In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a new approach to the war in Iraq. At the time, violence appeared to be out of control, and Democrats were demanding that the administration start winding down the war.
But rather than “give up the goal of winning,” as he said, Bush decided to ramp up U.S. efforts. With a “surge” in troops, a new emphasis on counter-insurgency and new commanders he argued, the situation could be turned around.
More than a year on, conventional wisdom holds that the surge has paid off. U.S. casualties are down from their peak in mid-2007, the level of violence is lower than at any point since 2005 and Baghdad seems the safest it has been since the fall of Saddam’s regime five years ago.
Some backers of the surge even argue that victory on Washington’s terms is in sight.
Unfortunately, such claims misconstrue the causes of the recent fall in violence. The surge has changed the situation only in conjunction with other developments: the grim successes of ethnic cleansing, the tactical quiescence of the Shiite militias, and a series of deals between U.S. forces and Sunni tribes that constitute a new bottom-up approach to pacifying Iraq.
The surge may have brought transitory successes—although if a spate of attacks in February is any indication, the decrease in violence may already be over—but it has done so by stoking forces that have traditionally threatened the stability of Middle Eastern states: tribalism and sectarianism. States that have failed to control these forces have ultimately become ungovernable.
The Baathists who took power in Iraq in 1968 were keenly aware of this. They explicitly rejected “religious sectarianism, racism and tribalism . . . the remnants of colonialism.” The tribes, in their minds, were inevitable rivals of a centralizing state.
After taking over in 1979, Saddam Hussein leaned on his own tribal networks, but suppressed other tribal activity. He relented only during the Iran-Iraq war, when he was forced to rely on all tribes to maintain order on the periphery.
The Gulf War, and the sanctions that followed, accelerated these trends. In effect, Saddam fostered the tribalism he had tried to eradicate.
Iraq’s Arab neighbors, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, won stability by corralling the tribes via reward and punishment. Elsewhere, as in Yemen, failure to rope the tribes into the state created a dysfunctional country. Islamabad’s failure to absorb its Pashtun population now threatens the viability of the Pakistani state.
Sectarianism has also been fueled among Sunni insurgents, current and former, who think that the surge was intended to help them regain power. On the other side, it has led the Baghdad government to distrust its U.S. backers.
Thus, when it withdraws from Iraq, the United States will be leaving a country more divided than the one it invaded, thanks to a strategy that has systematically nourished domestic rivalries in order to maintain an illusory short-term stability.
At this stage, the United States has no good option in Iraq. But the drawbacks of the current bottom-up approach demand a course change in the form of a return to a top-down strategy. Washington must return to the kind of diplomacy that the Bush administration has largely neglected.
What the United States could not do unilaterally, it must try to do with others, including neighboring countries, European allies and the United Nations. In order to achieve that, Washington must make a public commitment to a phased withdrawal.
Announcing a withdrawal will entail risks. Aware that U.S. forces will finally be departing, Iraqi factions might begin to prepare for a new round of fighting. Sunnis, fearing Shiite attacks, might resuscitate their alliance with Al Qaeda. The Shiite government might tighten links with Tehran , or encourage militia violence. It is all the more vital, therefore, that the drawdown take place as part of a comprehensive diplomatic strategy designed to limit these risks.
For this, many things will have to happen in a carefully coordinated chain of actions: Washington has to announce that it will begin withdrawing the bulk of its forces. The UN secretary general, with the backing of the Security Council, must select a special envoy. A contact group of key states must be formed under UN sponsorship. Priorities and milestones will need to be set for the distribution of resources within Iraq, the recruitment of Sunnis to the army and police, provincial elections, foreign investment, dealing with refugees, and development assistance.
Crucially, the phasing of the troop drawdown will have to mesh with this diplomatic process—but not hinge on its ultimate success. This course is risky and possibly futile. Yet it is still a better bet than a short-term fix divorced from any larger political vision for Iraq.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.