Afghan Lessons from the Iraq War

You don’t have to go back 40 years to the Vietnam War to feel the sting of déjà vu. Returning to the Iraq War just three years ago will suffice.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the administration’s dilemma on Afghanistan in a single question: "How do we signal resolve and at the same time signal to the Afghans and the American people that this is not open-ended?"

It is the same question that policymakers and generals were grappling with three years ago with respect to Iraq. Let’s hope they learned the right lessons from that experience, but it’s doubtful since the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) has been no help in shedding light on what actually happened.

If you remember, President George W. Bush had been voicing lots of optimism about the Iraq War and Vice President Dick Cheney had claimed the enemy was "in its last throes." But it was becoming increasingly clear by 2006 that sectarian violence was ripping Iraq apart, that the death toll of American troops was rising, and that U.S. defeat was looming.

But Bush and Cheney were hell-bent on preventing defeat from happening, at least on their watch. Nor did they want the neocon dream of a U.S.-dominated Iraq to die.

However, many in Washington — especially in the military — recognized that the Bush/Cheney war couldn’t be open-ended and that hard decision would have to be made for a gradual withdrawal to begin.

To his credit, Rep, Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, almost singlehandedly got Congress to create the "Iraq Study Group," a blue-ribbon panel that was to assess the situation in Iraq and determine what the United States could still reasonably accomplish.

The effort was not blessed by Bush and Cheney, who considered the idea of second-guessing their judgments a nuisance or worse. But the panel became more of a threat when high-profile figures — Republican elder statesman James Baker and Democratic fixer Lee Hamilton — were picked to chair it.

Though Baker had been the Bush family’s consigliere for decades, he was considered a possible wild card. As a hard-headed pragmatist, he reflected Establishment thinking, which was coming to believe that the war-hungry neocons around Bush had bitten off more than they could chew in Iraq.

A New Course

By fall 2006, the members of the Iraq Study Group were convinced that a new course was needed for Iraq. And almost no sober thinker favored sending more troops.

The senior military, especially CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid and his man on the ground in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, emphasized that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq would signal leading Iraqi politicians that they could relax and continue to take forever to get their act together.

Here, for example, is Gen. Abizaid’s answer at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov. 15, 2006, to Sen. John McCain, who had long been pressing vigorously for sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq:

"Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, ‘in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?’

"And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad sent a classified cable to Washington warning that "proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable," according to a New York Times retrospective on the "surge" by Michael R. Gordon published on Aug. 31, 2008.

Khalilzad was arguing, unsuccessfully, for authority to negotiate a political solution with the Iraqis. Bush and Cheney would not allow Khalilizad to do so.

Instead, Bush and Cheney began to plan a purge of their top commanders — moving to replace Abizaid and Casey — and easing Khalilizad out as well.

Bush and his neocon advisers also had a problem with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was backing his generals. On Nov. 6, 2006, a day before the mid-term elections, Rumsfeld sent a memo to the White House that made many of the same arguments that Abizaid, Casey and members of the Iraq Study Group were making.

The first 80 percent of Rumsfeld’s memo addressed "Illustrative Options," including his preferred — or "above the line" — options, such as "an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases … to five by July 2007" and withdrawal of U.S. forces "from vulnerable positions — cities, patrolling, etc. … so the Iraqis know they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country."

On Nov. 8, after Republicans were routed in the 2006 elections, Bush cut loose Rumsfeld, replacing him with former CIA Director (and member of the Iraq Study Group) Robert Gates. The Washington news media widely interpreted the move as Bush’s acceptance of a more realistic policy for winding down the Iraq War.

A Misconstrued Firing

However, Rumsfeld’s firing was completely misread. Behind the scenes, the controversial Defense Secretary had been backing his commanders on the need to keep the U.S. "footprint" as small as possible.

The careerist Gates was a different story, willing to support an escalation in exchange for a place again at the Washington power table.

Since his early days at the CIA, Gates was never one to let truth derail his ambition. Though privy to the analysis emerging from the Iraq Study Group — on the need for a gradual U.S. withdrawal — Gates was willing to play ball with Bush on an escalation.

On Dec. 6, 2006, after months of investigation and policy review, the Iraq Study Group issued its final report, which began with the ominous sentence, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." It called for:

"A change in the primary mission of U.S. Forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly. …  By the first quarter of 2008…all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."

On the same day as the ISG report, Gates was confirmed by the full Senate. In retrospect the coincidence was a supreme irony, since Gate’s Washington rebirth as Secretary of Defense facilitated the early death of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations.

We were in for a "surge," not a drawdown of troops.

Bush quickly deep-sixed the ISG recommendations, which his neocon advisers depicted as defeatist, a prescription for "losing Iraq" and — worse yet — doing so on the Bush-Cheney watch. Bush made clear he was prepared to stay in Iraq indefinitely and expand the fight against Islamic extremism.

At a news conference on Dec. 20, 2006, Bush cast this wider struggle against Islamists as a test of American toughness and perseverance, a demonstration to the enemy that "they can’t run us out of the Middle East, that they can’t intimidate America."

Rather than scale back the neoconservative dream of transforming the Middle East, Bush argued for an expanded U.S. military to wage this long war.

"We must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the fight for a long period of time," Bush said. "I’m not predicting any particular theater, but I am predicting that it’s going to take a while for the ideology of liberty to finally triumph over the ideology of hate."

