Bill Ardolino looks at the factors in the reduction in violence in Iraq. Bill recently embedded with US and Iraqi security forces in Fallujah and writes at INDC Journal.
As violence in Iraq has decreased significantly over the last two months, analysts attempt to identify the forces behind the trend. Some attribute the reduction to a reinvigorated US strategy of counterinsurgency and the “surge” of combat troops which commenced in February, while critics of US strategy cite the exodus of Iraqi refugees and successful sectarian partition and cleansing as primary factors.
The drop began in September, as civilian deaths (884) fell 52 percent from August and 77 percent year-over-year, while military deaths (65) fell 23 percent and 10 percent over the same periods. October’s declines made it a trend: Civilian deaths (758) dropped an additional 12 percent from the previous month and 38 percent year-over-year, while US military deaths (38) dropped 42 percent and 64 percent during the same periods.
“Is it the surge, is it just dumb luck, or are there a series of factors that all contribute towards the lessening violence in Iraq?” asked General Terry Wolff, the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Policy Implementation on the National Security Council, in a conference call last Friday. Wolff and other senior military and intelligence officials offered a list of “complementary” factors theorized to have reduced the violence in interviews with The Long War Journal.
“The Surge” and counterinsurgency tactics
Top US officials are quick to point out the effect of the increase of US personnel on the reduction of violence, citing an acquired ability to target a wider range of al Qaeda and Shiite militia extremists and to project security into new areas with a focus on protecting civilians.
“[There are] two key threats out there. [C]learly al Qaeda is the large near-term threat. They’re the folks doing the car bombings, the mass killings, and you’ve also got the “Special Groups,” also known as the militant Shia splinter groups,” said Air Force Colonel Donald Bacon, Chief of Strategy and Plans, Strategic Communications at Multinational Force Iraq. “Fact is, we’re having some success in both areas and that’s equated to these better trends.”
“The surge … put more combat forces into Iraq and gave Gen. Petraeus and his subordinate commanders the opportunity to go after … both AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq] extremists and JAM [Jaish al Mahdi, or Mahdi Army] special groups guys in areas that they hadn’t been gone after in quite a while,” added Wolff. “If you remember back in June, as the fifth brigade of that surge finally arrived and went into combat operations, there was generally a rise in violence as the offensive operations began the 15th. And now, we’re kind of on the back side of that, and so the surge is paying dividends, as they’ve gotten into those areas and pushed a lot of those extremists out.”
The surge added five combat infantry brigades, one combat aviation brigade, and a number of supporting units of about 30,000 troops between February and June 2007. US officials assert that the numbers have also given Multinational Forces-Iraq Commander General David Petraeus the ability to shift towards counterinsurgency tactics that protect the civilian population.
“We’re not operating in these garrisons like we used to,” said Bacon. “With Gen. Petraeus writing the rules on this kind of warfare (counterinsurgency, or “COIN”), he’s got our forces out in the neighborhoods and much more visible. That tactical change has been critical as well.”
Variants of the successful counterinsurgency campaigns initiated in Ramadi and Fallujah are being applied nationwide. First, US and Iraqi security forces project into an area and provide initial security, then locals are recruited into auxiliary security forces, and reconstruction and aid projects quickly follow, which encourage the population to engage with security forces for a new tier of security.
“The surge has given us the number of troops we needed to be doing the stuff we should have been doing all along,” said Colonel Martin M. Stanton, Chief of Reconciliation and Engagement, Multinational Corps-Iraq.
The rise of the Iraqi people and “reconciliation”
US commanders credit a sea change in Iraqi public opinion against extremist groups and the willingness of local political leaders – some former insurgents – to cooperate with the government as perhaps the most important factors in quelling violence.
The formation of “Concerned Local Citizens” groups (CLCs) – Iraqi neighborhood watches that augment the official Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – as a backlash against al Qaeda and other extremists has been a pivotal grassroots development. The CLCs vary by region, but they are largely composed of tribesmen and former nationalist insurgents. Engaging the traditional tribal structures and coercing insurgent groups to lay down their weapons or turn them on Sunni and Shia extremists have been key counterinsurgency successes that have contributed to the national drop in violence.
“The Sunni Awakening in Anbar is where it started, and now it’s grown to 11 of the  provinces encompass[ing] also Shia and Sunni-Shia mixed villages,” said Bacon. “[There are] over 200 initiatives of ‘Concerned Local Citizens’ [and] we’re looking at about over 67,000 volunteers now. And what this has enabled us to do is, we go in and liberate an area from al Qaeda and, if we move out of there, they’re holding.”
