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February 29, 2012

I Prefer to Give the Inhabitants a Say: Reality and the Surge in Iraq
Posted by Eric Martin

Joel Wing recently conducted an interview with Douglas Ollivant - a retired Army officer who served as Chief of Plans for the Multi-National Division Baghdad both before and during "the Surge." Through the course of the question and answer session, Ollivant provides a detailed, thoughtful and remarkably balanced accounting of "the Surge." He seeks to correct the “new orthodoxy” - or mythmaking - surrounding the putative success of the Surge, while also providing credit where do. Ollivant's thesis is captured in this response:

My fundamental point is that we may want to consider the possibility that the actions of several million Baghdadis were more important than those of 30,000 troops or even one very talented general.

He goes on to note that the winding down of the civil war in Iraq had much more to do with decisions by Iraq's warring factions than with the change in US posture - from the stand-down of the Sadrists and the emergence of the Awakening movement, to demographic changes resulting from past sectarian cleansing in Baghdad.

That said, he does credit the Surge with conveying a sense of certainty with respect to US policy to Baghdad (which was valuable in informing certain decisions to be made by the Maliki administration), as well as enhanced security and a more efficient targeting of the extremist fringes. However, Ollivant considers these to be the “supporting characters” to the lead role played by Iraqis - a conclusion which was previously espoused by me on this site.

Ollivant also discusses the crucial role Iraqi sovereignty and agency played in setting the stage for the withdrawal of US forces (again, echoing sentiments appearing on this site):

I don’t think it is quite accurate to say that deadline was “set” by the Bush Administration, but rather that is was “negotiated by” the Bush Administration. Again, the Iraqis had a vote here, and made it very clear that they wanted a clear end date when U.S. troops would leave the country after the expiration of the United National mandate...I think we got about as good as we could get in the 2008 SOFA, and even that was a near thing.

Finally, I think it is important to note that while we call this agreement the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqis call it something like the “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq on the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” I would highlight the words “withdrawal” and “temporary.” From the Iraqi perspective, this agreement was always about our withdrawal, and our presence over the last three years was simply a temporary accommodation to allow us to do that in an orderly manner. [emphasis added]

I do have one quibble with Ollivant, however, and it concerns something mentioned in the following excerpt:

While there are some disadvantages to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, I think that it is, overall, a good thing. First, I think it has gone a long way towards restoring U.S. credibility in the region. There are still Iraqis who don’t believe we have really left, that the U.S. was there to get Iraqi oil. As the truth sinks in that we really did leave, in accordance with an agreement that we signed with the Iraqi government, I think that will help repair the narrative as to why we went to Iraq in the first place. This is not to say that I endorse the invasion of Iraq, but rather that we did not go there with the intention of stealing oil or setting up long term bases.

I do not mean to argue, with certainty, that the US invaded Iraq for the sole purpose of obtaining access to Iraq's vast oil reserves, or for the purpose of establishing a robust military basing network in such a strategically vital region. However, there were myriad objectives, desired outcomes and possible benefits that motivated the various policymakers, and it is at least possible that some viewed such bases and the proximity to an increasingly scarce and invaluable resource as potential positive results of the invasion.

Furthermore, I would be wary of pointing to our exit from Iraq as definitive evidence of our ultimate intentions. As Ollivant is wont to point out quite correctly, the Iraqi people - and the democratic political apparatus established in Iraq - were the driving forces of our departure, regardless of what we might have wanted to occur.

After all, it is no secret that our military leaders were pushing for a prolonged presence in Iraq, it's just that they were stymied by political realities. Likewise, the original Bush administration plan was to govern Iraq via a Viceroy for several years before gradually easing into some form of domestic representative rule for the Iraqi people. It was only in response to mounting pressure from Iraq's religious leaders (Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in particular) that the Bush team was forced to accelerate the democratic transition.

At the risk of stating a tautology, simply because a given conflict ends with a certain status quo does not mean that the various participants had intended that status quo as the end-game. Ultimately, the Iraqis had a vote.

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