In the Arena

Surge Protection

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I think David Brooks has it essentially right here about Bush’s stubborness–as opposed to his knowledge of strategy or tactics or the situation on the ground in Iraq–as the reason why he made the correct choice on Iraq in late 2006. But, as Brooks says, history is complicated–and the current reduction in violence in Iraq was a combination of many factors.

As for me, I happily acknowledge that I was wrong about the surge. As regular Swampland readers know, I was, and am, a huge fan of counterinsurgency doctrine, and an admirer of David Petraeus–but I doubted that the General would have the time, troops or a coherent local government–in other words, the metrics required by his own doctrine–to make it work. (Most counterinsurgency experts I spoke with harbored similar doubts, although most believed that it was worth a try–which I didn’t.)

So what happened? The most important factor in the surge wasn’t the additional troops so much as the change in tactics, which pulled the troops out of huge forward operating bases (FOBs) on the periphery of Baghdad and transformed them into community police officers who lived in the neighborhoods where they worked. Providing security for the local population is the highest priority of counterinsurgency doctrine. The next most important factor was Petraeus himself, who proved to be a flexible, resourceful and wise leader, unafraid to take risks. Some of his most effective actions were traditional kinetic assaults on terrorist strongholds–pushing the insurgents out of their staging areas in the belts surrounding Baghdad, and then using the additional surge troops to hold those areas.

But Petraeus was also incredibly lucky–although he knew how to take advantage of the breaks he got–and these were the factors I hadn’t counted upon. The biggest break was the decision of the Sunni tribes to switch sides and oppose the taqfiri terrorists. This started to happen before the surge began, but Petraeus jumped on it–he was amazed, he told me last June, how quickly the transformation was taking place. This led directly to the defeat, or near-defeat, of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Another bit of “luck” was the ethnic cleansing that took place in Baghdad in 2005-2006 that lessened the potential for internecine violence in many of the neighborhoods. That plus the constant troop presence in the neighborhoods gave residents the confidence to tell the troops where the bad guys–as often as not criminal gangs who were taking advantage of the anarchy–were hiding.

It was always clear that the militias, especially the Sadrists, would go to ground and wait out our presence rather than confront our superior military force. And that remains one of the biggest questions: What happens when we go? I would guess there are two possibilities, neither of which involves a very robust democracy. The first is a return to sectarian chaos, with our Sunni Awakening pals turning on the government, the Shi’ites fighting amongst themselves and the Kurds bidding the Arab Iraqis adieu. The second is the gradual transformation of Nouri al-Maliki, or some other Shi’ite, into a fairly classic middle eastern strongman. Maliki’s popularity has skyrocketed because he has been able to use the Iraqi Security Forces intelligently in recent months. We’ve seen this movie before.

But go we must, in an orderly fashion, the sooner the better–this war is simply too expensive and too exhausting for our military. And it is currently drawing crucial resources from the more important war in Afghanistan. And that is why the right-wing triumphalists shouldn’t get too triumphal: this war has been a terrible mistake from the start. It has diverted crucial resources from the stated purpose of Bush’s policy after 9/11–the war against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

The notion that we could just waltz in and inject democracy into an extremely complicated, devout and ancient culture smacked–still smacks–of neocolonialist legerdemain. The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives–people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary–plumped for this war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel. And then there is the question–made manifest by the no-bid contracts offered U.S. oil companies by the Iraqis–of two oil executives, Bush and Cheney, securing a new source of business for their Texas buddies.

The surge has reduced violence. We should all be thrilled about that–and honored by the brilliance of those who have served in Iraq. But what we’re talking about here is whipped cream on a pile of fertilizer–a regional policy unprecedented in its stupidity and squalor.