Growing impatience in Congress over the enormous
costs being racked up by the Iraq war, as well as the Pentagon's belief that
it needs more troops in Afghanistan to fight insurgents there, is putting the
vaunted success of the George W. Bush administration's "surge" strategy
to the test.
Although the House of Representatives appears poised to approve an additional
$163 billion Thursday for military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan
through the end of the year, most observers believe that Congress will impose
unprecedented conditions on Iraq-related spending. This could include requirements
that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pay substantially
more in reconstruction and related costs than it has to date.
The argument that Baghdad must bear more of the burden gained momentum last
week when the Pentagon's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction
reported that Iraq's oil revenue in 2008 should exceed $70 billion, twice as
much as had been forecast just a few months before.
That report, which comes amid growing concern over the weak domestic economy,
has fueled efforts by a bipartisan group of senators to halt virtually all
U.S. funding for major reconstruction and infrastructure projects in Iraq.
Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted unanimously last week to
approve a bill that would ban the Pentagon from funding any reconstruction
or infrastructure project in Iraq that costs more than $2 million. Similar
legislation is expected to be taken up by the House.
"This is the first significant bipartisan change in our policy toward
Iraq," declared Republican Sen. Susan Collins, one of the sponsors of
the legislation after last week's vote, while the committee chairman, Sen.
Carl Levin said Iraq's failure to pay reconstruction costs was "unconscionable
[and] inexcusable" given the windfall it has received from the stunning
rise in world oil prices.
Another provision of the same bill would require Iraq's government to pay
the salaries and training costs of the predominantly Sunni militias, or so-called
sahwa or "Awakening" councils, on which the U.S. has been
spending roughly $27 million a month.
Despite U.S. pressure, the Maliki government has strongly resisted integrating
the vast majority of the estimated 90,000 members of these militias
most of which were previously part of the Sunni insurgency into the
army or police for fear that they will eventually turn their guns on the regime.
The result has been growing frustration on the part of the militias, frustration
that reportedly was significantly enhanced last month after Maliki enlisted
thousands of members of the Badr Organization into the government's security
forces during fighting with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra and Sadr
City in Baghdad. The Badr Organization is the armed wing of the Shia Supreme
Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the strongest party in the coalition.
Both the intra-Shia conflict between the Sadrists and the government and the
growing anger of the sahwa militias most recently dramatized
by a series of strikes and public protests and by an increasing number of attacks
on U.S. and Iraqi forces in Anbar province and other Sunni strongholds where
the militias have kept the peace for most of the past year have resulted
in a sharp rise in both Iraqi and U.S. casualties over the past two months,
threatening the security gains made by the surge.
The surge, which was initiated in February 2007, was aimed at pacifying both
Anbar province and the capital by adding some 30,000 U.S. troops to the 140,000
already deployed to Iraq to stop and reverse the drift to sectarian civil war
between Sunnis and the various Shia militias. Its strategic aim was to foster
a climate of peace and stability that would encourage all factions to make
the political compromises necessary for national reconciliation.
While the surge made substantial headway in achieving its tactical goals of
improving security with the critical help of the sahwa militias,
which had mostly broken with al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied themselves with the
U.S. even before the surge got underway its strategic goal of political
reconciliation has been far more elusive.
Moreover, the surge's tactical success has failed to translate into additional
popular or congressional support for the war at home. As a result, the Bush
administration, which promised months ago to withdraw the 30,000 surge troops
by the end of July, is adhering to its pledge, leaving fewer troops to ensure
that a new round of violence does not break out.
At the same time, the Pentagon leadership is pressing the White House to continue
the drawdown from Iraq beyond July so that it can deploy the three brigades
between 10,000 and 12,000 troops it says it needs to cope with the Taliban
and their allies in Afghanistan. While Bush has announced that there will be
at least a 45-day pause to assess the impact of the surge withdrawal after
July, the pressure on him to resume the process not only from the Pentagon,
but from Republican candidates in the November elections is expected to
Republican backing for the Armed Services Committee bill banning additional
spending on major reconstruction projects and support for the sahwa militias
is clearly seen by both the administration and the promoters of the surge as
a worrisome portent, and not only for maintaining the relative albeit fragile
peace that has prevailed for much of the past year.
One of the surge's architects, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI), said that legislation would "do catastrophic damage to
our image in the world, particularly the Muslim world.
that Iraq should use its oil revenues to pay the United States sounds like
the ultimate proof that we invaded Iraq for mercenary reasons."
Ending U.S. funding for the sahwa militias, in particular, will pose
a critical and long overdue test of the surge strategy, according
to a number of observers, who see Maliki's failure to integrate them as a critical
stumbling block to national reconciliation.
"If the Awakenings are not integrated into the national security forces,
then there is little hope for political accommodation or for lasting security
and the U.S. is effectively trapped," according to Marc Lynch, an expert
at George Washington University whose blog, AbuAardvark.com,
is widely read. "Since all other forms of persuasion seem to have failed,
it's time to give Maliki an ultimatum.
If he gives in, then there may
finally be some hope for political accommodation
"The downside is that if Maliki doesn't go along
then things may
well get ugly. But all signs suggests that they will get ugly anyway
and better that they get ugly while the U.S. is at the highest troop levels
it will ever have," Lynch wrote.
"If Maliki won't do this now, when U.S. troop levels are high and security
is relatively better, with the shadow of a new president who likely will not
continue to offer an open-ended commitment, then he never will
should know this."
(Inter Press Service)