Most wars move not at a steady pace but in a series of fits and starts. For about half a year, we have been enjoying something of a lull in the war in Iraq. Anything that reduces casualties is to be welcomed. But the bulletins’ claims that the downward trend in violence will continue should be seen more as political vaporing than military analysis. Events begin to suggest that the lull is ending and Mars is in the ascendant.
To make a prognosis, we first must understand why we have enjoyed a period of relative quiet. There are four basic causes. In order of importance, they are:
- Al Qaeda’s alienation of much of its Sunni base, to the point where many Sunni insurgents changed sides. As I have pointed out before, al Qaeda in Iraq made a common error of revolutionary movements: it attempted to impose its program before it had consolidated power. As best I can see from Olympus, it seems to be persisting in that error, perhaps because its loose discipline does not allow it to do otherwise. That is good news for us. But we dare not forget that in 4GW, all alliances are temporary. The Sunni Awakening militias like our money but they don’t much like us.
- Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to order his Mahdi Army to observe a truce, now extended to August of this year. The truce remains in his interest, because he needs to husband his strength for a winner-take-all final gambit.
- Moving many U.S. troops off their FOBs and into neighborhoods where they can try to protect the population.
- Last and least, the "surge." This usefully added some additional troops for #3, but without the former move it would have simply created more Fobbits. A question I have not seen addressed is what percentage of the troops for #3 were already in the country. My bet is a large majority.
If we look at where each of these is now going, we see rough water ahead:
- Al Qaeda in Iraq and other anti-U.S. forces (there are many) are both attacking and penetrating Sunni militias now working with U.S. forces; the latter is likely to prove more effective. U.S. forces are also killing Sunni militiamen who are working with us, by accident of course, but sufficiently often to strain relations. Much of this results from our counter-productive and just plain stupid continued use of air power in a country we occupy. American attack aircraft are al Qaeda’s (and the Taliban’s) best friends. The most powerful alienating factor is the irreconcilable hostility between most Sunnis and the Shiite government in Baghdad. The Sunnis know we created the government and remain allied to it. The government fears any armed Sunnis. We are left with one foot on the boat and one on the dock, a position that is difficult to sustain indefinitely.
- Muqtada al-Sadr is feeling increasing pressure from his "street" to respond to U.S. attacks (again, often by aircraft) on Shiite neighborhoods. He has quietly been using U.S. and Iraqi government forces to "whack" dissenters within his own movement. But this can easily blow back on him. At this point his "street cred" is or soon will be on the line, at which point he has to respond or see his militia fragment (which is the natural tendency of everything in 4GW). The Mahdi Army can send U.S. casualties soaring overnight.
- Any rise in American casualties means politicians in Washington will want U.S. troops to head back to the FOBs. The absurd American definition of "force protection" means many within the military will want to do the same. Petraeus will stay the course (in this case, rightly), but he’s on his way out. Having gotten this right doesn’t mean we won’t get it wrong again.
- The extra troops brought over by the surge will go home this summer. Again, this is far less important than what the remaining troops do, and points #1 and #2 also, but it is a factor.
The main story of the current lull is one of lost opportunity. Whether soon or in the more distant future, the war in Iraq will get hotter again. The lull gave us what might be our only opportunity to leave Iraq with some tailfeathers intact. Just as the Bush administration’s blindness got us into this war, so its rigidity made us pass over our best chance to get out. Like opportunity, Mars only knocks once. Next time, he blows the building.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.