“It’s making neighborhoods untenable for [insurgents] who used to strike at us. It’s whole communities sensing empowerment,” said Stanton. “[Iraqi civilians think] ‘We can do things now. Our children can play now.’ Normality is returning to the neighborhood. It’s a good deal for them. And it all folds together [with reconciliation] in communities that are mixed [Shia and Sunni], as a lot of people are working together. It’s not complete – there is still a lot of sectarian distrust – but there is a lot of [cooperation] out there in the border regions, which is a hopeful sign.”
Aside from local security efforts, the rise of tribal elites has led to attempts at local and regional political reconciliation with the national government. This new engagement in the political process has moved the traditional Sunni insurgency away from conflict and isolated al Qaeda and other extremists. But while these local alliances and political engagements have bred better security and regional reconstruction progress, they still haven’t translated into significant gains in national reconciliation with a mistrustful federal Iraqi government.
“What haunts me is the prospect of wasting all these opportunities. [Signs are encouraging] at the bottom, at the tactical level, and then you deal with the people in the [federal] Iraqi government who are so paranoid and so reticent, and it’s a real emotional rollercoaster,” said Stanton.
Officials see an eventually finite but not-yet-closing window of opportunity for the Shia-controlled national government to compromise with tribal leaders before local and regional gains can stall or eventually be lost. Reconciliation is considered key to maintaining the drop in violence before groups consider a return to insurgency or other, unknown courses of action.
“[T]here is a lot of distrust. There’s a paranoia [among the Shia-controlled national government] about the return of the Baathists. The Sunni recognize that they’ve lost and are coming to the table, [while] the Shia don’t recognize that they’ve won. The Shia are like an enormous mouse that’s afraid of a tiny lion,” said Stanton. “I’d be lying to you if I said that [Sunni return to insurgency] wasn’t a danger, but the only way we can [deal with it] is to grimly keep working and keep [reconciliation] in the government’s face and keep pushing it.”
Strengthened Iraqi Security Forces
In 2007, the Iraqi Army (IA) has grown from 10 to 12 Divisions for a total of 47,000 additional frontline troops. Of 44 brigades, 3 are independent and 32 are “in-lead,” while the newest nine are still classified in at partnered stage. While Military Transition Team ground commanders complain that most Iraqi units are heavily reliant on US logistical support, Iraqi units have taken primary operational responsibility for eight provinces and lead in all of Iraq except the Rutbah District of Anbar.
In addition, the Iraqi police have grown by 45,000 or 25 percent over the course of the year, though official assessments of their effectiveness remain variable, depending on district, after a concerted militia purge and retraining of the national police which commenced in October 2006. Augmenting the police are the 67,000 concerned local citizens and provincial security forces.
“The ISF has grown more than our surge forces, frankly. This last training cycle, over 20,000 new cops and soldiers graduated. A training cycle is five weeks long, and we’ve had several training cycles now since the surge,” said Bacon. “The Iraqi Security Forces, in a sense, have had their own surge; they’ve grown in numbers, they’ve grown in capability.”
A notable example of ISF capability was the IA’s quick rescue of eight sheiks kidnapped by Shia extremists on the way to a reconciliation meeting in Diyala Province on October 29. In addition to recovering the sheiks unharmed within 48 hours, the IA killed four kidnappers and detained six others. Other recent successes include the kill or capture of 244 insurgents by ISF in Tikrit, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hillah, and Baqubah in just the last week.
A military intelligence official also cited the coalition’s recent “ability to co-opt large numbers of former Iraqi military and security personnel into the ISF” as a reason for improved capability among the army, police and provincial security forces.
Have sectarian cleansing and refugee flight run their course?
In addition to positive and proactive factors, some intelligence officials and analysts believe that a portion of the reduction in violence can be attributed to the refugee crisis and sectarian segregation of certain neighborhoods in and around Baghdad.
In a recent video conference, Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno expressed doubt to the LA Times that completed sectarian cleansing and refugee flight had contributed to the recent reduction in violence.
Odierno spoke of “shifts in the population in Baghdad. That happened, and I would argue that’s happened over the last couple years. But I would tell you I’ve not seen any significant shifts that have changed it from January, when we got here, to now. There might have been some minor shifts, but very little.”
But the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (a regional entity of the Red Cross) claims that 1.8 million Iraqis have relocated to other parts of Iraq since January, bringing the total number of internally displaced refugees to 2.3 million. Further, the report claims that over 60 percent of these displaced Iraqis fled Baghdad. Even if estimates by these organizations are overstated or inaccurate, ground commanders have anecdotally verified a steady stream of Sunni refugees fleeing into Anbar as late as mid-year. Thus, while many critics of US strategy overstate the impact of sectarian killing and flight on the reduction of violence, large civilian displacement has certainly influenced the decline in killings specifically tied to sectarian extremism, especially in the capital.
