Iraq at the End of the Surge

Michael J. Totten

Last week I wrote that many Americans and Iraqis I spoke to in Baghdad recently expect a surge of violence after American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities as stipulated by the recently signed Status of Forces Agreement. Many readers seemed surprised by that pessimistic forecast and wondered, after two years of good news, if it could even be true. “Your report and that of Michael Yon,” Richard Everett wrote in the comments section, “published on the same day on the same subject are at so great variance that one has to ask; ‘are you two in the same country?’ He is positive, you are not. Why the extreme difference?”

Michael Yon did, indeed, publish an upbeat report on the same day called The Art of the End of the War. I encourage everyone to read it. Yon’s work is always accurate and informative, and this time is no exception. Richard Everett is right to point out that my piece was gloomy while Yon’s piece was not, but Iraq is complex. Iraq produces good news and bad at the same time.

“Al Qaeda was handed a vicious defeat in Iraq,” Yon wrote, “and it can be said with great certainty that most Iraqis hate al Qaeda even more than Americans do. Al Qaeda can continue to murder Iraqis for now, but al Qaeda will be hard pressed to ever plant their flag in another Iraqi city. The Iraqi army and police have become far too strong and organized, and the Iraqis will eventually strangle al Qaeda to death.”

I have no doubt this is true. In some Iraqi cities – Fallujah, Ramadi, Bacouba, and some parts of Baghdad – every day was September 11. Al Qaeda fanatics car-bombed and mass murdered their way into power. Some Iraqis, unlike Americans, have actually had to live under the rule of Al Qaeda. They hate Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al Zarqawi like no one else. After Anbar Awakening leader Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha was assasinated by a car bomb in front of his house in Ramadi, his brother Ahmed Abu Risha said “All the tribes agreed to fight al Qaeda until the last child in Anbar.” How many Americans talk about Al Qaeda like that?

Al Qaeda has been by far the most vicious and sadistic terrorist group in Iraq, but there are many other groups still skulking about in reduced numbers – the Mahdi Army “Special Groups,” Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, and some others have been seriously bloodied and weakened, but they still exist. It’s a near certainty that there will be spike in terrorist and insurgent activity when Americans clear the streets because Iraq’s most effective counterinsurgents will have cleared out of the way. That doesn’t mean the terrorists and insurgents will win. It means there will be a partial security vacuum, and they will try.

I doubt any of the weakened terrorist and insurgent groups will be able to defeat the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police. A retired Iraqi Army general told me not to worry because when they are in charge they will rule the country with much greater force and less concern for human rights than Americans. I wouldn’t decribe that as encouraging, exactly, considering what Iraq looked like when it was ruled that way in the past. But at least we no longer have to worry overly much about Al Qaeda seizing power as Hamas did in Gaza after the Israel Defense Forces left. Al Qaeda doesn’t have even a fraction of Hamas’ popularity, and the Iraqi Army, unlike the Palestinian security forces, have been trained for years by American soldiers.

Two years ago Al Qaeda and the Mahdi Army had already seized power in parts of Iraq. They would have retained that power and territory if American troops left the country at the beginning of 2007. General David Petraeus could not fix everything in Iraq, but at least he fixed this. Iraq was a perilous place in 2006, but imagine what it would have looked like if an Sunni Al Qaeda ministate in the Sunni Triangle went to war with a Shia ministate ruled by the Mahdi Army. Iraq might then have resembled Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic, or even Cambodia under Pol Pot if one side decisively lost.

Nothing like that is likely today.

Iraq is still a mess, even so. Iraq is dysfunctional. Iraq is corrupt. Iraq is riven by racial and sectarian hatreds between Arabs and Kurds and between Sunnis and Shias. Each race and sect are further divided against each other by tribe. Revolutionary Iranians still muck around with Iraq’s internal politics, and many Iraqis will continue to let them. Religious fundamentalists coexist precariously with Iraqi secularists and women who resent having to wear the hijab over their hair so they won’t be targeted by the radicals. Even some Christian women in Baghdad feel compelled to wear the hijab. The only people in the country who seem interested in cleaning up the garbage still clogging the streets are Americans, and they’re on their way out. Iraq will always be Iraq, whether a terrorist regime takes over or not. It will be a while before it’s a place you will want to visit.

At this point, though, it’s unlikely that the United States will fight another war in Iraq. Michael Yon is almost certainly right about that. A large number of Iraqis want American troops to leave, but most of them are not our enemies. Very few shoot at American troops anymore. Even fewer have any interest in attacking Americans in the United States. Roadside bombs are rare enough now that I no longer worry about them when riding in Humvees with American soldiers. The Iraqi Army and Iraq Police conduct joint operations and patrols with Americans. If Iraq were an enemy state, or if the various insurgent and terrorist groups were still widely supported by Iraqi civilians, the steep decline in violence over the past two years would never have happened.

Whatever happens next is up to Iraqis. It may or may not be pretty, but the days when Iraq is a lethal threat to anyone outside its borders most likely are over.