Neocons Planning

As Bush talked tough, neocons at the American Enterprise Institute were devising a plan to "surge" 20,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq, enough to stave off definitive defeat at least until January 2009 when Bush and Cheney could ride off into the sunset without having lost a war.

The neocons even found a retired general, Jack Keane, who had been Army Vice Chief of Staff and knew how to work the Pentagon side of things.

Bush announced the "surge" on Jan 10, 2007, and the escalation was phased in through much of 2007. U.S. casualties skyrocketed, with more than 1,000 American troops dying, roughly a quarter of the total killed in the Iraq War.

As author Steve Coll put it, "The decision [to surge] at a minimum guaranteed that his [Bush’s] presidency would not end with a defeat in history’s eyes. By committing to the surge [the President] was certain to at least achieve a stalemate."

Gradually, the violence in Iraq did subside, from catastrophic to wretched. That prompted the well-placed neocons and their friends in the Fawning Corporate Media to hail the "surge" as a great success and a sterling example of Bush’s steely-eyed courage.

That point of view congealed into a potent conventional wisdom among Washington insiders. However, many military analysts believed the "surge" was at best a minor factor in improving Iraq’s security climate.

For his book, The War Within, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward interviewed a number of military officials and concluded:

"In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge."

Woodward reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were two important factors.

A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continued success.

But there were previous glimpses of these classified U.S. programs that combined high-tech means of identifying insurgents — such as sophisticated biometrics and night-vision-equipped drones — with old-fashioned brutality on the ground, including on-the-spot executions of suspects. [For instance, see’s "Bush’s Global Dirty War" and "Iraq’s Laboratory of Repression."]

Brutal Factors

Other brutal factors further explained the decline in violence:

–Vicious ethnic cleansing had succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there were fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis were estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.

–Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas made "death-squad" raids more difficult but also "cantonized" much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they sought food or traveled to work.

–During the "surge," U.S. forces expanded a policy of rounding up so-called "military age males" and locking up tens of thousands in prison on the flimsiest of suspicions.

–Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years, had slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and had intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.

–With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society had been deeply traumatized. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point violent repression does work.

But this dark side of the "successful surge" was excluded from the U.S. political debate in 2008, much as the illegality of Bush’s original invasion had been treated as a taboo subject during the early years of the Iraq War.

During last year’s presidential campaign, when Barack Obama tried to make the more sophisticated argument about the "surge," he was badgered by prominent journalists, such as CBS anchor Katie Couric and ABC’s "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos.

For instance, on Sept. 7, 2008, Stephanopoulos demanded of Obama: "How do you escape the logic that … John McCain was right about the surge?"

When Obama responded that he couldn’t understand "why people are so focused on what has happened in the last year and a half and not on the previous five," Stephanopoulos cut him off, saying "Granted, you think you made the right decision about going in, but about the surge?"

Unwilling to pay the price for challenging Washington’s conventional wisdom regarding the "surge," Obama finally agreed to cede the point and "admit" that the "surge" had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

An Early Sign

It was an early sign that Obama was not prepared to take on Washington’s media/political elites over a factual issue, even one with important national security implications.

Ironically, just as Obama was retreating on the "surge," Iraqi officials were standing up against Bush’s desire to have a "status of forces agreement" that would grant the United States the indefinite right to operate militarily in Iraq.

Instead, they insisted that Bush accept a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities in 2009 and then from the country by the end of 2011.
Bush, who had always rejected the idea of a withdrawal timetable, was forced to accept just such a timetable.

The timetable also appears to have had a beneficial effect on levels of violence in Iraq. Since the SOFA was signed, U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have dropped by more than half, to 142 in 2009 from 314 in 2008, according to The U.S. death toll was 904 in 2007.

However, after winning the presidency, Obama continued to finesse the powers-that-be. He kept on Gates — a Washington favorite — as Defense Secretary. He also appeared eager to score some points by describing the Afghan conflict as "a war of necessity."

However, these decisions by Obama — bowing to "the myth of the successful surge," retaining Gates and exaggerating Afghanistan’s strategic importance — have all served to box the President in on what to do next about that eight-year-old war.

The lazy Washington analysis has remained that the "surge" worked in Iraq, so why not do one in Afghanistan? Plus, a "surge" has been recommended by two of Bush’s favorite generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. They want Obama to send at least 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while Gates is reportedly on board for 30,000.

If Obama is to resist the pressure to escalate in Afghanistan, he will find himself tacking into the stiff wind of the FCM’s "successful surge myth" and having to maneuver around the recommendations of his field commanders and his Defense Secretary.

Though Democratic officials are notoriously disinterested in history, Obama may find that his acceptance of a false history for Iraq has real-life consequences in Afghanistan.

At least on the Vietnam War, thanks to Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers, Americans have a relatively clear understanding of how they got dragged into that mess.

Today, if the "successful surge" myth weren’t so deeply engrained in Washington, a case could even be made that the expectation of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2008 and the actuality of the U.S. military pulling troops out of the center of Iraqi cities in 2009 have had the most dramatic effect on tamping down violence, compared to all other strategies.

Looking at the sharp decline in U.S. casualties in 2008 and 2009, one might even hypothesize that it was the presence of a foreign occupying army that provoked many Iraqis to take up arms.

Now that would be a lesson that President Obama might want to take to heart as he weighs his options for an escalation in Afghanistan.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).