All but the most blinkered partisans must concede that since taking command, Gen. David Petraeus has made impressive gains in Iraq. As he made clear in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Monday (and similar testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday), there are plenty of indications that the increased troop presence in Iraq has led to a decrease in violence. The slides accompanying his testimony starkly illustrate the progress — so starkly, in fact, that some war critics have been reduced to calling Petraeus a liar and a traitor. Those disinclined to trust the General’s testimony may find independent corroboration of his broad points in the “Iraq Index,” a Brookings Institution project that tracks data from various sources. I direct interested readers of the most recent edition from Brookings, to the chart at the top of page 10 , tracking multiple-fatality bombings. Adjusted seasonally, the reduction in bombings is totally unprecedented. Since the initial invasion, the number of multiple-fatality bombings per month has increased from July to July, and from August to August, in every year — except for this year.
In short, the surge is working. The problem, though, is what we mean by “working.” As Ambassador Ryan Crocker emphasized in the testimony he gave alongside Petraeus’s, the military progress has precipitated encouraging political progress at the local level. But the political stalemate at the national level has barely budged. Crocker holds out hope that it will, and one must hope he’s right. But at this point it is prudent to discuss what to do if the deadlock remains unbroken. The answer that holds the most appeal is to facilitate a soft partition — that is, to leave the central government with little responsibility beyond distributing oil revenues and similar resources to local governments.
One might call this a lemons-out-of-lemonade approach. Because of failures to provide security early on, formerly mixed cities and towns are increasingly segregated along sectarian lines. The number of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs) is somewhere north of one million (some sources claim much higher). IDPs are typically people who’ve been driven out of their neighborhoods by sectarian militias. Many of these people are not interested in returning; a woman interviewed by Refugees International who fled Baghdad for Kurdistan — cited in a Brookings paper on soft partition by Edward Joseph and Michael O’Hanlon — expressed gratitude despite the hardship of the move: “Here, at least, we are safe.” We ought to offer more than safety to such IDPs — Joseph and O’Hanlon suggest financial compensation and a housing swap program, among other things — but the reality of internal migration needn’t be lamented. A few years ago, the idea of, say, dividing Baghdad and Mosul along the natural border created by the Tigris river would have been ridiculous. Now it is much more feasible.
Though the surge is ostensibly meant to give breathing room to the national government to resolve political issues, in practice it is building up the local institutions that would take over for the national government under a soft partition. A good example is the Concerned Citizens program, under which the U.S. military helps local groups provide their neighborhoods with the security that the National Police can’t or won’t. It has been described by one officer as “basically a thumb in the eye [of] a Maliki government that won’t get its [act] together.”
Of course, the national government will have to get its act together at least enough to distribute resources to the local government. But as Petraeus mentioned in his Senate testimony, this is quietly happening already. Though there is no oil-sharing law, “Iraq is actually sharing oil revenue,” said Petraeus. What is already happening is actually “very similar to what is likely to happen if the [oil-sharing] bill as currently envisioned is passed,” he added.
It would be nice if the Bush administration were to explicitly move toward a soft partition strategy, which might even prod the politicians in Baghdad to make progress toward reconciliation just to preserve whatever power they can retain. But even if the Bush administration doesn’t adopt this strategy, there’s a high probability that the next administration will (no matter who is elected). It’s not an optimal solution, and it’s not one that will allow U.S. troops to completely withdraw for several years. It does, however, have the potential to avert an all-out civil war, and leave behind an Iraq that has a functioning democratic government. In short, it’s a path to victory.