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Iraq: Surge Resurgence?

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Two weeks ago, The Washington Post’s premier neoconservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, wrote the following:

The fact is that by the end of Bush’s tenure, the [Iraq] war had been won. You can argue that the price of that victory was too high. Fine. We can debate that until the end of time. But what is not debatable is that it was a victory.

Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a front-page article on former Vice President Dick Cheney’s new push—along with his daughter Liz and their two-year-old Alliance for a Strong America—to vindicate the Bush administration’s post-9/11 global war on terror (GWOT) and promote an even more aggressive agenda for the future. From the Journal’s interview:

He was particularly dismissive of the recent Iraq debate in which just about every GOP candidate said, no, they wouldn’t have invaded Iraq, had they known the intelligence was incorrect: “The relevant question first ought to be directed to Obama, and it’s: ‘Knowing what you know now, would you have abandoned Iraq and pulled the troops out three years ago?’”

It would not be surprising if Cheney’s question/non sequitur becomes henceforward the standard response for Republican presidential candidates when they are confronted by difficult questions regarding their positions on the Iraq war (although Jon Stewart’s treatment of the subject, “Learning Curves Are for Pussies,” on The Daily Show Tuesday night should help). Indeed, the theme is hardly new. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been complaining bitterly about the U.S. withdrawal since even before it took place. But Cheney, according to the Journal, has made frequent trips to Capitol Hill to advise the Republican leadership, and several GOP declared and undeclared candidates have tapped his questionable wisdom.

So it seems timely to review a bit what the Surge, which, in Cheney’s and Krauthammer’s view, delivered “victory” for the U.S. by the time Obama took office, did and didn’t do.

The Myth of the Surge

In July 2009—that is, just six months into Obama’s presidency—Harvard’s Steve Walt anticipated (and tried to pre-empt) the narrative in a Foreign Policy post entitled “The Myth of the Surge.”

The surge had two main goals. The first goal was to bring the level of violence down by increasing U.S. force levels in key areas, forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups, and shifting to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized population protection. This aspect of the surge succeeded, though it is still hard to know how much of the progress was due to increased force levels and improved tactics and how much was due to other developments, such as the prior “ethnic cleansing” that had separated the contending groups.

The second and equally important goal was to promote political reconciliation among the competing factions in Iraq. This goal was not achieved, and the consequences of that failure are increasingly apparent. What lies ahead is a long-delayed test of strength between the various contending groups, until a new formula for allocating political power emerges. That formula has been missing since before the United States invaded—that is, Washington never had a plausible plan for reconstructing a workable Iraqi state once it dismantled Saddam’s regime—and it will be up to the Iraqi people to work it out amongst themselves. It won’t be pretty.

With the passage of time, the “surge” should be seen as a well-intentioned attempt to staunch the violence temporarily and let President Bush hand the problem off to his successor. Hawks will undoubtedly try to pin the blame on Obama by claiming that we were (finally) winning by the time Bush left office, in the hope that Americans have forgotten the strategic objectives that the “surge” was supposed to achieve. It’s a bogus argument, but what would you expect from the folks who got us in there in the first place? [Emphasis added]

Actually, I don’t fully agree with Walt’s analysis in that political reconciliation was not an “equally important goal” of the Surge. National reconciliation was the entire strategic purpose for which the reduction in sectarian violence was a necessary tactic and precondition. As Bush himself said when he announced the Surge in January 2007:

Most of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace. And reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.

A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations.

The Bush administration laid out a series of key political benchmarks that would indicate progress—or lack thereof—in achieving the overriding goal of national reconciliation, including, for example, the holding of provincial elections, a new oil law, serious reforms to the de-Baathification law, integration of the Sahwa militias in Anbar province (most of which had already allied themselves with U.S. forces against al-Qaeda in Iraq by the time the Surge got officially underway). Some of these were implemented at one time or another. But they were also rolled back by the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki who, it bears recalling, came to power with the strong support of ….the Bush administration. As Zachary Keck who, significantly, believes that the Surge was the right decision, wrote last year in The Diplomat:

The end goal was creating a unified Iraq where the three major societal groups in Iraq could at least tolerate each other enough to buy into the political process. That was the objective the U.S. was hoping to achieve by surging U.S. troops in 2007. And by that measurement, the surge has most certainly failed.

Paul Pillar, who served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia during Bush’s first term, agreed with that assessment in a November 2014 post entitled “The Damaging Myth About ‘Winning’ the Iraq War.”

According to the myth, the war was all but won by then, with just a few more touches yet to be added to complete the forging of a stable Iraqi democracy, before the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely withdrawing the remaining U.S. troops that were need to finish the job. No matter how often the myth gets repeated, it is just as false now as the first part of the myth was five years ago.

