Thursday, December 20, 2007

Walling off Baghdad and the “success” of the surge

The White House has touted the dramatic decrease in violence in Iraq during the past few months as a success for the military’s surge strategy in Iraq. (Of course, “success” keeps getting redefined. Remember when it was argued the whole point of the military surge was to buy time for political reconciliation? The administration doesn’t talk about political reconciliation anymore.) If this lowered level of violence can be maintained will depend on how a variety of political problems are worked out over then next several months.

One major factor for the decrease in violence has been the segregation of religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. Baghdad, the center of much of the violence from Iraq’s overlapping civil wars, is definitely more peaceful. However, there has been a price for that peace. The ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred under the noses of the occupying forces has now been set in concrete – literally. Part of the strategy to control the violence has been to build walls between neighborhoods with only a handful of heavily guarded passages between them. This replicates the highly guarded Green Zone in Baghdad – the fortified base for occupation forces and the Iraqi central government. The walls have become so much a part of life in Baghdad that local artists have used them for murals.

But while the walls help keep the peace they also keep neighbor from neighbor. This enforced segregation destroys the sense of community and restricts freedom of movement. According to a retired Iraqi Army officer quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, ""We are not free, our neighborhood is barricaded … and our officials are over there in the Green Zone.”

Rosa Brooks considers the “success” of the walls of Baghdad in today’s L.A. Times:
… In Baghdad, 12-foot-high walls now separate Sunni and Shiite communities. Broken by narrow checkpoints, the walls turn Baghdad into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications.

The military isn't building walls as a training exercise, of course. The walls are meant to make it harder for militias, insurgents and death squads to coordinate and reach their intended victims. With enough troops and enough concrete, the theory goes, you can keep the bad guys from operating effectively and gradually reduce the sectarian violence that has been tearing Iraq apart.

So far, it looks as if the wall-building strategy is paying dividends. Civilian deaths in Iraq are down significantly. And though 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for U.S. troops, attacks on them have dropped sharply in recent months. After so many years of escalating violence, it's almost eerie.

How do Iraqis feel about the walls springing up around their neighborhoods? Mixed, unsurprisingly: relieved by the lull in violence but dismayed by the cost. "Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison," one Iraqi told the Christian Science Monitor. "We are not free; our neighborhood is barricaded," complained another.

It's against this backdrop that we should evaluate the success of the Bush administration's troop "surge" in Iraq. Yes, violence is down. Some of that is because of the surge itself: More troops -- and smarter counterinsurgency tactics -- have indeed translated into a reduction in violence. But violence also is down because the process of "sectarian cleansing" is nearing completion: Sunnis have been driven out of Shiite neighborhoods, Shiites out of Sunni neighborhoods, the Kurds have retaken their own historic territories and smaller minorities have been shoved to the side.

Over the last year, sectarian cleansing has often occurred with reluctant American connivance. Our troops have watched helplessly as neighbors have driven out neighbors, and the walls that U.S. troops build help freeze the new sectarian boundaries in place. In Washington, the administration still speaks of a unified Iraqi central government and "national reconciliation," but in practice, we've gained a respite from violence in part because we've given up on reconciliation and accepted sectarian segregation as the new status quo.

In other words, for all the early rhetoric about benchmarks, "political progress" and reconciliation, the truth is that most Washington insiders accept that we're heading toward a different and much grimmer version of Iraq. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group comments: "Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias. The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone."

We used to say we wanted freedom and democracy. But these days, we'll settle for more warlords, more segregation and fewer bodies.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

I am not surprised that this will be the new reality of Iraq. The ridiculous premise that by good intentions, firepower, and diplomacy alone we could establish a stable Western-style democracy in a land with absolutely no historical precedent was foolish logic at best.

Now we've resorted to punitive methods of restraining violence that do nothing to neither combat, nor even address the issues that put them there in the first place.