Didn’t The Surge Make Iraq Safe?

The 2007-2008 troop surge greatly contributed to and coincided with a significant decline in day-to- day violence throughout Iraq. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence, over 200 attacks were carried out each day. In a recent speech, General Petraeus pegged the level of attacks now at about 20 per day. These daily trends, however, do not reflect a corresponding decline in the stigma faced by U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, who are applying to the List at the same rates.

The successes prompted by the surge have not, however, eliminated many potentially explosive conditions within Iraq, any one of which could spark new violence during or after the American withdrawal. While the List Project hopes for continued stability for Iraq in the coming period of dramatic transition, we recognize that policies predicated on wishful thinking do not last long in Iraq. Worrying signs include:

  • Heightened tension between Kurds and Arabs over the future of Kirkuk.
  • The Sahwa (Awakening) groups, which formed the backbone of the surge’s counter- terrorism strategy, are now facing an increasingly uncertain future. Many have been driven from Iraq or arrested, and there have been high-profile assassinations of key Sahwa leaders and their families. Failure on the GOI’s behalf to integrate them into Iraq will likely lead to profoundly destabilizing consequences.
  • Iraqi infrastructure still lacks the capacity to deliver essential services reliably, hampering economic recovery and creating substandard living conditions

The withdrawal of tens of thousands of American troops will necessarily create a power vacuum which the Iraqi Security Forces are unlikely to be able to immediately fill. In the weeks since the March 2010 elections, there have been an escalating series of significant terrorist attacks upon key targets, reflecting the intent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Qaeda in Iraq to undermine public confidence in the central government. Insurgents have already begun planning for a renewed campaign of violence after the American withdrawal.

Why can’t the refugees and IDP’s just go home?

For most refugees, this option is always the most desirable: after all, nobody dreams of becoming a refugee and leaving their homeland. When conditions inside Iraq permit it, some, if not most of the refugees will return. The Government of Iraq is currently encouraging the return of displaced Iraqi refugees, and the U.S. government has been encouraging Iraqi refugees to return as well.

As mentioned above, the UNHCR has not yet deemed the security situation in Iraq suitable for any significant returns. The number of returns is still slight: a recent UNHCR report estimated the number of Iraqis returning each month at around 2,000. Returning to Iraq depends primarily on better security, more developed infrastructure, and better economic opportunities. As a result of these current barriers to return, some 90% of Iraqi refugees in Jordan and 86% of Iraqi refugees in Syria have no intention or wish to return to Iraq. No policy should force these refugees back into an environment if they believe return will put their welfare, and their families’ welfare, in jeopardy.
Most of all, U.S.-affiliated Iraqis already face terrible dangers in Iraq, which will only intensify as the United States withdraws. Evidence gathered by TLP indicates that most Iraqi allies do not wish to stay and fear for their safety if they are forced to.

What makes U.S.-affiliated Iraqis unique?

Because of their small numbers, high visibility, and prominent status as targets, American affiliated Iraqis represent a uniquely vulnerable population.

They face terrifying threats. They are routinely branded traitors to their country. Hundreds, and likely thousands, have already been killed by insurgents, al-Qaida in Iraq, and their fellow citizens.
In addition, many U.S.-affiliated Iraqis fled their homes for the safety of American bases as violence escalated in 2006 and 2007. These Iraqis now live side-by-side with Americans and depend on the American military for their security. When the Americans withdraw, they will face the dangerous prospect of returning home to the hostile neighborhoods they fled years ago.

Shouldn’t these Iraqis stay and help rebuild their country?

Iraq has suffered from a serious “brain drain” problem, as many qualified and well-educated citizens have been forced by violence, a veritable industry of kidnapping, and an anemic economy, to leave the country and resettle abroad. Iraq will not develop into a stable, safe, prosperous country with its best administrators, engineers, physicians, and other professionals languishing abroad.

However, Iraq’s brain drain problem exists separately from the thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who wish to leave the country because of the dangers and stigma they currently face. A 2008 International Crisis Group report lamented the “extent to which the better educated have been targeted by militia leaders from all confessional groups—including their own…. Ironically—and tragically—large segments of the middle class in which so many hopes were invested at the dawn of the occupation now reside abroad.” Highly qualified professionals – doctors, administrators, and engineers – have fled Iraq in droves in fear of both the instability in the country, targeted violence, and a veritable industry of kidnapping.

Ideally, conditions in Iraq would reach the point that our Iraqi employees would be able to remain, in safety and with the capacity to contribute to Iraq’s development. In reality, U.S.- affiliated Iraqis must overcome a deep and lethal stigma of having worked for America. TLP has documented many cases of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis denied employment by the Government of Iraq (GOI) because of their former work with America. Many Iraqi employees of the U.S. are terrified to seek employment with the GOI out of a fear that their prior work experience will be revealed, ushering in new threats.
Iraq, the United States, and the international community must find a workable solution to Iraq’s broader refugee crisis in order to combat the brain drain problem. But denying American affiliated Iraqis the opportunity to resettle safely will not contribute to that goal. Put simply, U.S.- affiliated Iraqis cannot reverse the brain-drain problem, and should not suffer through further tragedy in the service of an idealized notion of how Iraq ought to be.

Why does the United States have to participate in solving the crisis?

President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Congress, and others have recognized that the United States has a fundamental moral obligation to Iraqis who have risked their lives on behalf of our military and diplomatic corps. As the driving force behind the invasion of Iraq, America also has an obligation to ameliorate the broader refugee and displacement crisis, in order to bring the situation in Iraq closer to peace and stability. That means working alongside the governments of Iraq and its neighbors, relief organizations, and displaced Iraqis to find a stable solution that minimizes bloodshed and human suffering. Only then can the United States truly turn the page in Iraq, as the President wishes.

Finally, the United States has the capacity to accept a certain number refugees who cannot remain Iraq. Since the start of the crisis, UNHCR has referred 82,500 individuals to 15 countries for refugee resettlement. UNHCR has referred about 62,000 of these to the United States, 75 percent of the total, with the remaining refugees heading to Canada, Australia, Germany, Sweden and other nations. While the United States appears to be the leader in these figures, Sweden – which had no role in the war – has still provided asylum for more Iraqis than any other country.