What Has the Surge Really Achieved?

The "Surge" has not "won" the war at a stroke. It has not brought all of America's troops home. It has not enabled Iraqi parliamentarians to pass every single "benchmark" law that the US President and Congress would like them to, in particular a hydrocarbon law that amounts to a grand constitutional settlement, though three key reconciliation laws were passed in February. It has not undone the damage of four years of war or brought anyone back to life.

Apparently that makes the Surge a failure, even though no proponents of the Surge claimed it would achieve all these wonderful things, much less achieve them by March 2008.

Of course the Surge was always a bad idea, according to some very smart people, some of them members of the military or the Bush administration. Wesley Clark was sure it would backfire. Dennis Kucinich said it would cause a war with Iran. Chuck Hagel labeled it "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam."

Other people worried that the Surge would be too small to achieve the aims of the "new way forward," of which the troop increase was a part. This group included the architects of the new overall strategy, like retired General Jack Keane, and also Sen. John McCain. Eventually Bush decided to send 30,000 additional troops instead of just 20,000.

Very quickly the term "Surge" came to stand for the whole new strategy as well as the deployment to Iraq of five new brigades. Just as quickly the Surge was deemed to have failed. "This war is lost and the Surge is not accomplishing anything," declared Sen. Harry Read on April 19th 2007, before even half the new troops had arrived, and two months before surge operations officially began. The fifth of the five new brigades was still not in theater in June 2007, when Sen. Joe Biden announced that "the Surge has not worked and will not work."

That was then and this is now. And here in the real world, the Surge seems to be responsible for, or at least linked to a wide variety of positive developments in Iraq. Sectarian deaths are down over 50% (more than 80% in Baghdad) compared to late 2006. Attacks on civilians are down over 50%. Attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces are down 90%. Things are so much better in Fallujah, the former epicenter of Sunni insurgency, that there are only 250 US marines there, instead of the 3,000 garrisoning the city at the beginning of last summer.

If you don't believe these numbers -- and there is often good reason for skepticism about statistics from Iraq, whether they are the fantasy death tolls dreamed by Britain's Lancet or the statistics collected by US and Iraqi authorities -- then the data collected by anti-war groups like icasualty.org also seem to indicate a precipitous drop.

Despite an uptick over the last few days, the steep descent into sectarian civil war that seemed inevitable after the al Qaeda/Sunni terrorist attack on the Shiite mosque in Samarra in February 2006, seems less inevitable now. The cruel cycle of Sunni bomb attacks on Shiite civilians followed by Shiite reprisals against random Sunnis has slowed dramatically: In Baghdad the authorities had found 43 bodies a day at the end of 2006 they now find about an average of four.

There is also much anecdotal evidence for a transformation of life in both Anbar province and Baghdad. The refugees (most of whom are Sunni) are trickling back from Jordan and Syria. The actress and UNHCR ambassador Angelina Jolie, no friend of the Bush administration, came back from Iraq happy that UN and NGO officials feel that conditions are finally safe enough to expand humanitarian activity. The BBC, not an institution known for pro-American leanings, reports that "all across Baghdad...streets are springing back to life... Everybody agrees that things are much better." My own Iraqi friends confirm that their Baghdad neighborhoods are overwhelmingly quieter and safer than in 2006.

On that note it may be instructive that most of the arguments made for the failure of the Surge make little or no reference to Iraqi perceptions. After all, it would not be hard for pundits now bashing the surge to contact Iraqi leaders to ask what they think about it. However, Iraqi voices continue to be strangely absent from the mainstream media debate about the war, and the anti-war movement prefers to ignore the inconvenient existence of a democratically elected parliament and government in Baghdad.

You could mount a plausible argument that the rate of violence might have dropped anyway even if the Surge hadn't been implemented. It may be that sheer exhaustion was already overwhelming the Sunni insurgents and the communities from which they came. Presumably the prospect of undoing the overthrow of the Saddam regime and restoring Sunni hegemony was beginning to seem remote even to insurgents whose monitoring of US politics hinted at an imminent Coalition departure.

