Sunday, March 18, 2007

News From The Five Week Old Surge

Signs from the surge continue to be positive as the operation nears completion of its fifth week, and even though more then half the U.S. troops intended to take part in the operation have yet to arrive. But before looking at the good news, a cautionary note:

James Carafano, a defence expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, cautioned that an increase in violence was likely during the spring and summer.

“The first thing you would expect the bad guys to do is to go to ground, map things out, do some reconnaissance and figure out how to screw things up,” he said. “You have to get through to next winter before you can say the surge has worked.”

Mr. Carafano is correct - even though the surge is progressing with surprising ease at this point. There seem to be three things leading to the surge's initial success, two of which portend a spike in future attacks.

One, the surge of Iraqi and US troops spreading throughout Baghdad is having its desired effect of empowering the residents. Even if we accept the highest possible estimate of the number of militants and their supporters, that is only a fraction of the Iraqi population. If the population feels secure and empowered, and if they are supported by functional military and police protection, the militants will no longer have an operational home. That, in a nutshell, is the purpose of - and what is happening - with the surge. You can see an analagous scenario being played out in Fallujah, as discussed here by a member of a Marine Corps civil affairs team

Two, the Sunni militants, and al Qaeda in Iraq, are suffering other problems at this critical time, and those problems are keeping them from really concentrating on Baghdad and challenging the U.S. and Iraqi forces when the nascent surge is at its most vulnerable. Al Qaeda's problem appears to be the shrinking of its friendly base in Anbar - the home of Sunni militancy since the start of the Iraq war. See Iraq the Models post on this here. This will be very significant in the long run.

Three, Sadr and his Madi army have made a strategic decision to go to ground. But before Iraq's military and police become truly functional, and before the surge starts to significantly achieve its objectives of empowering the populace, Sadr will have to make a move to reassert himself.

Interestingly, if the Sunni militants are not able to mount a real challenge to the surge in Baghdad, this will force Sadr's hand early. And I have little doubt both that Sadr's Iranian "friends" will be demanding that he make an attempt to reassert his militia before it is too late, and that they will underwrite that attempt with guns and money -- if not manpower and leadership.

In sum, my own assessment is that the good news from the surge will be tempered by spikes in violence in the future -- significant spikes when Sadr starts his end game, but the societal conditions that will allow for those spikes will become less and less with each passing day. Having said all of that, what is the news from the surge today:
KARADEH used to be an affluent shopping area of Baghdad. It boomed for a while after the American invasion as goods flooded into Iraq after years of sanctions. But as sectarian violence intensified, the store fronts became shuttered and shell-pocked.
In a vote of confidence in the surge by US troops, the shops were reopening last week. Hareth Salah, a 24-year-old student, said he had stopped attending courses at his technical college when the surge began last month.

“One of my friends was killed by the terrorists,” he said, “but now there are a lot more Iraqi army checkpoints and I’m feeling more secure. I feel better; I can go out and do my shopping. More people have opened their stores and the markets are open longer.”

As the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war approaches on Tuesday, progress remains uncertain but trends are hopeful.

“This is a bit of a rollercoaster ride,” said General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq. “You’re trying to do what is necessary to keep the rollercoaster generally going up, despite the ups and downs and the bumps.”

Murderous sectarian checkpoints have melted away as the Iraqi security forces and American troops extend their grip on the capital. Abu Mohammed, a 34-year-old taxi driver, who lives in the largely Shi’ite Sha’ab district in northern Baghdad, said: “Sometimes I would stop and wait for an hour or two rather than take a chance on passing a fake checkpoint with a customer.

“We were so scared; anybody could be followed and assassinated.”

Figures released last week by Brigadier Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, showed civilian deaths down from 1,440 in the four weeks before the surge began on February 14 to 265 in the four weeks that followed, although there may have been some undercounting. According to the American military, assassination attempts were down by 50%.

The number of US deaths was also down, from 87 to 66, although the concentration of troops in Baghdad led to an increase of 12% in fatalities in the capital.

Frederick Kagan, a military historian and leading advocate of the surge, said: “It is very early days but I’m very encouraged by what is happening. America only has two brigades out of five there and we haven’t even started our major operations yet. I had not expected this little resistance.”

Residents of the Iraqi capital are holding their breath. For each hopeful piece of news there seems to be a car bombing or attempted assassination - such as one on the Shi’ite mayor of Sadr City last week - that threatens their security.

“At least I don’t see bodies thrown here and there on the road, as in the days before the security plan,” said Ramya Ahmed, 35, a Shi’ite living in Adamiya, a largely Sunni neighbourhood.

. . . .
An extra combat brigade and more than 2,200 military police are being dispatched to Iraq, which by the end of May or early June will bring the number of additional US troops involved in the surge to 30,000.

Read the entire article here. I note this good news from the surge today comes from the Times - Britain's Times, that is. Not the New York Times, whose reporting today is curiously devoid of fact and of a very different tint.

Update: See here. And the Washington Post is reporting on increased attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq against Iraqi police and sunnic civilians in Anbar Province. See here.

Update: From Iraq the Model: 39 Al-Qaeda insurgents are killed by Sunni tribesmen and police in Anbar province.

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