Zakaria: Stuck in the Iraq Loop

There is a paradox in the current situation in Iraq. We are told that the surge has worked brilliantly and violence is way down. And yet the plan to reduce troop levels—which was at the heart of the original surge strategy—must be postponed or all hell will once again break loose. Making sense of this paradox is critical. Because in certain crucial ways things are not improving in Iraq, and unless they start improving soon, the United States faces the awful prospect of an unending peacekeeping operation—with continuing if limited casualties—for years to come.

In a brilliant and much-circulated essay written in August 2007, "Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt," David Kilcullen, a veteran Australian officer who advised Gen. David Petraeus during the early days of the surge, wrote, "Our dilemma in Iraq is, and always has been, finding a way to create a sustainable security architecture that does not require 'Coalition-in-the-loop,' thereby allowing Iraq to stabilize and the Coalition to disengage in favorable circumstances." We have achieved some security in Iraq, though even this should not be overstated. (Violence is still at 2005 levels, which were pretty gruesome.) But we have not built a sustainable security architecture.

How does one create a self-sustaining process that leads to stability? Do we need more troops? Longer rotations? Kilcullen points in a different direction: "Taking the Coalition out of the loop and into 'overwatch' requires balancing competing armed interest groups at the national and local level." In other words, we need to help forge a political bargain by which Iraq's various groups agree to live together and not dominate one another. "These [groups] are currently not in balance," Kilcullen wrote, "due in part to the sectarian biases of certain players and institutions of the new Iraqi state, which promotes a belief by Sunnis that they will be the permanent victims of the new Iraq. This belief creates space for terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, and these groups in turn drive a cycle of violence that keeps Iraq unstable and prevents us from disengaging."

Watching the recent spike in suicide bombings, one has to wonder if we are watching precisely that cycle start up again. The sectarian tensions in Iraq have not improved much. The Sunni militias—who switched sides over the past six months—have developed some trust for the United States but little for the Iraqi Army. Reports suggest that as the Iraqi Army gets stronger and better trained, and gets more expensive weapons—none of which are shared with the Sunnis—the latter are becoming more worried that they have made a bad decision. In the crucial province of Diyala last week, thousands of members of "Concerned Local Citizens" groups (CLCs) stopped working in protest over the sectarian activities of the local police force and its chief. U.S. officers have kept promising that a significant number of CLC members would be given jobs in the regular Army and police. That does not appear to be happening anywhere near as fast as it should. At the same time, the new provincial elections that Sunnis and many Shiite groups have demanded for years have once again been delayed. Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar province, publicly warned that if these polls were not held as promised by Oct. 1, it could mean more violence.

There has been some positive news reported in the past few weeks. On closer examination, it is more hype than reality. Two of the laws passed, one reversing de-Baathification and the other offering a limited amnesty to former insurgents, have been worded in such a way that much will depend on how they are implemented—by the Shiite government. The reason these assurances were written into law in binding terms was, of course, that Sunnis place so little trust in the good will and fairness of that government. When Baghdad promises to administer oil revenue wisely and fairly, though there is no law telling it precisely what to do, its claims are met with mistrust and unease by the Sunnis and the Kurds.

A Pentagon report to Congress last week admitted that "all four components of the hydrocarbon law are stalled." The law on provincial elections passed but was then vetoed by the presidency council, specifically by Shiite Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, whose party now runs most of southern Iraq and does not wish to take its chances in new elections. And it's worth noting that the laws that passed did so only after months of intense wrangling, which produced an 82–82 tie that was broken by the Sunni speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Finally, all these measures I've mentioned add up to only three or four of the 18 benchmarks set out by the Maliki government and the Bush administration to judge their own progress.

It's possible that the uptick in violence, the tensions in Diyala and other such signs are just twists and turns in Iraq's troubled path. That is probably the way they will be read in the current atmosphere of self-congratulation in Washington. But they might also be signs that the architects of the surge—chiefly General Petraeus—were right all along when they said that the purpose of the military deployment was to buy time for Iraqis to make political progress. One year into the surge, five years into the war, those metrics have not improved. That's why American troops remain stuck "in the loop" in Iraq.