Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ethnic cleansing and the Surge: What really explains the improved conditions in Iraq?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

In a typically
excellent piece at Slate yesterday, Fred Kaplan argued that an Iraq-style "surge" just wouldn't work in Afghanistan.

What he also argued -- and he has argued it before -- is that the "surge" in Iraq hasn't been nearly as successful as its main boosters, such as McCain, would have us believe. At most, it's been successful "to a limited degree" with security improving in Baghdad and, on the whole, "[c]asualties, insurgent attacks, and roadside bombings" down.

But, even there, the "surge" has only been partly responsible for the improved conditions: "The biggest cause was the 'Sunni Awakening,' in which Sunni tribes reached out to form alliances with U.S. forces -- at the tribal leaders' initiative, before the surge began -- in order to beat back the Islamist jihadists of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom they had come to hate more than they hated the American occupiers." The U.S. essentially made a deal with the Sunnis. It is a relationship of convenience that has served both sides fairly well.

But in larger political terms -- and I do understand that improved security and fewer casualties is hugely significant -- the "surge" hasn't proven to be much of a success: "As anyone who's read
Clausewitz knows, war is fought for political aims -- it is not won until those aims are achieved -- and this war's aims are not yet within sight: a stable, self-sustaining, democratic Iraq whose government is an ally in the war on terror."


And yet, there may be another cause, one perhaps just as significant as, if not even more significant than, the so-called "Sunni Awakening." Reuters

Satellite images taken at night show heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence, according to a report published on Friday.

The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

Minority Sunni Arabs were driven out of many neighborhoods by Shi'ite militants enraged by the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006. The bombing, blamed on the Sunni militant group al Qaeda, sparked a wave of sectarian violence.

"By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left," geography professor John Agnew of the University of California Los Angeles, who led the study, said in a statement.

"Essentially, our interpretation is that violence has declined in Baghdad because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning," said Agnew, who studies ethnic conflict.

In other words, violence dropped simply because there were no longer as many people to be violent towards as there were before. This would explain the improvement in conditions generally, or at least the perception of such improvement. The "surge" didn't quell the sectarian violence because the sectarianism had already taken care of itself. Simply put, if you kill a lot of people, and a lot of people leave, there won't be as many people left to kill.

So what now? I think there is good reason to suspect that the sectarianism is merely on hold, with both sides -- all sides -- waiting for the right time to strike.

McCain and his warmongering ilk can spin the situation all they want. The truth is that their "surge" was only of limited and likely temporary success, with Iraq still as divided as ever.

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  • Just one problem, Agnew's December 16 2007 data, which was supposed to show less prosperity (as reflected by the lights) was taken at 11:00 PM. All the other data sets were taken at 9:00 PM.

    Fewer lights at 11PM than at 9PM ? Well, duh.

    By Blogger lumberjack, at 3:37 PM  

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