Friday, March 28, 2008

Peak "Surge Success"

NOTE: Early post this week as I'll be traveling for the next few days. Next post will be Monday, April 7th.

The much hailed success of the “Surge” of American forces in Iraq, led by Gen. David Petraeus, is beginning to fall apart. It’s important to understand why it worked (temporarily), why it’s falling apart now, why this will be a gradual disintegration, and why this was inevitable all along.

The surge provided impressive initial results. Why? While many cite the shiny new & improved counterinsurgency approach implemented by Gen. Petraeus, which did manage to seize upon a period where Shi’a groups were temporarily electing cease fire over insurrection for reasons discussed below, there is a potentially more significant trend behind the (until recently) reduction in violence. What has often been termed the “Sunni Awakening,” where Sunni insurgents miraculously decided that violence is counter-productive and that they should join with the Americans and fight al-Qa’ida, is probably more accurately understood as the “short-sighted Sunni pay-off.” The Americans, acting both independently and through the Iraqi government, leveraged Sunni tribal leaders, provincial officials, and existing militia leaders by offering them a deal they couldn’t refuse: stop fighting us, put up at least a convincing guise of “fighting al-Qa’ida,” and we’ll pay you huge sums of money, arm you, and give you legitimacy. This worked great, especially considering that the Shi’a militas that had been conducting what was essentially ethnic cleansing against Sunni neighborhoods had either 1) finished successfully, or 2) declared self-imposed cease fires to improve their political position within the Shi’a political block. Absent the ongoing catalyst for tit-for-tat sectarian attacks, the Sunni seized upon a huge opportunity. Seizing upon America’s inability to sacrifice without payoff for more than two to four years (as driven by domestic political cycles), the Sunnis knew that they could use America’s desire for some kind of positive news about Iraq now to arm and prepare themselves for the inevitable conflict with the Shi’a down the road. As long as the sectarian violence remains in the background, the Sunnis will continue to take all the arms and funding they can get, and are happy to temporarily refrain from violence against Americans in the mean time. This is, of course, a generalization, as many Sunni groups, to include al-Qa’ida in Iraq, haven’t bought into this program, but to the extend that the Surge has produced results, this has been the main drive.

The success of the surge is falling apart now, in part, because Moqtada al-Sadr is seizing a political opportunity presented by the weakened Prime Minister Maliki. Maliki is either greedy or simply short-sighted in his quest to please his imperial overlords, hoping to show that his government was capable of taking charge of its own security just in time for the Petraeus report to the US Congress. Sadr’s Mahdi Army recently extended its self-imposed cease fire, but thanks to Maliki’s misstep can now claim more legitimate self-defense. So Sadr is using this opportunity to “justly” demonstrate his capability to drag Iraq into chaos and quite possibly remove Maliki from power by resisting the government from Baghdad south to Basra.

What is Sadr’s plan? I haven’t spoken to the man recently, but my guess is that he plans to demonstrate his ability to destroy the semblance of order recently prevailing in Iraq, and then just as quickly to demonstrate his ability to restore that order. This serves twin purposes. First, it allows Petraeus to testify to Congress that the surge continues to work without getting laughed out of the room. This ensures the ongoing reduction in American forces, which continues to increase Sadr’s relative strength and freedom of operation. Second, and most important, it creates a very powerful negotiating platform for Sadr. The Maliki government is holding on by a string as it is, and will not be completely dependent on Sadr not exercising his demonstrated capability to bring it down. This fits with Sadr’s past behavior—he is a politician, not a warrior, at heart, and uses his military force to expressly political ends. He has learned from his mistakes in the past where he pressed for pitched battles with superior forces that he could not win. This time he is walking away from a prolonged fight he quite possibly could win in Basra and the South because he realizes that the viable threat of re-starting that battle at any time has more political weight than actual victory in that battle.

What does Sadr hope to achieve with this political maneuvering? There are many possibilities, but I think that he wants to keep the central government weak, teetering on the brink of collapse, dependent on him for support, until he can get his plan for Southern Iraq through the assembly: create one “super federation” of southern Shi’a provinces rather than the alternate plan of creating several individual Shi’a federations, each comprising only one or two provinces. This is critical for two reasons: 1) while Sadr relies on Iran for support, he needs a single Shi’a federation of sufficient size to effectively stand up to Iran, as well as to effectively stand up to the remnant central government in Baghdad. It’s easy to play divide and conquer against many smaller southern federations, and it also enhances the relative position of the central government. 2) Sadr needs to unify Iraq’s southern oil infrastructure inside a single federated region to bring it truly under the control of that region, otherwise the central government will retain effective control of export revenues by virtue of being the intermediary in balancing the separable interests of the various southern federations through which the oil must run. It’s worth noting here that Sadr will gain significant support for this approach to a de-facto oil law from the Kurds, who have already formed just such a super-federation of provinces for the purpose of unifying control of the northern oil resources, and will support any plan that validates their hold rather than supports the central government’s claims. With Sadr in a position of power in the current central government (where he will likely accept a “Sunni awakening” style “fund and legitimize my militias in exchange for peace” deal of his own design), and in a future position of power in the southern super federation, Sadr’s Mahdi Militia will gain the same funding and legitimization of the Kurdish Peshmerga, and with it the ability to forcibly control the southern super-federation and its oil revenue.

If this strategy is what Sadr has in mind, then it makes sense to me to demonstrate (at least to internal audiences) that he can cause great chaos in the South, but then to quickly call a cease fire and cash in his political capital. It makes sense to me to push this cease fire a few days past Maliki’s Saturday (March 29, 2008) deadline to clarify who is in charge, but probably not to wait far into April before ending the uprising.

