Friday, July 11, 2008

Was Iraq cohering before the surge?

Andrew Sullivan links to a "prescient" Sept 2006 piece by Mario Loyola in NRO titled "The Center Holding: Strength in the Iraqi Government"(free reprint with signup here). At a time when violence in Iraq was at its peak, Loyola argued that the central government was gaining power and cohesion; he forecast that the Sunni insurgency would peter out, that the militias would gradually be coopted or integrated in the central government, that Iran's influence would remain limited and fragmented, and that the Kurds would settle for autonomy without seeking independence.

Yes, this argument was prescient. What it wasn't was an argument in favor of the surge, which hadn't even been conceived. Indeed, the article's very prescience suggests that many of the positive developments that took place contiguously with the surge -- increased Iraqi army assertiveness, Sunni disillusionment with al Qaeda in Iraq, gradual subordination of Shiite militias to the central government -- might have happened in any case.

Loyola's primary arguments were that the Sunnis had no program or means of attracting wider support, that the militias were not directing their fury at the central government, that Iraqis were as wary of Iranian dominance as of American, and that Iraqi army casualties were rising in as U.S. casualties were leveling off, i.e. that the Iraqis were increasingly taking control of their own defense.

If taken as a guideline, the article would have militated against a quick drawdown of U.S. troops. But it wouldn't have pointed toward a troop buildup. Indeed, by asserting in his conclusion that the Iraqi army was standing up, Loyola implicitly suggested the Bush corollary, that the U.S. army might begin to stand down:
As the months pass, the struggle for Iraqi democracy is rapidly becoming Iraq's fight. Nearly all military operations in Iraq today are either joint or Iraqi-led. Coalition casualties have evened out, while those of the Iraqi security forces have increased dramatically. These are grim but telling statistics. Iraq's government of national unity is not out of danger yet. But given its broad representation of Iraq's communities--and the absence of any real competition--it is getting harder to see how it can fail. And victory by default is victory all the same.
We'll never know what might have happened had the U.S. chosen a course other than the surge (and of course, we don't know what will happen next in Iraq). Nor can an article that spotted nascent trends two years ago tell us what would have happened had we followed a different course. But Loyola's accurate reading of the situation at that time does highlight that the U.S. in Iraq is handmaiden, not prime mover, of Iraq's fate.

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