It seems the only time we win in Iraq is when we let the insurgents win. This may seem ironic; the surge is “working” after all. But how is it working? Consider the Kurdish success story. There we have let Kurdish militias friendly to the US run the show, continuing the rump state they established under US protection in the 90s. The only difference between a militiaman and an insurgent is whether he is shooting at you. Both are decentralized, lightly armed, and under the control of local elites. Likewise, in the Sunni regions of Anbar, local militias who have little to do with the central government have been able to oust al Qaeda, restart commerce, and generally chill out. There the local Sheiks have finally had enough with the fighting and al Qaeda’s depredations went too far. In the South, the Shia militias have been running the show more or less since the first phase of the occupation. Their “success” includes thing slike allowing freedom to march all over local Christians, whose womenfolk are being threatened by Shia militias for not wearing the Hijab. Unlike Anbar and Kurdistan, though, they now are fighting each other for the spoils and are quite disunited. The same can be said of Kurdistan. At best, it seems we or any Iraqi government can keep things down to a low-grade civil war. So long as they’re not working against the US, its forces, or helping Iran harm the US, it could be worse.
The one thing that has not succeeded has been the centerpiece of the US counterinsurgency “hearts and minds” campaign: democratic elections by the whole country based on unfiltered majority rule. People in this part of the world don’t want democracy or freedom, at least not the way we understand it. They don’t act like individuals weighing the ideas and positions of different candidates. They vote as clans and tribes. They want security and power and almost uniformly vote for sectarian parties. They have simple political goals, like not being genocided by their centuries-old rivals among other sects and ethnicities. Elections don’t guarantee that safety, but power-sharing does, and the various factions may reach a modus vivendibased on their collective sense that the war is not going to expel the United States and that it could go on a very long time even if we do leave. This development has happened not through the strengthening of a central government that, by democratic standards, would be a Shia-majority regime. Instead, each region has been given substantial local autonomy and power with authority retained by traditional elites. The entire Iraq exercise is unlikely to “shake up” the political culture of the region, but if it lets us leave with some honor intact and without necessitating another US intervention in ten or twenty years, that will be a kind of success. As in other aspects of the war, by moving away from the neoconservative view that everyone everywhere wants democratic capitalism, a kind of clear-eyed realism allows creative solutions based on local conditions.