New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 31 Jul 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

THE SURGE: How much of a success?

By Andy Zelleke and Robert Dujarric

Published: July 31, 2008


A conventional wisdom has emerged that, whatever one thinks about the Iraq war more broadly, the American troop "surge" was an unequivocal success. John McCain is hotly challenging Barack Obama's claim to good judgment, citing the Illinois senator's earlier opposition to the surge and his continuing refusal to admit he was wrong.


But did the surge really work?


Arguments in its favour have focused on the reduction of violence. Various metrics, from Americans killed to the number of corpses dumped at local morgues, are advanced to validate its success. But this line of thought confuses stability with American interests. Stability in allied countries is, of course, highly desirable and strategically significant. But is it clear that the government in Baghdad will remain an American ally after the military leaves, whether that's in 16 months, two years, or five years?


The fever-pitched debate over judgment and the surge has ducked the single most critical issue: whether the Maliki government - undoubtedly now more effective in carrying out a government's business as a result of the larger American troop presence - and its likely Shiite successors will prove to be strong allies of the United States and bulwarks against Tehran. If not, then the surge will have served Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's and Tehran's strategic interests - but not those of the United States.


To be sure, the surge has produced some benefit for the United States and for the Iraqi people.

First, the relative quiet produced by the surge permits the United States to withdraw its forces far more safely than if the country were in flames; if this opportunity is seized, the surge will have made an important contribution.


Second, the broad acceptance of the orthodoxy that the surge has fundamentally "succeeded" at least provides cover for Washington to position the American withdrawal as deliberate and on its own terms and timeline, rather than a case of being chased out by its adversaries.


Third, as a humanitarian matter, it leaves innocent Iraqi civilians with a situation more stable than chaotic - at least for now - which for most Iraqis is understandably preferable to the alternative, even for the Sunni minority that is (and, given demographics, probably will continue to be) mostly on the outside of government looking in.


That said, an assessment of whether the surge has fundamentally succeeded must be made at the most strategic level. And that is where it falls short.


One of America's principal goals of invading Iraq was to break out of the impasse of the dual containment of Iraq and Iran pursued by the Clinton administration. By establishing a pro-American government in Baghdad, the United States would gain leverage against Tehran.


But five years into this war, there is little visibility into how a post-U.S. occupation Iraqi government will deal with Tehran - and with Washington - after the American departure; and what little there is isn't promising.


Historical animosity between Persians and Arabs, combined with conflicting national interests, may impede the emergence of a full-fledged Iran-Iraq axis. Many senior Iraqi Shiite leaders spent years in exile in Iran; and it would be prudent to assume that some of them have become Iranian agents, whether out of conviction or coercion. It would also be extraordinary if Iran had not taken advantage of Saddam Hussein's downfall to infiltrate numerous low-level operatives as well as senior spies and agents in government, business, the army, and the clergy into Iraq.


The surge clearly succeeded in reducing violence and in bolstering the Maliki government. But whenever its forces leave Iraq, as eventually they must, the United States will have bequeathed to Iraqis - and to Americans - a new Iraqi state far more permeable to Iranian influence than the one that it destroyed.


Is that the kind of "success" the civilian strategists had in mind?


Andy Zelleke is a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and codirector of its Centre for Public Leadership. Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University Japan in Tokyo.