Winning: Turning Victory Into Defeat

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December 18, 2007: In Iraq, the surge campaign worked. Between February and September, 2007 it improved the security situation in Baghdad and adjacent regions. It has curbed sectarian violence in the capital and reduced the freedom of action and the support base of insurgents and terrorists in central Iraq.

However, back in the United States, many politicians believed that the main rationale for the surge was to provide an opportunity for political agreements to be negotiated among Iraqis. The depth of hatred between Shia and Sunni did not produce as much reconciliation as U.S. based pundits demanded, so the security improvements were seen in a diminished light. A political settlement is essential for sustaining the security gains and for longer-term stability. Despite the declaration of a national reconciliation plan by Iraqi leaders June 2006, by the Fall, only limited progress had been made toward reconciling the differences between the political groups and forging a national agenda. Iraqi politics is dominated by sectarian political groups, and many of the Shia groups block crucial legislation. Serious political dialogue between the sect-based parties has proved difficult and the results are limited.

Meanwhile, rivalries within the Shia and Sunni communities are increasing, particularly in the Shia south, where the Sadr and Badr (the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq) compete for political and economic control of the region. The Iraqi government has grown less effective in the past year. Iraqi ministers from Sunni, Shia, and secular groups have withdrawn from the cabinet, making it more difficult for the government to get things done in many parts of the country. The Shia and Sunni party coalitions that entered Parliament in December 2005, have started to come apart. Meanwhile, a new alliance of Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq further mixes things up. The tribal alliance has not automatically joined with existing Sunni Arab parties, so new alliances are beginning to emerge, and some may succeed in crossing sectarian and regional divides.

The level and duration of U.S. troop presence in Iraq depends on the stability and strength of the Iraqi government. That is blocked by sectarian and tribal divisions that create a culture of corruption. What Westerners see as "government officials see as stealing government funds," Iraqis see as "powerful men taking care of their own". It's a matter of degree, compared to the West. There, patronage and nepotism are also a problem, but a much smaller one. The West has tamed corruption, and this has produced more efficient government and more productive economies. In the Arab world, over a trillion dollars of oil wealth (in the past fifty years) has produced little fundamental economic power. So much of the money was stolen, and spent on non-productive items, that the Arab world cannot compete with other parts of the world where economies are encouraged to thrive and grow. Many Iraqis, and Arabs in general, recognize the problem. But change will only come if enough individual politicians and government officials resist the tribal and sectarian demands that political office be exploited for the tribe, not the nation. It's the inability to do that that created and sustained Saddam Hussein. Unless the Iraqis can change their political culture, another Saddam Hussein will return. And when the oil is gone, so will poverty.

 


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