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April 06, 2010

Did The Surge Work?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Earlier today I sent my most recent blog post to my good friend Andrew Exum with the subject line, "Peace in our Time?" (you see in the past we haven't seen exactly eye-to-eye on everything, but when it comes to bombing Iran we do). Well like Neville Chamberlain's fateful words . . . that didn't last too long.

You see, Andrew has a new blog post up where he basically argues that all the surge-haters need to get over it and admit that the surge in Iraq worked. But not so fast. First of all, we still don't know if the surge was successful. It's important to remember that the initial increase in troops was predicated on the notion that it would improve security, thus creating breathing space for Iraqi politicians to move forward with reconciliation. In the words of then-President Bush:
When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas. Most of Iraq's Sunni and Shia want to live together in peace. And reducing the violence in Baghdad will help make reconciliation possible.

Now to be sure we've seen important progress on the security and reconciliation fronts, but it is still not clear that reconciliation will take hold (although I think there is reason for optimism). But that part is less important than the other one, which Andrew glosses over:

We can argue about how many other factors aside from U.S. diplomatic and military operations led to the stunning drop in violence in 2007. There was a civil war in 2005 and 2006, tribes from al-Anbar "flipped" in 2006, and Muqtada al-Sadr decided to keep his troops out of the fight for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Those are just three factors which might not have had anything to do with U.S. operations. But there can be no denying that a space has indeed been created for a more or less peaceful political process to take place. 
Well those "other factors" are actually quite important - in fact, they are likely the dominant reasons why violence decreased in Iraq during 2007 and 2008 (and Andrew leaves out a critical one; the sectarian cleansing and subsequent ethnic enclaving that took place in Baghdad in 2007 and 2008, which contributed mightily to the fall in civilian casualties).  In other words there were very specific factors that allowed the surge to "succeed" in decreasing sectarian violence in Iraq.

But the point here is not to get into a rather tiresome debate on whether the surge failed or succeeded (I could argue that it both failed AND succeeded); it's to examine the question of whether the surge and counter-insurgency tactics adopted by the United States in 2007 and 2008 decreased violence in Iraq - and here's the rub - can be replicated elsewhere?

After all the the "success" of the surge has been used as a rationale for escalation in Afghanistan and the adoption of COIN tactics there.  And when political and military leaders start believing that the "surge worked" in Iraq while downplaying the importance of other indigenous factors - like Iraqi agency - they risk drawing the wrong conclusions about the efficacy of COIN. Indeed, I would argue that to a large extent this is precisely what is happening in Afghanistan where the mantra that "the surge worked" has underpinned the adoption of COIN tactics by General McChrystal.

So while I think it's fair to argue that the surge in US troops in Iraq contributed to the decline of sectarian violence in Iraq (which it almost certainly did) it's exceedingly dubious and dangerous to argue that thus COIN will work in Afghanistan or anywhere else for that matter (and in fairness Andrew is not making this argument). 

As Andrew well knows, the debate over whether the surge did or didn't work has massive national security implications and the conclusions that one draws on this issue will go a long way toward determining the future direction of national security policy.  As I have noted many, many times here and elsewhere drawing lessons from the surge is the wrong way to think about the war in Iraq; the right lesson is how did the US find itself in a place where it had to surge in Iraq and now Afghanistan. 

As George Costanza once wisely noted - Forget about smelling the car. Smell the valet.


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The decline in sectarian violence was due almost entirely to the ethnic purging of Baghdad. But who cares about details that don't involve the military.

You make a very strong argument for why the surge worked, but the graph may be misleading. It is not clear how the graph's author defines "ethno-sectarian" deaths. I suspect that while the trend may hold true no matter the definition, the dramatic drop may be less well defined if you include a broader definition of "ethno-sectarian" deaths.

I really don't think you can argue that the U.S. surge in Iraq was a total success or a total failure. The more likely answer is that it split the difference.

When the surge was adopted by the Bush administration, it had two main goals; beat back the Sunni insurgency (thereby allowing Shia militias to put down their arms) and giving Iraqis enough peace to start trusting their own national government. The first part of the strategy succeeded quite remarkably. The sectarian violence that made life in Iraq a living hell (in 2006 and 2007) was diminished to levels that weren't seen since the start of the war. American troop casualties began to decline, and Al'Qaeda in Iraq lost much- if not all- of its support (especially in Anbar).

But the political arm of the strategy has yet to take hold. Elections are certainly a step in the right direction, but elections do not automatically produce strong institutions and transparent politics. In many ways, the political process has only widened the gap between Sunnis who want a greater say in the national government and Shias who want to retain their control. Thankfully, Ayman Allawi is an exception here (his coalition was cross-sectarian and nationalistic).

And as far as Iraq's domestic politics, most of the major issues have still not been resolved (Kirkuk, oil revenue, national vs. provincial gov't).

So we simply cannot commit to one side or the other. The surge helped create conditions on the ground for political breathing space, but Iraq's politicians have yet to take advantage of it.

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The decline in sectarian violence was due almost entirely to the ethnic purging of Baghdad. But who cares about details that don't involve the military.

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