The Surge Narrative and Other Lies Your Teacher Told You
Posted by Michael Cohen
Over at abu muqawama, Andrew Exum has praise for Max Boot's take below on what the replacement of General McKiernan with Lt. Gen McChrystal as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan tells us about counter-insurgency:
Boot goes on to argue:
What these little nuggets remind us is that on both sides of the political spectrum there seems to be a collective myth-making going on about the "success" of the surge. It now seems to be, among some, practically conventional wisdom that the surge and, in turn, COIN tactics saved the day in Iraq.
Is it inconvenient to note, as we begin to do "more successful counter-insurgency work in Afghanistan" that the United States has:
- Not achieved a counter-insurgency led victory in Iraq
- That the fundamental goal of the surge - political reconciliation -- has decidedly not been achieved.
- That an important element of the short-term success that came in the surge was not because we secured the Iraqi population but because the United States supported Sunnis in "targeting enemy leaders," namely Al Qaeda.
- That Iraq's future remains incredibly uncertain.
And as corollary to this point, it seems worth mentioning that one of the fundamental precepts of counter-insurgency as described in the Fm-24 is that "counterinsurgents use all instruments of national power to sustain the established or emerging government and reduce the likelihood of another crisis emerging." But of course that has not happened in Iraq; and instead a separate power base (outside of the Shiite-dominated national government) has been created.
And of course there is a fifth part to this equation - ethnic cleansing. One of the points that Andrew made yesterday on the Rachel Maddow show was that one of the metrics of success in Afghanistan is not US casualties, but instead Afghan casualties. Apparently that was the metric of success in Iraq in 2007. But this ignores an uncomfortable truth; namely much of the decrease in civilian killing in Baghdad was a result of sectarian killing. As the 2007 NIE on Iraq tells us:
According to one albeit difficult to confirm factoid, by 2007 "Baghdad was once 65 percent Sunni and is now 75 percent Shiite." Now of course, we don't have the full numbers - and census data is pretty tightly held in the Middle East - but it's impossible to talk about diminished civilian casualties in Iraq without referring to the sectarian violence that consumed Baghdad in 2005-2006 and its political consequences.
Learning the correct lessons from the surge is not a thought experiment or some esoteric, academic exercise - it's crucial to understanding what really happened in Iraq in 2007 and 2008; as well as the efficacy of future counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Only if we are honest about the significant limitations on COIN operations and their limited success in Iraq can we talk about their application in Afghanistan. But if we start to believe that the surge and hence counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq brought significant victories we run the very real risk of beginning to believe our own press clippings.
If America's experience in Iraq is any indication we should be very, very dubious about the potential for COIN success in Afghanistan - no matter which general is in charge.