It’s worth noting that the Iraqi government reported that 3,000 Iraqi families have returned to mixed neighborhoods after having been driven out of Baghdad by sectarian violence, and 46,000 external refugees have returned to Iraq in October. But this reversal is a small portion of the Baghdad residents that have left the capital for other parts of Iraq and 2.4 million Iraqis who have left the country during the war, according to Red Crescent and UN figures, and segregated neighborhoods remain in various sections of the city.
The truce with Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army
On August 29, Muqtada al Sadr called for a truce between elements of the Mahdi Army and both rival Shia groups and Coalition forces, which significantly contributed to the overall decrease in violence.
“[Sadr’s militia] did initiate a ceasefire back in August, and although that isn’t holding everywhere, it has tended to be a contributing factor to the reduction in the violence,” said Wolff. “And again, that plays out a little differently in Basra, Diyala, Diwaniya. But it does play out.”
Other Shia militants operating outside of the agreement and Sadr’s loss of control over portions of the Mahdi Army after his first flight to Iran in February — a move which diminished his stature as a nationalist Iraqi hero by openly revealing ties with the Iranian government — have mitigated the effectiveness of the truce. Estimates of Sadr’s direct control over the Mahdi Army vary widely among senior US military personnel and intelligence officials interviewed by The Long War Journal. And the command-and-control structure of the militant group is further confused by varying agendas.
“There are all sorts of different flavors of JAM. Some are truly irreconcilable, almost as bad as AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq), and there are criminal elements. Then there are some that are very reconcilable; you have to treat them differently. We don’t want to fight all of them,” said Stanton. “It’s not perfect, but much more of [the Shia militias] are obeying the ceasefire than not. Quite a few are affected by the [truce], some of them for their own purposes.”
Slowing down the borders
Officials also point to a smaller quantity of foreign fighters and weapons entering Iraq, especially via the western border with Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, which tracks security indicators, notes that the number of foreign fighters has diminished from roughly 85 to 50 per month over several recent months. This inability to replace men and material lost to coalition operations has severely hampered al Qaeda’s ability to conduct attacks, and monthly suicide bombings have halved since January. US officials offer various theories to explain the tightened borders.
“We’re maybe seeing Syria do some things to prevent foreign fighters coming in, were clearly seeing Saudi Arabia doing things to reduce the foreign fighter flow. I don’t have first-hand evidence, but I’m hearing anecdotally from some folks in the embassy here that other countries are doing that as well,” said Bacon.
Officials also believe that security on the Syrian border has become more effective due to an alliance with and increased capability of the Albu Mahal tribe, a key ally that controls traditional smuggling routes in and out of portions of Western Iraq. The backlash against al Qaeda and initial increase in security has freed the tribe up to interdict fighters and weapons flowing through their areas.
“[Border security] varies from place to place, but the short answer is, [it is] a lot tighter than it was now,” said a senior intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity. “We are never going to be able to interdict all foreign fighters; that’s a fool’s battle. However, we can prevent them from crossing over in large numbers the way they have until recently.”
While a definitive reduction in destabilizing fighters and equipment has been noted on Iraq’s western border, the Iranian border shows mixed signals. The number of attacks using lethal explosively formed penetrator (EFP) roadside bombs sourced to Iran has fallen by half. There were 52 and 53 EFP incidents in September and October, respectively, down from 99 and 78 in July and August. But US officials are hesitant to label it a definitive trend or source it to actions by Iran.
“Just how much has Iran had a hand in the drop? Our position is, we’re not sure yet. We’re seeing some decreases that could indicate positive movement, but the jury is still out,” said Bacon.
Though no US officials would speculate about possible motivations or definitive trends regarding Iran’s incitement of violence in Iraq, any slackening supply of explosives and militants on Iraq’s eastern border raises the possibility of diplomatic exchanges between America and Iran, especially given the impending release of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods Force agents by the US military.
Officials are cautiously optimistic about the trends of the last two months, but they are quick to caveat the improvement in security. The long-term danger of an al Qaeda resurgence remains a possibility, as al Qaeda in Iraq remains a significant franchise of the broader terrorist network safely based in Pakistan, which it’s believed will attempt to resupply and redouble its efforts to destabilize Iraq. Officials stress that continued momentum is required to solidify gains, specifically maintained targeting of extremist groups, successful border interdiction, the official employment of a portion of CLCs in the Iraqi Security Forces and, most importantly, a mid-term commitment to American brokerage of reconciliation between the national government and tribal and former insurgent groups.