All of which brings me to why the surge was doomed to failure in the first place. While Petraeus’s updated counterinsurgency strategy was elegant and interesting, it never stood a chance because it does not address (or comprehend) the foundational problem of mutually exclusive overlap. I’ve been writing about this since immediately after I returned home from the Persian Gulf in 2004 as it creates the post-colonial terrain upon which everything else in Iraq must be surveyed. Mutually exclusive overlap is the result of the ebb and flow of empire over time, and must be seen as a four-dimensional problem. Since the Sykes-Picot Accord of 1918 arbitrarily drew lines in the Middle-Eastern sand and created notional “Nation-States” where none had been before, colonial powers (as well as those later powers practicing economic colonialism) have pitted one ethnic group against another to most effectively control their far-flung empires. This is what I call the “exploitation model,” and typically involves empowering a minority group to rule a territory with the implicit understanding that the minority group must act according to the will of the colonial power or be abandoned to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the majority. In Iraq, this took the form of long-standing British and then American support for a Sunni minority government in a Shi’a majority territory. The problem of mutually exclusive overlap arises with the development of Iraq’s vast oil potential. The Sunni majority enjoyed several decades of wealth and prosperity, subsidized entirely by their disproportionate share of oil export revenue. Now that the Shi’a are in power, they expect at a minimum a proportionate share of Iraq’s oil revenue (60%), which is virtually all of Iraq’s southern oil production as the Kurds have geographic and de-facto control over Iraq’s northern oil reserves which make up about a third of Iraq’s pre-war oil production potential. So this creates a situation where the Sunni society, economy, and psyche in Iraq is predicated on the subsidy of more than half of Iraq’s oil production, because they have enjoyed exactly this for decades. Likewise, the newly empowered Shi’a have an expectation of more than half of oil production. For both groups this is a non-negotiable minimum, and they will fight for what they consider their birthright. Unfortunately, this represents mutually exclusive overlap—with both groups expecting, at a minimum, essentially all the oil production available outside the Kurdish zone, they cannot both be satisfied. This cannot be solved by increasing Iraq’s oil production because the expectations are proportional, not empirical, and will only suffice to provide a relative advantage, not actual wealth, even if Iraq’s production were to reach 8 million barrels per day (a wildly optimistic figure four time current production) due to their growing population and dire economic problems. There is no nice way to put it: this problem will not be solved, and will result in conflict—the only question is when.

The Petraeus surge worked, either through happenstance or devious planning, by scheduling simultaneously the period when the Sunni factions realized they should pause and take advantage of an American-provided opportunity to re-arm for this coming conflict, and the time when the Shi’a factions realized they should pause to consolidate for the same. The surge is now disintegrating because the value to both sides of further “strategic pause” is winding down. Moqtada al-Sadr’s maneuvering in the South, combined with a gradual increase in Sunni violence around Baghdad, signal the transition to the next phase. This next phase may be remarkably contained, or it may bring Saudi Arabia and Iran into much more direct involvement. What is relatively certain is that neither 45,000 nor 145,000 American troops on the ground will be able to keep the peace. We entered this conflict with an almost awe-inspiring naïveté, and I have little confidence that we’ll figure out how to exit any more gracefully.

Further Reading: See John Robb's post on Moqtada al-Sadr's strategy in Iraq HERE. Also see my suggestion for solving Iraq's problem with mutually exclusive overlap (yes, gardening *is* the solution...)

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Jeff Vail said...

Looks like this is exactly what is happening.

Sadr has demonstrated his ability to throw Iraq into a chaos that Maliki is powerless to stop (notice how the initial talking point of this being an "all Iraqi" operation quickly faded as the Iraqi military began a) losing and b) joining Sadr's side). Now Sadr is demonstrating that he also has the power to quickly bring a stop to the chaos he started. All while giving Maliki the necessary guise to save face. Phase 2: Sadr leverages his power (now empirically validated) to lead the process of forming a consolidated Shi'a "super federation" in Southern Iraq. Phase 3: This Shi'a federation effectively (though not overtly) funnels oil revenues to itself and forces the central government to keep quiet about it or face the same kind of chaos that Sadr is about to bring to a close, only this next time he would let it bring down Maliki. Phase 4: This is exposed and leads to renewed and greatly intensified Sunni civil war. From a timing perspective, Sadr can feel the political winds blowing in the US, and will wait to initiate phase 3 until it is clear the US is committed to drawing down troops, even though we have never had sufficient combat power to deal with a full-bore Shi'a insurgency.

"Phase 3 . . . Profit"

Rice Farmer said...

As things stand now, your analysis seems to explain what is happening.

BTW, there is an initiative now to get speculation out of the fuel market. Check this out.

"Ban on oil speculation proposed"

What's your take on this?

Jeff Vail said...

Well, I don't think any legislation to ban speculation will get very far because it is pretty difficult to weed out "pure speculation" from at least partial hedging in many cases, but who knows, Congress can do whatever they want, even if it is a bear to enforce.

As for speculation itself, I don't think it's a bad thing. Speculation can't raise prices above what consumers are willing to pay, because consumable commodities, like oil, are ultimately consumed--if speculators raised the price too high, they would get burned on the difference. That and the fact that there are two sides to every oil contract, so for every speculator who makes $1, another loses exactly the same $1. That said, speculation is generally a good thing, in my opinion, because it adds liquidity to the market and allows the price mechanism to work better (though not necessarily "well"). Just my two cents, but I doubt Congress will listen.

Rice Farmer said...

Thanks for that. And here's an Asia Times article that bears on this post.

Iran torpedoes US plans for Iraqi oil

Mark Lazen said...

Hi Jeff,

I'd like to contact you offline about your blog--can you drop me a line at ?Thanks.

Rice Farmer said...

Here's a New Scientist article that has implications for rhizome theory.

Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable
You can find the entire article reposted here:

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