December 17, 2007

The Baghdad Strategy

The US has had an interesting change in strategic planning for the coming drawdown in Iraq when the surge troops depart. Originally, the Army planned on making most of their significant reductions in Baghdad. Now they have decided that the western provinces can manage themselves better than expected, while Baghdad will require a stronger American presence longer:

In a change of plans, American commanders in Iraq have decided to keep their forces concentrated in Baghdad when the buildup strategy ends next year, removing troops instead from outlying areas of the country.

The change represents the military's first attempt to confront its big challenge in 2008: how to cut the number of troops without sacrificing security.

The shift in deployment strategy, described by senior U.S. military officials in Iraq and Washington, is based on concerns that despite recent improvements, the capital could again erupt into widespread violence without an imposing American military presence.

A year ago, when U.S. patrols in Baghdad were sparse and sectarian killings were spiraling out of control, President Bush proposed a troop buildup in part to establish order in the capital. Over the last four months, violence in the capital has begun to abate.

But the most significant improvements have been in outlying areas, where the first of about 28,500 additional troops arrived in February, followed by gradual improvements in Baghdad. Military planners at first thought it would be the other way around.

Part of this has to come from one of the metrics of success -- returning refugees. Iraq has a steady stream of citizens returning from abroad after having fled the violence at home. In more homogeneous populations, this will present fewer problems than in the volatile population mix of Baghdad, especially given some changes in the sectarian map there.

The capital remains the toughest nut to crack, though, in terms of reconciliation. It has the most significance for political and symbolic reasons to Iraqis, and therefore the various factions have less willingness to compromise. Even without the returning refugees, it would still have its tensions and continuing issues with infrastructure and mundane law-enforcement issues, but in Baghdad these can be flashpoints for sectarian strife -- and any serious eruption could spread across the country.

Baghdad has improved along with the rest of the nation, but at a slower rate. Taxis now service the entire city with the exception of a few tough neighborhoods. Markets have reopened, and businesses operate into the night. The key will be in maintaining the momentum towards de facto reconciliation that will find its political expression after Iraqis find ways to live together in mixed communities like Baghdad. An American military presence can help keep the momentum from suddenly reversing itself, at least until Baghdad's security forces can prove themselves reliable and competent to do it.

Will the western provinces, including Anbar, prove reliable first? The US believes they already have. They also see some success in Basra's handover to the Iraqi government and believe that the Sunnis can work within the same framework. If General David Petraeus is correct, we may be farther along than many of us hoped.


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