The Surge: Licensing the Monopoly on Violence

If you haven’t yet read Nir Rosen’s Rolling Stone article, The Myth of the Surge, definitely click through and give it a look. It provides anecdotal support, but support nonetheless, for all the caveats being attached to the recent progress in Iraq, especially as concerns the Sunni Awakening. But it also anecdotally supports the image that’s beginning to emerge of a low-intensity, quasi-suspended civil war under way in Iraq, ie. the exact opposite of what the Surge was designed to accomplish.

It’s already clear that the American military approach to the complexities of Iraq has been to assemble a network of sub-contracted militias, from Blackwater to the Shiite-infiltrated Iraqi National Police (INP) to the Sunni Awakening’s Concerned Local Citizens councils. Naturally, the result has been a jockeying for position among the rival factions. Since all of them derive their power (at least to operate openly) from their proximity to American handlers, this boils down to competing for recognition of legitimacy from the American military. In this hub and spokes model, the state, with its monopoly on the use of violence, has been replaced by the American military, which proceeds to grant licenses on the use of force to the Iraqi spokes radiating outward.

To get a sense of how unstable this kind of arrangement is, and the degree to which it pushes problems down the line instead of solving them, replace Sunni with “Bloods”, Shiites with “Crips”, and Baghdad with Los Angeles. Then picture them manning armed checkpoints along every major traffic artery from Silverlake to Venice Beach, and feel the chills running down your spine.

To be sure, some aspects of the new counterinsurgency tactics seem likely to be effective. Back when I was working as a gang intervention counselor in Watsonville, CA, for instance, we would have loved to have this kind of mojo:

First Lt. Shawn Spainhour, a contracting officer with the unit, asks the sheik at the mosque what help he needs. The mosque’s generator has been shot up by armed Shiites, and the sheik requests $3,000 to fix it. Spainhour takes notes. “I probably can do that,” he says. The sheik also asks for a Neighborhood Advisory Council to be set up in his area “so it will see our problems.” The NACs, as they’re known, are being created and funded by the Americans to give power to Sunnis cut out of the political process.

But if this kind of investment is being made in East Baghdad instead of East LA, chalk it off as just another opportunity cost of the Iraq War.

Meanwhile, floating above it all is the destructive effect of the American occupation:

. . .Raids by U.S. forces have become part of the daily routine in Iraq, a systematic form of violence imposed on an entire nation. A foreign military occupation is, by its very nature, a terrifying and brutal thing, and even the most innocuous American patrols inevitably involve terrorizing innocent Iraqi civilians. . . U.S. soldiers are the only law in Iraq, and you are at their whim. Raids like this one are scenes in a long-running drama, and by now everyone knows their part by heart. . .

The grimmest aspect of Rosen’s account is the Shiite officer in the INP who finds himself caught between Mahdi Army threats for doing his job too well and American pressure for not doing it well enough. All the while, his loyalty — like that of most of the professional officer cadre — lies with neither Shiite, Sunni or America, but Iraq. By the end of the article, he confides to Rosen his intention to quit his job, as if to show that in a civil war, the real losers are the people who, because of their higher loyalty to the nation, don’t pick sides.