With US and Iraqi deaths continuing to fall, Baghdad daily looks less like a war zone and more like a particularly violent US city-- far from perfect, but increasingly entering a state where the government can operate. An operating government can start to combat the discontent and hopelessness that the Iraqi people are feeling, which will be key in convincing the Shiites and Sunnis to get along.
Al Sadr's Mahdi army remains at a stand down. But what are the cleric's long-term goals? I am somewhat skeptical that he's suddenly decided to support the US and Iraqi forces. But his motivations seem largely anti-American, so it's unlikely he's simply waiting for the US to exit before he unleashes the Mahdi army on civilians again. I am optimistic in considering that he may have decided that encouraging peace might be the best way to get US forces to pack up and go home. Hopefully, US forces have enough contact with him to keep communicating with his forces and maintain a mutual understanding.
Sunni tribes are increasingly turning their anger towards Al Qaeda, instead of against Shiite civilians. As I said in my last post, Al Qaeda may, paradoxically, become the enemy that unifies the Shiites and Sunnis into forming a strong central government. Osama Bin Laden's last tape shows his clear frustration at the fighting between terror and ethnic groups-- he had been hoping that they would unite and kick out the United States to form an Islamic Republic. It looks, day by day, like the chances of this happening are dwindling.
Hopefully, the Sunni tribes in the Anbar province have a contagious idea. If the majority of Sunnis decide to work with the Americans and Baghdad government, large swaths of all three ethnic factions will be represented, giving the government both legitimacy and functionality.
But really, if things keep going as they're going, the US could be down to a few tens of thousands of troops in Iraq by the next election, and I'm sure the Republicans are eager to see that happen. To better show these trends, I present you pretty pictures:
This shows the sharp decline in violence in Baghdad over time. Note that this only goes to July-- the rate of decline from July to October was even higher than from January to July. Remember this is Ethno-Secretarian Violence, and Al Qaeda anti-civilian terror attacks have not declined at as high a rate.
But is securing Baghdad enough to get most US troops out of Iraq? No, but securing the rest of the country, bit by bit, is. I present 3 more pretty pictures, timelining provincial handover over the last year:
So in Nov, 2006, we had handed over a mere two provinces.
By the beginning of February (the beginning of the surge), we'd only handed over 3. So this is 4 years into the war, we've handed over a whopping total of 3 provinces.
By May, we were already up to 4. In late September, we handed over Karbala-- a province at the Sunni-Shiite border, suspiciously close to both Anbar and Baghdad. An army report (that I don't have the link for, sorry) hinted that Qadisiyah might be soon.
The rate of handover has gone up: we may well hand over 3 provinces in 1 year, which is more than 4 times as fast as the first three that we handed over. Remember also, that if the handovers are smooth (and they have been so far), we get a positive feedback loop: we hand over a province to Iraqi forces, more of our troops are free to quell the violence in other provinces, the faster we hand them over. At the rate we're cleaning up Baghdad, it too could well be handed over by mid 2008.
You'll notice that the three predominantly Kurdish areas of Iraq have been "ready for transition" for at least a year, and yet have not been handed over. This may well be because the Turks have wanted a close eye on northern Kurds for the last 4-and-some years. Now that Turkey is beating its war drums and the PKK is stepping up attacks, who knows what might happen. One thing's for sure, transition to Iraqi provincial authority in the Kurdish north is unlikely to happen for some time, despite being the most peaceful region in Iraq.
So things are looking good. But I'd like to address the doubts of some of my more die-hard opposition with an argument that I've heard often (even quoted in the BBC article that this entry starts with)
Violence is predictably down because of the increased number of US boots on the ground, but will go right back up when the boots leave. I have a few answers to this. First, it's not that militant groups are simply keeping their heads down. The surge is actually killing militants at a very high rate. Despite border leakages, Iraq has a relatively finite number of people who would be willing to become insurgents and militants. While some argue that attacking militants will help their recruiting efforts, groups are unlikely to be able to recruit as fast as we have been eliminating members. Furthermore, while killing militants may cause anger, killing them at a high enough rate may convince potential militants that the risks of joining are just too high. Second, if you're saying this, you're not paying attention to political victories. What groups have caused us the most sectarian trouble in the past? The Mahdi army and the Anbar Sunnis. The Mahdi army has halted all operations in Iraq, and the Anbar Sunnis are increasingly supporting the Iraqi government and hunting terrorists. Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders are increasingly settling their differences in meetings (be they US-sponsored or not). Furthermore, increased security has allowed for increased civil functionality in and around Iraq-- more water is running, more lights are on, more trash is being picked up. A citizen whose needs are taken care of is a citizen that is increasingly likely to support the group that takes care of its needs, and the Iraqi government is beginning to take advantage of the security we are providing to win the hearts and minds of its citizens by returning functionality (to be fair, civil service functionality increase is much slower than we'd hoped, and one of the weaknesses of the surge... but it is improving). So as Sunni and Shiite tribes continually join the government, and hearts and minds of citizens are won over by an increasingly functional government, the motivation to torch an increasingly positive environment with fighting diminishes. When US troops pull out, former troublesome tribes will be cooperators, former militants will be satisfied citizens. Finally, the Iraqi police force and army have been increasing in number, and have gone through significant overhauls, and will have a larger presence when the surge ends than when it began. Not only will they be stronger, but it will simply be easier to put down budding violence as it tries to restart than to try and curb explosive violence that is already the norm of a region.
Ultimately, saying that Baghdad violence will significantly increase when the surge ends is a very similar argument to saying that provincial violence will increase after a transition to the Iraqi forces, and this has been largely empirically untrue. The US army does have the ability, given sufficient numbers, resources, and leadership, to enter an area and reduce long-term violence, and can do so in Baghdad.
My hat goes off to General Patraeus. He has commanded US forces brilliantly in Iraq, and has forged a hugely successful operation in spite of strong congressional doubt, weak political leadership in the executive, and groups of radicals trying to destroy him by calling him a betrayer of the American people.
The surge is working. Those who refuse to see it are as blind as those that refused to see that Iraq has been brought to the brink by our mismanagement in the first place. But now we've got something very good going, and an incredibly competent and capable general conducting the operation. So things are going well. But what does the United States want now? We want the troops to come home as soon as possible. But many have let their hatred for this war and this president blind their understanding of the hard truth: and the hard truth is, we cannot afford to bring the troops home without victory. We cannot allow Iraq to crumble into civil war, we cannot allow it to become a well-armed failed state, cannot allow it to become the primary base of operations for Al Qaeda. Finally, after four long years of foolish management, we have a working strategy, and our troops are bringing us each day closer to victory. Now is not the time to halt the surge, now is not the time to surrender and come home. Now is the time to take our victories and build on them, to clean up the mess we started, to secure US National Security, to turn our greatest military gaffe into a great military success, to build a new ally, to restore the world's faith in our competence and our commitment to doing the right thing. Now is the time to throw everything we've got behind the surge, to pray for our troops on the ground, and to-- dare I say it-- stay the course.