THE BLOG
01/05/2007 02:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Battle of the Surge

This is to be the week, we are told, when George Bush announces positively the last military assault on insurgency in Baghdad before losing patience and quitting. The so-called surge will supposedly correct the error of last year's similar Operation Together Forward II. Without order in the capital the physical and political reconstruction of Iraq is impossible. But since that order cannot, after all, be assigned to local Iraqi forces, the Americans must throw another 20-30,000 troops into the job instead.

I have not heard one remotely plausible game plan for this Battle of the Surge. Leaks have indicated that generals on the ground are opposed to offering the enemy yet more targets. Pentagon chiefs of staff are opposed to such a cost in men and money for a transient boost in control on the ground. Public opinion and congress are overwhelmingly against the plan, which Republican Senator Chuck Hagel calls "Alice in Wonderland". America's puppets in Baghdad's green zone will do as they are told but the only real enthusiasts are neo-con die-hards. They were well-represented on this page two weeks ago by Frederick Kagan, in a fantasy advocacy of the 2003 "clear and hold" strategy, which amounts to telling American soldiers to commit suicide.

Leaders contemplating defeat far from the front line are always tempted to order "one last push". Thus did Hitler ordered the Battle of the Bulge, Nixon the bombing of Cambodia and Reagan the blasting of the Shouf villages to cover his retreat from Lebanon. Leaders must pretend to victory even in the jaws of defeat, or their soldiers will not fight. America has a million men under arms. Surely they are not to be beaten by a few hundred guerrillas in the suburbs of Baghdad. So bush will tell them to make one last heave, however pointless.

To such callousness to the lives of others, reason has no response. War is so awful that most people can understand it only through metaphor, as a football game or a business take-over or a pub brawl or, at best, some other war retrieved from history. The conflict in Iraq is beyond metaphor. It is the most dangerous, heart-breaking and hopeless that those who have witnessed war can recall. The risks taken by soldiers on the ground and the terrifying existence endured by ordinary Iraqis are worse than in anything I have witnessed. Independent reporting is near impossible. Military intelligence is non-existent. Bombers do not know where to bomb, soldiers whom to kill, generals when to negotiate.

Such government as exists under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is unable to enforce any law or control any army. For Washington and London to tell him to "bring his militias to heel" is like telling a junior cop to arrest Al Capone. Large areas of Iraq are under the rough and ready control of local militias, either clerical fundamentalists or gangsters rich on stolen American aid. But the city of Baghdad (and half the non-Kurd population) is given over to armed gangsters, roadblocks, ghettos, nocturnal disappearances, mass killings and refugee flight. Three thousand flee to Jordan and Syria each day. A million Iraqis have fled the country since the American arrived, including an estimated 40 per cent of the professional class. Only the green zone operates as a working entity and its isolation is medieval, its inhabitants barely able to venture beyond its walls.

The idea that such a hell-hole can be policed back to normality with an extra 20,000 American troops is absurd. Such a force (which means barely 5,000 on patrol at any one time) would simply disappear into the fog. The anti-occupation insurgency is now entangled with the conflict between Shia and Sunni in and round Baghdad, claiming hundreds of lives each week and fought by paramilitaries mostly armed and supplied by America in what is a shambles of unaudited theft and fraud.

The only way in which more American troops might assert any control is "denying ground to the enemy" by laying waste to it. In Basra Britain's contribution to law and order has been to flatten the chief police station. In Anbar province American counter-insurgency takes the form of wrecking villages from the air, as with Fallujah twice since 2003. According to a Times correspondent who reached Fallujah last week, the wrecked city is cut off from Baghdad and back in the hands of Sunni militias who intend to rename the hospital after Saddam Hussein. All Iraqis most crave is a local policeman they can trust not to kill them. America and Britain have failed to give them that and are unlikely to succeed at this late stage.

A shrewd analysis of the present state of play was given in last Friday's Independent by the former Iraqi finance and defence minister, Ali Allawi. He concluded that "whatever project [the US] had for Iraq has vanished, a victim of inappropriate or incoherent policies". The country is now moving inexorably away from Baathist secularism into control by Shia islamists in unstable coalition with Kurdish separatists. Formal partition is avoidable only with an acceptance of a ruthless regional autonomy so that Shia and Sunni alike can retreat to their tents and lick their wounds.

What should happen in Iraq has long played second fiddle to what is happening. Indeed they are barely on the same planet. To most observers on the ground there is no point in dreaming up regional conferences or international treaties to monitor a "future Iraq" as long as the present one is so unstable and blood-spattered. That will come only when the focus of personal security rises above the level of the family, the clan and the barricaded street at least to the tier of a city or province. That requires the province to have a coherent and disciplined police force to which local people give assent.

As Allawi points out, Iraq has passed way beyond such a force emanating from central government. Progress depends entirely on the split between Kurdish, Sunni and Shia zones being somehow replicated in constitutional devolution. As already recognised by the 2005 draft constitution, this must embrace not just fiscal and administrative separatism but military, judicial, religious autonomy. Without that autonomy, the Sunni minority will never trust a Shia-dominated federal government in Baghdad. It will remain in thrall to such fanatical imports as al-Qaeda, much as Catholic Ulster was in thrall to the Provisional IRA after the British occupation.

The likely fate of more American troops in Baghdad is to defend the surviving Sunni enclaves from Shia ethnic cleansing as it pushes westwards across Baghdad, supported by semi-official death squads. Of all ironies none would be more savage than that American soldiers leave Iraq after protecting Baathist Sunnis from a murderous onslaught by Shia irregulars in league with the police and army. Yet this is the most plausible outcome of the Battle of the Surge. Even now Sunnis pray that the nocturnal knock on the door is from an American marine rather than an Iraqi police uniform. The first may mean "rendition" but the second means mutilation and death.

It is conceivable that the surge strategy might eventually stabilise a "green line" of ethnic partition somewhere through western Baghdad, as in 1980s Beirut. Behind it each group could begin to find some security and normality, sufficient for their local commanders to meet and parley some division of the spoils of aid and oil revenue under provincial and then national authority.

If it comes to that no outsiders, regional or global, should be anywhere near them. Iraq's next chapter must surely be left to Iraqis alone. Outsiders have made this country a byword for arrogant and incompetent interventionism unparalleled in half a century. The 2003 assault on Iraq was unprovoked and justified by no overriding threat to western interests. It was one gigantic whim, a whim to which the leadership of the British Labour government fully subscribed.

When Blair was asked at a private lunch before Christmas what he had done to restrain American policy in Iraq he looked baffled. "It's worse than you imply," he said with a smile. Restraint was not an issue because he fully agreed with the policy. We assume he also agrees with the surge strategy, about which he spoke to Bush on the phone on December 29. So it is no good the Blairites or Gordon Brown or Labour voters or the British people generally objecting to the impending bloodbath on the streets of Baghdad. It is being done in their name. They can hope only that it is the beginning of the end.