Key Surge Achievements Now Losing Ground

The New York Times reports that, “even as officials in the United States and Iraq made public pronouncements that reveled in Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s demise,” the group has “embarked on a wave of terror that managed to shake even an Iraqi public inured to violence”:

[D]uring the past two months, Iraq has witnessed some of its highest casualty tolls in more than two years, according to the government.

How Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has managed this unlikely turnaround — from a near spent force to a reinvigorated threat to Iraq’s democracy in a little more than two months — is a puzzle to both the Americans and Iraqis who study the insurgent group, some of whom now wonder whether the organization in Iraq can ever be entirely defeated.

“The people who said Al Qaeda in Iraq was finished were fooling themselves,” said Hadi al-Amiri, former leader of a Shiite militia and also of the Parliament’s security committee, using another name for the insurgent group. “They have sleeper cells throughout the country that have always been capable of rising up at any moment. They will not be finished in Iraq anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Sunday that hundreds of police officers, formerly members of an American-backed Sunni Anbar Awakening paramilitary force, “will be stripped of their ranks”:

The officers called the move by Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which oversees police, a threat to security in Anbar, once a stronghold of Sunni insurgent violence. In 2006, a group called the Awakening, some of them former insurgents, rose up with tribal and U.S. backing to battle al-Qaeda in Iraq. The same strategy was mirrored across the country with American backing and funding, and what became the Sons of Iraq is credited with helping calm Sunni Arab areas.

In 2007, the U.S. military transformed many of the Awakening members in Anbar into police officers. Now many, such as these 410 men, are being stripped of their ranks, are being targeted by al-Qaeda in Iraq or think the Shiite-led government is trying to get rid of them.

“This committee in the Ministry of Interior is sectarian,” said Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Awakening and a tribal leader in Anbar. “When you dismiss those who fought al-Qaeda in the streets, this is support for al-Qaeda. What I expect are dire consequences.”

The rise of the the Sunni Awakenings paramilitaries and the degradation of Al Qaeda in Iraq were, rightly or wrongly, touted as two of the key achievements of the surge in Iraq.


Another supposed achievement was the weakening of anti-American Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Articles reveling in Sadr’s demise became an entire genre unto themselves, including this classic from former occupation spokesman Dan Senor. As I wrote at the time, Senor and others really failed to grasp that Sadr was more than just a militia leader, he was a symbol of Shia suffering with considerable support among Iraq’s urban Shia underclass. The U.S. wouldn’t change this simply by beating up on the Jaysh al-Mahdi.

The U.S. beat up on the Jaysh al-Mahdi pretty bad. But as Babak Dehghanpisheh wrote in August, Sadr is now “a kingmaker in Iraqi politics,” commanding the largest single bloc in Iraqi parliament, put there by Sadr’s considerable support among Iraq’s urban Shia underclass.

It’s generally been accepted that, while the surge helped produce greater security in Iraq, it failed to facilitate the political development that was one of its goals. As Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, and Peter Juul wrote back in September 2008, the surge “froze into place the accelerated fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and has created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions.” That analysis has been pretty strongly vindicated, but now going on seven months since Iraqis have been trying to form a government, it seems that even of some of the security gains upon which the “surge success” narrative was based are dissolving as well.

And if that weren’t troubling enough, consider: This is the success we’re trying to reproduce in Afghanistan.