Thursday, July 12, 2007

Iraq: The “surge” was tried before and failed

Operation Sinbad was the operation led by the British in southern Iraq focusing on Basra, the nation’s second largest city. The operation began on September 27, 2006 and concluded February 18, 2007. The goal was to stabilize Basra so local officials could use the time to rebuild. The operation was a success – temporarily. Within months the situation had returned to its previous state.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report last month warning of the collapse of Iraq and compared Operation Sinbad and the current U.S. “surge” strategy in Baghdad. Given the similarities, the failure of Operation Sinbad does not bode well for the Baghdad surge as a strategy for long-term stabilization in that city let alone the country.

Here are excerpts of a piece written by Robert Malley and Peter Harling of the ICG that appears in the International Herald Tribune:
Iraq is in the midst of a civil war - but before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state.

To imagine what Baghdad will look like after the surge, there is no need to project far into the future. Just turn to the recent past.

Between September 2006 and March 2007, British forces conducted Operation Sinbad in Basra, Iraq's second largest city. At first, there were signs of progress: diminished violence, criminality and overall chaos. But these turned out to be superficial and depressingly fleeting.

Today, political tensions once again are destabilizing the city; relentless attacks against British forces have driven them off the streets, and the southern city is under the control of militias, more powerful and less inhibited than before.

Operation Sinbad, like the surge, was premised on belief that heightened British military power would help rout militias, provide space for local leaders to rebuild the city and ultimately hand security over to newly vetted and more professional Iraqi security forces. It did nothing of the sort.

A military strategy that failed to challenge the dominant power structure and political makeup, no matter how muscular it was, simply could not alter the underlying dynamic: A political arena dominated by parties - those the British embraced, no less than those they fought - engaged in a bloody competition over power and resources.

What happened? While British forces were struggling to suppress the violence, the parties and organizations operating on the public scene never felt the need to modify their behavior. Militias were not defeated; they went underground or, more often, were absorbed into existing security forces.

In short, Operation Sinbad, at best, froze in place the existing situation and balance of power. Once the British version of the surge ebbed, the struggle reignited.

For Baghdad, the implications are as clear as they are ominous. Basra is a microcosm of the country as a whole in its multiple and multiplying forms of violence. Strife generally has little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance, both of which are far more prominent in the capital or Iraq's center. Instead, it involves the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly are indistinguishable from political actors.

This means that even should the armed opposition weaken, even should sectarian tensions abate, and even should the surge momentarily succeed, Basra's fate is likely to be replicated throughout the country on a larger, more chaotic, and more dangerous scale.

Some lessons from Basra regarding the ill-conceived war and mismanaged occupation come four years too late. But others still can be learned.

First, the answer to Iraq's horrific violence cannot be an illusory military surge that aims to bolster the existing political structure and treats the dominant political parties as partners.

Second, violence is not solely the result of al Qaeda-type terrorism or sectarian hostility, however costly both evidently are.

Third, Basra shows that violence has become a routine means of social interaction used by political actors doubling up as militiamen who seek to increase their share of power and resources.

In other words, perpetuating the same political process with the same political actors will ensure that what is left of the Iraqi state gradually is torn apart. The most likely outcome will be the country's untidy break-up into fiefdoms, superficially held together by the presence of coalition forces. Washington and London should acknowledge that their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down.

Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. But before and beyond that, Iraq has become a failed state - a country whose institutions and any semblance of national cohesion, have been obliterated.

That is what has made the violence - all the violence: sectarian, anticoalition, political, criminal and otherwise - both possible and, for many, necessary. Resolving the confrontation between Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds is one priority. But rebuilding a functioning and legitimate state is another - no less urgent, no less important, and no less daunting.
The bottom line is seeking an exclusively military solution to a largely political problem is doomed.

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