Surge Proponents Face October Test: Will Provincial Elections Even Take Place?

10/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Has the surge succeeded in Iraq? The political consensus at the moment appears to be "yes," with even surge opponent Barack Obama telling Bill O'Reilly last week that the increase of troops in Iraq had succeeded militarily "beyond our wildest dreams."

But check back in three weeks, when provincial elections in Iraq originally scheduled for October 1 will likely be pushed back indefinitely, according to experts and even Iraqi legislators. At that point, the debate over whether the surge has achieved its originally stated goal -- specifically, giving Iraqi leaders what President Bush called the "breathing space" to make crucial political compromises -- could be reignited, mere weeks before the U.S. presidential race comes to its conclusion.

"The prospects of the elections occurring on schedule, meaning this fall, appear very mediocre," said Michael O'Hanlon, an original supporter of the Iraq war and a senior foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institute. "I don't know of a potentially workable plan for how to handle Kirkuk, the real sticking point," he added, referencing the oil-rich city that is claimed by Kurds, ethnic Turkmen and Arabs. "Absent a deal on that, and a clear plan on paper, it is of course very hard to prepare security and the other practical elements needed actually to hold an election. Most seem to think that early 2009 is our best bet at this point," O'Hanlon concluded.

After taking a month-long recess, Iraq's parliament re-convened on Tuesday to try and break the political impasse that has thus far prevented an agreement on provincial elections, as well as the Kirkuk issue. As the New York Times reported Wednesday: "Lawmakers had envisioned holding elections this fall, but the date has been steadily pushed back. At this point, many legislators say, the earliest elections would be early next year."

Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), says all political parties in Iraq "just want to make sure the polls go the way they would like them to. So they're just kicking the can down the road." While that attitude might not overlap with American interests, Korb says "that's another reason why you can't just give them a blank check. ... There will be winners and losers in the elections. But they've not yet decided who the winners and losers are going to be."

And it's not as though the United States doesn't have a rooting interest in the outcome of the elections, either. According to a new report released Thursday by CAP, U.S. leaders expect provincial elections to result in political gains for various parties "associated with the [Anbar] Awakenings and the Anbar Salvation Council in the Sunni provinces," which have partnered with Gen. David Petraeus's counter-insurgency strategy. However, on the Shia side of the electoral coin, the report says Moqtada al-Sadr's allies will likely gain at the expense of the coalition led by America's point man in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"Oh sure, Maliki is using us," Korb told the Huffington Post, adding that, as long as provisional elections are delayed, "we're keeping his enemies down."

What will be the long-term impact of an reconciliation-free poltical climate in Iraq? According to Rand Beers, a former counterterrorism adviser to the National Security Council, Maliki could become a de facto strongman in Iraq, especially if his own national election occurs in 2009 before the long-delayed provincial elections. "I think that that becomes a virtual reality once we transfer all of the provinces to Iraqi security forces, which is, I think, in the back of Maliki's mind," Beers said.

Brian Katulis, one of the authors of the new Center for American Progress report, says it's crucial to understand that while the surge has brought violence levels down, it has frozen the rivalrous political state of affairs instead of greasing the skids for new movement. "Look at what kind of Iraq we're actually getting," he said. "A pro-Iranian Shiite theocracy that is still deeply fragmented. The story is really one of freezing into place a very fractured society, that's very divided along sectarian and geographically divided lines. We've frozen that into place with the surge, and created further disincentives for political transition and true reconciliation."

Beers agreed, adding: "Progress hasn't been made on Kirkuk, the provincial elections, or the oil law. The three major political reconciliation achievements that everyone has hoped for, not a single one of them has been achieved."

When announcing the surge strategy in January 2007, President Bush specifically touted a new oil law and provincial elections as desired outcomes of the surge:

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year.

Of course, those provincial elections are the same ones no one expects to come off by the already-postponed October 1 deadeline. As Time reported on Tuesday, President Bush will only withdraw five percent of the 146,000 soldiers in Iraq before leaving office -- a "decidedly modest" redeployment "scaled way back from the drawdown hoped for by some military officials" -- in part because Pentagon officials believe "a lack of progress in resolving the country's political divisions could trigger more violence."

Though the administration appears to recognize that the surge has yet to usher in the political advances originally advertised, Sarah Palin told an audience Fairfax, Virginia on Wednesday that "in Iraq, change happened, and that is a great thing for America." But if October comes and goes without elections in Iraq, the current conventional wisdom fueling Palin's analysis could be ripe for a new challenge.

Suggest a correction