Did the Surge Work?

by , July 27, 2008

The media, egged on by John McCain and his campaign, are going to twist the arm of Barack Obama until he cries "uncle" and admits the U.S. troop "surge" has worked in Iraq. So far, Obama has not cracked under the pressure and, for reasons of political expediency, admitted this dubious proposition.

The smart political course of action for Obama – but not the correct one – would be to admit the surge has worked to reduce violence but to observe that that’s little solace after a needless invasion and five-year (and counting) occupation that has cost more than 4,000 lives and about $600 billion. So far, Obama has stuck to the correct, and maybe even charitable, conclusion that the surge is only one of many factors that has reduced the carnage in Iraq.

Using logic, if the U.S. troop surge had been the cause of the diminished violence, then why did the mayhem go up in 2005 when the United States undertook a troop surge of similar magnitude? Moreover, because little true political reconciliation has occurred in Iraq since the surge began, if the additional troops were the cause of the new tranquility, that calm should be evaporating now that U.S. forces are being reduced to pre-surge levels. Yet so far, no spike in violence is occurring. Thus, the logical conclusion is that other factors are likely to have been more important in improving conditions than the addition of more troops.

For example, many experts believe that the prior violent cleansing of ethno-sectarian populations has separated the battling Shi’ite and Sunni groups and thus reduced the internecine warfare. Also, the U.S. military finally implemented a true counterinsurgency strategy in which it eschewed killing lots of guerrillas (and civilians collaterally) with heavy firepower and moved toward holding ground and winning the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi population. One would have thought it would not have taken the U.S. military so long to relearn this lesson after the searing experience of the Vietnam War.

Finally, and maybe most important, the U.S. decided to negotiate with (Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shi’ite militia) and pay off (the Sunni guerrillas) enemies to get their forces to quit attacking U.S. troops. U.S. politicians, thinking it is not macho to do either, have either downplayed these factors or preferred to refer to the latter by euphemism. The former is especially embarrassing to the politicians because the United States has criticized the new Pakistani government for negotiating with, instead of fighting, the Taliban and other Pakistani militants, while the U.S. government has pursued the same strategy in Iraq with the al-Sadr Shi’ite militia. The latter is embarrassing because it is considered wimpy to pay off, rather than do battle, with your enemies.

Make no mistake: paying off your enemies is always a better and cheaper strategy than expending the blood and treasure to fight them. For example, if Abraham Lincoln had offered the South compensated emancipation of its slaves – which he had advocated before becoming president – before the Civil War started, he might have avoided the killing of more than 600,000 Americans (38,000 of whom were African-American) in a war that provided freedom for blacks only in name.

Yet paying off enemies to reduce the violence is not a long-term solution to stability in Iraq. In that part of the world, if you quit making the pay offs or conditions change in such a volatile and fractured society, violence could quickly escalate again. The reconciliation occurring in Iraq is largely cosmetic and forced by U.S. pressure. It is analogous to two sets of parents arranging a marriage between two young people who don’t get along and locking them up in a room together until they like each other. To get out of the room, they will go through the motions of amity, but probably will eventually end up divorced.

If the United States is smart, it will avoid the consequences of the likely future divorce among Iraqi groups and move toward Obama’s tendency to declare victory and start leaving while things are going better. Such a policy would leave a better chance of U.S. forces avoiding the likely coming storm of resumed violence. If the United States wants to give Iraq the best chance of stability in the post-U.S. era, it should use its withdrawal to negotiate a radically decentralized government in which exiting armed militias maintain security in their own autonomous regions.

Above all, the U.S. should avoid John McCain’s conclusion that the surge worked in Iraq and should be tried Afghanistan. Obama and McCain are engaged in a bidding war to see how many U.S. troops they can add to another lost war in Afghanistan, which has even lower prospects for future stability than Iraq. The Taliban are much more ideological and militant than most of the Sunni guerrillas in Iraq and far less likely to agree to be paid off. Also, the Taliban have a sanctuary (Pakistan) that the Sunni guerrillas in Iraq never had.

The al-Qaeda that threatens the United States is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan or Iraq. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan merely helps al-Qaeda gain support in Pakistan. Thus, the U.S. should withdraw all of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrate on dealing with al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

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