Sunday, March 9, 2008

Surge, Success or Not? (updated 3/12)

Is the surge working? Is the U.S. headed for "victory" in Iraq? Quo vadimus? The in-your-face, wall-to-wall level of Iraq coverage has receded, the meme that the surge has “worked” has taken hold in the popular consciousness. With a year having passed since President Bush announced the surge, it is time to take a look to see where we stand.

There are wide extremes of opinion. At one end are those that "pushed" the war, who now claim vindication and that ultimate success is at hand. This is exemplified by Charles Krauthammer. In an editorial entitled Democrat's bullheadedness on Iraq victory confounding, he states "... the sectarian civil strife that the Democrats insisted was the reason for us to leave dwindles to the point of near disappearance....", and "... Democrats ... would deny their own country a now achievable victory…"

On the other hand we have some Democrats who, while agreeing that the surge is working, point out that it was not a goal unto itself, but instead intended to buy sufficient "breathing room" for the Government of Iraq to achieve political reconciliation… and this is not happening, rendering the success of the surge moot.

The truth is more nuanced - consideration of all the surrounding circumstances indicate that there have been significant reductions in the level of violence. However, a) the actual success of the surge in reducing violence is insufficient (despite what seems to be the prevailing opinion in the U.S.), b) it is very difficult to isolate the effects of the surge from other factors occurring at the same time, to really determine its exact effect and sustainability, and finally, c) it is even harder to predict whether its successes can be maintained as time passes and troop levels decrease.

First, concerning the reduction in violence, a little mathematics is in order to put things in perspective. Given the approximate levels of violence before the surge started (approximately 2,000 civilian casualties per month and 2 VBIED/IEDs per day) a 90% reduction in violence would still leave Iraq one of the most violent places in the world, with 200 civilian deaths and 5 IEDs a month. The 60% to 75% reduction in violence that has been achieved is indeed welcome, but given the calculations above still far short of what is needed. While sixty percent, seventy percent, and eighty percent are very impressive sounding numbers, reductions of ninety, ninety five percent, and higher are what is needed. In point of fact, the last full month, February 2008, showed a significant uptick in the numbers of attacks, civilian casualties, etc. The incidents during February included the kidnapping of an archbishop, the deaths of several senior army and police officers (colonels, Brigadier Generals, etc.), the murders of professors, students, lawyers, a provincial governor, senior clerics, and local sheikhs. By what stretch of the imagination can this be considered even close to acceptable for a society? Characterizing this level of violence as "near disappearance" is pathological.

Second, preceding and concurrent with the surge there has been a massive displacement of the population. An estimated two million internal and two million externally-displaced persons has left many areas cleansed, which has also contributed to the reductions in violence. As part of the effort to reduce violence extreme measures have been taken. For example, to pacify Samarra, an earthen berm was built around the town and the entrances and exits to the town reduced to a small number of checkpoints, severely curtailing the movements of the population. The population has shrunk drastically, unemployment is very high, conditions bleak. Many areas of Baghdad have also been walled off and checkpoints have proliferated… However, this is not tenable in the long run, what will the effect be when these measures are relaxed? If/when refugees return to their homes and want them back? Will the level of violence stay where it is or simply go back up? It is almost impossible to forecast, but claiming victory is very premature…

Of Interest - An Alternative (Economic) Perspective:
An alternative methodology comes to us in the form of a September 2007 paper 'Is the Surge Working? Some New Facts', by Michael Greenstone. This paper attempts to evaluate if the surge is working by examining the trends in a number of indices ranging from military and civilian casualties, to the availability of electricity, to oil production, and the performance of Iraqi bonds (which should reflect the international financial markets' overall assessment of Iraq's future). The analysis reveals mixed success as measured by these indicators, and in fact a decline in the bonds' values shows that there has been a 40% increase in the markets' expectation that Iraq will default on its bonds i.e. fail in the long run...

UPDATE 03/12/2008. Some recent updates on the violence levels:

Iraq Attacks Lower, but Steady, New Figures Show

Violence Across Iraq Kills at Least 42

And for the positive side, see:

March 11th Dawn Patrol at The Mudville Gazette

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