Why the Lull in the Fighting?

The July 2008 results are in, and it was the least bloody month for the United States in Iraq since 2004. But what does that mean? The administration, of course, is crowing confidence that its strategy is working (although counseling caution about the fragility of the downturn in violence), McCain is citing it as evidence of the success of “his” surge and his ability to “win wars,” and Obama argues it is just more evidence that the United States can start to get out.

What the lull means, of course, depends on why is has happened. Phil Myers, who comments from time to time on these postings, and I have discussed several possibilities. By way of context, Phil is a history PhD, I am a political scientist, and we were classmates, roommates, and fraternity brothers at the University of Colorado a few years ago, to put it kindly.

I suggested four possible explanations, to which Phil has responded.

1. The surge has worked. That, of course, is what surge apologists argue, using reductions in casualties as their evidence. Viewed this way, the surge was a tactic rather than a strategy, unless one argues it has also contributed to the strategic goal of a stable post-American Iraq. Phil’s opinion is that “when we leave the fighting will start all over again.” My view is that if it is a tactic aimed at suppressing violence levels, it has succeeded. If it is a strategic element, we have no way to know yet. I also tend to agree with Phil’s assessment.

2. Most of the ethnic cleansing, which is what the “civil war” was actually about, has been completed, and there are few people who need killing left. The gist here is that all major groups have carved out their enclaves around which to rally after the war is over by kicking out or killing members of other major groups. The only remaining place where the process is incomplete is in the oil-rich regions around Kirkuk where, non-coincidentally, there is still fighting. Phil’s comment is that “there is always someone left to kill.” True enough, but what may be left is Afghan-style tribal killing after the war.

3. The Iraqis want us to leave, and have collectively decided the best way to do so is to convince us we are no longer needed by dropping the level of violence. Certainly, a continuing appearance of peace makes it harder for the Bush administration to keep troops there and would strengthen the hand of the Iraqis, who really do want us to leave. Phil doubts that the fractious groups could ever get together to coordinate such an effort. While that may be true, cooperation may be tacit or based on the one thing about which all groups agree: they want the Americans out of their country.

4. We have won! Setting aside what “winning” means, the reduction in violence is evidence that the overall American plan has worked, and that we are on the road to victory. Phil dismisses this argument as “obvious nonsense,” arguing that as soon as we leave, they will be back at it.

Another possibility, of course, is that much of this is Iraqification smoke and mirrors, not unlike the arguments the Americans made in 1972 and early 1973 that the South Vietnamese were ready to defend themselves. By the time that assessment proved untrue, we were basically gone and looked back at the consequences with a high level of indifference. The difference between then and now, of course, was that the Vietnamese did not possess the world’s fourth largest oil reserves.

Have any reactions to these categories of explanations? Any of your own?

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