WASHINGTON - Exactly one year after U.S. President George W. Bush announced that he would significantly increase the number of troops deployed to Iraq, the wisdom of his so-called "surge" strategy remains very much in dispute here.
While even many Democrats, who have sought in vain to reverse the strategy since it was first announced, now concede that it has helped reduce the violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, critics say that its ultimate political objective -- national reconciliation between Iraq's three major ethnic and sectarian groups -- remains as distant as ever.
Some even argue that the surge, which added some 30,000 troops to the 140,000 deployed to Iraq at the time of Bush's announcement, may actually have enhanced prospects for a bloodier civil war by effectively permitting the warring sides -- now more demographically segregated than ever -- to re-group and re-arm in anticipation of a new round of bloodletting as U.S. troops withdraw.
"The thing that worries me most of all is what happens over the next 12 to 24 months in Iraq," ret. Army Gen. Douglas MacGregor, an outspoken critic of U.S. strategy in the Iraq war since the 2003 invasion, told National Public Radio (NPR) earlier this week. "Could we have actually made matters worse in the long term?"
The surge, which actually got underway in February under the command of Gen. David Petraeus, was designed primarily to increase U.S. troop strength and military operations in a way that would both halt the slide into all-out civil war between the Sunni and Shi'a communities and provide greater security to all sides.
The goal, in Bush's words, was to provide the Shi'a-dominated government with "the breathing space it needs" to "make reconciliation [with the Sunni insurgency] possible".
As laid out by Bush one year ago, that reconciliation would be signaled by the passage by Iraq's National Assembly of key legislative "benchmarks", including a reform of the de-Ba'athification programme; an oil law that would ensure equitable distribution of the revenue gained from Iraq's energy resources; and constitutional reforms that, among other things, would result in provincial elections in 2007.
There is little doubt that violence in Iraq, and especially in Baghdad and al Anbar province, has fallen dramatically. According to statistics assembled by Petraeus' command, attacks against both civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces have fallen by 60 percent since just last summer when the surge reached its full strength, and even compared to the all-time high of December 2006 when more than 1,500 deaths from ethnic or sectarian violence were recorded in Baghdad alone.
At the same time, however, a major debate has broken out over how much that decline was due to the surge itself. While the more aggressive counter-insurgency tactics pursued by Petraeus may have played an important role in the capital, in particular, experts point as well to other factors that were not directly related to the surge itself.
Indeed, by the time the surge got underway, the process of "sectarian cleansing" in formerly mixed Shi'a-Sunni neighbourhoods in and around Baghdad had been mostly completed, thus reducing a major catalyst for sectarian violence.
Many analysts also point to the pre-surge decision by key Sunni tribal groups, initially in al Anbar province, to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq. By deciding that al Qaeda was the dangerous enemy, the so-called "Sunni Awakening" movement, led in many cases by former Ba'athists, became de facto U.S. allies, effectively pacifying the region where U.S. forces had suffered the highest casualty rates in the war.
Similarly, the decision by Shi'a cleric Moqtada al Sadr to order his powerful Mahdi Army to stand down -- largely as a result of the popular backlash caused by its operations in Najaf, according to one Pentagon consultant, ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey -- has also helped reduce bloodshed.
In any event, the reductions in violence have been hailed by the surge's defenders as proof that the strategy has been a brilliant success, comparable, according to some particularly enthusiastic right-wing commentators, to George Washington's victory over the British or General Grant's defeat of the Confederacy in the U.S. civil war.
Indeed, Weekly Standard editors Fred Barnes and William Kristol named Petraeus as the "Man of the Year" and described his counter-insurgency campaign, particularly his alliance with the Awakening movement, renamed Concerned Local Citizens (CLCs), as a "strategic breakthrough" for U.S. goals in the "broader Middle East".
Even Petraeus, however, cautions that declarations of victory are premature, not only because of the scheduled withdrawal of the 30,000 surge troops over the next six months, but also because the tactics he has employed have not yet translated into real progress at the national level in achieving the reconciliation that Bush set as the strategic objective one year ago.
Indeed, the Pentagon's top Middle East aide, Mark Kimmitt, told the right-wing Heritage Foundation earlier this week that 2008 will likely be "far more difficult" than 2007 because Washington will have to "depend far more on the Iraqis themselves" to achieve reconciliation. He rated the chances of sustaining the security gains achieved during the past year at only "50-50".
That appears to be the assessment of many independent observers, including some key surge boosters, such as McCaffrey, who has also expressed doubt as to whether the surge's gains on the security front are sustainable in the face of the U.S. drawdown and the absence of progress on the political front.
A particular point of contention at this point is the future of the Sunni Awakening, re-named CLCs, more than 80,000 of whom are currently being paid and equipped by the U.S. military. Washington is pushing hard for them to be integrated into the official, Shi'a-dominated Iraqi security forces, but the Maliki government is worried that they will eventually turn their guns against it.
"There has been no strategy for integrating these militias into the Shi'a central government, which now feels threatened by the growing power of the Sunnis," according to a new report by the National Security Network. "In the long run, this approach threatens to further split Iraq and exacerbate sectarian tensions."
"We need to understand that buying off your enemy is a good, short-term solution to gain a respite from violence, but it's not a long-term solution to creating a legitimate political order inside a country that, quite frankly, is recovering from the worst sort of civil war," said MacGregor. "...Are we not actually setting Iraq up for a worse civil war than the one we've already seen?"
© 2008 Inter Press Service