Monday, February 09, 2009

"I was wrong on the surge in Iraq"

February 09, 2009 Article from: The Australian WHETHER it was worth doing remains highly doubtful, and how it will end remains to be seen. But it looks as if the US is achieving some kind of success in Iraq. That is quite a mouthful from someone who strongly opposed the war from the outset. But these are the facts: Coalition military and Iraqi civilian casualties are down significantly. The level of violence is the lowest in six years. Iraq's economic growth levels are today nearly one-third higher than under Saddam Hussein. The Sadrist militia and other Shia militant groups have been halted. The Sunni Arabs who once formed the heart of the Iraqi insurgency are among the most steadfast coalition allies in the battle against al-Qa'ida. The sectarian civil war has ended. Local politics, meanwhile, is embracing the complicated but exhilarating quality of a functioning democracy. At the weekend, Iraqis voted in largely violence-free elections for local representatives, many of whom were secular candidates, in a turnout that varied from about 40 per cent in two provinces of Baghdad to 75 per cent in some Kurdish areas in the north. More than 14,000 candidates competed for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. All of this amounts to remarkable progress for a nation that only six years ago was ruled by one of the world's most bloodthirsty tyrants. Now I've long believed the Iraq invasion was unnecessary. The incompetence of president George W. Bush, and in particular the neo-conservative architects of this misbegotten venture - which has cost the US dearly in not just blood and treasure but also prestige and credibility - merely adds underlining and an exclamation point. Any threat that Saddam posed could have been dealt with via the tried and tested policy of containment (UN sanctions, naval blockade, no-fly zone). And no direct operational links existed between his secularist regime and the fundamentalist al-Qa'ida terrorists responsible for 9/11 and Bali. But, like many critics, I also believed that democracy was not an export commodity, especially in a part of the world that has had very little experience of the rule of law and market economics. With Iraq, an artificial construct from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, we sceptics even doubted whether there was such a thing as a single nation. With the mess-in-potamia, we argued, it was better to cut and run than keep digging in a hole. That was back then, two years ago when the Iraq Survey Group, among other distinguished policy thinkers, called for a phased withdrawal of US troops from an Iraq rapidly spiralling out of control. Yet the Iraq that confronts us today is not the one announced in the program and shown in the reviews since Saddam's downfall. Indeed, things are looking much more promising than anyone had the right to expect. So what happened? In the face of overwhelming opposition among even his own military and civilian advisers, not to mention the American people, Bush did not follow the script. He instead announced a surge of 20,000 US troops into Baghdad and 4000 marines to Anbar province in the country's west. The result: dramatically declining casualty rates for both US military and Iraqi civilians. According to Michael O'Hanlon, a one-time adviser to Hillary Clinton, the number of Iraqi war dead last November was 500 whereas it was 3475 in November 2006, precisely one month before the surge was announced. Ditto US military casualties. That same month, 69 Americans died in Iraq; in November 2008, 12 did. Other factors, such as militant Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's call on his army to suspend attacks against US troops, are also responsible for the staggering drop in violence. But as Peter Beinart, one of Washington's leading liberal pundits, argued recently: "If Iraq overall represents a massive stain on Bush's record, his decision to increase America's troop presence in late 2006 now looks like his finest hour." To be sure, the war is far from over, and there will be risks and uncertainty involved as Uncle Sam's boot starts to leave the ground within the next two years. Will, for instance, those age-old ethnic and tribal tensions resurface? Will a Shia majority regime consolidate a new Iraqi state or will de facto partition result in three regions, ruled by Kurds in the north, Shi'ites in the south and a Sunni Arab centre? And will, as US General David Petraeus has warned, the security gains from the US troop surge in Baghdad remain "fragile and reversible"? All good questions. But for now, as the largely violence-free weekend elections demonstrated, the situation on the ground has improved dramatically. Too bad many opponents of the war won't concede that simple fact.

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