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Surge impedance

January 11, 2008

Over at Foreign Policy Passport, Blake Hounshell quotes John McCreary:

Several retired US military officers explained in an interview on NPR yesterday that the success of the surge is economic, not military. The US pays the 70,000-80,000 fighters better than the tribal elders and al Qaida. Al Qaida tends to pay based on piece work – per operation — whereas the US has put the tribal youth on salary. Retired General McCaffrey is quoted as saying at $10 per day per fighter the US can pay that indefinitely.

The payments began in May and the attacks declined shortly thereafter for the first time in three years. In this interpretation, it appears the US won the bidding war in a labor auction in a depressed economy where unemployment is about 50%. That at least makes sense in tying together all the other explanations.

Blake thinks this presents major problems for the United States. Eric Martin at Total Information Awareness discusses his qualified disagreement:

Let’s look first at #1. Blake worries about our ability to maintain payments to former Sunni insurgents once we remove our troops from the arena, and that this could lead to a spike in the number of attacks. But the obvious rebuttal is: We won’t have to pay Iraqis not to attack us once we leave, because we won’t be there to attack! Money saved, problem solved – at least one third of the way.

“What about attacks against Iraqi government forces/civilians?,” one might ask. “Shouldn’t we stick around in large numbers to keep paying for Sunni forbearance along these lines?” I’m not so sure. Blake himself observes that the Iraqi government shows no interest in paying Sunni forces from government coffers. There are generally two possible reads for this stinginess – each of which, again, points in the direction of a common solution to Blake’s conundrum.

First, the Iraqi government values the recent reduction in violence, but knows that it doesn’t have to incorporate Sunni militant forces and/or pay them for civilian jobs while the US is around to foot the bill. If this is the case, then fear of a resumption of violence once we leave will force the Iraqi government to divert real assets to Sunni areas upon our exit.

Second, the Iraqi government has no intention of ever paying money to, or incorporating, armed Sunni groups for fear (imagined, though likely real) that those Sunni groups will turn against the Shiite led Iraqi government at some point in the near future. But if that is the case, what does our presence really accomplish?

We will be occupying a country immersed in a civil war that is locked in suspended animation, as we bribe both sides to remain frozen to the spot. But we, too, will be captive to circumstances for such a lengthy duration that McCain’s “hundred years” bravado might begin to look optimistic. General McCaffrey may consider that a situation that can be perpetuated indefinitely, but then again, he also predicted a meltdown of the Guard and Reserve forces due to the strains resulting from the type of prolonged deployments necessitated by such a role.

I recommend reading both posts, particularly in light of claims about the effectiveness of the Surge.

From my perspective, this piece of information, as well as what we know about US policies of allying with local power holders, fits with a broader picture: the improvements in Iraq reflect the degree to which the United States is adopting the practices of imperial control (a point made extremely well in an as-yet-unpublished article by Paul MacDonald).

Buying off and co-opting local patrons, developing clients, recruiting collaborators, and even recruiting from sub-populations: these are the kinds of strategies by which empires maintain effective alien rule over peripheries. And this, more than any “Surge,” accounts for much of the change in Iraq. But it is a recipe for a long-term presence, as the process of reconstituting stable indigenous authority under such conditions can take quite a long time.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.