Everyone is getting ready for a Crocker-Petraeus report which will most likely highlight tactical military success, downplay the political fiasco, and argue for more time. The conventional reading of this (at least in DC) is probably that the military and political tracks are moving at different speeds along parallel tracks, with Petraeus making some progress on the military track and Crocker having less success on the political track. I think this misreads the relationship between the military and political tracks. The divergent trends on the two tracks is not a coincidence. No matter how close their reported working relationship, or their very real skills, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are actually working at cross-purposes. Petraeus's military 'successes' and local initiatives come at the expense of the national political track, not in support of it.
Crocker's job is to encourage political reconciliation at the national level, which has been the Bush administration's stated goal from the start and which was the declared goal of the 'surge'. The improved security environment was meant to provide breathing space for the political reconciliation, as we all remember. Crocker's diplomacy is therefore in principle aimed at fostering the evolution of an Iraqi state which is broadly inclusive of all of Iraq's ethnic and religious communities. Most of the benchmarks - a resolution of the deBaathification laws, the oil law, etc. - are ultimately steps towards achieving a political bargain minimally acceptable to the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. The government, therefore, should reflect the ethnic realities of Iraq and include meaningful Sunni participation. The army and security forces should include Sunnis, and should not be in the hands of sectarian militias. And so on - in short, things which encourage the integration of the Sunnis (especially) into the state.
Petraeus's strategy thus far has been to work at the local level. His signature initiative to date, the arming and tactical alignment with Sunni tribes and former insurgents, largely ignores the Iraqi state. The Anbar Salvation Council and the other 'Awakenings", the "rent-a-shaykh" and "rent-a-fighter" policies, and so forth all take place not just at the local level but outside the institutions of the state. They may improve the local security situation but do not encourage the integration into an Iraqi state which most Sunnis - by all available evidence - still see as monopolized by the Shia and controlled by Iran. The former insurgents fighting alongside the Americans against al-Qaeda don't report to Nuri al-Maliki... they report to David Petraeus. Meanwhile, on the Shia side American forces strike the Sadrists, but don't seem to care much about
SCIRI SIIC ISCI penetration of the Iraqi military or security forces - once again suggesting that national state institutions just don't enter into the equation.
Petraeus, Bush, and their defenders argue that the local initiatives might provide the foundations for a national reconciliation down the road. Perhaps. But for now it looks more like the local initiatives, which are providing the temporary 'successes' which will justify continuing the administration's course of action, aren't just not being matched by political progress but are actually undermining the national political process. They are organizing the Sunnis outside of the state rather than fostering integration. And by heightening Sunni military weight and political expectations, these policies likely encouraged the political trainwreck we saw over the last few weeks: Sunni leaders felt emboldened to demand more, while Shia leaders worried about making concessions to a group accumulating military and political power outside their control.
I understand why Petraeus has chosen this route. Iraqi political institutions and the Iraqi state are so far gone, and so implicated in one side of the sectarian conflict, that avoiding them and starting over at the local level probably made good pragmatic sense. And I understand that Petraeus felt an urgent need to demonstrate early success to maintain political support, and probably didn't feel that he had the luxury of a longer time-frame. And readers of this blog know that I'm certainly not opposed in principle to the US working with former Sunni insurgent groups, as long as their eyes are open about the real goals and strategies of those groups. But this is what I meant few weeks ago when I wrote about tactics working against the strategy.
When the Crocker-Petraeus report comes in, questions should be raised not only be about the reality of the military progress (though there are many questions there to be asked) or about the stalled political process (though those should definitely be pushed hard). I would like to see more fundamental questions raised than quibbling over how to evaluate progress in this city or that province. Does this military strategy lead to the political outcome to which we are publicly committed? If the goal is to create a functional, inclusive Iraqi state, then are these tactics furthering that goal or undermining it? Or has the US changed its goals without acknowledging the change, giving up on a multi-ethnic centralized state and paving the way to soft partition?