Should We Credit the Iraq Surge–or the Iraq Deadline?

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A few hours before President Obama’s Oval Office speech on Iraq, Brian Katulis and Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress are out with an interesting take on what’s happened in that country since George W. Bush’s much-debated 2007 troop surge. They argue, as others often do, that it wasn’t a relatively minorĀ  boost in American troops that calmed Iraq’s vicious sectarianism. But unlike most other commentators, who argue variously that the civil war had burned itself out and that the Sunni Awakening was a phenomenon unrelated to the surge, they argue that it was growing talk within American policy circles about setting a deadline for troop withdrawals that, in effect, scared the Iraqis straight:

Deadlines for a strategic redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq — initially proposed in 2005 by leaders like former Representative Jack Murtha, championed by Democrats in Congress and candidates in the 2006 midterm elections, and outlined by the 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group — all sent the important signal that Iraqis needed to take greater responsibility and ownership of their own affairs. The message that America’s commitment to Iraq was not open-ended motivated forces such as the Sunni Awakenings in Anbar province to partner with the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda in 2006, a movement that began long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces.

The message that Americans were leaving also motivated Iraqis to sign up for the country’s security forces in record numbers. The “surge” of U.S. troops to Iraq was only a modest increase of about 15 percent — and smaller if one takes into account the reduced number of other foreign troops, which fell from 15,000 in 2006 to 5,000 by 2008. In Anbar province, the most violent area, only 2,000 troops were added.

Among those who embraced this concept–the idea that withdrawal from Iraq served as a a political lever that brought down violence–was Barack Obama. “Removing our troops is part of applying real pressure on Iraq’s leaders to end their civil war,” he argued in late 2007. Assuming he agrees at least in part with Katulis and Korb, the question is whether Obama believes there’s a lesson here that can be applied to that other American war. As the two authors write:

What does this experience tell us for Afghanistan? Not setting a deadline fosters moral hazard and a dysfunctional dependency on the United States. Also, a deadline accelerates the process of helping local actors achieve a more sustainable balance of power within their own country without relying on the crutch of foreign troops. Finally, a deadline focuses attention and motivates actors to take control of their own affairs — they are also essential for getting sometimes sluggish U.S. government bureaucracies to produce results.

Therefore, in his speech Obama should point out that his decision to begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 remains firm and that it offers the best hope for us and the Afghan people because it will motivate them to take control of their own affairs and increase their own security forces….

I suspect Obama basically agrees with this sentiment. I think it’s clear his top generals don’t. Whether and how that apparent disagreement gets remains one of the core quandaries of this presidency.