight reduction in troop levels will keep US troop levels several thousand above what they were in January 2007 when he announced the "surge" of US troops. Bush administration critics will say the troop withdrawals are too little and too late, while supporters will echo Bush’s "return on success" talking point.
But this debate on troop levels – almost certain to dominate whatever paltry coverage the Iraq war gets in the media these days – misses a more fundamental point: that the surge has failed to achieve its central objective of advancing Iraq’s political transition and encouraging power-sharing deals among Iraq’s competing factions.
The greatest myth promoted by Bush in his speech was found in this line: "Political reconciliation is moving forward, and the Iraqi government has passed several major pieces of legislation." By overstating the meagre steps taken by Iraq’s leaders in barely passing a few relatively insignificant laws in their parliament, Bush’s statement ranks right up there with his 2003 "mission accomplished" speech and vice-president Dick Cheney’s assertion that the insurgency was in its "last throes" in 2005.
A more honest look at the balance sheet on Iraq’s political transition yields an inconvenient conclusion: The surge has frozen into place the accelerated fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and has created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions. Moreover, rather than advancing Iraq’s political transition and facilitating power-sharing deals among Iraq’s factions, the surge has produced an oil revenue-fuelled, Shia-dominated national government with close ties to Iran. This national government shows few signs of seeking to compromise and share meaningful power with other frustrated political factions.
When Bush announced the surge in January 2007, its stated objective was to improve security in order to provide the space for meaningful political reconciliation. The underlying theory was that violence impeded Iraq’s political transition and national reconciliation. But Iraq’s brutal violence is better understood as politics by other means rather than as an alternative to politics. Key factions in Iraq used violence to reshape Iraq’s internal balance of power and altered the demographic composition of important areas of Iraq like Baghdad.
One of the failures of the 2007-2008 surge of US military forces is that the declines in violence from record levels that it accomplished did not fundamentally alter the strategic calculations of Iraq’s leading factions in ways that advance political accommodation and progress toward power-sharing deals. The threats posed by terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq are much diminished, and militias such as the Mahdi army, though not defeated by any means, operate less freely. These reductions in violence are important, but they have not translated into meaningful progress in Iraq’s political transition.
When it comes to true power-sharing – who has control of the guns, money and other key state resources like oil – Iraq has not moved forward substantially. On the state’s monopoly on the use of force, Iraq has taken some steps forward like increasing the size of the Iraqi army. But it has also taken some steps backwards. Instead of disbanding key militias, the surge actually created new set of Sunni militias, further undermining the efforts to build a unified central government by supporting independent centres of power. The independent Kurdish Peshmerga military force not only remains in place, but has also become involved in some standoffs with the Iraqi army in disputed territories in places like the Diyala province this summer. Shia militias like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the Badr organisation have either gone underground or infiltrated parts of the growing Iraqi security forces.
On power-sharing of Iraq’s considerable oil wealth, no significant advances have been made since the government was formed in 2006. Constitutional reforms promised as part of a deal to get the Sunni factions to join the political process in 2005 have not been delivered, and a deal on dividing Iraq’s oil resources has remained elusive. Even getting to a deal on deciding the rules of the road for a new set of provincial elections proved to difficult for Iraq’s divided leadership to complete.
With the surge forces departing and US forces declining, Iraq is a less violent place, but it remains a fragmented country. On the most important questions connected to resolving Iraq’s internal conflicts, Iraq has not moved forward. The core question remains the same for Iraq’s leaders: how to share power among the diverse ethnic and sectarian groups. By overstating the gains to date on Iraq’s political transition, Bush continues to understate the considerable challenges that lie ahead.
Iraq’s leaders must address their divisions on their own terms, and at their own pace. The US cannot impose a military solution to the power-sharing disputes among Iraq’s leaders, and expending significant resources in an effort to do so is unwise while other pressing national security challenges loom in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. True progress in Iraq requires the US to acknowledge the increasing moves by Iraqis to assert sovereignty and control over their own affairs.