Thoughts on the surge

The following are my thoughts on the Surge. Every declarative statement of what Bush, Petraeus and those around them are thinking should be prefaced with "my opinion is." I don't have any special sources, these are just my impressions.


The surge is finally gaining momentum. Democrats and shaky Republicans are now saying "hmm, maybe we should keep the Surge going as long as is possible into April 2008" (video of one example). What that means is that the Surge is working. Why? Because it is accomplishing its goals.

The Surge, as outlined by the President, has in my mind always had as its primary goal the solidification of support among Congress for a continued American troop presence in Iraq. The method to achieving that goal was the creation of some momentary reduction in the levels of violence - or at least, the creation of the perception of reduced violence.

The supposed case for the Surge was to create 'breathing space' for Iraqi national politicians to reach some sort of agreement that reduces violence:
...our role is to provide an environment in which [Iraqi politics] becomes possible.
It is also important to note that the important part of the Surge is not the numbers, but the tactics. If you look at the numbers of Coalition forces in Iraq, the numbers of Coalition forces has fallen since November 2005. Instead, the important part of the Surge is the classical counterinsurgency tactics the Army has switched to - a "population-centric" set of tactics that focuses on protecting Iraqi civilians from unofficial protectors like militias, criminal gangs, insurgents, and terrorist groups (the previous set of tactics was "enemy-centric" - the primary idea was to kill bad guys).

Of course the notion that nine months of reduced (but still significant) violence would create an Iraqi political miracle was always absurd. Any reconciliation effort will take years if not longer, as a brief overview of recent such efforts will show. Instead, through the momentary lull in violence, Bush hoped to create the necessary political will in Congress to at least see a substantial American military involvement in Iraq through the end of Bush's term. The thinking goes that because "historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years," the best shot we have at "winning" is to be able to show incremental, yet continual progress whenever Congress starts to waver in its commitment.

As its coming time for the first report card, Bush has gotten a little lucky. Through what seems to be a combination of the new tactics of the Surge, Iraqis getting fed up with al-Qaeda's nuttiness (I don't know any Arab men who don't smoke, which makes the al-Qaeda smoking ban very stupid), and sheer luck, the US was able to make some deals with Sunni tribal leaders in order to fight their common enemy. This has produced temporary but real declines in the levels of violence in al-Anbar that were unachievable through increased American forces and new American tactics alone. Tony Cordesman:
Without the unplanned uprising by the Sunni tribes, the US simply did not have enough forces to carry out the present level of operations if it had had to rely solely on the real-world capability of the official Iraqi Security forces.
The problem is that this decline in violence hasn't come through any lasting political accord, but through temporary agreements between Sunni tribes and the American military. As Tony Cordesman argues in the same piece, those agreements depend on "reasonably rapid central government action to give the Sunnis what they want. (US officers put the limit of tribal and Sunni patience at 130-180 days)." However the Iraqi government collapsed and has reformed with a governing minority of Kurds and Shia - no Sunnis, making it likely that the central government won't bribe the Sunni tribes sufficiently to keep the peace. In addition, the embrace of Sunni tribes by the US military further weakens (if thats possible) the central government, where all the attempts at "political progress" are being made. Thus "Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are actually working at cross-purposes."

The bottom line is that while the military progress on the ground is real, most of it is probably attributable to the temporary and probably unsustainable alliance between Sunni tribes and the US military. That alliance is dependent on the Sunni tribes getting what they want from the Iraqi central government. No goods, no alliance, and no more "military progress."

However - if all the positive spin on the Surge convinces Congress to vote for more funds, if the military progress create the political will in Congress to give military involvement in Iraq another Friedman Unit (six months), then President Bush, General Petraeus, and those who still believe in the mission in Iraq will have bought themselves more time to show more progress and convince Congress again to fund for six more months. That will mean the Surge will have worked.

In a way, this Administration is in the position of a gambler who has one more bet left. If they keep rolling the dice and winning, they keep playing, but one bad roll and they are bankrupt. That is how I see the Surge - a roll of the dice.


For one of the best, most thorough and yet readable recent surveys of the Iraqi situation, see Tony Cordesman, The Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq. He went on the same trip Ken Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon went on, and came to slightly different conclusions.


Pat said...

its definitely unsustainable. even i can see that.

and i still dont think Bush is the one making decisions. he never has, nor does he now, seemed like he had any idea what the hell he was doing to me. he's just a mouth piece that got elected because some people in ohio could imagine themselves having a beer with him.

Adrian said...

The irony of having a beer with an alcoholic escaped the voters of Ohio.

A.E. said...

Adrian, speaking of this, did you catch anything about the dust-up between Bush and Bremer over who bears responsibility for the dissolving of the Iraqi army?

Adrian said...


Can't recall at the moment - I think Hadley might have notes on it.