Why Bush’s troop surge won’t save Iraq
By Juan Cole
The influx of U.S. troops brought a relative lull in violence — but the failing state remains in political chaos and is headed for collapse.
Dec. 4, 2007 | Appearing on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia gave some needed perspective on the U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq. Webb, a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, recently returned from a visit to Iraq. He said that it was inaccurate to attribute the recent reduction in violence entirely to Bush’s troop escalation. Moreover, Webb said that any security improvements in Iraq would only help if accompanied by political progress. He criticized the administration for “the failure for the last five years to match the quality of our military performance with robust regional diplomacy.”
Webb was correct to point out that the only truly good news to come from Iraq would be good news regarding the political landscape. And there, Iraq is still beset with problems. In recent days, parts of northern Iraq have been invaded by Turkey, an ally of the United States. In Baghdad, Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout to defend their leader, whose bodyguards were implicated in fashioning car bombs. Proposed legislation reducing sanctions against Sunni Arabs who once belonged to the Baath Party nearly produced a riot in parliament. Meanwhile, Britain and Australia, among Bush’s few remaining allies with combat troops in Iraq, are planning to depart in 2008, raising questions about security in the key southern port city of Basra, the major route for the country’s lucrative oil exports.
What the recent publicity about the “success” of the troop surge has ignored is this: The Bush administration has downplayed the collapsing political situation in Iraq by directing the public’s attention to fluctuating numbers of civilians killed. While there have been some relative gains in security recently, even there the picture remains dubious. The Iraqi ministry of health, long known for cooking the books, says that a few hundred Iraqis were killed in political violence in November. However, independent observers such as Iraq Body Count cite a much higher number — some 1,100 civilians killed in Iraq in November. They reported that bombings and assassinations accounted for 63 persons on Saturday, the first day of December, alone.
Indeed, the “good news” of a lull in violence is relative at best. In fact, Iraq’s overall death rate makes it among the worst civil conflicts in the world. Even if one accepted the official Iraqi government statistics, the average number of Iraqi deaths directly attributable to political violence in the past three full months has been around 700 per month. That pace, if maintained, would work out to about 8,400 deaths a year. (I am citing the kind of war statistics produced by passive information gathering such as in newspapers. Using a more comprehensive public health study such as the one that appeared in the Lancet last year, which takes into account deaths from criminal violence and insecurity generally, would result in much higher numbers.) In all of Northern Ireland’s troubles over 30 years, only about 3,000 persons are thought to have been killed. In Kashmir since 1989, some 40,000 to 90,000 persons have been killed in communal and guerrilla violence; if we take the higher number, that’s roughly 419 killed per month. Perhaps only Somalia and Sudan witness killings on that scale, and no one would say that “good news” is coming out of either of those places.
The current “good news” campaign from the Bush administration regarding the troop surge is only the latest in a long history of whitewashing the war since the 2003 invasion. First, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied that there was massive looting following the fall of Baghdad. Then he denied that there was a rising guerrilla war. Then, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani maneuvered an unwilling Bush administration into holding relatively free elections, the victory of Shiite fundamentalists close to Iran was obscured by the “purple thumb” good news campaign. That is, the administration focused on the democratic process and relative success of the voting, diverting attention from the bad news that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq had taken over.
Later, it was good news when the Iraqi parliament produced a theocratic constitution with all the weaknesses of the U.S. Articles of Confederation, even though all three Sunni-majority provinces rejected it in the subsequent referendum. What was in the constitution was not important, only that it existed. The Bush administration has heralded any number of such “milestones” reached, but not whether they led to worthwhile results.
Obscured by these “milestones” is that the orgy of violence in Iraq has displaced 2 million persons abroad and another 2 million internally, and left tens of thousands dead. But now the “good news” is that the guerrillas appear not to have been able to keep up the pace of violence characteristic of 2006 and early 2007, even if the pace they maintain today is horrific.
Moreover, the relative reduction in violence is artificial and probably cannot endure. Blast walls enclose once posh Baghdad districts like Adhamiya, but although they keep out death squads they also keep out the customers that shopkeepers depend on. When a Baghdad pet market was bombed recently, it was revealed that the US military had banned vehicles in its vicinity for some time, but allowed cars to drive there again just a few days before the bombing. Vehicle bans are effective, but not practical in the medium or long term. When they end, what will prevent the bombs from returning?
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