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A Timetabled, Conditional Surge

By Reidar Visser

29 December 2006

As President George W. Bush contemplates policy alternatives for Iraq, input from experts in Washington has become polarized. Opponents of the Iraq War consider any increase in troop numbers a non-starter and prefer to focus on the modalities for withdrawal. Supporters of the Bush administration seem incapable of framing their latest idea - that of a temporary surge of US troops - as anything other than a repeat of the same old policy, perhaps with some added manpower and resources.

Either approach has its problems. Withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq within one or two years seems a natural goal, but right now may be the worst time since 2003 for such an operation. The simple reason is that Iraqi politics has deteriorated dramatically: Today, sectarian militia activity has been maximized to levels never before witnessed in Iraqi history. At the moment, Iraq does need help from the outside, because its elected politicians are incapable of transcending their own narrow party interests in a bid for national unity. And whereas the Iraq Study Group may have offered some sound advice about enhanced regional diplomacy, on the whole their report seems more like a containment strategy than a plan that pro-actively can induce rapid political realignment inside Iraq.

A troop increase could be equally problematic. Even if more US firepower should succeed in temporarily stemming the violence, there is nothing in the prevalent neo-conservative expositions of the “surge plan” that would address the fundamental problem of national reconciliation in Iraq. There simply is no new substance compared with what was being said back in 2003 and 2004; neo-conservatives still seem convinced that as soon as there is calm on the streets of Baghdad, a Mesopotamian zest for democracy will miraculously rise from the ashes. Within the Bush administration, the only vision about a parallel process at the political level is that of a “new coalition government” - involving a few cosmetic changes in the line-up of Iraqi elite politicians currently engaged in a game of musical chairs inside the Green Zone, and carrying considerable risk of marginalizing those few parliamentary factions that do enjoy a certain degree of popular support, like the Sadrists.

What is required in Iraq today is not cosmetic change, but heavy lifting. The colossal irony of the current situation is that a large majority of Iraqis actually agree with the declared aims of the Bush administration - national reconciliation followed by a withdrawal of US troops - but their “representatives” in the Iraqi parliament (many of them newly returned exiles with limited insight into the situation of the ordinary people) are locked in petty shouting matches instead of working for national unity. It is the open-ended US military commitment that enables them to go on with this: Certain Shiite politicians infuriate Sunni politicians with newly concocted demands for federalism; Sunni leaders, in turn, hesitate in condemning even the most grotesque atrocities committed by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. Forgotten in all of this are the ordinary Iraqis. The Shiite masses have so far expressed only limited interest in “Shiite federalism”, and the average Sunni is quite prepared to denounce al-Qaida as long as a minimum of security can be guaranteed.

A troop surge offers a unique opportunity for resolving this paradoxical situation. If implemented in an innovative way, it could enable the United States to circumvent the bellicose Iraqi elite politicians and appeal directly to Iraqi nationalism. But success would require that the troop surge be offered as a package, with obligations for both sides. The United States should commit forces and economic aid to create the necessary momentum for a dramatic security improvement, but at the same time should realign itself with Iraqi nationalism by presenting a timetable for a withdrawal after the surge. Iraqi politicians, for their part, should undertake to make immediate constitutional revisions that could bring the Sunnis back in and achieve national reconciliation. While Washington should not seek to micro-manage this, it must be made perfectly clear that the forces that have so far dominated the constitutional process in Iraq (the two biggest Kurdish parties as well as SCIRI, one of the Shiite groups) will need to make general concessions in the areas of federalism and de-Baathification before any troop surge can be offered.

By making the surge conditional, Washington would for the first time create pressure on Iraqi politicians, through their own electorates. If presented with a credible plan for national reconciliation and the eventual withdrawal of US troops, Iraqi politicians would find it hard to persist in their current squabbling. This would enable the United States to tap into a most remarkable factor in Iraqi politics: the seemingly unshakeable belief in the concept of “national unity” that has persisted among ordinary Iraqis, even in today’s violent climate.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website http://historiae.org. His latest book is Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2006).

See also: A Strategy for Dealing with the Sadrists?

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