Among the most under reported stories in the coverage of the Iraq crisis this week was that of the truce between rival Shi'ite militia leaders Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Together these two groups command the majority of Shi'ite paramilitary power in Iraq, thus their reconciliation, should it last, would remove one major fracture line of instability from the perilously fragile edifice of the Iraqi body politic. Little attention has been paid this development, perhaps in no small part because (like so many positive developments in Iraq) it is difficult to explain by reference to any proactive policy undertaken by the United States.
What, then, is the proximal cause of this truce? There are likely to be many factors, large and small, personal and societal, that have brought these two leaders to the table. The most obvious and profound change in the strategic landscape they inhabit, however, also has the greatest power to explain their current tactical choices. In recent weeks Great Britain has accelerated its withdrawal of forces from its zone of occupation in southern Iraq, a policy that Prime Minister Gordon Brown made clear this week would be carried rapidly forward to totality. That zone of occupation is (not so) coincidentally the area of Iraq in which Shi'ite militia power has operated most preeminently, and which has seen the bitterest fighting between SCIRI and the Mahdi Army over control of the organs of local power.
It is the withdrawal of British forces first and foremost that has compelled al-Sadr and al-Hakim to make peace. As long as the British garrisoned southern Iraq both leaders (and their respective organizations) were shielded from the worst consequences of a zero-sum contest for survival. Each group felt secure in jockeying for position against the other because each was confident of Britain's impulse to move against any group that was growing too powerful relative to its rivals. No matter how bitter infighting between SCIRI and the Mahdi Army became, neither group feared total annihilation because both believed Britain would intercede before such a cataclysm ever occurred. Moreover, the presence of the British attenuated the risks of expending human and material assets in a struggle against one-another, as the presence of British forces made Shi'ite militias less vulnerable to assault by Sunni and Kurdish paramilitaries. Now that the British are leaving, the buffer that existed for the Mahdi Army and SCIRI, both between one-another and against their ethnic and sectarian enemies, has been removed.
The truce between al-Sadr and al-Hakim may not last, but it is among the most substantive steps toward normalcy and stability that any groups within Iraqi society have taken since the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. Getting even one of the myriad fault lines in Iraqi society to heal, even temporarily, is an indispensable step toward restoring civic order and rebuilding robust political institutions. Wittingly or not, the British have thus shown the US the strategic principle that may ultimately be applied with greatest effect throughout the entire operational theater of the Coalition. Disengagement is the forward course toward restored order in Iraq.
Whatever tactical impact the "surge" may have had on improving security in Baghdad, US leaders cannot point to any discrete strategic improvement as profound as the Sadr-Hakim truce that it has effected since it was implemented. The surge is not an innovative plan, it is basically a variation of the "Oil Spot Strategy" proposed by Andrew Krepenevich back in 2005. Part of what Krepenevich prescribed seems to have been achieved in Baghdad, in very relative terms. Baghdad is becoming more orderly by virtue of having fewer dramatic attacks by Sunni militants and fewer sectarian killings by Shi'ite militias. In order for the second prescriptive element of the "oil spot" plan to take effect, however (for the orderliness of parts of Baghdad to "seep out" through ever greater areas of Iraq as an oil spot steadily pervades the fibers of a piece of cloth), "the surge" would have to operate on a truly strategic rather than purely a tactical foundation.
What is that strategic basis? As the new counterinsurgency manual sponsored by the current custodian of the surge, General David Petraeus, declares, "Long-term success in [counterinsurgency] depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule." An "oil spot" counterinsurgency strategy is only really a strategy if it serves to bolster the sovereign authority of the government against which the insurgency is waged. The surge has done nothing to bolster the sovereign authority of Nuri al-Maliki's government, it has made David Petraeus (partial) master of Baghdad while continuing to underscore the impotence of the Maliki government through fiascos like the Blackwater massacre. The surge is thus an effective counterinsurgency tactic applied in the absence of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy.
This is underscored by the other tactical arena to which Bush apologists point as vindication of the surge- the struggle against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. There Sunni tribes have been effectively recruited and armed to resist the encroachment of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a policy that has vastly amplified the effectiveness of Coalition operations in the region and greatly increased security. This development was not a product of the surge, however, but of the brutally repugnant behavior of Al Qaeda- Sunni tribes formed the Anbar Salvation Council months before the surge was contemplated by the Bush White House. Moreover, as positive a development as this is, it works at profound cross-purposes to the goal of fostering "the people's consent to government rule." The same Sunni tribes we are arming in Al Anbar are bitter enemies of the Maliki government in Baghdad, and the US alliance with them has driven them further from accepting the authority of the central government.
It would be foolish to suggest that the US should not have capitalized on the opportunity presented by the willingness of the Sunni tribes to join the fight against Al Qaeda, but it was even greater folly to embark upon such a course without taking steps to bolster the prestige and raw combat power of the central government and its armed forces. In effect the US has not been pursuing a single plan in Iraq, but has simultaneously been pursuing two mutually opposed tactical options. While the "surge" implements the principles of Krepenevich's "oil spot strategy" in Baghdad, the "bottom up" strategy being pursued in Anbar is a variation of the Biden-Gelb plan for "soft partition." The former plan hinges on a process of ever expanding centralization while the latter calls for progressive regionalism, thus the current situation is is the strategic equivalent of setting one crew to work repairing a bridge and another to begin tearing it down from the opposite bank. US leaders on both sides of the aisle grouse about the Maliki government's inability to politically reconcile with the Sunni community, but the US itself has impeded that process by enlisting Sunni tribes as allies and reducing their motivation to bargain reasonably with the Maliki regime.
Neither the tactics being pursued in Baghdad nor in Al Anbar will have lasting positive effects until we emulate the strategic principles exemplified by the British forces in the southern zone of occupation. Where the British disengagement from Iraq has driven al-Sadr and al-Hakim closer together, all of the travails of US forces in the north have only managed to drive the Sunni tribes and the Maliki government further toward positions of mutual hostility and suspicion from which civil war and anarchy become increasingly likely, if not inevitable. As long as the Bush administration remains committed to a permanent US presence in Iraq none of the tactical efforts of soldiers like General Petraeus, earnest and deeply reflective as they may be, will achieve positive strategic results. One can not fight a counterinsurgency on behalf of a government that one persistently undermines. Only when the US commits to a course of ultimate disengagement from Iraq- with the goal of having no permanent bases or significant garrison on Iraqi soil- will it be able to contribute to the restoration of civic order and robust political authority in that nation.