… Even with the temporary ebbing of the violence, the issues driving the civil war remained unsettled—fundamental issues involving distribution of political power in Iraq. The surge was intended to make it possible for Iraqis to resolve those issues, and in that respect the surge failed. There is an unbroken history from the conflict of interests that caused the civil war and its associated mélange of insurgencies to break out a decade ago, to the conflict of interests—which is mostly the same unresolved conflict of interests among sectarian and ethnic communities—that underlies the violence in Iraq today. There also is an unbroken history from the most violent and extreme of the groups in Iraq as of several years ago and the feared group ISIS—which is the same group with a new name and a new leader—that is such a preoccupation today.

As evidence, Pillar cited one of the generals responsible for carrying out the Surge, Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger (ret.), who wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Veterans’ Day last year:

Here’s a legend that’s going around these days. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled a dictator. We botched the follow-through, and a vicious insurgency erupted. Four years later, we surged in fresh troops, adopted improved counterinsurgency tactics and won the war. And then dithering American politicians squandered the gains. It’s a compelling story. But it’s just that — a story.

The surge in Iraq did not “win” anything. It bought time. It allowed us to kill some more bad guys and feel better about ourselves. But in the end, shackled to a corrupt, sectarian government in Baghdad and hobbled by our fellow Americans’ unwillingness to commit to a fight lasting decades, the surge just forestalled today’s stalemate. Like a handful of aspirin gobbled by a fevered patient, the surge cooled the symptoms. But the underlying disease didn’t go away. The remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents we battled for more than eight years simply re-emerged this year as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

So, for Krauthammer to claim that the U.S. had achieved “victory” in Iraq by the time Bush left office seems more than a tad ridiculous (although not surprising given the chronic inability of the vast majority of neoconservatives to admit that their policy advice has ever been wrong – See They Knew They Were Right by Jacob Heilbrunn).

Addressing Cheney

As to Cheney’s question, one needs only recall that it was Bush who, in the waning days of his presidency, signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that required all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by Dec 31, 2011. As Pillar pointed out,

The Obama administration merely carried out the terms of the agreement that the Bush administration had negotiated with the Iraq government. In response to assertions that Mr. Obama “didn’t try hard enough” to negotiate a new agreement with different terms, which implication are we supposed to draw: that Mr. Bush did not try hard enough in the first place, or that when Bush people and Obama people each try to do the same thing we should expect the Obama people to be better at it?

In fact, as described in some detail in a Politico magazine story (“No, Obama Didn’t Lose Iraq”) by Colin Kahl, the senior Pentagon official responsible for Iraq policy during Obama’s first three years as president (and now Biden’s national security adviser), internal politics made it impossible for key Iraqi power-brokers—with the exception of Kurdish leaders—to publicly endorse the continued presence of armed U.S. forces beyond the 2011 deadline without rejecting Obama’s demands that any residual force be given legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution. Apart from the Kurds, the idea of retaining U.S. troops in Iraq was simply very unpopular. And, after all, if a major U.S. goal under Bush was to build a government that would be far more responsive to its people’s wishes, then any effort to contravene the popular will would be hypocritical, at the very least.

(Ironically, Krauthammer entitled the latest elaboration on his notion of “A Unipolar World” in a lecture he entitled “Democratic Realism” at the American Enterprise Institute on the occasion of his receipt of AEI’s 2004 Irving Kristol Award. Cheney personally introduced Krauthammer at the ceremony: “His great intelligence is guided by principle and an understanding of the world as it is.”)

Among the Iraqi leaders who rejected any prolongation of a U.S. military presence was Ahmad Chalabi whose spectacularly successful efforts to push the U.S. to invade Iraq in the first place were championed by Cheney and Krauthammer and his fellow neocons who stuck by him even after it was disclosed that he was allied with—if not an agent for—Iran, the very country against which they now believe the U.S. should take military action. (So much for “an understanding of the world as it is.”) In mid-December 2009, just days before the last U.S. soldiers left Iraq, Chalabi told The Australian newspaper in an interview at a Baghdad art gallery owned by his family:

Yes, we brought the Americans here to get rid of Saddam for us, and now they have gone, which is a very good thing. But I had no illusions that it would be a utopia or that the Americans were going to do the right thing. The war in Iraq was successful, but the occupation has been a tragic failure.[Emphasis added]

So the man who persuaded Cheney and the neocons to invade Iraq in the first place assessed the U.S. occupation a “failure,” which doesn’t translate in any language into “victory.” The same man spearheaded all of the de-Baathification efforts that are now blamed for creating the Sunni/AQI/IS insurgency. And when Obama “abandoned” Iraq by withdrawing U.S. troops pursuant to the SOFA signed by Bush, Chalabi said “good riddance.”

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