Iraq in Perspective
IRAQ'S PROGNOSIS is better today than it has been for a long time. An end to major violence, and with it a major reduction in the risk of a wider war and the human cost of further bloodshed, is now a real possibility. But to realize this potential won't be cheap or easy. And it won't produce Eden on the Euphrates. A stable Iraq would probably look more like Bosnia or Kosovo than Japan or Germany.
This is because the likeliest route to stability in Iraq is not by winning hearts and minds or reaching a grand political bargain in Baghdad. It is by building on a rapidly expanding system of "bottom up" local cease-fires, in which individual combatant factions who retain their arms nevertheless agree to stop using them and stand down. Of course, fighters who voluntarily stop shooting can voluntarily start again; such deals are not inherently stable or self-policing. But neither are these merely accidents or brief tactical breathing spells. Cease-fires in Iraq have spread so rapidly because they reflect an underlying, systematic shift in the war's strategic calculus since early 2006 that has now made peace look better than war for the major combatants. This same strategic reality gives most of the remaining holdouts a similar incentive to stand down, which could bring an uneasy stability to Iraq.
If so, the challenge for the United States would not end. The mission would shift from war fighting to peacekeeping, and U.S. casualties would fall accordingly. But a continued presence by a substantial outside force would be essential for many years to keep a patchwork quilt of wary former enemies from turning on one another.
This was not what the administration had in mind when it designed the surge or invaded Iraq. And it will not produce a strong, internally unified, Jeffersonian democracy that spreads liberty through the Middle East while standing in alliance with America against extremist and hegemonic threats in the region. But it can stop the fighting, save the lives of untold thousands of innocent Iraqis who would otherwise die brutal, violent deaths, and secure America's remaining vital strategic interest in this conflict: that it not spread to engulf the entire Middle East in a regionwide war. Eden this is not. Reasonable people could judge it too costly or too risky. But there is now a greater chance of stability in exchange for this cost and risk than there has been since this war's early months-and given the stakes, the case for staying and doing what is needed is stronger now than it has been for years.
THE ORIGINAL idea behind the surge was to reduce the violence in Baghdad, enabling the Iraqis to negotiate the kind of national power-sharing deal we thought would be necessary to stabilize the country. The violence came down, but the compromise did not follow. Instead, a completely different possibility arose-a "bottom up" approach beginning with a group of Sunni tribal sheikhs in Anbar Province.
In a span of just a few months, this "bottom-up" approach has yielded more than one hundred local cease-fires across much of western and central Iraq. The participants agree not to fight U.S. or Iraqi government forces, to turn their arms instead on common enemies, to wear distinguishing uniforms, to patrol their home districts, to limit their activities to those home districts and to provide coalition forces with biometric data (e.g., fingerprints and retinal scans) for all members. In exchange they receive recognition as legitimate security providers in their districts, a pledge that they will not be fired upon by U.S. or Iraqi government forces as long as they observe their end of the agreement and a U.S.-provided salary of $300 per member per month. More than eighty thousand Iraqis have now joined the "Awakening Councils" or "Concerned Local Citizen" (CLC) groups that implement these deals.
This was very bad news for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The CLC members had once been their allies, providing the safe houses, financial support, intelligence and concealment that had been essential to AQI. Without this, al-Qaeda was left exposed to U.S. firepower in ways it had never been before. Their ensuing heavy losses in Anbar and Baghdad drove AQI's remnants into the limited areas of Diyala, Salah ad Din and Ninawa Provinces where CLC deals had not yet been reached.
The CLCs are mostly Sunni. But many of the principal Shia combatants are now observing their own cease-fires. In particular, in August 2007 Moktada al-Sadr, the principal Shia militia warlord in central Iraq, directed his Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) or "Mahdi Army" militia to stand down, too.
Holdouts remain, especially in the northern provinces between Baghdad and Kurdistan. But by January 2008, most of the major combatants on both the Sunni and Shia sides were all observing voluntary cease-fires. This produced a dramatic reduction in opposition, a dramatic reduction in the number of enemy-initiated attacks, and a corresponding reduction in U.S. casualties, Iraqi civilian deaths and Iraqi government military losses. There are no guarantees, but it is now increasingly plausible that enough of today's holdouts can be brought around to bring something resembling a nationwide cease-fire to Iraq.