It's probably true that some of the peace that has descended on Baghdad reflects the completion of ethnic cleansing in formerly mixed neighborhoods, though it's not true that "less people are being killed because there are less people to kill" as claimed by one widely-quoted pro-insurgency writer.

It is definitely true that the Anbar tribes were already alienated by the arrogance and brutality of their erstwhile al Qaeda allies from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It is also true that US commanders in the West like Col. Sean MacFarland had begun to recruit and co-opt the tribes before the surge began or General Petraeus returned to implement his doctrinal revolution. As a result, places like Ramadi had been pacified by Spring 2007.

(This process involved paying relatively large sums of money to lubricate or solidify new alliances that led to tribal attacks on al Qaeda nests. This is sometimes portrayed as a form of "cheating" that somehow undermines the claims of the Surge rather than traditional counter-insurgency practice with a history that goes back at least to Roman times. The use of tribal subsidies and the recruitment of former hostiles as auxiliary forces are hardly without risk, but the program has rightly been adopted by Petraeus' commanders in other parts of the country including Baghdad.)

But even conceding all this, it seems more than likely that the Surge powerfully reinforced pre-existing positive trends and counter-insurgency gambits. At the same time, the additional five brigades meant that it was possible to implement a coherent and effective counter-insurgency and training strategy. There were finally enough boots on the ground to re-establish order in the capital, while simultaneously attacking al Qaeda bases in the suburbs and other cities. There were enough troops to "embed" US forces in Iraqi units, enough troops to establish small joint bases in formerly lawless areas, and enough troops for Generals Petraeus and Odierno to mount a series of devastatingly effective though little reported offensives.

Finally it seems unlikely that the evidence of the Surge's success did not influence Moqtadr al Sadr when declared his 'ceasefire' last August, and extended it a further six months in February. American forces had badly bloodied his Mahdi Army militias while simultaneously fighting Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda forces in Baghdad and Diyala. Their success, together with Iraqi security forces, in suppressing Sunni terrorism and restoring order in Shia areas, meant that some local Shiites concluded that they no longer needed the vicious and corrupt Mahdi Army to protect them.

But perhaps the most important achievement of the Surge is the one least understood or discussed in the US, and that is its moral effect on Iraqis and, to some extend, Americans fighting in Iraq. At the end of 2006, calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq were reaching a crescendo. Every time a major US politician echoed those calls, or even demanded a fixed date for withdrawal it had a significant effect on the morale of all sides in Iraq. (Among other consequences, the rate of attacks would rise and intelligence would dry up.)

Then to the surprise of everyone in the region, the US didn't run away and abandon Iraq to a prospect of genocidal civil war and invasion. Instead they sent more troops. (These troops employed better tactics and didn't disappear from the scene of successful engagements to the safety of huge fortified bases.) The symbolism was obvious and subverts a familiar narrative of American inconstancy and lack of moral courage. It helps to explain why tens of thousands of Sunnis have joined the so-called "Awakening" groups, and that Moqtadr al Sadr has retreated to Iran. The new perception of American strength of will is arguably a massive force multiplier, but it could all too easily be undermined by certain currents in American domestic politics.

You can see this most depressingly in a widely cited article by Michael Kinsley which asserts that the Surge is a not a success because it has not ended quickly enough. Kinsley concedes, in a sarcastic tone that "the surge is a terrific success. Choose your metric: attacks on American soldiers, car bombs, civilian deaths, potholes. They're all down, down, down. Lattes sold by street vendors are up. Performances of Shakespeare by local repertory companies have tripled."

The irony is amusing in a way, though its implications reveal something ugly. For him the metrics are a joke. Either because he can't imagine or empathize with the suffering inflicted by a marketplace bomb or an IED, or because the lives of Iraqis and of American troops simply don't count compared to a rhetorical point scored against a hated President.