Recent polls suggest that the economy is shaping up as the major issue of the 2008 presidential campaign. Yet, the war in Iraq remains a 800-pound-gorilla topic: almost every poll places the war in Iraq second only to the economy.
Central to our understanding of the current situation in Iraq is the concept of the "surge": the deployment, in February 2007, of 5 additional brigades to bring the total number of American troops on the ground from 132,000 to 155,000. The Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, has been an ardent supporter of the "surge", whereas his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, has been a passionate critic of it.
According to a comprehensive report compiled by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the surge has clearly improved the security situation in Iraq: sectarian and insurgent violence went down to 2005 levels; progress toward political reconciliation, however, has been much less spectacular.
Having pronounced the surge a success, the Bush administration has promised to withdraw the surge troops by July. Moreover, according to the Washington Post, Gen. Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, has signaled that the troop withdrawal may go even beyond the pullback of the 5 surge brigades. The timing of this "extra" withdrawal — scheduled to precede the presidential election — is hardly coincidental.
Well, does it mean that the the surge has worked as planned? And if yes, then what have the 22,000 of additional troops done that couldn’t been accomplished by 130,000 plus?
A thoughtful insight into what the surge has really accomplished and what its long-term impact on the situation in Iraq might be was provided by Steven Simon, a former official on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration ("The Price of the Surge", Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008).
Although Simon doesn’t deny certain tactical advantages of having additional troops in Baghdad, he argues that the surge has changed the situation not by itself, but only in combination with three other major developments.
The first is the extreme ethnic cleansing in Baghdad that reduced sectarian violence by virtue of separating feuding factions along ethnic lines; the cleansing was essentially completed before the surge started.
The third development is particularly fascinating, for it involves a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes. According to Simon, Gen. Petraeus has authorized payments to insurgent Sunni groups who would be willing to stop attacking the American troops and instead turn their guns against al Qaeda. Reportedly, $150 million in payment has been budgeted for this purpose this year only.
The deals are mediated by tribal leaders and consist of payments of $360 per month per combatant. The tribal leaders would take as much as 20 percent of every payment, which means that a tribal chief commanding a group of about 200 fighters could pocket more than a hundred thousand dollars a year.
It is this third development that Simon finds particularly troubling. He argues that the current approach to reducing violence encourages tribalism by pitting different Sunni Arab tribes against each other and against the central government. As the history of the Middle East clearly shows, the tribalism represents a mortal threat to the stability — and, perhaps, the very existence — of the states in the region. Simon predicts that should the current approach continue, Iraq is bound to become a "dysfunctional country prone to bouts of serious internecine violence."
Simon suggests that the United States shift its strategy from encouraging tribalization to a policy that would promote a stable, unitary Iraq. "Otherwise", he says, "a strategy adopted for near-term advantage by a frustrated administration will only increase the likelihood of long -term debacle."
Simon’s recipe for Iraq reconciliation — via "a stable, unitary Iraq" — is at odds with the views of American lawmakers. In September 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a non-biding resolution that advocated dividing Iraq into three regions based on its ethnic makeup — Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.
(It might seem bizarre that the U.S. Senate would pass a resolution, however non-binding, advocating splitting in parts a supposedly "sovereign" country, but this is obviously not the first bizarre Senate resolution adopted with respect to Iraq.)
One can only agree with the resolution’s co-sponsor, Sen. Joe Biden, who said that the situation in Iraq has "no military solution … only a political solution." "That begs the question"’ continued the Senator, "so, what is your political solution?"
This is exactly the question that either president McCain or president Obama would have to answer on Day One in the Oval Office.